Is Sociology a Natural Science?

R. M. MacIver
Columbia University


To the present critic the position that sociology like the physical sciences is concerned primarily with objects of perception, the data amenable to measurement and summation, objective facts which make them analogous to the facts of the physical sciences seems wholly mistaken. Social relationships, expressive as they are of attitudes and interests, have significance because of an inner or experiential quality which does not belong to the realm of physical facts. The external indexes of these relationships are of course important but they are not the reality we are seeking to understand. If we are ready to face these facts we must approach social phenomena from an entirely different viewpoint. The following positions are involved. Every social phenomenon arises out of and expresses a relation or adjustment between an inner and an outer system of reality. Each system, the inner and the outer, is complex and coherent in itself. The inner is a system of desires and motivations; the outer, a system of environmental factors and social symbols. The explanation of every social phenomenon involves a discovery of the specific character of the inner system relevant to it and of the outer system in which it occurs. A consideration of the nature of verification in the social sciences reveals the necessity of combining social imagination with statistical knowledge.

Sociologists are and have been much concerned with the question of their scientific standing. One is tempted to recommend that we students of sociology forget altogether for a time the very word "science," that we disregard altogether, for the present, the claims of our subject to be a science. But a better alternative would be that we reflect more thoroughly on scientific method, for such reflection would show that many of our ideas about science are not themselves scientific. Take for example our idea of induction. We are apt to set induction over against deduction, regarding the former as a simple, easily understood, all-sufficing, and alone legitimate process of passing from particulars to the general. It is safe to say that, so understood, induction is a chimera and is never the method by which scientific generalization is attained.

Sociology has been plagued all through its history by its tendency to seek for models in the fields of the other sciences. At one time the fashion was to think of a society as a kind of organism, to make sociology a pale reflection of biology. Now the attitude changes and the first article of the creed has become the formula that sociology is a "natural science." Unfortunately this claim may mean anything or nothing. Of all words, the word "natural" is the most

( 26) equivocal. "Natural" in contradistinction to what? Assuredly not to unnatural or to supernatural, since there are no unnatural or supernatural sciences. Assuredly again it cannot be natural as opposed to social, because it is the social we are speaking of. I can, in fact, find no meaning in the assertion unless it be that the social sciences either use the same methods or deal with the same types of phenomena as do the sciences sometimes distinguished by the term "natural." One or other of these claims must be asserted under this dubious rubric and that this position is taken the context usually shows. The implication is that sociology, like the physical sciences, is concerned with objects of perception, objects amenable to registration by means of instruments, objects divisible into units capable of summation and other quantitative processes.

Is this a dogma or is it a conclusion derived from reflection on the proper subject matter of sociology? It is implied in these "natural science" manifestoes that the subject matter of sociology is very similar to that of the physical sciences and that therefore the same tools of investigation should be employed. This position, I shall try to show, ignores or denies the very differentia of our subject matter. It ignores precisely the difference between a physical relationship and a social relationship.

It is easy to pass from extreme to extreme, from the bold generalizations of Spencer and Ward to the rejection of theory altogether in the name of the sacred fact. It is easy to pass from a social science saturated with theological and moralistic prepossessions to one animated by the revolutionary dogma of behaviorism. From a discredited conception of the nature of consciousness men revert to a conception which ignores its existence; from an outworn principle of values to a viewpoint which deals with social relationships as though they existed objectively apart from the values which created them.

