Some of the major sociological perspectives are as follows: 1. Empiricist or scientific perspective 2. Humanistic perspective 3. Humanistic and scientific combined perspective.
Sociologists are by no means in total accord regarding the objectives, the mode of analysis or even all the basic assumptions of their discipline. As stated above, a fundamental question is sometimes asked as to whether it is scientific or humanistic discipline.
There are sociologists who consider it to be both. They say that sociology is and must be a scientific endeavour with a strong humanistic bent. For them, the two worlds of science and humanities are not mutually exclusive. Yet there is a difference between these two major perspectives in sociology.
We shall deal these differences in brief in the following paragraph:
Sociology seeks to apply to the study of man and society the methods of science. It rests upon the assumption common to all the social sciences that the scientific method can make a significant contribution to our understanding of human behaviour. The objective of science is the gaining of empirically verified knowledge.
The empiricists or the positivists, as they are sometimes called, believe that there is no difference in the methods used to study physical or natural world and those used to study social world. Sociologists of this tradition emphasise that sociology is a “pure” science, i.e., the pursuit of knowledge in a value-free scientific manner. For them, “knowledge for knowledge sake” should be the main goal of sociology. The objective of science is the gaining of empirical knowledge about the world without regard for the possible uses of such knowledge.
Many of the founding, fathers, including Auguste Comte (1798-1857), argued that it would be possible to establish a ‘positive science of society’ on the same principles and procedures (methodology) as the natural sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology. Comte stated that the purpose of sociology is “to understand, in order to predict, in order to control society”.
Positivist sociology is largely based on this assumption that behaviour in the social and natural worlds is governed by the same principles of cause and effect then natural science methodology (observation and experimentation) is appropriate for the human society also. It argues that both man and matter are part of the natural universe and the behaviour is governed by natural laws.
Sociology’s main aim is also to establish universal social laws. Just as matter reacts to external stimuli, so man reacts to forces external to his being. Social and natural behaviour is therefore determined and can be explained in terms of cause and effect relationship. The same procedures are possible in the observation of human behaviour as used in natural sciences.
Just as natural science involves the construction of theories based on observable data, so sociology can also develop theories based on direct observation of human behaviour. Thus, natural science methodology is applicable to the study of man and human society.
The main adherents of this tradition were Emile Durkheim, Lundberg, Talcott Parsons, K. Davis, R.K. Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld. Contemporary sociologists are more cautious about claims for the scientific status of their discipline.
Indeed many reject the view that natural science methodology is appropriate for the study of human behaviour; for instance, C.W. Mills (The Sociological Imagination, 1959) wrote: “Some sociologists become so committed to being scientific that they lose sight of the practical value of sociology. The major defect of empiricist is that they do not accept the fundamental difference between natural and social data that affect the way in which the broader principles are applied.”
Sociologists, who believe in humanistic perspective, are interested in and concerned about human welfare, values and conduct. They want to improve the lot of man. An ultimate goal for the humanist is self-realisation and full development of the cultivated man. The main advocates of this school of thought are C.W. Mills, Alfred McClung Lee, Peter Berger, Robert Nisbet and so many modem sociologists.
Humanists hold that human social world is different from the natural world. As a result, the methods and assumptions of the natural sciences are inappropriate to the study of man and society. The natural sciences deal with matter. It has no meanings, feelings and purposes which affects its behaviour. Matter simply reacts ‘unconsciously’ to external stimuli. But quite different from matter, man has consciousness—thoughts, feelings, meanings, intentions and an awareness of being.
His actions are, therefore, meaningful. As a result, he does not merely react to external stimuli like physical matter but he acts. He attaches a range of meanings to it and- these meanings direct his actions. He actively constructs his own reality. Meanings do not have an independent existence—a reality of their own, which is somehow separate from social actors. It follows that sociologists must discover those meanings in order to understand social actions.
This approach is quite different from the positivists who believe that facts like meanings, feelings and purposes are not directly observable; as such they are not much important in the study of man. But, this claim of the positivists, when applied to human behaviour, is not tenable. This can obscure the real cause or intention of their behaviour. To treat social reality as anything other than a construction of meanings is to distort it. It is constructed and reconstructed by actors in the course of social interaction.
Humanist sociology is a philosophical orientation and sense of responsibility for the welfare of mankind as well as an academic school of thought. The proponents of this perspective tend to emphasise an existential view of society. They believe that society and institutions should be analysed in terms of the shared realities and actions of individuals as they understand them. Existentialists believe man as an individual rather than a group animal.
Thus, where Durkheim believed that individual cannot, without contradicting his very nature, liberate himself from the limits imposed upon him by his participation in the social world, the existentialist argues that man cannot be “authentic” if he says, “I am as you want me”.
This newly developed perspective in sociology has altered the oft-repeated very important question of Prof. R. Lynd from “knowledge for what?” to “knowledge for whom?” This thought demands that the benefits of social scientific research and study should not be limited to a particular class of people but these are to be used for the welfare of humanity as a whole, specially for the downtrodden, exploited, oppressed and deprived class.
