Ideology and objectivity

Professional practice

By now we can appreciate what a stir it made when British prime minister Margaret Thatcher said that society did not exist. This actually made a lot of people think hard about society, so sociologists should be grateful to her. Thinking often leads to study, and she gave sociology quite a boost, which certainly was contrary to her intention.

Challenging society’s existence makes us think, not just about society but also about ‘existence’. After all people think about and study a lot of other things which don’t ‘exist’ in the way material things like, say, our bodies exist. For instance, love, values, or God are not material. But not many of us would make sense of our lives without one, two or, many would say, all three of them.

They are not material objects. But then neither are most of the things which interest us about human beings. Consider a speech, meeting or anniversary. They exist in and through what we do. If no one turns up to a meeting which was advertised it doesn’t take place. But we don’t normally question the possibility of the existence of meetings as a result.

Raising the question of existence brings into the open the fact that different things exist in different ways. Not everything exists on the same plane. Society (meetings included) has its own peculiar mode of being. Mrs Thatcher went on to declare that men and women and their families did exist.

Well we can accept men and women perhaps, though we can find problems there too, but what about ‘families’? What makes them more real than society? Do they exist as well as the people who belong to them? Then we are into an argument which is about whether individuals are more basic or real than the social units to which they belong. Mrs Thatcher could have quoted many authorities, including Max Weber, the most famous German sociologist, who have said society has no existence outside individuals.

But Weber was active in setting up the German Sociological Association and devoted his career to studying social relations. So his preference for basing sociology on the study of individual social action was really more a statement about the methods of studying social relations than about society’s existence.

What he deplored was academics making ‘society’ equal ‘the nation’ and then using this as a stick to beat individuals. He wanted to rid the subject of nationalistic ranting, a real problem for the academic world just before the First World War. This illustrates that society is a highly charged political topic. This greatly complicates its study because we can neither avoid nor solve the issues of objectivity and bias which arise. There is no formula which can guarantee that the study of society will be politically neutral. Sociologists simply seek to be as objective as possible by the standards of the academic world, but they can never satisfy themselves fully, let alone the outside world.

For some this poses such a huge problem that they reject the possibility of a discipline devoted to the study of society. But it is not alone among academic subjects in having such difficulties. After all it can’t be worse for sociology than it is for the study of politics itself. There are other sciences too which have equally complex, unavoidable problems. The medical doctor regularly confronts issues of life and death which raise moral dilemmas about allowing, not allowing, or helping people to die. We would all be in a sorry state if no one studied medicine because they were unwilling to face the prospect of these inevitable ethical problems in medical practice.

Assertions about human nature or the relations of individual and society provide classic examples of contrasting expressions of different views of the world which each claim universal validity. For instance: ‘Man was formed for society’—Sir William Blackstone (1723-80); ‘Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members’—Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82). Blackstone was an English lawyer, Emerson an American freethinker. This immediately suggests a sociological interpretation. We see them representing contrasting cultures, the stifling conformity of the eighteenth-century English establishment was precisely what the macho energy of the American farmer had rejected. We interpret what is said in terms of the position of the speaker in the wider society. At the same time we adopt an observer’s position distant from both. We are relying on a theory which says that a person’s view of society as a whole is conditioned by the special place each has in it. This insight is the basis of the long-established sociological theory of ideology.

For sociologists an ideology is a set of beliefs which claims to have universal validity but in fact reflects the social position of its adherents. Views about society as a whole are common components of ideologies. Sociology’s view of society as a complex set of social relations, in which people have different positions, allows for changes in those relations and leaves its nature always open to research. The nature of sociology as a science rather than ideology depends not on its achievement of objectivity but on its search for it.

The concept of ideology was the critical response in the nineteenth century to the belief that there were laws governing the working of society which like those of the natural sciences were true for all times and places. To those who objected that society, unlike nature, was founded on individual free will came the reply that moral choice had to observe ethical principles which like natural laws applied universally. Whether society was seen as a set of external forces or as the outcome of human decisions, either way the search was for universal statements.

Not too many universal statements of this kind have been found. ‘Who says organization, says oligarchy’; or ‘the higher the social status the more choice people have’ (‘beggars can’t be choosers’) are examples. But these are not very impressive in terms of precision and, while broadly true, exceptions to them abound. Some organisations are democratic and the hobo has choices money can’t buy.

Other social sciences appear more impressive in this respect. Economics, for instance, seems to find laws of comparative advantage or marginal utility which can be expressed in precise mathematical terms. But then economists have a different intellectual strategy. The laws they identify hold under certain initial conditions which are never fully realised in the real world. These are abstract models rather than accounts of what actually happens. When commentators (usually not professional economists) declare that the real world always works according to these abstract models events eventually prove them wrong.