The trouble is that the social sciences suffer from certain embarrassments from which the "natural sciences" are more or less free. They have to deal with phenomena which involve a kind of causation unknown in the purely physical world, since they are "motivated," in fact brought into being, by that elusive-and-complex, but u deniable, reality, the mentality of man. Not a single object which

(27) the social sciences study would exist at all were it not for the creative imagination of social beings. Consequently the social sciences have to deal with variable and indeterminate concepts such as capital and labor, family and nation, state and sovereignty, crime and unemployment, folkways, institutions, social attitudes, and other intangibles. The social scientist has no "natural" classifications to guide him such as those with which nature is expected to accommodate the geologist or the entomologist. Under these circumstances every authority is free to define his concepts in his own way and treat them in his own way. Consequently it is easy to pose as an authority. In the resulting confusion men turn with longing eyes to the non-social sciences. Let us follow their example, they say, and all will be well. Let us ignore the differences between our subject matter and theirs. Let's have social physics and social mechanics and social engineering; let's talk of social organisms, of social osmosis, and of social symbiosis. Let's lay out attitudes along a line and construct a yardstick to measure opinions. Let's get a perceptual basis for all our distinctions. Let's find out what radicals and conservatives really are by setting down the percentage of accuracy with which those so-called can draw correctly an object seen through the looking glass. Let's reduce temperaments to glandular activities. Let's measure all the incommensurates and weigh all the imponderables. Thus shall we have vindicated the claim of the social sciences to be sciences indeed.

I confess that this kind of emulation makes little appeal to me. The aim of the sciences of society should not be to dress themselves in the garments of their elders and look so like them that the guardians of the halls of science will not perceive the difference. The object of science is to carry the light of understanding, to show us truth. If a piece of research aids us to understand better, more fully, some aspect of this so complex universe of man and nature, then is it worth while. If it does not, then no parade of figures will make it anything more than labor lost. Our methods should be adjusted to our materials and not our materials to our methods. There are some adherents of method who, like the extreme behaviorists, would even jettison their proper subject in order to claim the name of science for a beggarly residue. They would imitate at all costs the mathe-

( 28) -maticians and the physicists. Imitation, though always bearing the signs of the inferiority complex, may nevertheless succeed when, in following its original, it is applying like tools to like materials. But it is most apt to fail when it applies like tools to unlike materials, and this is just what the social scientist is in danger of doing. For his subject matter is very different, and it therefore craves a different mode of treatment. What we are seeking must always determine how we seek. We do not cut wood with a shears or cloth with a saw. We do not comprehend legal codes by measuring them or discover the origins of the World War by an index of culpabilities. There are fundamental methods common to all the sciences—though these are just the methods which our devotees of the "natural science approach" to society ignore—but each has its distinctive methods as well. The botanist cannot be content with the methods of the astronomer or the biologist with those of the physicist. Each must discover his own road to his truth. And first he must know what kind of truth he is out to find.

Unfortunately many of our social researchers go forth without stopping to ask what the object of their search may be. Armed with method all they ask is a field in which to hunt. Then they are sure to bring home a large bag of facts. A scholar once told me he was going to study unemployment. I asked him what aspect of the subject he was going to study, and he replied that he was going to gather all the facts first, and then decide. Now no one can gather all the facts "about" unemployment, even if he had endless time and infinite energy and all the resources of all the foundations. Facts do not lie around, like pebbles waiting for the picker, or even lie embedded, like precious stones to be dug for with patience. They become facts only as we learn how to treat them as facts, and therein lies another problem to which I shall return. But many of our young scholars are led to believe that there is an article called a hard fact, or sometimes a cold fact, that they lie around in plenty, and that when you have discovered a number of them they will "speak for themselves." Those who go out in this faith are apt to find that the so-called facts speak with a mighty small voice, and the wiser ones learn at length that, so far from the facts speaking for themselves, they have to act as ventriloquists for their facts. In plainer lan-

( 29) -guage they must become interpreters, for the facts come into being only with the work of interpretation, and they grow more numerous and more interesting and more complicated and more ordered and more simple as the interpreter brings his own intelligence into play. They will give him no answers except the answers he himself construes for his own questions. And he cannot ask questions unless he knows what he is in search of.

