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VALUE-FREE CONCEPTION OF SCIENCE

Advocates of a value-free conception of social science

seek to do research that produces objective and valid

knowledge based on verifiable empirical data. These

researchers advance a positivist orientation to organizational

science and seek to build causal theories

through the use of rigorous scientific methods. Data

collection and analysis are independent of the values

or normative expectations of the researcher, who is

considered to be a detached observer in the tradition

of natural scientists.

Conceptual Overview

Auguste Comte (1798–1857) and Henri de Saint-Simon

(1760–1825) first called for a positivist “science of society”

and envisioned a social science that emulated the

natural sciences. Under the influence of the Enlightenment

revolution, the task of the new discipline would be

to explain the relationship between the various parts of

society as it evolved in progressive stages toward a new

social order, the industrial society. The idea that the

search and discovery of truth and reality is possible created

a spirit of optimism. Comte, St. Simon, and others

influenced by the Enlightenment believed that human

beings, and particularly social engineers, could achieve

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mastery over natural and social forces to create better

social worlds. A century later, building on the contributions

of the Enlightenment philosophers, especially

David Hume, a group of philosophers in the 1920s

known as the Vienna Circle, including Rudolf Carnap,

Moritz Schlick, and others, were strong proponents of

the positivist approach to knowledge building. They

extolled the linear and incremental nature of scientific

progress that draws upon past experiences and discoveries

contributing toward building predictive theories.

The task of social science, as in the natural sciences,

would be to identify recurring, unmalleable, systematic

patterns and transhistorical, valid principles to explain

permanence among flux.

Those who believe in a value-free approach to social

science advocate building on prior knowledge to formulate

hypotheses and the use of quantitative methods

to measure social and psychological processes through

experimental or quasiexperimental designs. Researchers

often use surveys and questionnaires that uncover

aggregate differences between classes of individuals,

groups, and organizations. Findings emphasize the

importance of persisting structures of mind, group,

organization, or society as a whole. Researchers should

remain uninvolved with the subject under study so as

not to cloud their findings or reaffirm their normative

expectations; rather, the researchers should approach

the problem as if objective facts are waiting to be discovered.

Like the model used in the natural sciences,

value-free research in the social sciences should let the

facts speak for themselves, contributing to the advancement

and accumulation of knowledge through modest,

incremental, fact-oriented research.

In 1949 Max Weber, drawing upon the work of

Wilhelm Dilthey, pointed out that it is important to distinguish

the social sciences from the natural sciences.

The natural scientist is interested in abstract laws; the

social scientist is interested in the meaning that human

actors ascribe to their actions. Human action is subjective,

guided by motivations and intentions of actors. The

appropriate method for understanding actors’ motivation

is empathy, or verstehen, not objective detachment.

Regarding the question of values,Weber saw them as a

central part of society. As members of society, sociologists

have values that will influence which problems

social scientists choose to address; this does not drive

out the ideal of value-free research, however. Values still

enter into what one chooses to do. The emphasis should

be on a proper choice of techniques and methods to

ensure that data collection and analysis are unbiased

and objective; in Weber’s words, the research endeavor

should be “cleansed of values.” The theorist can still

move toward bias-free explanation of causes and consequences

of actions and can uncover general patterns and

structures that are empirically grounded.

Durkheim advocated the search for social facts,

those forces that are independent of individual motivation

and constrain people to act within social norms,

whether they notice these forces or not. Explanations

should reflect objective conditions, not the subjective

states of actors: For Durkheim, as he wrote in 1938,

the determining cause of a social fact should be

sought among the social facts preceding it rather than

in the state of individual consciousness. This approach

has given birth to functionalism, a view that social

structures are shaped by imperatives and that they

adapt toward the maintenance of social order. Talcott

Parsons built on these concepts and gave rise to a

functionalist view that saw society in terms of selfmaintaining,

homeostatic systems with specific mechanisms

that support the internal stability of society;

while he acknowledged that humans are capable of

voluntary action that might change those structures,

the structures tend to persist nevertheless.

Parsons’s influence on the field of organizational

studies was and remains strong, most notably in the

school of structural contingency theory. Woodward’s

classic study from 1965 opened the avenues for

empirical, quantitative measurement of organizational

structures and found that structures are contingent on

the technical production system. In 1967 Lawrence

and Lorsch found that structures are differentiated or

integrated depending on how stable the environmental

demands are. (For a good summary of positivist

approaches to organizational theory and the linkage to

functionalist explanations of organizational structures,

see Donaldson’s 2001 book).

In sum, those who practice what they consider to be

a value-free positivist approach to social science believe

that below the surface of appearances and individual

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particularities, there are deeper structures—regularities

that can be explained in terms of cause and effect. What

is deemed “knowledge” is based on objective explanations

that causally connect verifiable patterns that

become translated into transhistorical formulas codified

in the acontextual language of mathematics. This empirical

rigor will lead to the accumulation of knowledge:

The search for reliable patterns among the contingencies

of observable events has led scientists to mount a program

of research that seeks to provide the last word, to

solve problems once and for all.

