Sociology, Epistemology of

Sociology, Epistemology of

Sociology, Epistemology of Mario Bunge, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada Ó 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. Abstract Three aspects of t...

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Sociology, Epistemology of Mario Bunge, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada Ó 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Abstract Three aspects of the epistemology (or philosophy) of sociology are examined: its ontology, epistemology in the narrow sense, and methodology. The matter of the nature of the social has two foci: the idealism–materialism dilemma and the individualism–holism–systemism trilemma. The main schools in the knowledge of the social are skepticism, apriorism, empiricism, and realism. And the discussions on the methodology of social research include empiricism (priority of data collection), interpretivism (or hermeneutics), and scientism (which combines data collection with theorizing). Finally, the sociology–epistemology connection and the sociology of epistemology are examined. The virtues and flaws of the various stands are pointed out, and reasons for favoring systemism and realism are proposed.

The word ‘epistemology’ will be taken here in its etymological acceptation, which is the one kept in the Romance languages, namely as philosophy of science. Up until the mid-twentieth century, physics and mathematics held the attention of most philosophers of science. The earliest anthology in the philosophy of social science appeared in 1968, and the Philosophy of the Social Sciences quarterly was born two years later. Since then, the discipline has been thriving. We will restrict our attention to the philosophy (or epistemology) of sociology. Three aspects of this discipline will be examined: its ontology, epistemology in its narrow sense (as the theory of knowledge), and methodology. The matter of the nature of the social has two foci: the idealism–materialism dilemma and the individualism– holism–systemism trilemma. The main schools in the epistemology of the social are skepticism, apriorism, empiricism, and realism. And the discussions of the methodology of social research include empiricism (priority of data collection), interpretivism (or hermeneutics), and scientism (which combines data collection with theorizing). Finally, the sociology–epistemology connection and the sociology of epistemology will be examined. The virtues and flaws of the various stands are pointed out, and reasons for favoring systemism and realism are proposed. Like any other special branch of the philosophy of science, the philosophy of sociology may be construed as having three main components: ontology (or metaphysics), epistemology in the narrow sense, and methodology (or normative epistemology). This order is not arbitrary, for every research strategy depends upon the type of knowledge being sought, which in turn depends on the nature of the thing studied. Thus, if the object of study is concrete, like a photon or a social group, and if what is sought is some objective knowledge of it, then the scientific method will be adopted. If, by contrast, the object of knowledge is assumed to be spiritual, and if things spiritual are deemed to be beyond the reach of science, then an alternative method will be preferred – such as revelation, intuition, interpretation (Verstehen), unchecked speculation, or narrative. In this article the ontology, epistemology, and methodology of sociology will be examined.


Ontology: Nature of the Social The Idealism–Materialism Dilemma Most sociologists adopt the vulgar view that the human being is a composite of body and mind (or spirit or soul), and do not ask how these two components are kept together. Hence, they do not characterize social facts as either material or spiritual, and do not worry about the place of sociology in the system of human knowledge: they are dualists. But some sociologists do worry about these questions, and argue for or against one of two monistic worldviews: idealism or materialism. Idealism is the view that everything is either ideal or ultimately ruled by ideas or symbols, whereas materialism holds that all existents are material or concrete. In social studies, the idealism–materialism cleavage appears notably in the place and relative weight assigned to the socalled ideal (cultural and political) superstructure vis à vis the material (biological and economic) infrastructure. This very distinction betrays a dualistic stand, even if the preeminence or priority of either ‘structure’ (system) is postulated. Consistent idealists will assert that everything social is spiritual (or cultural), whence sociology is a Geisteswissenschaft (science of the spiritual). This is the view of hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism, phenomenological sociology, and ethnomethodology. By contrast, materialists assert that persons and social groups are material, though not necessarily confined to the physical or even the biological level. And, unlike idealists, they claim that all cultural and political activities are influenced or even determined by environment, reproduction, and material production. Although it is undeniable that the reproductive patterns and means of subsistence condition culture and politics, it is no less true that the latter in turn help shape the former. In a systemic perspective, changes in the environment and in any of the subsystems of society (the biological, economic, political, and cultural) may initiate processes altering any of the others. People may work or fight, live or die, for King and country, no less than for food and family. There is no ‘last analysis.’ Marxism is the oldest, and still the most influential, of the materialist schools in social science. However, given its proposed division between the material infrastructure and the ideal superstructure, it is questionable that Marxism is