Our would-be imitators of the natural sciences—I call them "would-be," because, like other imitators, they generally have an antiquated conception of their live and changing model—are so engrossed in method that they have no questions to ask of their subject matter. The following seem to be the chief tenets of their creed. First, I believe in facts, and to be saved I must discover new ones. Second, when I have discovered them, I must if possible measure them, but, failing that consummation, I must count them. Third, while all facts are sacred, all theories are of the devil. Hence the next best thing, if one can't discover new facts, is to refute old theories. This can be done very simply by taking a few cold facts and applying them. But the process is so easy that not much merit is acquired that way. "The primary business of the scholar," says one exponent of the school, "is to deal with facts rather than theories." How you can "deal with" facts apart from theories remains a mystery of the faith. Since, as a profane outsider, I can see no way in which a fact can be apprehended, much less related to others, without a theory, I am inclined to think that the whole of the faith has not been divulged. I observe certain indications that among the elect it is permissible to hold theories in secret, the primary condition being that they shall never be disturbed, or even mentioned.

The spread of this faith from certain elders to the younger generation of scholars has been very remarkable. It is particularly in evidence at the preliminary stage when the candidate for a higher degree is looking around for a subject on which to operate. For example, his first requirement for a possible theme is this: Has it ever been "done" before? If someone has already staked his claim over it then he must go elsewhere in his search, even if, like other seekers after virgin soil, he must push on into less promising and less fertile regions. This vain idea that a subject is "done" once for all is part

( 30) of the same doctrine that the researcher must go out to gather the hard facts and that once these are gathered the field is bare. That research may consist in the interpretation of data already known, in the critical analysis of materials already provided, in the illumination of a subject of interest that may come from the sheer use of the reflective judgment of the trained student—all this is alien to the code. One result is that the very idea of research tends to be narrowed to a kind of mechanical spade work—digging up the hard facts. It is interesting to observe, also, that the hard facts are only certain kinds of facts. Thus it is research to collect the ideas of primitive peoples or primitive parts of the population, such as the Plains Indians or the inhabitants of the Kentucky Mountains, or even of the lower economic classes; but it is not research to examine the social ideas of the well-to-do or the cultivated. It is research to collect all the doctrines of a particular author and set them in a chronological "pattern," but it is more dubious research to scrutinize and evaluate any of his deliverances. It is research to test radicals and conservatives by confronting them with mirror images, or to discover what percentage of them were made radicals by unhappy marriages or by bad harvests; but it is hardly research to inquire into the opposing ideals and antithetical schemes of life which may correspond to these terms. It is research to produce any new and valid row of figures, but it is not research to give meaning to the figures which someone else has produced. Is it because the latter is too easy a task—or too difficult?

I am not-far from it—arguing against what is called the quantitative method in the social sciences. The further it can go the better, the surer, our knowledge will become. I am arguing against the nave assumptions which accompany a too exclusive confidence in the use of statistics. I am suggesting that the quantitative method can by itself yield us nothing but quantities, and that in the social sciences quantities—averages, ratios, correlations, and so forth—are not the goals, but only the media, of our research. What we are really seeking to understand are systems of relationship, not series of quantities. With the quantitative method must go hand in hand the method of logical analysis and synthesis. This of course is true of every science. What would we think, to take a crude example

(31) (but one very suggestive of the practice of many social researchers), of the meteorologist who sought to discover the relationship between lightning, thunder, and rain-clouds solely by the statistical method; who collected as many instances as possible in which lightning was seen and no thunder heard, in which thunder was heard and no lightning seen, and in which both lightning and thunder were observed but no rain fell; who then computed percentages and let it go at that? Possibly he might discover some observer who, like the ancient Horace, declared he had heard thunder coming from a clear sky—a triumphant addition to his collection of "facts."