Critical Commentary

and Future Directions

Many have raised doubt about the possibility of neutral,

value-free inquiry. These voices claim it is impossible

to document “objective facts” without some a priori

theoretical and value-laden lens. What passes for truth

is historically and contextually contingent. “Facts” are

negotiated achievements within communities of agreement

that reflect and reinforce interests and standpoints.

What we take to be “fact” is always already

guided by some prior theoretical lens that deems it

worth noticing. When one begins with the facts, one has

already advocated an implicit theory that coincides

with common sense and the status quo within some discourse

community of practice. Indeed, anthropological

studies of scientists engaged in research and theory

construction have demonstrated that the activity of

research is a negotiated achievement, and that the

“facts” of science are social constructions, as Latour

and Woolgar showed in 1979 and Knorr-Cetina argued

in 1981. These studies have shown that establishing

“facts” is often a competitive enterprise between scientists

within various interpretive communities, and that

rather than unbiased detached observers, scientists are

often deeply invested in which facts emerge as legitimate

and which are overlooked. Scientists “see” facts

in ways that support the intelligibility of familiar theories

and reinforce the legitimacy of their claims. (See

also Kuhn’s influential work from 1970).

Gouldner argued in 1970 that theory is informed by

domain assumptions, which are background dispositions

that favor particular beliefs and values. The

researcher’s personal experience and sentiment do in

fact shape social research. Social theorists’ interests

and internalized prejudices remain resistant to evidence

that would bring these interests and prejudices

to the surface. Whether a theory is accepted or rejected

is due partly to the tensions and sentiments it generates.

Weber’s theory of the inevitability of bureaucracy

might make some researchers pessimistic as well as

motivate some theorists to look for evidence to contradict

the hypothesis, while those who do not favor

social change might find Weber’s theory attractive.

One’s feelings in response to these theories are likely

to stimulate different courses of action: For Gouldner

all social theory has both political and personal relevance

despite what the formal methods books might

say. When theorists confront the social world, they are

also inevitably confronting their own values and preferences.

The sentiment and preferences tacitly associated

with a theory are relevant to the ongoing life and

acceptance of the theory because theories resonate

with values and ways of life. When new social orders

emerge that contradict the sentiments and domain

assumptions that inform a theory, sometimes those theorists

are likely to suppress that dissonance.

Social theorists need to reflect on why some theories

feel intuitively convincing. It’s no accident that

Parsons’s work was so well received in the West.

Attraction to Parsonian functionalism resonated with a

postwar United States that valued the maintenance of

social order. The choice to work within a metatheoretical

context that searches for clues to social order works

to defend the existent order. Gouldner thought that a

social theory that saw the maintenance of social order

as the key analytical question would be most ideologically

congenial to those who had most to lose. In general,

he said, positivism’s quest to map the social order

will tend persistently to lend support to the status quo.

Also, traditional canons of positivist science that

hold that research should start from a priori, grand theories,

in which the task of research is to test and verify

facts, are themselves an ideology, often leading to

research based on convenience: collection of data simply

because a certain data set is available, or because

particular instruments for data collection are available to

test a theory. As Karl Popper noted, there is a tendency

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for scientists to merely accumulate hard scientific data

because advanced technical equipment can efficiently

retrieve such data. The social sciences may be unnecessarily

limited to the accumulation of available evidence

in an effort to verify safe but ultimately boring hypotheses.

Although such a verification would be a safe move,

such a narrow approach might lead to an exclusive

reliance on immediately discernible evidence in an

effort to solve old, previously conceived problems. The

notion of knowledge that is locked in verification

rhetoric gives the impression that social sciences are on

a straight, cumulative line of development. As a result,

activity is geared to testing small parts of grand theories

that are divorced from the data of social life; their usefulness,

Glaser and Strauss conjectured in their treatise

on grounded theory, is questionable. This produces

grand theory generated from logical assumptions and

speculations that emerge from the “oughts” of social life

rather than from the social actors under study.

In the 1930s a critical approach to social theory

emerged in the Frankfurt school. These scholars challenged

the traditional view and claimed that social

scientists always operate with tacit theoretical biases. A

postwar member of this school was Habermas, who in

1972 proposed that the approach to knowledge production

can be linked to three different cognitive and

ideological interests that generate different forms of

knowledge for different purposes. First, empiricalanalytical

knowledge reflects a technical interest for the

purposes of enhancing prediction, control, efficiency,

and effectiveness. This would link with the value-free

school of positivism outlined above that has generated

much of the organizational literature on strategy

and structural contingency. Second, the historicalhermeneutic

theories have a practical purpose of

improving mutual understanding—exploring how various

actors make sense of their worlds and how norms

and schemas evolve to legitimize certain activities over

others. Finally an emancipatory approach to knowledge

creation seeks to expose forms of domination and

exploitation in the service of transforming social institutions,

creating better and more rational social worlds.