But the point about economics today is that the models are tested against data. There is a reality test and economists only ever seek a good approximation between model and reality. It is when they fail to acknowledge the gap between model and reality that ideology critique begins and questions are asked such as: Who employs them? What view of the world promotes their professional interest? In other words their place in society comes into question.

Freedom for values

The idea that knowledge of society must consist in, or be based on, universal truths is very durable. It actually predates modern science and helped to give an impetus to its search for laws. It is tied up closely with religion, with ideas of morality and meaning in life.

The reason is that human social relations are mediated through culture and based in part on shared beliefs about the world and other people. They are not based simply in power or calculation and people’s beliefs are factors in the conduct of social relations. We observed this in our discussion of norms in a previous lectures. It was illustrated in our discussion of community.

Such concepts, when operating to regulate our social relations, are known as values. An everyday idea like friendship exerts an influence on any particular pair of people to the extent that it has a meaning beyond them. Each can appeal to it as something which is widely understood in the society at large.

But reference to other people is not as effective as appeal to a value that is universal. Collectivities in general justify standard practices in terms of values they claim to be universal. The sociologist and philosopher Max Scheler expressed it once as ‘My friend may betray me, but friendship lasts for ever.’ Indeed it is by the standards of ‘friendship’ as locally understood that a judgement can be reached on ‘betrayal’ which people around might accept.

The earliest literary evidence shows that human beings have always been aware of the arbitrariness of these claims. Travel has always shown that customs vary infinitely world-wide. Everyday knowledge of relationships and how they should be conducted is local presuming to be universal. This is how it seemed to Herodotus writing 2,500 years ago:

Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best; and that being so it is unlikely that anyone but a madman would mock at such things. There is abundant evidence that this is the universal feeling about the customs of one’s country.

But how does one resolve differences between peoples of different countries. This is the problem of the diversity of morals. It has challenged the greatest writers and philosophers over the centuries.

Michel de Montaigne, the early modern European commentator on the diversity of morals, suggested that there was a ‘law of laws’—namely, behave in the way the place you are in requires. In other words let your behaviour be determined by local practices. That is the extreme relativist position. ‘The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom.’

Montaigne’s account is in one sense conservative because there are no rational criteria to justify change; in another sense it is liberal in that any locality, however small, can assert its own way of doing things. Like so many of us Montaigne finds the variety of sexual customs fascinating. But in a tourist world the question ‘are absolutely all sexual practices permissible?’ arises.

The opposite view is represented by Immanuel Kant, for many the greatest philosopher of the modern period. ‘Behave always in a way which can be a law for others’—his categorical imperative, or the law for laws—suggests that it is possible for individuals to arrive at universal criteria for right and wrong actions. It subjects all custom to this test and in this sense is critical and even radical. But in its claims to arrive at universal laws it is potentially authoritarian and imperialistic. It opens the possibility for laying down the law for others.

Sociologists cannot avoid this basic human dilemma. But their approach is also a major intervention, for instead of siding with Montaigne or Kant they ask a further question: namely, how in practice do people handle the dilemma in a world where people confront difference of custom and morality on a daily basis?

In this way their work reflects a third philosophical position on morality. Montaigne accepts customs as facts of life, Kant looks to abstract ideals. The pragmatist finds that ideals and facts take on meaning through the human experience of changing social relations. The sociological outlook of the contemporary world has arisen in large part in conjunction with this pragmatism, allied with the conviction that in the flow of human experience there is always the possibility of finding rules for social relations which apply generally. It is this pragmatic universalism which is expressed in the developing law of human rights.

In encounters between people and peoples morality emerges as the permanent tension between fact and ideal and this is a primary human experience. If anything like a universal morality exists it can only be the ongoing achievement of human beings in their relations with each other. If we need a classic statement we can find it in Francis Bacon:

The parts and signs of goodness are many. If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers it shows he is a citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins to them.

The problem of objectivity greatly exercised the founders of sociology, with the idea that there might be some secure method for achieving it. But that problem was posed initially as if society could be an object like the natural world. Max Weber pointed out that human reality, and that included the social, was cultural and pervaded with values. Facts are the result of people following values and are only important in relation to them. ‘Value freedom’ in the social sciences on his account could only mean indeed objective accounts of the relevance of facts to values and enhance the chance of choosing between them. In this sense value freedom, far from meaning freedom from values, or neutrality between them, means freedom to choose for them. But this makes society a battlefield of competing values.