Again, I am not arguing against the necessity for the direct and thorough exploration of the field of study. Thoroughness is the hallmark of the true scholar. I am really protesting against a code which is content with the job half-done and omits the less mechanical, more exigent, and more rewarding part of it. It is not enough to muster those raw materials we call the facts. I am pleading for the finished product. We need more raw materials, but even now we are not using a tithe of the raw materials which we possess. Take, for instance, such a mine of wealth as the U.S. Census. Much of it remains unexploited. In the social field the task of providing the raw materials is proving too big for individual scholars and is becoming more and more the task of governments and co-operative agencies such as the foundations. This is as it should be. In our social utopia the individual scholar will no longer think it his job to go out with his spade and do in some corner what governments and foundations are doing with their steam shovels. He will do what these great agencies cannot do for him, but what they can vastly encourage him to do for himself—take up the expert and arduous task of interpretation. If, for example, he has before him sufficient data to show how the pressure of social conformism weighs down the life of the small American town, he will then investigate the theoretical question of why it should be so, or the practical question of what, if anything, can be done about it.

I am protesting against the code which mechanizes research. Many of our scholars have the notion that, for the complete researcher, all that is needed is to send out questionnaires, describe the process and the results, tot up the "yesses" and the "noes," and

( 32) work out some correlations. I am protesting against the theory that a work of research must be dull. I believe that the danger of mechanized research in the social sciences is peculiarly great at the present time. In an age of general mechanization, highly desirable practically but too engrossing spiritually, we might well expect that danger. But it confronts us also for a special reason. Those who on the boards of foundations or universities dispense research funds have a very difficult task in adjudging the relative merits of the numerous projects laid before them. If they seek to do it at all they are almost bound to lay down certain standards to which a project must conform, and these standards are most likely to include such objective and measurable considerations as the novelty of the project, the definiteness of the results to be expected, and so forth. I submit that such standards, excellent in intention, are likely to encourage the one-sided idea of research which I am opposing. I believe it would be the wiser course for such bodies not to depend on such standards at all, to make their decisions not in terms of any expected results whatever, but almost solely in terms of the quality or competence or promise already exhibited by the respective claimants.

To make research mechanical, to make it safe, is to rob it of most of its meaning and all of its interest. Research is exploration of the yet unknown, and every explorer, to be worthy of the name, must take risks. By the use of quantitative methods, where they are admissible, he will avoid unnecessary risks—foolish risks—but do not deny him on that account the use of his intelligence and of his imagination, the precarious and exhilarating business of judicious speculation. In some important fields, such as law and history, he will probably not be able to use these methods at all. In others, particularly where we deal with natural units, as in population studies, or with conventional ones, as in economics, they are quite essential. But even in these latter fields they will carry the scholar only to the halfway house of correlation. Do not encourage him to stop there —it is still far from his goal. If theories without facts are empty, facts without theories are blind. I fully sympathize with the reaction against uncontrolled speculation, which is as bad in scholarship as in business. But neither business nor scholarship can pros-

(33) per without some degree of speculation, and its absence is a sure sign of lean and meager times. In both spheres we must find ways to control it, not to abolish it. There was a time when the social sciences generalized overboldly, without adequate control over their materials. There were economists who found one simple law to explain everything, and there were sociologists who discovered a new law on every page. "The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the teeth of the children are set on edge." In revolt from their sometimes foolhardy fathers they vainly seek for foolproof methods of getting at new truth. But no great, perhaps no small, discovery even, is made without the aid of the imagination, disciplined and rendered critical by appropriate training. No facts ever speak for themselves, and no figures ever proclaim the truth behind them. Only he that has eyes to see can see. Without the spark of imagination no one is fitted to be a researcher, but this truth is unfortunately able to pass unnoticed under the influence of the prevailing code.

We may, perhaps, sum up the matter as follows: first, the aim and method of all science is broadly the same. Science is never concerned with facts as isolated facts; it is never merely empirical. It is concerned with phenomena as they reveal an order, a system of relationships. Science, therefore, begins with concepts which it seeks to refine, correct, and establish so that by their aid it may comprehend that consistency and coherence of reality, the belief in which is its first article of faith. Second, the specific methods of the various sciences vary with the specific subject matters with which they deal. These specific methods cannot be determined a priori nor derived by analogy. Only experience in dealing with our subject matter can teach us the appropriate methods to employ. Third, the subject matter of sociology—and of all the social sciences in so far as they are really social—differs in some highly important respects from that of the physical sciences.

