Practice Question: How is objectivity different from value neutrality? Discuss with reference to Weber’s views on methodology. (10 Marks) (UPSC 2014)

Approach: Introduction; Give definitions for objectivity and value-neutrality, Compare them, Outline Weber’s contribution to Methodology in Sociology and analyse objectivity and value-neutrality in that context.



Max Weber conceives sociology as a comprehensive science of social action. He focuses on the subjective meanings that human actors attach to their actions and interactions within their specific social-historical contexts. Weber’s focus on the meanings ascribed by actors to their actions reflects his distinctive methodology. Weber challenges the notion that social sciences can be modelled on the lines of natural science. He thus charts out a special subject matter and special methods of inquiry for social sciences.



Weber points out that a natural scientist’s understanding of natural phenomena is from the outside. Let us take an example. When a chemist studies the properties of a particular substance, he does so from the outside. When a sociologist tries to understand human society and culture, he approaches it as an insider, or a participant. Being human, the social scientist has access to the motives and feelings of his/her subject matter. Social scientists can understand human action by probing the subjective meanings that actors attach to their own behaviour and the behaviour of others. Sociological understanding is thus qualitatively different from that of other sciences. Sociology, in Weber’s opinion, must use the method of
interpretative understanding or “verstehen” (which means ‘to understand’ in German).



The ideal type provides a basic method for comparative study. It refers to creating a kind of model which includes the most prominent characteristics
of the phenomena to be studied. In a way, it is an exaggerated picture of a particular reality. This ideal type can be used as a measuring rod with which the sociologist can compare existing reality.



Weber is also interested in providing causal explanations. But human society being so complex single or absolute causes to explain phenomena cannot be given, according to Weber. He thus speaks of a plurality of causes. Certain causes, however, can be identified as being more important than others. For instance, in his understanding of capitalism, Weber speaks of the importance of religious ethics. But he certainly does not say that religious values are the only causes behind the growth of modern capitalism. To show the importance of religious values in influencing the development of capitalism, Weber uses the method of historical comparison.



Science is often described as an ‘objective’ search for truth. It is supposed to be value-free, unbiased, impartial. You have seen how Durkheim advocates objective understanding of social facts and how he recommends that the sociologist free himself/herself from prejudice and pre-conceived notions. Is an ‘objective’, ‘value-free’ science, natural or social, really possible? According Weber, values play an important role in choosing a particular topic of study. But Weber makes a clear distinction between value-orientations and value judgments. The researcher or scientist may be guided to undertake a particular study because of certain value-orientations, but, according to Weber, he/she must not pass moral judgments about it. The researcher must observe ethical neutrality. 



The concept of value-neutrality was proposed by Max Weber. It refers to the duty and responsibility of the social researcher to overcome his personal biases while conducting any research. It aims to separate fact and emotion and stigmatize people less. It is not only important in sociology but outlines the basic ethics of many disciplines. A sociologist can become value-neutral by being aware of his own values, beliefs, or moral judgements. He should be able to identify the values he held and prevents them from influencing his research, its findings, or conclusions. Being a part of the society, it becomes difficult to not incorporate one’s personal values and moral judgments to the social phenomena. So, most sociologists warn readers to understand how particular social research to some extent might not be entirely value-neutral.  



Weber assigns to the sociologist the task of interpretative understanding of the motives of human actors. The humanness of the sociologist can prove an asset in understanding society and culture because the sociologist can examine phenomena from the inside. He/she can attempt causal explanations by using ideal types and historical comparison. But ethical neutrality must be maintained. In Marx, we find that the role of the social scientist is linked to the role of the political activist. By understanding the tensions and conflicts that mark society, the social scientist can anticipate and help to pave the way for an ideal society, free of contradictions and exploitation.

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