This perspective encourages such enquires, which help in bringing changes in social life so that human dignity, freedom, creativity and on the whole human life can be saved. For the investigation of this type of knowledge, humanistic sociology gives more importance to the methods of historical introspection, intuition, empathy and interpretative understanding. These sociologists do not believe in the differentiation of morality of what is said and what is done. Sociologists of this tradition attempt to provide a social analysis in the service of humanity. They act as critics, demystifies, reporters and clarifiers.
In contrast to the traditional positivist or scientific perspective of sociology, these days, we find a growing interest in the application of humanist values to the sociological enterprise. John R. Strande (Humanistic Society: Today’s Challenge to Sociology) has attempted to indicate the various orientations that make up the humanistic approach. These include: ethno methodology (Harold Garfinkel), phenomenology (Alfred Schuz), existential sociology (Tiryakin), the sociology of knowledge (Peter Berger and Luckman), neo-symbolic Interactionism (Erving Goffman), the sociology of the absurd (Scott and Lyman), and the sociology of everyday life (Marcello Truzzi).
It is not possible here to discuss each of these orientations at length. They have in common an attitude that sociology should study “man in society” or that it should place the interaction between individuals in the centre of social life. This perspective (Interactionism of various brands) places emphasis on the interaction of self with others. All the approaches (as mentioned above) committed to humanism in some way or the other are known today as ‘Interpretative Sociology’ from methodological view.
All these approaches have a common background in the ideas of Max Weber and Alfred Schutz. Weber emphasised that sociology should base its explanations of society in the intuitive understanding of people’s actions and motivations (Verstehen method), which direct the actions of the actor. Schutz combined Weber’s inductive methods with the phenomenology of Edmund Husseral, which emphasises that the social world is a world of meaning.
There is no objective reality which lies behind that meaning. To treat this aspect of ‘social facts’ as things (as Durkheim said), is to distort and misrepresent social reality. The responsibility of sociology, according to Schutz, is to first understand the meaning that individuals give to their experiences and then construct more abstract explanations of those experiences and their meaning in a societal context. For understanding meaning phenomenological perspective emphasises direct observation of everyday activity as against interview, questionnaire and social surveys employed by mainstream sociologists.
Thus, it is clear that positivist and humanistic perspectives employ very different research methodologies because of their diametrically opposed assumptions about the nature of social reality. This leads on the one hand to an acceptance of the logic and methods of the natural sciences as appropriate for the study of man and society and, on the other, to an outright rejection of this research strategy.
To many sociologists, an objective science of society remains the goal of sociology. For such sociologists, “objectivity means that the conclusions arrived at as the result of inquiry and investigation are independent of the race, colour, creed, occupation, nationality, religion, moral preference and political predispositions of the investigator. If his research is truly objective, it is independent of any subjective elements, any personal desires that he may have” (Bierstedt, Social Order, 1963).
The implications of this view are serious. An increasing number of sociologists now argue that the pursuit of an objective, value-free sociology is the pursuit of an illusion. In this connection, Derek Phillips (1971, 1973) words seem worth quoting, “An investigator’s values influence not only the problems he selects for study but also his methods for studying them and the sources of data he uses”.
Recently (after 1967), one more approach has developed as an offshoot of humanistic sociology, which is popularly known as ‘radical sociology’. There is a small group of sociologists, whose number seems to be increasing, who believe that they have a responsibility to work towards a new form of socialism. Intellectually, they are neo-Marxists and prefer to call themselves ‘conflict theorists’. They are the most vocal critics of the traditional functional sociology or so-called positivistic sociology. They have a value commitment to provide the intellectual groundwork for a restructuring of the field of sociology to make it more equalitarian and responsible to democratic norms.
Sociology is, on the one hand, a humanitarian discipline and on the other plane it is a positive science. Martindale writes: “Humanism is a system of values describing what ought to be and modes of conduct designed to secure them; science is the value-free pursuit of knowledge, ‘of what is’, renouncing all concern with what ought to be. Scientist is more interested in ‘means’—gaining knowledge; the humanist, in the ends—improving the lot of man.” Despite these varying positions, it is reasonable to say that modern sociologists are attempting to direct their energies towards humanistic goals. The disagreement seems to be over the means to attain them. Perhaps, this agreement is a sign of the vitality of this discipline.
Most sociologists operate with a combination of scientific and humanistic viewpoints. Peter Berger (Invitation to Sociology, 1963) puts this view when he argues that sociology must be used for humanity’s sake: “Social science, like other sciences, can be and sometimes is dehumanising and even inhuman. It should not be. When sociologists pursue their task with insight, sensitivity, empathy, humility and a desire to understand the human condition rather than with a cold and humourless scientism, then indeed, the sociological perspective helps illuminate man’s social existence.”