Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

An Essay on the Intrinsic Relationship between Social Facts and Moral Questions

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

An Essay on the Intrinsic Relationship between Social Facts and Moral Questions

Article excerpt

THE QUESTION OF VALUE NEUTRALITY has been a contested issue since the early twentieth century. Its original formulation in 1917 is attributed to Max Weber, but there were other early proponents. The idea is that the social scientist should not allow an orientation toward values to influence their work. The problem is that the social facts that are typically the subject of such research are comprised in the first place through a mutual orientation toward values. Therefore, trying to do value-free research can obscure the actual nature of the social phenomena in question--a big distortion that keeps the research from being scientific. In other words, the way the question has generally been taken up, the possibility of value neutrality rests on a hypothetical separation between fact and value that has long been contested by social thinkers, including Weber himself. It was also an important issue for Durkheim, who argued that social facts not only depended on value orientations, but were also properly moral facts because without them and the cooperative work of making them, we would not be human; a consideration that he pointed out most philosophers and social thinkers had overlooked. Garfinkel's argument that social objects and identities depend on reciprocity conditions that are damaged by inequality is similar in drawing an intrinsic relationship not only between social facts and a value orientation in social practices--but arguing that there is a properly moral issue involved.

The idea of value neutrality was hotly contested by social thinkers throughout the 1920s and 1930s with Talcott Parsons (1937) championing the positions of both Durkheim and Weber against the idea. It was only with the advent of World War II that a preference for trying to achieve value neutrality finally gained ascendancy--bolstered by the belief that value neutral methods would more efficiently deliver "immediate" results to support the war effort. Whether the statistical and demographic studies that became predominant at that time were really practical or useful was of less importance to disciplinary leaders than the speed with which results could be delivered and their relevance to winning the war--that is, wartime research was expected to both address social questions that would help win the war and at the same time remain value neutral--a deep contradiction. Given this paradox, it is important to ask in what sense any of these studies could have been value neutral. They were often statistical and demographic. But, the idea that this gained value neutrality for them is a false belief. Statistics are no more value neutral than the social processes and value orientations that are used to create those statistics. The same is true of the "categories" that demographers count. These methods were preferred during the war precisely because they could be aimed at a "value": the political aim of winning the war.

And here we come to two connected misconceptions that have animated the discussion for a long time: first, the false belief that methods that rely on statistics have a greater potential to be value neutral or value free; and, second, that fact and value can be separated in doing social research. Making the argument about the possibility of value neutrality assumes that facts are natural objects that can exist apart from a relationship to society, culture, or social interaction. Believing that statistical and demographic methods have a greater potential to be value free assumes that the categories of person and action that statistics count, as well as the counting procedures themselves, are free from value-oriented social relationships: they are not.

Both assumptions are false. Even categories such as male/female and Black/White that are used to compile simple apparently straightforward demographic data are social categories with no natural or biological counterpart. They are social facts that are defined differently in different places and times. …

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