School of
Social Sciences
___Introduction to Sociology
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Max Weber - Natural Science,
Social Science and Value Relevance

 


The Person The Years of Mastery 
Introduction An Exemplary Moralist
The Early Academic Career  
   
The Work  
Introduction The Function of Ideas
Natural Science, Social Science, and Value Relevance Class, Status and Power
The Ideal Type Bureaucracy
Causality and Probability Rationalization and Disenchantment
Types of Authority  

Weber rejected both the positivist contention that the cognitive aims of the natural and the social sciences were basically the same and the opposing German historicist doctrine that in the realm of Kultur and Geist (that is, in the domain of history) it is impossible to make legitimate generalizations because human actions are not subject to the regularities that govern the world of nature. Against the historicists Weber argued that the method of science, whether its subject matter be things or men, always proceeds by abstraction and generalization. Against the positivists, he took the stand that man, in contrast to things, could be understood not only in external manifestations, that is, in behavior, but also in the underlying motivations. And against both these approaches Weber emphasized the value-bound problem choices of the investigator and the value-neutral methods of social research.

According to Weber, differences between the natural sciences and the social sciences arise from differences in the cognitive intentions of the investigator, not from the alleged inapplicability of scientific and generalizing methods to the subject matter of human action. What distinguishes the natural and social sciences is not an inherent difference in methods of investigation, but rather the differing interests and aims of the scientist. Both types of science involve abstraction. The richness of the world of facts, both in nature and in history, is such that a total explanation in either realm is doomed to fail. Even in physics it is impossible to predict future events in all their concrete detail. No one, for example, can calculate in advance the dispersion of the fragments of an exploding shell. Prediction becomes possible only within a system of conceptualizations that excludes concern for those concrete facts not caught in the net of abstractions. Both the natural and the social sciences must abstract from the manifold aspects of reality; they always involve selection.

The natural scientist is primarily interested in those aspects of natural events that can be formulated in terms of abstract laws. While the social scientist may wish to search for such lawful abstract generalizations in human behavior, he is also interested in particular qualities of human actors and in the meaning they ascribe to their actions. Any scientific method must make a selection from the infinite variety of empirical reality. When the social scientist adopts a generalizing method, he abstracts from random unique aspects of the reality he considers; concrete individual actions are conceived as "cases" or "instances," which are subsumed under theoretical generalizations. The individualizing approach, in contrast, neglects generic elements and concentrates attention on particular features of phenomena or concrete historical actors. Both methods are defensible, provided neither is alleged to encompass phenomena in their totality. Neither method is privileged or inherently superior to the other.

What particular problem attracts a scholar, and what level of explanation is sought, depends, Weber argues, on the values and interests of the investigator. The choice of problems is always "value relevant." "There is no absolutely 'objective' scientific analysis of culture or . . . of 'social phenomena' independent of special and 'one-sided' viewpoints according to which-- expressly or tacitly, consciously or unconsciously--they are selected, analyzed and organized for expository purposes." What is considered "worthy to be known" depends upon the perspective of the inquiring scholar. Hence there is no insurmountable chasm between the procedures of the natural and the social scientist, but they differ in their cognitive intentions and explanatory projects.

When the objection is raised that rational knowledge of causal sequences may be attained in the world of nature, but that the human world in not susceptible to rational explanation because of its unpredictability and irrationality, Weber counters by turning the tables. Our knowledge of nature must always be, as it were, from the outside. We can only observe external courses of events and record their uniformities. But in regard to human action, we can do more than write protocols of recurrent sequences of events; we can attempt to impute motives by interpreting men's actions and words. With this method, he of course opposes the positivists as well. "Social facts are in the last resort intelligible facts." We can understand (verstehen) human action by penetrating to the subjective meanings that actors attach to their own behavior and to the behavior of others. A sociology of the chicken yard can only account for regularities of behavior--in other words, for a pecking order. A sociology of human groups has the inestimable advantage of access to the subjective aspects of action, to the realm of meaning and motivation. Hence Weber's definition of sociology as "that science which aims at the interpretative understanding (Verstehen) of social behavior in order to gain an explanation of its causes, its course, and it effects."