International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Volume 22

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consistent. Moreover, philosophical Marxism is nowadays split into a large number of different schools, none of which is flourishing. By contrast, some of Marx’s contributions to social science have survived, particularly his emphases on production, on the economic roots of the power elites, and on the economic causes of many an international conflict. Even some of Weber’s studies are materialist, particularly those of the congruence between Hinduism and the Indian caste system, and on the causes of the decline of slavery in ancient Rome. Likewise the Annales historical school owes much to Marx. Evolutionary psychology, the inheritor of sociobiology, is the newest and most popular materialist school in social studies. The evolutionary psychologists hold that everything social is ultimately biological, having evolved as an adaptation to the natural environment. This view overlooks all the types of self-destructive and antisocial behavior, from suicide to military aggression to environmental degradation to gullibility and ideological zealotry. And it ignores all social inventions (like formal education) and social revolutions (like the information revolution) – hence it is basically conservative. The evolutionary speculations on the origin of mental faculties are even more far-fetched and they lack empirical support. Still, something does remain of the attempt to reduce social science to biology, namely, the reminder that sociologists cannot afford to ignore human physiology and ecology. For example, they should not ignore that malnutrition stunts development and limits productivity; that plagues, foreign invasions, and wars are bound to eliminate some genes and change the immune system; and that a few more centuries of uncontrolled environmental degradation is likely to make our planet uninhabitable. Evolutionary psychology, which is purely speculative as well as radically reductionist, should not be confused with either social cognitive neuroscience or neurosociology, which are brain-centered and abound in important empirical findings. One of the most striking recent findings is that the human brain contains plenty of ‘mirror neurons’ which are activated by the perception of other people’s actions. The discoverer, Giacomo Rizzolatti, has suggested that our possession of such neurons in abundance explains social emotions, in particular empathy, and thus our spontaneous tendency to associate with others to constitute more or less permanent social systems.

The Individualism–Holism–Systemism Trilemma There are essentially three consistent views on social structure: that it does not exist, that it is self-existing, and that it is a property of a system composed of individuals. The first, or individualism, identifies ‘society’ with ‘crowd.’ The second view, or holism, regards society as an organism, and the individual as wholly subordinated to it. The third, or systemism, views society as a system made up of individuals linked to one another by ties of different kinds and strengths. Individualism stresses agency at the expense of structure, and tends to explain action in terms of ‘rational’ (self-interested) decisions. Holism emphasizes collective traits, which it claims to be unexplainable, and it explains individuals by wholes. Lastly, systemism admits the novelty of systemic properties, as well as the possibility of explaining them in terms of interactions among individuals and systems.


Individualists rightly see in individual action the root of everything social. And even if they acknowledge the importance of the social context or situation, they resist the very idea of a social system (family, village, firm, etc.) Radical individualism cannot work in sociology if only because the idea of an individualist social science makes as much sense as Lebon’s idea of crowd psychology. After all, sociology studies social facts, and although these result from individual actions, they have nonindividual traits. Families, businesses, schools, armies, religious congregations, and other social systems are structured groups, and a structure is a set of relations, among them the bonds holding the system together. Likewise, social processes, such as trade, governance, and war, are impersonal affairs. This is why there are no radical individualist sociologists, with the possible exception of Homans. Many who call themselves methodological individualists, from Weber and Pareto to Coleman and Boudon, admit the peculiarity of the social, and only attempt to explain it as emerging from individual actions; they may be said to be closet systemists. Holists, from Aristotle to Hegel to Parsons to Luhmann, rightly emphasize the global (or emergent) properties, as well as the centrality of connections. But they exaggerate in claiming that social structure precedes and dominates individuals. This view, radical structuralism, is logically untenable, because there are neither wholes without parts, nor relations without relata, nor networks without nodes. In reality there are only interrelated individuals: relations, like their relata, are only the products of abstraction. For instance, there is no such thing as ‘married’ in itself, any more than there are unrelated spouses. Hence relations cannot act upon individuals, but interrelated individuals can alter or even sever some relationships – though never all of them at the same time except through suicide. Systemism, first proposed by Holbach, and often confused with holism, is a sort of synthesis of the latter with individualism. It holds that, because individuals are interrelated, individual behavior can only be understood in terms of intentions as well as social constraints and stimuli. Thus, agency and structure are mutually inseparable. And social change, though brought about by individual action, consists in structural change – that is, change in the nature and strength of the bonds that hold social systems together. A social system may be characterized by its composition, environment (natural and social), structure, and mechanism. A change in any of these features may modify the other three. However, some features may resist changes in the others. For example, social order may survive demographic turnover and environmental catastrophe. Still, all four aspects coexist and, in the long run, important changes in any of the components are bound to alter the other three. Yet individualism ignores structure and underrates environment, whereas holism ignores composition and mechanism, and underrates the natural environment. Only systemism accounts for all four, and is thus likely to favor realistic models of social groups and effective social policies.

