value freedom and value neutrality

value freedom and value neutrality

  1. the view that sociology can, and should, conduct research according to the dictates of 'science’, excluding any influence of the researcher's own values (see VALUES sense 1).
  2. the doctrine, particularly associated with Max WEBER (1949) – sometimes expressed as value neutrality - that sociologists, if they cannot ever hope to exclude all biases introduced into their work by their own values, can at least make clear what these values are and how they affect their work.
  3. the doctrine of value freedom or value neutrality or (sometimes) ethical neutrality that, while social science may establish the ‘facts’ about social reality, it cannot, in doing so, settle questions of ultimate VALUES 1 , since a logical gap always exists between empirical evidence and moral actions, between facts and values (see FACT-VALUE DISTINCTION).
  4. the doctrine, also particularly associated with Weber (and related to his acceptance of value freedom/value neutrality in senses 2 and 3) that the sociologist qua sociologist should not seek to pronounce on ultimate values, and especially should not seek to use his or her professional position as a teacher of students to seek to advance particular value positions.
The four senses of value freedom/value neutrality each raise problems. The problem with 1 is that it is difficult to exclude or even control all influence of the researcher's values on the choice and execution of social research, hence Weber's position, sense 2 . Furthermore, it is not apparent that sociological research which starts from the researcher's values must inevitably lose in VALIDITY and OBJECTIVITY – if this were so then almost all the work of the major classical sociologists, including positivistically inclined sociologists such as DURKHEIM, would be fatally flawed. Moreover, the idea also seems out of gear with what we know about SCIENCE in general, i.e. it can never operate in a presuppositionless way (see also OBJECTIVITY, THEORY-RELATIVITY).

The alternative to sense 1 provided by Weber's conception of VALUE RELEVANCE, is that sociologists will inevitably be guided by a concern for values, but that so long as this is made clear it need not compromise the achievement of objectivity within the chosen frame of reference. However, the problem with this view, especially when made in conjunction with senses 3 and 4 , is that it would appear to support a view of the arbitrariness and ultimate ‘irrationalism’ of values. For many sociologists, including Durkheim and MARX, such a view is simply unacceptable, and a more general scientific basis for values remains a goal (see also VALUE JUDGEMENT).

A more specific objection to Weber's doctrine of‘value freedom’ in sense 3 is advanced by BECKER (1967; 1970) and GOULDNER (1956; 1973), and is that any acceptance of this doctrine enables sociologists, if they wish to, simply to undertake research for the rich and powerful who can afford to commission research or can readily set the agenda of'social problems’ seen as requiring attention (see HIERARCHY OF CREDIBILITY). See also ETHICAL INDIFFERENCE, RELATIVISM.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000