Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

From Sinks to Webs: Critical Social Science after the Fact-Value Distinction

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

From Sinks to Webs: Critical Social Science after the Fact-Value Distinction

Article excerpt

AXIOLOGICAL NEUTRALITY IS ONE OF THE CENTRAL principles of the modern scientific ethos. It is often premised on the so-called fact-value distinction which modern sociology has inherited from early modern philosophy. The central goal of this essay is to explain why the fact-value distinction does not hold water and to reflect on what this means for the scientific ethos. The essay has three parts. The first reviews and synthesizes various well-known criticisms of the fact-value distinction. The critique is two-pronged. It not only argues that facts are value-laden--a familiar point to many sociologists--but also that values are fact-laden--a point less commonly made outside philosophy. The second part explores the conditions of plausibility of the fact-value distinction, the "background picture" that makes it seem convincing and even commonsensical. Drawing on the work of Charles Taylor, I argue that this background picture is fundamentally implausible. The third part develops an alternative conceptualization and corresponding imagery. It replaces the terms "fact" and "value" with the concepts "descriptive" and "normative." And it argues that the descriptive and the normative are always complexly entangled. Rather than trying to keep the two apart, I argue, a critical social science should attend explicitly and systematically to their interrelationship. In conclusion, I propose that we not only go beyond the fact-value distinction, but that we abandon it altogether.


Imagine a large, double-sink such as you might find in the basement of a single-family home somewhere in North America. An impermeable wall separates the two sinks. Each sink is serviced by its own spigot. The right-hand spigot emits a red tinctured liquid called 'Values." The piping from this spigot seems to go down through the floor and into the ground to a deep-water well, labeled "emotion" (or is it "conviction?"). The left-hand spigot emits a blue tinctured liquid called "facts." The plumbing for this spigot seems to go out through the exterior wall to a surface-water source called "observation."

This is more or less how "logical positivists" and "logical empiricists" such as Hans Reichenbach and A.J. Ayer envisioned the relationship between facts and values (Ayer 2012; Reichenbach 1973). For them, facts and values were two completely different substances that came from two completely different sources. Facts derived from empirical observations of the external world. They could be ordered and parsed into theories and explanations using the methodological tools of science in tandem with the logical tools of philosophy. The purpose of philosophy was to be a sort of handyman for science, making sure that the tools were being properly used and in good working order. Values were quite a different matter. They were held to be fundamentally irrational and subjective. On this subject, philosophy had little to say. Strictly speaking, the idea of "moral philosophy" was a contradiction in terms. To say that "X is good," said the positivists, is tantamount to shouting "Hurray X!" To say that "X is bad," is equivalent to exclaiming "Boo X!" In other words, moral convictions are purely "subjective."

From the positivist perspective, achieving value-neutrality is easy if we follow a few simple rules: (1) When concocting a theory or explanation, use only the blue liquid; (2) when doing empirical research, make sure that no red liquid gets into the blue liquid; and (3) make sure that the wall between the sinks has no holes in it. For the positivist then, the problem of "objectivity" boils down to the problem of "bias"--keeping the red liquid from seeping into and coloring the blue liquid.

Max Weber would have been happy to endorse these rules. Though he conceded that social researchers could not adhere to them completely. The research process could and should be "value-free. …

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