Epistemology: Knowledge of the Social There are as many views on the nature of social studies as general views on the nature of knowledge: skepticism, apriorism, empiricism, and realism.


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Skepticism Skepticism comes in two strengths: moderate (or methodological) and radical (or systematic). The moderate skeptic doubts a thesis as long as no solid evidence for it is available. By contrast, the radical skeptic questions the very possibility of knowledge of some kind. Whereas moderate skepticism is part of the scientific attitude, radical skepticism is destructive and even self-destructive, because if everything is doubtful, why not skepticism itself? The variety of radical skepticism most common concerning the social is cognitive relativism, or the view that social facts cannot be known objectively. This view has been falsified by the growing pile of reliable social data and approximately true sociological hypotheses. Because every research project sets out to find out the truth about something, it presupposes the ability to find it.

Apriorism Apriorism is speculation without reality checks. The ‘grand social theories’ of old were aprioristic. So are the evolutionary conjectures on the alleged genetic roots of all social traits, from the incest taboo to social stratification to ideals of human beauty. However, nowadays the most popular a priori theories in social studies are the rational choice models. All of these assume that we always act in self-interest and, moreover, that we proceed ‘rationally,’ that is, seeking to maximize our expected utilities. These theories are a priori because they are seldom if ever checked against empirical data. In particular, they postulate that agents have certain preference rankings (or utility functions), which are seldom checked. Moreover, some rational choice models are untestable. Thus, if agents behave in an obviously irrational fashion, they are said to be subjectively rational – as when they play the lottery. And if people are altruistic, it will be argued that altruism is nothing but enlightened self-interest. Being impregnable to empirical data, such models are unscientific. However, some rational choice hypotheses, notably the maximizing postulate, are testable, and as a matter of fact they have been falsified by some experimental economists.

Empiricism Empiricism is the view that only empirical data count: that they are the source, content, and final judges of ideas. Note that the emphasis is on data (reports on observable facts), not on objective facts. So much so, that the logical positivists disallow all talk of objective facts as metaphysical, in going beyond experience. However, empiricism is not limited to positivist philosophers. Behaviorism is a prime example of empiricism, since it deliberately avoids the neural springs of behavior and it eschews theorizing. Ethnomethodology, although ostensibly tributary to the antiempiricist philosophies of Dilthey and Husserl, is another instance of empiricism, because all its practitioners do is to record overt everyday behavior. Empiricism condemns students to the shallowness characteristic of common sense, because the most interesting facts of any kind are invisible, whence they must be guessed. For example, we can see a status indicator but not status, let alone class; and we can hear political talks, but

not the interests that they manifest or disguise. Only serious sociological theory, such as that of Merton and Coleman, can suggest the search for social data that indicate social process, in particular the mechanisms behind appearances. By banning theory, or restricting it to correlating commonsense data, empiricism curtails experience. Moreover, its limitation has elicited some of the postmodern attacks upon science.

