Augusto Comte – Methods of Inquiry

Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Se. M. Ed, Ph.D

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

Sociology as a social science has been trying to develop its own method of study. Sociology has to face greater problems in evolving a satisfactory method in the comparison with other social sciences. Man’ s social life is complex and multi-faceted. It is highly a challenging task for sociologists to collect, analyse, synthesis and finally generalise social data which are too numerous, complex and illusive.

Comte’s Formulation of Sociological Methods Comte was the first social thinker to take methodological questions seriously—that is, how are facts about the social world to be gathered and used to develop, as well as to test, theoretical principles.

The resources upon which sociology can draw when it sets itself the task of explaining the laws of progress and of social order are, first of all, the same that have been used so successfully in the natural sciences

He advocated four methods in the new science of social physics:

(1) Observation,

(2) Experimentation,

(3) Comparison, and

(4) Historical analysis.

Method of Observation

Observation methods are used to gather information about a social skills in natural settings,. Observation methods can be highly structured wherein defined behaviors are measured for frequency of occurrence or measured for occurrence during specified time periods or intervals. Observation methods often include focus on the environmental variables that may increase or decrease a child’s social skills, such as the reactions of peers and adults to initiating conversation. Observations also can be conducted in what is known as analogue assessment, which involves having a  role-play social scenarios and observing the  performance..

Observation does not mean the unguided quest for miscellaneous facts. “But for the guidance of a preparatory theory,” the observer would not know what facts to look at.” “No social fact can have any scientific meaning till it is connected with some other social fact” by a preliminary theory. Hence, observation can come into its own only when it is subordinated to the static and dynamic laws of phenomena. But within these limits it remains indispensable. For Comte, positivism was based on use of the senses to observe social facts —a term that the next great French theorist, Émile Durkheim, made the center of his sociology.

Much of Comte’s discussion of observation involves arguments for the “subordination of Observation to the static and dynamical laws of phenomena” rather than a statement on the procedures by which unbiased observations should be conducted. He argued that observation of empirical facts, when unguided by theory, will prove useless in the development of science. He must be given credit, however, for firmly establishing sociology as a science of social facts, thereby liberating thought from the debilitating realm of morals and metaphysical speculation.

Method of Experimentation,

The second scientific method of investigation, experimentation, is only partly applicable in the social sciences. Direct experimentation is not feasible in the human world. But “experimentation takes place whenever the regular course of the phenomenon is interfered with in any determinate manner. . . . Pathological cases are the true scientific equivalent of pure experimentation.” Disturbances in the social body are “analogous to diseases in the individual organism,” and so the study of the pathological gives, as it were, privileged access to an understanding of the normal. Comte recognized that artificial experimentation with whole societies, and other social phenomena, was impractical and often impossible. But, he noted, natural experimentation frequently “takes place whenever the regular course of the phenomenon is interfered with in any determinate manner.” In particular, he thought that, much as is the case in biology, pathological events allowed “the true equivalent of pure experimentation” in that they introduced an artificial condition and allowed investigators to see normal processes reassert themselves in the face of the pathological condition. Much as the biologist can learn about normal bodily functioning from the study of disease, so also social physicists can learn about the normal processes of society from the study

of pathological cases. Thus, although Comte’s view of “natural experimentation” was certainly deficient in the logic of the experimental method, it nonetheless fascinated subsequent generations of scholars.

In experimental method, the researcher manipulates or varies an independent variable and measures its effects on one or more dependent variables. In a true experimental design, the researcher randomly assigns the participants who are being studied (also called the subjects) to two or more comparison groups.

Method of Comparison

Sociologists have embraced what is known as the comparative method as the most efficient way to expose taken-for-granted ‘truths’ or laws that people have adopted. Comte used it to try to show that different societies were developing along similar lines . The comparative method, simply put, is the process of comparing two things (in our case societies, or the people that make up society) and seeing if the result of the comparison shows a difference between the two.

The comparative method attempts to clarify (the process of exposing misinterpreted norms. This a methods of comparing different societies or groups within the same society to show weather and why they are similar or different in certain respects”. To tackle the problems of society effectively and to make fruitful discoveries, sociology has to employ precise and well tested methods of investigation.

The scientific method of inquiry of central importance to the sociologist is comparison, above all, because it “performs the great service of casting out the . . . spirit [of absolutism].” Comparisons of human with animal societies will give up precious clues to “the first germs of the social relations” and to the borderlines between the human and the animal. Yet comparisons within the human species are even more central to sociology. The chief method here “consists in a comparison of the different co-existing states of human society on the various parts of the earth’s surface–these states being completely independent of each other. By this method, the different stages of evolution may all be observed at once.” Though the human race as a whole has progressed in a single and uniform manner, various populations “have attained extremely unequal degrees of development”,  from  causes still little understood. Hence, certain phases of development “of which the history of [Western] civilization leaves no perceptible traces, can be known only by this comparative method,” that is, by the comparative study of primitive societies. Moreover, the comparative method is of the essence when we wish to study the influence of race or climate on human affairs. It is indispensable, for example, to combat fallacious doctrines, “as when social differences have been ascribed to the political influence of climate, instead of that inequality of evolution which is the real cause.”

Just as comparative analysis had been useful in biology, comparison of social forms with those of lower animals, with coexisting states, and with past systems could also generate considerable insight into the operation of the social universe. By comparing elements that are present and absent, and similar or dissimilar, knowledge about the fundamental properties of the social world can be achieved

Method of Historical Analysis.

Although all three conventional methods of science must be used in sociology, it relies above all on a fourth one, the historical method. “The historical comparison of the consecutive states of humanity is not only the chief scientific device of the new political philosophy. . . it constitutes the substratum of the science, in whatever is essential to it.”

Historical comparisons throughout the time in which humanity has evolved are at the very core of sociological inquiry. Sociology is nothing if it is not informed by a sense of historical evolution. A study of events, processes and institutions of past civilizations, for the purpose of finding the origins of antecedents of contemporary social life and thus understanding its nature and working”. Historical method in sociology is a particular kind of comperative study of social groups; their compositions, their interrelationships and the social conditions which support or undermine them.

Comte originally classified historical analysis as a variation of the comparative method (i.e., comparing the present with the past). But his “law of the three stages” emphasized that the laws of social dynamics could ultimately be developed only with careful observations of the historical movement of societies.

In sum, then, Comte saw these four basic methods as appropriate to sociological analysis. His formulation of the methods is quite deficient by modern standards, but we should recognize that before Comte, little attention had been paid to how social facts were to be collected.

Thus, although the specifics of Comte’s methodological proposals are not always useful, their spirit and intent are important. Social physics was, in his vision, to be a theoretical science capable of formulating and testing the laws of social organization and change. His formulation of sociology’s methods added increased credibility to this claim.

In short Comte believed that sociology could be modeled after the natural sciences. Sociology could seek and discover the fundamental properties and relations of the social universe, and like the other sciences, it could express these in a small number of abstract principles. Observations of empirical events could be used to generate, confirm, and modify sociology’s laws. Once well-developed laws had been formulated, they could be used as tools or instruments to modify the social world.



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