The notion of interpretative understanding did not originate with Weber. It was first advanced by the historian Droysen and was used extensively by such scholars as Dilthey. But for them the method was meant to extol intuition over rational-causal explanation. Weber, in contrast, saw in it only a preliminary step in the establishment of causal relationships. The grasping of subjective meaning of an activity, Weber argued, is facilitated through empathy (Einfuehlung) and a reliving (Nacherbleben) of the experience to be analyzed. But any interpretative explanation (verstehende Erklaerung) must become a causal explanation if it is to reach the dignity of a scientific proposition. Verstehen and causal explanation are correlative rather than opposed principles of method in the social sciences. Immediate intuitions of meaning can be transformed into valid knowledge only if they can be incorporated into theoretical structures that aim at causal explanation.

Against the objection that this manner of interpretation is subject to the danger of contamination from the values held by the scientific investigator, Weber countered that interpretations can be submitted to the test of evidence. This, he argued, is to be distinguished from the fact that the choice of subject matter--as distinct from the choice of interpretation--stems from the investigator's value orientation, which may be the case with the natural scientist as well.

Weber insisted that a value element inevitable entered into the selection of the problem an investigator chooses to attack. There are no intrinsically scientific criteria for the selection of topics; here every man must follow his own demon, his own moral stance, but this in no way invalidates the objectivity of the social sciences. The question of whether a statement is true of false is logically distinct from that of its relevance to values. Wertbeziehung (value relevance) touches upon the selection of the problem, not upon the interpretation of phenomena. As Parsons put it, "Once a phenomenon is descriptively given, the establishment of causal relations between it and either its antecedents or its consequences is possible only through the application, explicitly or implicitly, of a formal schema of proof that is independent of any value system, except the value of scientific proof." Hence, the relativity of value orientations leading to different cognitive choices has nothing to do with questions of scientific validity. What are relativized in this view are not the findings but the problems.

Value relevance must be distinguished from value-neutrality, since they refer to two different orders of ideas. In the first place, ethical neutrality implies that once the social scientist had chosen his problem in terms of its relevance to his values, he must hold values--his own or those of others--in abeyance while he follows the guidelines his data reveal. He cannot impose his values on the data and he is compelled to pursue his line of inquiry whether or not the results turn out to be inimical to what he holds dear. A geneticist of liberal persuasion, for example, should not abandon his line of inquiry if his findings suggest that differences in intelligence are associated with biological traits. Value neutrality, in this first meaning of the term, refers to the normative injunction that men of science should be governed by the ethos of science in their role as scientists, but emphatically not in their role as citizens.

In addition, value neutrality refers no less importantly to another order of considerations; the disjunction between the world of facts and the world of values, the impossibility of deriving "ought statements" from "is statements." An empirical science, Weber contended, can never advise anyone what he should do, though it may help him to clarify for himself what he can or wants to do.

The scientific treatment of value judgments may not only understand and empatically analyze the desired ends and the ideals which underline them; it can also "judge" them critically. This criticism can. . . be no more than a formal logical judgment of historically given value judgments and ideas, a testing of the ideals according to the postulate of the internal consistency of the desired end. . . . It can assist [the acting person] in becoming aware of the ultimate standards of value which he does not make explicit to himself, or which he must presuppose in order to be logical. . . . As to whether the person expressing these value judgments should adhere to these ultimate standards is his personal affair; it involves will and conscience, not empirical knowledge.
Weber was fundamentally at odds with those who argued for a morality based on science. In this respect he was as opposed to Durkheim as he would be to those psychoanalysts today who claim they have a scientific warranty to counsel "adjustment" or "self-actualization," as the case may be, to their patients.

The scientist qua scientist can evaluate the probable consequences of courses of action, Weber believed, but he cannot make value judgments. Weber had an austere view of science. "Science today," he wrote, "is a 'vocation' organized in special disciplines in the service of self-clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts. It is not the gift of grace of seers and prophets dispensing sacred values and revelations, nor does it partake of the contemplation of sages and philosophers about the meaning of the universe." The realm of moral values, Weber believed, was a realm of warring gods demanding allegiance to contradictory ethical notions. The scientist qua scientist, therefore, could have no answer to the Tolstoian question, "What shall we do?" "Academic prophecy . . . will create only fanatical sects," Weber believed, "but never a genuine community." The scientist should not hanker after leadership over men; he finds dignity and fulfillment in the quest for truth. When Weber was once asked why he undertook his wide-ranging studies, he replied: "I wish to know how much I can take."

From Coser, 1977:219-222.

  

Websites On Weber Work By Weber
Max Weber Class Notes (External Link) Bureaucracy
  Fundamental Concepts in Sociology (External Link)
  The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
   



These pages were originally written by: Angus Bancroft and Sioned Rogers
Redesigned and updated by: Pierre Stapley - 2010