Scientific Realism Scientific realism, or objectivism, has two components: the ontological thesis that the world outside the student exists on its own, and the epistemological thesis that it can be known. As applied to sociology, scientific realism is the view that – as Durkheim put it – social facts are just as real as physical facts, and that they can be known by blending theory with observation, measurement, and (whenever possible) experiment as well. Such knowledge is objective, but partial and gradual. In the case of social facts, research must include not only the facts themselves but also the way the actors perceive them – for example, the fact that people gauge social inequalities, and react to them, by reference to the adjoining social group. Although scientific realism demands that theories be ultimately justified by data, it does not stifle the sociological imagination the way empiricism does. Indeed, a realist concedes that, just as some data trigger the curiosity of the theorist, at other times untested theories motivate the search for pertinent empirical data. And on still other occasions, advances come from the confrontation of either rival theories or mutually incompatible data. In short, according to scientific realism, theorizing and empirical research should go hand in hand, now matching, now challenging one another. On the critical side, scientific realists will ask hermeneuticists (interpretivists) and other armchair students to exhibit empirical evidence for their ‘interpretations’ (hypotheses). They will ask rational choice theorists to specify and justify the utility functions they impute to people. They will remind Marxists and other ‘economic imperialists’ that real people engage in some activities that are economically unproductive or even counterproductive, and that many a social change – such as the diffusion of the computer and the revival of religious fundamentalism – has come about with little or no class struggle.

Methodology: Social Research Strategy Methodology is the normative or prescriptive branch of epistemology: it attempts to lay down, justify, refine, or criticize research rules and procedures. Philosophers are interested only in general or cross-disciplinary strategic principles; they leave the special techniques to specialists. Here is a tiny random sample of the class of general methodological problems: How are causation and statistical correlation related? What is a social indicator? How does one infer intention from behavior? Can every social feature be quantified, or are there irreducibly qualitative properties? Is an ideographic (or particularistic) science possible? Here we will review only three rival research strategies.

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Dataism: Collect Data Social research is often equated with data hunting, gathering, and processing, whereas theory is regarded as mere data compression (as in curve fitting), or even as parasitic upon data collection. To be sure, there is no factual (or empirical) science without empirical data. But data alone do not comprise science, because they are what calls for explanation. To understand a bit of the world is to explain it. And explaining involves guessing (and then checking) mechanisms – causal, random, intentional, or hybrid. Hence, theorizing is just as important as data collecting, whether in sociology or in any other factual science. Moreover, only theory, by suggesting interesting variables and their interrelations, can spare us the barrenness and boredom of mindless data gathering.

Interpretivism: Impute Intention The hemeneutic or interpretivist school holds, rightly, that we can explain an agent’s behavior if we know the agent’s intentions. But it overlooks the fact that we only have direct access to behavior, not to intentions. That is, the hemeneuticist is faced with the inverse problem of guessing intentions from actions. (Typically, inverse problems are insoluble or have multiple solutions. Think, for example, of the problem of decomposing a given even number into prime numbers, as opposed to the problem of adding prime numbers.) The hermeneuticist is entitled to guess anything, but not to present these guesses (hypotheses) as true unless they have passed suitable empirical tests. The imputation of intentions is not only dicey, it is also insufficient, because intentions, even if known, may explain success but not failure. The social constraints upon agency, and the reactions of other people to one’s actions, also must be studied. That is, individuals must be placed in their systems.

Scientism: Gather Data and Craft Theory Consistent with Data Scientism, first proposed by Condorcet and practiced by Durkheim, is the thesis that the scientific approach is the best of all approaches to cognitive problems of all kinds in all fields. Scientism should not be mistaken for naturalism, or the thesis that the social world is a fragment of nature, and consequently social research should be conducted in exactly the same manner as the study of nature. One may admit that everything social is made, while holding that, once made, a social item is out there, along with rivers and butterflies. That is, social reality is constructed, but not by the knower. And it is changeable, but not because the knowers change their viewpoint. Scientism does not involve the denial of the specificity and irreducibility of the social. It only holds that the scientific method is applicable across all of the disciplinary borders, and hence that it is advisable to trespass them whenever they are artificial. In the case of sociology, scientism favors its close relations with all its sister disciplines, particularly economics, political science, and historiography. Scientism also promotes the proliferation of social indicators, the production and statistical processing of data, and the crafting of empirically testable theories – in particular, ‘middle-range’ theories and mathematical models.


