Value-Free Social Science

In my discussion of objectivity and value-freedom in Social Theory as Science (co-authored with John Urry; Routledge 1975/1982) a broadly Weberian position was defended: scientific claims can and should be assessed independently of political or moral values, which cannot themselves be established by scientific reasoning alone. Value-judgments may properly determine the nature and significance of the questions asked by social scientists, but not the adequacy of their answers.

This position was developed in several later publications, including The Politics of Social Theory: Habermas, Freud and the Critique of Positivism (Blackwell/Chicago University Press 1981), in which I argued there is no need for socialists, or other radical social critics, to reject the ideal of value-freedom, and/or to develop some epistemologically distinctive form of critical social theory. Nor does value-freedom entail 'positivism', in any of its various senses, including the view that only science counts as genuine knowledge. In a later paper, this conception of value-freedom was applied to debates about the relationship between explaining and evaluating scientific beliefs.

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Values, Theory and Reality 1975
In this extract from Social Theory as Science, the core elements in Max Weber’s conception of value-free social science are defined and defended, including the logical independence of explanatory claims from political or moral judgments. It is argued that this independence from normative judgments also implies independence from judgments about the truth or rationality of people’s beliefs, and certain arguments for relativism about reality and reason are considered and rejected.

Scientific Socialism, a Positivist Delusion? 1979
This paper forms part of an exchange with Roy Edgley, in Radical Philosophy, about the relationship between social science, social criticism and socialism. It argues that even if social science is, in principle at least, inherently critical of social reality, what such criticism could reveal falls well short of justifying specifically socialist commitments, and it rejects the view that a Weberian separation of social science from political values implies an exclusively reformist conception of politics.

The Critique of Positivism 1980
This paper argues that the critique of positivism developed by the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School rests on the conflation of several distinct elements under the heading of ‘positivism’. These include the ideal of a scientific politics; value-freedom, or the separation of science from values; and scientism, the view that only science provides genuine knowledge. It argues that value-freedom neither entails nor requires scientism; once this is recognised, the separation of science from values provides a basis for rejecting, rather than supporting, the scientisation of politics.

Value-Freedom and Socialist Theory 1981
This extract from The Politics of Social Theory develops the conception of value-freedom presented in Social Theory as Science and defends it against various objections. In doing so it draws on Ernest Nagel’s distinction between ‘characterising’ and ‘appraising’ judgments to show how social phenomena can be characterised in normatively relevant ways without any loss of objectivity. It then uses this position to explore the relationship between social science and socialist politics.

Relativism, Value Freedom and the Sociology of Science 1989
This paper applies the conception of value-freedom developed in earlier publications to debates about the ‘strong programme’ in the sociology of science. It argues that supporters of the programme are right to regard the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ science as irrelevant to its sociological explanation; that both they and their critics are wrong to regard such explanation as either assuming or entailing epistemological relativism, and that the explanatory concerns of the sociology of science should not displace the evaluative concerns of the philosophy of science.