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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.
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.
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
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
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
—Frank J. Barrett, PhD
See also Grounded Theory; Philosophy of Science;
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:
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
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).
Durkheim, E. (1938). The rules of sociological method.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Feyerabend, P. (1975). Against method. London: New Left
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.
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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
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:
Said, E. (1976). Orientalism. London: Edward Arnold.
Smith, D. (1990). The conceptual practices of power: A
feminist sociology of knowledge. Boston: Northeastern
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.
Winch, P. (1958). The idea of social science. London:
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Woodward, J. (1965). Industrial organization: Theory and
practice. London: Oxford University Press.
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.
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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