Hundreds of social indicators have been invented, measured, and used since the mid-1960s, and a whole journal devoted to them has been in existence since 1974. However, their very nature is still somewhat unclear, due to insufficient philosophical investigation. A social indicator bridges the observed to the unobserved, effects to causes, symptoms to mechanisms, and data to hypotheses. However, it does so ambiguously unless it can be shown that no other unobserved trait or event could possibly account for the data. For example, the popularity of low-cost merchandise may measure either consumer satisfaction or poverty; and frequent church attendance may measure either religiosity or the need for social integration (or for respectability). Ambiguity is typical of empirical indicators. By contrast, the indicators used in the more advanced sciences are unambiguous because they are backed by theories. For example, pH is a reliable measure of acidity because it is an index of proton concentration, and theory defines acids as proton donors. The moral for sociology is that the reliability of a social indicator can be increased either by grounding it in a theory or by using it jointly with other indicators of the same hidden trait. Values and morals would seem to defy scientific realism. After all, Weber held that science ought to be value-free and morally neutral because he wished to preserve objectivity as well as the difference between science and ideology. Now, it is certainly correct to distinguish value judgments from factual statements. But not all values are subjective: some, such as peace, welfare, and truth, are not a matter of taste. Moreover, it is possible to investigate scientifically how values and moral norms emerge, and why some of them have become obsolete. It may even be argued that there are moral facts, such as misery and torture, and consequently that some moral judgments can be justified scientifically. Example: ‘Anomie is wrong because it is personally and socially erosive.’ It is also correct to distinguish science from ideology. Social scientists endeavor to understand social reality, not to alter it. However, some of their findings can be used by social activists, politicians, and managers to alter social conditions in a rational fashion rather than through costly improvisation. That is, a scientific ideology – one based on social science and empirically testable – is not out of the question.

The Sociology–Epistemology Connection The traditional view of the relation between science and philosophy is that they are disjoint or even mutually incompatible. This view is mistaken, because science teems with philosophical concepts, such as those of reality, law, knowledge, and value, and because scientific research presupposes the reality and knowability of the world – a philosophical thesis. In short, philosophy and science, in particular social science, overlap partially. This overlap is only partial because only philosophers analyze philosophical constructs, and only scientists are equipped to study social facts. However, not all philosophies are congenial with science. Whereas some philosophies are extraneous to science, others are relevant to it. For example, phenomenology is


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extraneous to science because it rejects the scientific method and consists in egology, or the self-study of the self. Existentialism is even more alien, because it also rejects rationality and does not deal at all with problems of knowledge. The philosophies congenial with science examine, among other things, the problems, concepts, hypotheses, and methods common to science and epistemology. Hence, they can be judged to be pertinent and suitable to science, to the extent that they propose true accounts of actual scientific practice and help advance science. For example, Popper’s philosophy is congenial with science because of its rationalism and objectivism. But his devaluation of confirmation is incompatible with the search for truth, since a hypothesis can only be said to be true to some extent if it has been well confirmed.

Sociology of Epistemology The sociology of philosophy is only embryonic and mostly speculative. In particular, little is known about the social roots of the various epistemologies of sociology. For one thing, it is not true that they are motivated by class interests. Nor is it true that all idealists are reactionary and all materialists progressive. For example, Hegel’s followers split into a left wing and a right wing. The second Comte inspired both the Mexican conservatives led by Porfirio Díaz and their contemporary Brazilian progressives. What is true is that, once crafted for whatever reasons, some philosophical views favor certain social groups rather than others. For instance, radical skepticism, even while revolting against the establishment, objectively favors the latter in that it discourages scientific social research and therefore reasoned and well-organized opposition. Individualist philosophies favor anarchism and neoliberalism. By contrast, holistic philosophies jibe with communitarianism and totalitarianism. In short, some philosophies, particularly if fuzzy, can craftily be interpreted to suit anyone’s political interests. But the more abstract philosophical ideas – in particular the logical and semantic ones – are socially neutral. Thus, neither the logical calculi nor the theories of (semantic) meaning and truth refer to social facts, whence they can neither support nor undermine any social ideology. However, they are useful to examine the cogency of any views whatsoever, and to this extent they have a subversive potential.

See also: Action, Theories of Social; Empiricism, History of; Grounded Theory: Methodology and Theory Construction; Interpretive Methods: Macromethods; Interpretive Methods: Micromethods; Macrosociology-Microsociology; Marx, Karl

(1818–83); Methodological Individualism in Sociology; Methodological Individualism: Philosophical Aspects; Neutrality, Axiological; Phenomenology in Sociology; Positivism, Sociological; Social Structure; Social System; Sociobiology: Overview; Sociological Theory; Sociology, History of; Weber, Max (1864–1920).

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