The Frankfurt school fostered theoretical orientations

that demonstrated how privileged positions of autonomy

and power exclude or marginalize subordinate actors.

Critical theorists contend that social sciences, especially

the organizational sciences, have played a role in the

domination of instrumental rationality, and social

knowledge risks becoming the servant of these power

interests (see Alvesson and Wilmott’s 1996 views).

Other critiques have noticed that methodology is

not only a technical concern of extracting data, constructing

questionnaires, and sampling but is also

infused with ideology: People can be treated as if they

were things, much as the nonhuman materials studied

by the natural sciences; they can be treated as subjects

who are subjected to the control of the experimenter,

perhaps without their consent. The methods of social

research foster an authoritarian relationship toward

the subjects under study; in other words, the methods

themselves are a form of system control. Argyris

noted in 1957 that if rigorous research criteria were

applied, then they would create a world in which

behavior was defined, controlled, evaluated, manipulated,

and reported to a degree that is comparable to

the behavior of workers in the most mechanized

assembly-line conditions.

Feminist and postcolonial studies challenge the

notion of immaculate perception of an unbiased observer

and propose standpoint epistemology as a theorybuilding

framework (see Harding’s work from 1996).

They argue that knowledge is socially located within

a gender/race/class matrix even when it claims to be

universally valid. Therefore, one should attend to the

inevitable value orientation of one’s research. In this

vein, in 1994, Fine warned against ignoring the

political implications of research. She writes that

researchers will always be chronically and uncomfortably

engaged in ethical decisions about how deeply

to work for/with/despite those cast as “others.” She

called for an approach that self-consciously interrupts

research strategies that turn subjects into “others” and

robs them of their complexity in the interest of hard

and fast categories.

Gergen called for “generative theory” in 1982—

knowledge that challenges established theoretical

terms, suggesting bolder forms of theorizing that

enable innovative repertoires of action. Rather than

simply concerning ourselves with construct validity,

perhaps we need to reflect on the implications of our

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theoretical terms and concepts. Generative theory

poses the question: How are patterns of action enabled

and constrained by the theoretical terms we use? In

this vein, Gergen claims that theory does more than

reflect objective truth; theory also serves to facilitate

or constrain modes of action. Theories not only reflect

or predict the world, they also create worlds. Generative

theory can advance alternative social forms that challenge

the status quo.

Social science can be a powerful influence in constituting

people’s experience. By creating linguistic

categories, distinctions, and causal attributions, scientists

are publicly defining reality, and that guides

people by shaping the way they talk about life, how

they report their own and others’ experiences, and

indeed, how people actually have experiences. It

would be very unlikely for a 19th century woman to

describe herself as “high in emotional intelligence,”

for example. Such labels for reporting and noticing

behaviors did not exist. The contention here is that it

is not intrinsic human nature that has changed; rather

it is the language we use to talk about human experiences

that has changed, and social scientists help to

create what is taken to be normal and legitimate.

Further, a limited set of inferences for actions flow

from these theoretical terms, influencing who we are

and what we are able to become for one another, in the

sense that Foucault in 1975 referred to scientists as

“authorities of delimitation.” Thus, some have argued

that social science is always and already inevitably

normative. Anthony Giddens highlights the double

hermeneutic of social science, his contention being

that social scientists play a prominent role in shaping

the discourse by which people carry out their lives. He

follows Brown, from 1989, in seeing that the denial of

the political and ethical implications of theorizing

means engaging in civic inauthenticity and intellectual

bad faith.

In sum, the various critiques of a value-free social

science claim that researchers’ values have consequences

for how social science activity is conducted,

what topics are chosen, what methodology is adopted,

and how we conceptualize the consequences of such

knowledge. The activity of social science is not exempt

from relational embeddedness, and it is implicated in

the very world it seeks to study. In fact, the social

scientist is an active practitioner in contributing to

forms of cultural intelligibility and is an influence in

creating the symbolic resources available to people as

they carry out their lives. Finally, such conventions are

not neutral.

—Frank J. Barrett, PhD

See also Grounded Theory; Philosophy of Science;

Relativism

Further Readings

Alcoff, L., & Potter, E. (Eds.). (1992). Feminist

epistemologies. New York: Routledge.

Alvesson, M., & Wilmott, H. (1996). Making sense of

management. London: Sage.

Argyris, C. (1957). Personality and organization. New York:

Harper Collins.

Blalock, H. (1961). Causal inference in nonexperimental

research. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Blumer, H. (1956). Sociological analysis and the “variable.”

