Max Weber’s contributions in the field of sociology remain unparalleled. He is a classical sociologist whose ideas, themes and theories influenced the course of sociology. Importantly, Weber was opposed to the idea held by positivists that empirical research was the most effective way of understanding social reality.
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He advocated for qualitative research in analyzing human behavior and actions. To him, patterns of interaction are not static since they change overtime (Honigsheim 2003, p. 73). As such, it is incorrect to suppose that the causality of specific human actions remains the same.
This paper intends to use various concepts held by Max Weber regarding the differences between natural science and social science. Can natural science be in a position to evaluate social reality?
To answer this question, the paper will use ‘Weberian’ concepts of value relevance, ideal type, social objectivity and most importantly, anti positivism.
Weber’s Value Relevance and Ideal Type: Arguments against Natural Science
Weber was an anti positivist and rejected the idea that it is possible to generalize social reality. Weber believed that human actions are subject to change and that natural science generalizes before proceeding to study the subject matter.
To him, only by understanding the behavior that man exhibits that a scientist is able to comprehend the social reality. Importantly, Weber addressed the concepts of value bound and value neutrality in research.
According to Honigsheim (2003, p. 78), the concept explains that the differences between natural and social science lies in the intentions of the researcher as opposed to inapplicability of empirical principles of research.
The major distinction between the two sciences therefore is the interests and the intentions of the researcher as opposed to the various methods used to study the subject matter.
Unlike natural scientists, Weber argues that social scientist should uphold value relevance in research. To him, value relevance is the ability of a social researcher to withhold his or her values when undertaking a social research.
The values imparted on the researcher should facilitate him or her to comprehend the social contexts he/she intends to observe (Smith 2003, p.132).
The rationale is that working against the prevalent values in a society overlooks the historical and social environments that have influenced the values imparted on the researcher during the process of socialization.
To that end, Weber articulates that natural scientists tend to undermine the influence of value relevance of the researchers and assume that they are objective (Beetham 1989, p. 312). To the contrary, their intentions and actions during the research depend heavily on the values they hold.
Weber says that natural science can never suppose that their results are always objective. Objective knowledge is impossible in natural science since the researcher does not make choices objectively.
In other words, he says that natural scientists are subjects of the social environment they live in and they ought to withhold their values when seeking to analyze human behavior (Smith 2003, p. 142).
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Unlike other subject matters, human beings are constantly changing and any research on behavior should rely on the relevance of the actions vis a vis their ascriptions.
It is therefore impossible for natural science to pursue ‘objective knowledge’ without integrating their methodologies with the principles of social science (Honigsheim 2003, p. 77). They also need to submerge themselves in the society of subject matter without considering their values and values held by others.
Max Weber argues that social object refers to something that has value and meaning for groups and society. At the onset of socialization, individuals learn the values and norms of a society. Honigsheim (2003, p. 78) asserts that the values become an indelible aspect of human being.
To this end, Weber says that individuals who constitute the subject matter of social research are valuable and that their actions have different meanings in the society.
This is contrary to natural research where the social object has no meaning to the researcher and as such, he or she utilizes empirically tested methods of research to identify the cause and consequences of certain actions.
What the natural sciences leave out is the fact that researchers belong to a specific value system that could influence their objectivity in analyzing and studying human behavior (Hadden 1997, p. 60). To overcome the challenges in understanding social objects, Weber prescribes a new way of observing reality.
He articulates that an individual may be able to understand social reality by reorganizing it in a specific way and use social imagination to comprehend it (Beetham 1989, p. 314).
His interpretive approach has considerable benefits for social sciences in the sense that it is able to reduce the subjectivity associated with natural sciences. A social researcher should immerse himself in the society under study and interpret human behaviors and action from an objective view devoid of influences of values he hold.
Nonetheless, Weber does not dismiss the attempts to have an objective study in social science. He articulates that sociological imagination is imperative in analyzing human behavior.
It is possible to understand (verstehen) human behavior through abstraction given that social scientists are able to reorganize the social reality and imagine it from an objective perspective (Smith 2003, pp. 34-87).
The social researchers should utilize conscious imagination to understand the actual interpretation of specific human relationships and behaviors. This way, social scientists are able to distinguish the ordinary interpretations and actual interpretation of human behavior.
Weber therefore seeks to uphold the superiority of interpretative methodologies used in social research as a means of gaining an objective research. Social scientists apply social imagination and reconfigure the social reality to understand the human and social object of natural sciences (Honigsheim 2003, pp. 73 – 94).
Treatment of value judgment according to Weber should be the role of the social scientists. However, the researcher ought to be wary of various generalizations that other sciences make due to their redundant laws and formal logical arguments that they present.
Max Weber prescribes the use of ‘ideal type’ in observation of reality by social scientists. He argues that ‘ideal type’ is the only way in which social scientists are able to imagine reality and form patterns that could be important in explaining human behavior in a particular and general way (Smith 2003, p. 161).
The concepts emphasized in the ‘ideal types’ include rationality and protestant ethics. They help the social scientists to compare the causes and the consequences of human action overtime.
Besides, the imaginary construction of a social reality helps a social scientist to compare different social and historical environments that the human behavior occurred (Beetham 1989, p. 311).
Moreover, Weber says that ideal types do not only allow the researcher to isolate the important aspects of the subject matter but also allows the comprehension of behavior of different people in different contexts.
To come up with an ideal type, the social scientist ought to ensure that they undertake a thorough study and use their thoughts and conscience to analyze the observations.
Although use of imaginary construction assists the scientists to arrange and organize complex reality, it does not aim at making a conclusive law of predicting the cause and consequence of certain actions.
