The Mirage of Value-free Social Science

Fred Block|Research professor of sociology at U.C. Davis.

Advocates of value-free science insist that researchers need to put aside all of their own preferences and prejudices and simply look at the facts to develop explanations of how the social world works. But this is a mirage.

What is wrong with “value-free” social science?

The Center for Engaged Scholarship intends to challenge the widely held view that social science should be “value-free”. Advocates of value-free science insist that researchers need to put aside all of their own preferences and prejudices and simply look at the facts to develop explanations of how the social world works. But this is a mirage. First, we cannot put aside all of our own preferences and prejudices no matter how hard we try; we are creatures of a particular culture that shapes our beliefs in ways that are often beyond our awareness. Second, facts never speak for themselves; they make sense only within particular theoretical frameworks that lead us to look at certain patterns. Third, our choice of a theoretical framework with which to look at the world is itself a political choice; different frameworks have different political implications.

However, the mirage of value-free social science does serve a particular function; it makes social science far less threatening to those with power and wealth. Work that claims to be value-free usually takes the existing structure of society as a given and avoids asking uncomfortable questions about why some go hungry while others amass billions of dollars. Moreover, the injunction to be value free discourages scholars from advocating reforms of our institutions that might make society more just or more democratic.

But saying that value-free social science is impossible does not mean that one social science study is just as good as the next. On the contrary, there is excellent work and bad work, but the difference is not determined by the so-called objectivity of the inquiry. It is rather a consequence of the intellectual rigor of the project that involves multiple elements. Was the researcher intellectually honest? How careful was he or she in collecting the data? How persuasive is the theoretical framework? How well do the data and the theory fit together? It is these and other questions that shape the different views within academic communities of which work is to be valued and respected. 

We think that engaged social scientists often produce the most valuable studies. Engaged scholars are the ones who are most likely to ask the big and important questions—what kind of society do we live in and where is it headed. And because the research is motivated by value commitments such as a belief in justice or equality, they are able to recognize critical weaknesses in existing institutions. Finally, they are willing to use the tools of social science to imagine how society could be reformed and reshaped. It is for these reasons that we seek to support engaged scholarship that advances equality, democracy, and environmental sustainability. 

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