Value free science

Over the last few days while I have been snatching odd moments to reacquaint myself with my earlier PhD work and that of Norbert Elias (in the midst of marking MA essays), I have been reminded about what it was about sociology that gripped my back then, what I found important and exciting, and what it is I thought sociology is and can do. What sort of enterprise is it? What sort of knowledge does it provide us with? What does it mean for sociology to be empirical, for instance? Elias’s work must be one of the best places to start.

These questions are imply many others. For instance, is sociology a science? (My answer then and now is yes but we need to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of what science is to argue the case). Does it make sense to make the old distinction between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ with the role of science (and therefore of a scientific sociology) ‘simply’ to tell us how things are (however uncomfortable or disappointing this turns out to be) and the separate role of ‘politics’ and civil society to make value judgments about what sort of society we should ideally strive for? If so then presumably it would be a contradiction to speak of the possibility of an emancipatory or critical science. If science’s role is to describe the natural and social world as it is and explain the processes and mechanisms that account for the way it ‘is’ and then hand this knowledge over to government and industry to make of it what they will and use it in any way that it, potentially, can be, then science is available for emancipatory or repressive programmes alike. If this is what they believe then this is something that scientists must consciously accept or repress in some way. There would be an interesting sociological project to investigate the personal and institutional ways that this conclusion is justified and/or repressed – science washing its hand of responsibility. This conclusion is the one of course that underpins the old use/abuse model of science.

The above argument about the separation of the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ and the possibility of science institutions, processes and knowledge being confined and limited to the realm of the ‘is’ falls apart as soon as it is conceded that the sort of value freedom this depends upon is not possible and that the ‘ought’ is not applied to scientific knowledge externally and after the event, but internally and constitutive of scientific knowledge itself. The distinction breaksdown when it is shown that values have an internal constitutive function in the development of scientific knowledge. These values are in turn partially constitutive of the reality that the knowledge constitutes practically on the basis of theory. Scientific knowledge constitutes reality materially through the application of theoretically informed material interventions. This entails the radical conclusion that heteronomous valuations to some extent construct the material reality partly constituted through scientised technological interventions in non-human nature. This is why I think it does make sense to talk about the possibility of an emancipatory or critical science. Different values internal to science would produce different sorts of science. This goes for the natural and social sciences both.

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