Weber recognized that absolute and rigid laws typical of natural sciences are inadequate to address the concept of social dynamism.
For instance, an individual may behave in a specific way due to a certain cause but it does not imply that other societal members behaved or will behave in the same way in the past or in the future.
Further, Weber argues that analyzing human behavior and action through imaginary construction does not amount to ideographic methodology of studying social reality (Smith 2003, p. 231). The rationale is that the aim of social science is not to analyze human behavior in a way that the human actions are predictable.
To the contrary, social imagination leads to understanding the behavior of the social objects that form overtime.
This implies that scientists who apply social imagination will not only study the sole aspects of human behavior but also will study the entirety of human actions and analyze them through the patterns they form overtime (Hadden 1997, p. 62).
It is important to note that ‘ideal type’ is a utopian model that does not feature in any social reality. To this end, Weber argues that the ideal type does not always imply validity in the manner in which the social scientists reproduce the results and compare them with reality.
Weber pinpoints that the validity of ideal type of research is measured in terms of adequacy, which is a lacking aspect of positivism.
Weber defends the use of fictional methodology to unravel social reality vehemently. Beetham (1989, p. 312) articulates that researchers’ value commitment is important in carrying out an objective research. The value commitment is an unavoidable aspect of researchers however subjective.
Thus, he acknowledges the subjective nature of natural sciences and says that the researchers are usually ‘one sided’.
For this purpose, Weber says that ideal type of social reality is important to construct in order to remove the vagueness that natural science has experienced due to value commitment of the researchers as well as the interpretes.
As such, ideal type is value free and integrates ethical considerations while at the same time attempting to confront the inadequacies that historical and social knowledge possess. The rationale is that knowledge is subject of natural science and has been subjective overtime.
The ‘ideal type’ construction inculcates the need for virtue, objectivity and clear sightedness in a scientist and as such, he or she becomes committed passionately to the revelation of the truth that is free of subjectivity and illusions (Hadden 1997, p. 79).
Weber proposes that the use of universal laws that is typical of natural science is not enough in the field of social sciences. In other words, he says that social scientists should utilize such models as ‘ideal type’ in order to organize the complex social reality.
Although he says that the models do not aim at arriving at a general law or principle (verified by empirical principles), they provide the researchers with a platform to isolate specific key aspects of social object (Honigsheim 2003, p. 95).
To him, ideal type model is the most rational way of comprehending social phenomena and reality. For instance, he demonstrates the use of ideal type in the analysis of social phenomenon by referring to command and free market economies.
Although none of the two market types exists, Weber has the conviction that their imagination helps in isolating key elements of markets (Beetham 1989, p. 312). This way, social scientists are able to choose the aspects that are fundamentally important in an economy.
Analyzing the economy from abstraction therefore serves to unravel other aspects that natural science can rarely find using its methodology and law.
In essence, Weber’s arguments on the inadequacies of natural science are valid to some extents and continue to apply in sociology. The field of social science ought to understand the concept of value relevance during their research.
Social objects that are subject matter of social research are able to exhibit different behaviors that may change over time (Swedberg 2005, p. 165). To this end, it is almost impossible to understand human behavior since every behavior and action has its ascriptions that are defined by a value system of a specific society.
To this end, Weber accuses natural science for having used the researchers’ values or values of others to make conclusions and device general laws of understanding human behavior. This in turn leads to subjective nature of social knowledge.
Nonetheless, Weber says that objective knowledge is possible when social scientists adopt a social model derived from social imagination and reconstruction of reality.
The rationale is that the researchers are able to remove their values in the study and understand complex reality in a more objective way than in natural sciences.
Despite spirited efforts to understand human behavior, critics accuse Weber of ignoring major points in his analysis of social objects and value relevance. Particularly, they assert that it is difficult for a person belonging to one culture to understand the cultural and social structures of other societies.
To that end, the critics say that Weber overlooks the inability of a social actor to imagine a social phenomenon of another society since he or she does not belong there. As such, the mental and imaginary construction of a social phenomenon in another culture is impossible.
For instance, it is particularly difficult for an individual to envisage another sort of economy if his or her culture subscribe to capitalism or socialism. Second, arguments that imagination and abstraction is the most objective way of capturing social reality are misleading.
By using one’s knowledge to recreate social reality, the social scientists ignore observable facts that natural sciences emphasize (Swedberg 2005, p. 167).
Finally, value commitment is a major aspect of thought processes and is unavoidable when constructing ideal type models. Weber’s assertion that social scientists should be value free and objective is not easy to achieve.
In summary, Weber believes that natural sciences suffer immense challenges when attempting to explain social reality. Weber subscribes to anti positivist school of thought that argues that social reality is not measurable through data and static natural laws.
Instead, human being who is the subject matter of social research experiences changes in the social context making him or her to manifest specific behavior that scientist cannot generalize. Swedberg (2005, p. 168) says that values that an individual holds lead to subjectivity during research.
Besides, the social scientists ought to imagine ideal reality to comprehend social actions and phenomenon. To this end, Weber agrees that natural sciences suffer challenges that undermine their importance of analyzing human behavior.
Beetham, D 1989, ‘Max Weber and the Liberal Political Tradition’, European Journal of Sociology, vol. 30 no.3, pp. 311–323.
Hadden, W 1997, Sociological Theory: An Introduction to the Classical Tradition, Broadview Press, Peterborough, Ontario.
Honigsheim, P 2003, The Unknown Max Weber, Transaction Publisher, New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Smith, M 2003, Social Science in Question, Sage, London.
Swedberg, R 2005, The Max Weber Dictionary, Stanford University Press Stanford.