American Sociological Review, 21, 683–690.

Bordo, S. (1987). The flight to objectivity: Essays on

Cartesianism and culture. Albany: State University of

New York Press.

Brown, H. (1989). Social science as civic discourse. Chicago:

University of Chicago Press.

Burrell, G., & Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological paradigms

and organizational analysis: Elements of the sociology of

corporate life. London: Heinemann.

Chalmers, A. (1999). What is this thing called science? an

assessment of the nature and status of science and its

methods. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland

Press.

Comte, A. (1853). The positivist philosophy (H. Martineau,

Trans.). London: Chapman.

Donaldson, L. (2001). The normal science of structural

contingency theory. In S. Clegg, C. Hardy, & W. Nord

(Eds.), Handbook of organization studies (pp. 57–76).

London: Sage.

Durkheim, E. (1938). The rules of sociological method.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Feyerabend, P. (1975). Against method. London: New Left

Books.

Fine, M., Weis, L., Weseen, S., & Wong, L. (1994). For

whom? Qualitative research, representations, and

responsibilities. In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln (Eds.),

Handbook of qualitative research

(pp. 107–132).Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Value-Free Conception of Science———1605

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Foucault, M. (1970). The order of things. London: Tavistock.

Gergen, K. (1982). Toward transformation in social

knowledge. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Giddens, A. (1976). New rules of sociological method. New

York: Basic Books.

Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded

theory. Chicago: Aldine.

Gouldner, A. (1970). The coming crisis of Western sociology.

New York: Basic Books.

Habermas, J. (1972). Knowledge and human interests.

Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Harding, S. (1996). Standpoint epistemology (a feminist

version): How social disadvantage creates epistemic

advantage. In S. Turner, (Ed.), Social theory and

sociology (pp. 146–160). Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

hooks, b. (1983). Feminist theory from margin to center,

Boston: South End Press.

Kuhn, T. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1986). Laboratory life: The

construction of scientific facts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton

University Press.

Lawrence, P., & Lorsch, J. (1967). Organization and

environment: Managing differentiation and integration.

Boston: Division of Research, Graduate School of

Business Administration, Harvard University.

Merton, R. (1945). Sociological theory. American Journal of

Sociology, 50(6), 462–473.

Parsons, T. (1937). The structure of social action. New York:

Free Press.

Said, E. (1976). Orientalism. London: Edward Arnold.

Smith, D. (1990). The conceptual practices of power: A

feminist sociology of knowledge. Boston: Northeastern

University Press.

Stinchcombe, A. (1968). Constructing social theories.

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Weber, M. (1949). The methodology of the social sciences.

New York: Free Press.

Weber, M. (1958). From Max Weber: Essays in sociology.

London: Routledge.

Winch, P. (1958). The idea of social science. London:

Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Woodward, J. (1965). Industrial organization: Theory and

practice. London: Oxford University Press.

VALUES

A value is a discrete belief about something or someone.

A value can be an absolute dichotomous belief

(e.g., “this is good behavior” or “this is bad behavior”)

as well as a conditional belief (e.g., “this may be good

behavior when in a crisis”). Individual values can be

described as being terminal (i.e., representing desirable

end states, such as “it is good to be wealthy”) or

instrumental (i.e., means to accomplishing a goal, such

as “it is acceptable to sacrifice the few for the benefit

of the many”) as described by the psychologist Milton

Rokeach. Values can be also be expressive (e.g., “I love

chocolate”). An attitude is said to be a collection of

values or beliefs bounded within a particular situation,

or it can be a value that transcends many situations.

Core values are said to be those developed from one’s

culture and family of origin. Meanwhile, contingent

values appear more ephemeral and seem to be adapted

from one’s current reference groups.

In social systems, such as a family, a team, an organization,

or a culture, values feed the creation of norms,

which are rules for good and bad behavior in the social

system. They are evident in symbols, heroes and heroines,

and stories or myths. These are ways to remind

people of the values as well as to teach what is good

and bad, what to hope for and what to fear, what to

aspire to and what to feel guilt or shame about violating.

These norms and values constitute what is often

called the culture of the social system. Operating within

the culture is said to be ethical behavior, decision making,

or acting with integrity. Meanwhile, operating outside

of them is seen as unethical.

Conceptual Overview

Throughout this century, social scientists have sought

to understand people’s values as well as to interpret the

relationship between values and behavior. Although

there has been some success, there is also frustration at

the lack of insight. Behavior inconsistent with values

has been so prevalent that everyone has likely heard

parents tell their children, “Do as I say, not as I do!”

The inconclusive results may have resulted from problems

in measurement or conceptual definitions. Lack of

conscious awareness of one’s values may result from

infrequent reflection about those values. Social desirability

may overwhelm the individual’s preference and

contribute to inaccuracy in self-reported values.

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