After nearly a century of further debate and work sociologists might now reach a rather different formulation. Facts and values and our understanding of them arise out of our experience of human beings in relation to each other. Sociological accounts distil that experience and are most useful when they enable people to come to a greater understanding of those very social relations.

Sociology provides above all a cognitive frame for communicating the experience of social relations. This arises not as a judgement from on high, nor as an arbitration of disputes, nor a wish list. It is the intellectual representation of the changing reality of those relations. In a world which is one it will seek to represent that unity.

Sociological evidence now makes a central contribution to contemporary moral debate. No argument on women’s rights, child labour, capital punishment, abortion, worker participation is complete without drawing on evidence of the diversity of experience of these in different places at different times. Protagonists in the debates on such issues, the state, pressure groups, business, charities, will make commissioned research one of the key planks in the case they present.

It is the autonomous reality of society combined with the independence, moral integrity and intellectual capacities of the researchers which guarantees that such research will make a contribution to debates on values and the policies which might implement them. This places a heavy burden on the researcher.


Sociological research places considerable personal demands on sociologists. One set of accounts of doing research provides a catalogue of hazards from conflicts in research teams, stress of interviewing, being caught up in ethnic street-fighting, working under surveillance by prison officers, and being harassed and threatened with libel action. The sociological theory of ideology also ensures that their social position in professional, private or public life can never be discounted and sometimes they do not even feel it ethical to distance themselves. Negotiating this moral minefield is particularly arduous when research focuses on victims and the oppressed. This is an account by Lorraine Radford who researches violence against women:

The feminist critique of objectivity and distance in social science research had a profound influence upon my approach to research on violence against women. It is not possible, and probably not ethical, to have ‘distance’ as the top priority when researching a sensitive issue such as the experience and impact of abuse.

Distance seemed to imply that it was possible to switch one-self off emotionally from survivors’ accounts of their experiences, maintaining an ‘us’ and ‘them’ division between the ‘Researcher’ and the ‘Objects’ of study… I quickly learned however that there are limits to my capacity to ‘share the particular pain’ of abuse. As a counsellor or therapist, or as someone who can give long term emotional support, I am not up to the job. Distance has been relevant to the ways that I have coped with the personal consequences of doing this type of research and other people’s positioning of and responses to my work. Paranoia, fear, anger, aggression, depression, being haunted by memories or accounts of abuse or stalked and harassed by men (and once by a woman) are some of the most obvious personal costs associated with violence research.

Quite apart then from the theory, knowledge and intellectual skills of the discipline which sociologists acquire through university degrees, they need to be both thoroughly versed in the ethics of their work and possess the degree of moral courage which their chosen field of research demands. They have professional associations which draw up codes of ethics for research, provide moral support, a forum for discussion of research and good practice through conferences and journals. They also are useful adjuncts to the job market.

By far the most powerful and influential is the American Sociological Association. In spite of the early importance of Herbert Spencer the British Sociological Association was not founded until 1951. The International Sociological Association was helped into existence after the Second World War by the United Nations. It organises the World Congress of Sociology every four years, the fourteenth having taken place in Montreal in July 1998. The European Sociological Association was set up in 1993 and has a conference every two years.

Compared with many similar professions, these associations do not set the same kinds of tests for membership as say those for psychologists, nor validate qualifications as happens in medicine. Criteria for entry are more like those for a club than for a profession. Interest, contribution and achievement are more important than formal qualifications. There are a number of reasons for this, the main ones being that sociology does not have patients, the care of young and vulnerable people, and does not promise cures. In other words the risk to the public is less, which requires fewer guarantees as a result.

In this respect sociologists who work independently are more like consultants and when they take employment as sociologists they are regularly designated research officers, strategic planners, policy analysts, community development officers, project planners, etc. The result is that it is very difficult to say how many people are employed as sociologists. Indeed the explosion in media-related research, in service occupations of all kinds, in think tanks and the growing sophistication of the relationships between business and consumers, government and publics, coupled with the growth of autonomous non-governmental agencies where sociologists may often take the initiative, means that there is a constant flow of sociologists into work which draws on their expertise.

Thus, while sociologists may compare themselves unfavourably with economists and psychologists in the extent to which they have a recognised professional identity which takes them into a job, they are less likely to be handicapped by being treated as narrow specialists, employable in a restricted range of posts.

But politicians have equally found that sociologists can be useful sounding boards and policy advisers. Raymond Aron was a close confidant of President de Gaulle of France. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian leader who led the way in dismantling the Soviet system, was advised by a woman specialist in industrial sociology, Tatiana Zavlaskaya.