Since this last point is crucial, we must deal with it further. Society presents us with a vast array of individual social situations, each in some respects unique, but science always seeks to pass beyond the concrete to the abstract. It cannot deal with any situation in all its concreteness. It is not as a concrete occurrence but as a system of phenomena revealing a present focus of relationships and

( 34) a process of continuity, that science must deal with the individual situation. We shall not here consider the greater question of the general laws which is the further goal of science. We shall confine ourselves to the mode in which a given situation presents itself for scientific treatment.

The following summary statement is all that the limits of this paper permit me to put forward on this subject.

(1) Every social situation consists in an adjustment of an inner to an outer system of reality. The inner system is a complex of desires and motivations; the outer is a complex of environmental factors, in so far as these constitute the means, opportunities, obstacles, and conditions to which the inner system is adjusted. It is this relationship between an inner and an outer which constitutes, in respect to the problem of causality, the essential difference between the social and the physical sciences. The latter are concerned with an outer order alone.

(2) Each system, the inner and the outer, is coherent in itself and the two together form also a single coherence. In other words, for the social scientist, the outer is never, as in physics, a mere outer. A room is not a four-walled inclosure with apertures for light and air and with various objects of wood and metal and cloth strewn about it. A city block is not, for the sociologist, a peculiar configuration of stone, iron, and glass. The outer is always seen under an aspect. It is shot through with significance. It reflects human purposes and human limitations. For the sociologist, the outer is always an environment.

(3) Each system has, in relation to any attribute of it which may be under sociological investigation, a specific character. To interpret the attribute, it is necessary to know its relation to a specific situation. If, for example, we are seeking to explain the prevalence of divorce in the United States, or in any portion of it, it is not enough to refer to such general characteristics as mobility of population, degree of prosperity, economic opportunity for women, religious attitudes, modes of education. A peculiar conjuncture of these and other factors is present and unless we understand that peculiar conjuncture, we cannot hope to explain, for example, why the divorce rate is so much higher in Oregon than, say, in Massa-

( 35) -chusetts. Or again, it is not enough to explain a phenomenon like the gang as due to the desire of the adolescent for companionship and adventure, since these general desires, to bring the phenomenon into being, are directed, modified, and made specific by the ethos of the group and by the opportunities or hindrances to its expression. Nor, turning to the outer system, can we adequately explain the phenomenon as the consequence of poverty and deteriorated neighborhoods, since these factors may equally be adduced to explain other social phenomena such as ignorance, crime, desertion, alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution, etc., and since, in any event, these factors may be present in a greater or less degree, without involving a greater or less development of the phenomenon. The specific phenomenon involves, in addition, specific opportunities, specific needs, specific stimulants, or precipitates.

(4) The interpretation of a social phenomenon is never more than approximate. It depends on an understanding of the relation of inner to outer, an understanding which demands experience as well as knowledge, insight as well as calculation. There can be no complete explanation, just as there can be no mechanical method of discovering social causation. An explanation in this field is always a partially verified hypothesis and there is no such thing as complete verification. The idea of complete verification depends on an oversimple concept of induction. A negative instance does not necessarily disprove a conclusion, nor does any quantity of positive instances completely prove it. Because insight is necessary, hazard is always present.

I conclude that the great need of sociology is not ready-made methods nor ready-made models but the trained and disciplined imagination. Just as this capacity is needed in a treatment of practical problems, whether on the scale of the family, or of our international civilization, so it is needed in the building up of a science. Let us even forget that we are scientists, if only we remember that we are seekers after truth, that our aim is to understand and to convey to others the understanding of the intricate and often baffling web of social relationships, which, being created by man, must be understood by a similar creative capacity in ourselves.


No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2