Social Question

wundayatta's avatar

How do you feel about the idea that there are no facts in sociology?

Asked by wundayatta (58377 points ) September 3rd, 2012

I came across this statement in another question today: I took sociology for first year at college but dropped it because it was all based on theories and it drove me mad that there was no fact about how society works (and never will [be?]).

This is a fascinating statement, and it is one that I hear in other situations. I’m wondering if you agree that there are no facts about how society works, and if not, how can sociologists create facts and what do those facts mean?

Do you think this is an issue about statistics—a complaint about things only being expressed in terms of probabilities? Or is this more basic—as if somehow facts cannot exist when it comes to human behavior in societies?

If you believe that there are no facts, does this bother you? Why or why not? If there are facts, how can we know them?

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9 Answers

Earthgirl's avatar

There are exceptions to every “rule” and that includes most if not all generalizations about human behavior. People are very wary of generalizing nowadays. It’s just not “politically correct”. Yet it is one way we come to understand our world and understand society. There are still things you can say about how society works as a rule, and how society affects individuals. Maybe because the world is changing more rapidly than ever before people don’t trust in theories. I’m not sure that avoidance of theory is justified. In a way, when it comes to people, I think the more things change, the more they remaiin the same.

The way we can know things as facts is by starting with observation but subjecting that observation to statistical analysis. But still, this only tells us what generally holds true. We can’t say many things with surety.

MilkyWay's avatar

Not everything is facts. Theories are what keeps this exploration going, the stuff that leads to discoveries.
A vast amount of science today is still theory, and so is a lot of mathematics.
Thoery will always exist, and I think it is a good thing.

gasman's avatar

Welcome to the social sciences, sometimes denigrated as “soft science,” like psychology, sociology, and economics.” In a field such as sociology scientific observations are often made without benefit of control groups (no alternate intelligent species around) so results typically depend on statistical tests of validity.

There should be no concern of “things only being expressed in terms of probabilities.” Many highly robust and successful scientific theories (all of biomedical research, for instance) rely on statistical tests of validity. In some sense all scientific conclusions are probabilistic; absolute certainty is unscientific.

Blackberry's avatar

Well of course there aren’t facts in the field, and how could there? But it’s great for establishing theories and learning more about us.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

If there are no facts in sociology, then there are no facts.

ETpro's avatar

This may seem off topic, but I don’t think it is. I had a truly strange problem with a website I was designing recently. One particular piece of text, a phone number, disappeared when viewed in an iPhone or iPad. It showed in Safari on an Apple laptop or desktop, but not in Apple’s the handheld devices. The rest of the sentence containing the phone number was visible in iPad, but the number mysteriously evaporated. I tried all kinds of ways to style and position that text, but nothing helped. I even tried rendering the text of the sentence into a background image, and displaying it that way. Still, the phone number was invisible. I was screaming, “This makes no sense!”

But then a fellow developer on a forum, a heavy iPhone user, cleared up the mystery for me. iPhones are programmed to recognize phone numbers, even by pattern recognition if they are in images, and convert them to clickable links that will dial the phone number. I had links styled to be navy blue, and the background of the header where the phone number was supposed to show up was also navy blue. So the number, converted to a link, was blending right in with the background. It was there all along, but perfectly camouflaged.

The moral of this story is no matter how much it seems something makes no sense—that there are no answers—we are always wrong to declare such. Things make perfect sense when you finally come to understand them.

With massively parallel processing and evolutionary programing to evolve ever better self-learning algorithms, we will make sense of sociology just as we’ve made sense of the periodic table of elements. Where we once thought there was Earth, Wind, Fire and Water we now have a much more complete view. And so it shall be with sociology as well.

Sunny2's avatar

Of course there are facts. What you observe is what you observe. It’s when you try to interpret those facts that the trouble starts. Even well-known social-anthropologists misinterpreted some of their observations of tribal behavior and were later corrected by members of the tribe who became educated enough to write about it. The structure of a society may be drawn up accurately. The what, where, and when may be facts; but the how and why questions may be built on non-facts such as imagination and supposition.

Keep_on_running's avatar

Some people don’t like the fact that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to sociology. In maths it’s comforting to know that 1 + 1 = 2. But the fact that you can’t apply those methods to human relationships can be unsettling, I guess. I know it’s something I struggle with.

Shippy's avatar

All I know is I hated statistics, because I hate maths. And in my little brain if you are mathematically calculating results they are close to fact? Sociology is a complex science, and a dynamic one, so yes the bell curves move. So they should.

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