The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had a friend and adviser who persuaded him and the Communist Party to introduce the new system of agricultural production known as the ‘responsibility system’ in the 1980s. Fei Xiaotung had studied anthropology and sociology in the London School of Economics in the 1930s, and the new system was based on his studies over decades of peasant life. Since it broke with the previous ‘one communal pot’ ideology of Chinese communism it arguably has had the greatest effect on the greatest number of people of any policy inspired by a sociologist.

In the United States today the communitarian movement which has influenced politicians of both main parties is inspired by the sociologist, Amitai Etzioni. In Britain the call from Tony Blair to modernise beyond left and right picks up the message from Anthony Giddens, sociologist and Director of the London School of Economics.

Professional sociology can operate in the service of any section of society, for good or bad. However, when working with other professional groups sociologists are bound to be identified with and give expression to those who would not otherwise be heard, be they silent majorities, outcasts or what are now called the socially excluded.

In the late nineteenth century Sumner wrote an essay, ‘The Forgotten Man’, to draw attention to the hardworking unpraised breadwinner who asked for nothing of the state except to be left alone and in consequence was not heard.

A century later the British sociologist Ann Oakley wrote her book Subject Women to make them more than the ‘mere shadow discernible in conventional histories and sociologies’. The question she asks, ‘Are women people?’, could be seen as the rejoinder to Sumner (though he did say ‘The Forgotten Man is not seldom a woman’). Oakley and Sumner are each for their time equally driven by the sociological demon.

Lifelong learning

Many different groups of people find varied reasons for looking to sociology. Social workers have always found basic knowledge about how society works relevant, but professionals like doctors and architects also find this has a place in their training. Companies may need to find out more about their employees or about the consumers of their products. Their profits may depend on this.

In the 1980s in Britain when Margaret Thatcher dominated the political scene she and her friends often dismissed sociology as a waste of time. Many threats were made and some were carried through to restrict the possibilities of teaching and studying the subject. Many sociologists feared for their jobs. In fact the subject survived, in some ways even became stronger, as it responded to the threat. The attractions it had for students never diminished.

The blurred boundaries between sociology as an academic discipline, as professional practice and in employment, mean that the question of a curriculum for sociology is always equally open. There is no set of public requirements which insists that every sociologist knows how to do a t-test, conduct a competent interview, or design a research project.

But probably today, as has been the case from the beginning when sociology was first taught in higher education, the main motive for studying the subject has been the individual’s sense that society is difficult to understand and even troubling at a personal level. Some people will study it mainly to clear their minds about their own place in society, others more with a mission to do something about it, to repair its failures or promote its successes.

The main contribution sociology has made in the last century is to public consciousness world-wide. You can find sociology anywhere. In 1986 I found a sociology text on the bookshelf of the local policeman, in Bangladesh, in the only brick built house for a hundred miles in a country as poor as any in the world.

Sociology is a much bigger subject than just what sociologists happen to be saying and doing today. It has behind it a century-long tradition of teaching, research and professional activity. So it has informed the thinking of hundreds of millions of people who have studied it in schools, colleges and universities throughout the world.

We can all become sociologists, just as we all can clean our rooms, bake our bread, fish or write poetry. At the end, however, there will be some who want to go further down the road of studying sociology intensively, or even think of it as a possible career choice.

If you do a first degree in sociology in Britain you may avoid technical training, and the common core of your studies is more likely to be regarded as the thought of Karl Marx, Max Weber and Émile Durkheim than any direct experience of social research. This is not widely different in the rest of the world. In the United States there is more emphasis on training in methods of research; in Italy less even than in Britain.

This is not going to change very much. Even if there were a concerted attempt to produce a highly professional sociology curriculum, with common global requirements, it would not affect the basic openness of sociology. It would create an artificial boundary for a certain kind of sociology around which alternatives would soon proliferate. The reader should recognise this as a controversial statement. Sociology is bigger than what sociologists say it is at any one moment. The discipline is produced out of the requirements of contemporary life and its logic develops in response to the nature of society today, not according to some model of what a discipline or professional practice ought to be.



1.David Popenoe. Sociology, 1977

2.Richard T.Shaefer, 1988

3.Jean Stockard. Sociology. Discovering society, 1991

4.Contemporary Society. An introduction to Social science. 6 edition. John A.Perry, Erna K.Perry, 1993

5.Sociology: An introduction. Book by Neil J.Smelser, 1967

6.Sociology: The Basics. Book by Martin Albrow, 1999


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