Science in Christian Perspective



Sociology: A Defense

From: JASA 14 (December 1962): 118-119.

The degree to which a science can be truly "scientific" is largely dependent upon the cultural background of the scientists and their audience. When analysis is motivated by the vested interest of either of these groups, there is a tendency to subjectivity and the formation of value judgments.

Early American sociologists were largely of midwestern religious stock with strong ethnocentrism and an emphasis on moral principles and the use of sociology for the advancement of social movements. The introduction of Max Weber's works was highly influential in stressing a science which was free of value judgments. A period followed in which it was felt that all social phenomena could be quantified and analyzed by means of precise methodological tools. Although "super-empiricism" is no longer in vogue and a middle of the road approach is being achieved, an audience for sociological insights has been created. The danger in the field is that needs of the new clients of industry, government, and other influential power groups will once again direct studies in paths which are subjectively oriented.

The question being raised here deals with the extent to which contemporary sociology provides a methodological ground to which the Christian may fruitfully apply himself. Is it possible for him to develop data which have broad moral implications and are not merely isolated social quantities without value? At the other extreme, can he ignore the general values prevalent among his colleagues and the values held by the broad range of clients interested in sociological data today? The main orientation in this column, therefore, will deal with methodology, since a science can only be as objective as the tools with which it must work.

A word of caution, however, would limit the field under observation. The Christian must be concerned with tools which are theory oriented. He deals with a model which is often quite different from that which is in common focus. His referents must be constantly conceptualized to test their "fit" into the model. The bulk of sociological methodology today is non-theory oriented, consisting primarily of technical skills in interviewing, scale For the purpose being considered

Functional Analysis

Perhaps it would be more precise to say that we are concerned with methods of analysis in sociology. This term implies dividing the subject matter into parts which have a particular relationship to one another rather than the empirical data-gathering implied in the term methodology. The formation of a system has helped to develop the necessary concepts and models which are directing the field at present.

Identified with sociological analysis is the functional viewpoint.1 The purpose of functionalism is the same as that of any science; to describe a system and its parts. Both the strength and inherent weakness of this approach is the attempt to consider the requirements to be met by the functioning part. The extent to which such requirements may be stated is a question much discussed by sociologists. The significant point is that such an attempt stresses the possible efficiency of a system, regardless of moral questions.

Such a view is important for contemporary religion, which must go beyond mere moralizing. Too much of modern theology is centered in society and man and not in God. In many areas, there continues the earlier belief that the perfection of social conditions is the ultimate object of religion. In contrast, the Christian anthropologist has shown that the missionary cannot be primarily concerned with his own interpretation of morality on the mission field.2 The question is whether that which is being dealt with is an ultimate or relative value. Functional analysis allows for the separation of these two concepts into their respective places and the relationship they bear to the total.

On the other hand, the question is also whether the influence of God can be of any effect in such a system which is, ultimately, non-moralistic.3 Essentially, it is a teleological question. Functional analysis could elucidate the consequence of some action beyond that which was immediately intended. The consequence would be referred to as a latent function or dysfunction and classified as the product of the working of unforeseeable social forces. Assuming then that some action is intended to have consequences which are non-moral, it is possible for moral consequences to result latently. The Christian would hold that such data are consistent with his model of a system controlled by God who imposes Himself into the system and modifies it according to His will. Although the secular analyst would explain latency as non-teleological, the Christian model can provide an ultimate purpose, thereby freeing it of any need to be moralistic in the immediate consequences. Theories of the Middle Range

Such theories in contemporary sociology are an attempt to deal with problems on a level of abstraction which is not so broad as to be incapable of conceptualization and yet not so concrete as to lose theoretical relevance .4 The area encompassed by such theories includes a common meeting ground on which ideologies which are often divergent, such as Christianity and sociology, may meet with a minimum of hair-splitting over isolated cases and a maximum of communication. Such results are often difficult to achieve on the broad level of "general theory," which is usually little more than subjective philosophizing.

Perhaps the best synthesizing agent for a brief discussion here is what the Christian refers to as sin. There is little doubt that a social scientist would agree that the effects of what would be called sin are quite apparent in our society. There are strong moral implications here as well as statistical data on crime which would substantiate this agreement. Hence, the social consequences of sin would be generally accepted.

The point of disagreement would be centered in the origins of sin. While the social scientist would refer it back to social disorganization, the Christian must see it in terms of human depravity. As stated in the previous article of this series, the encouraging thing for the Christian is that his defense becomes stronger as the socially deterministic image of man becomes more untenable. The problem of origin results in the problem of meaning. What is sin, and how is it to be conceptualized? The Christian cannot reconceptualize sin. As a sociologist, however, it is possible for him to seek the data which would refine the meanings of individual responsibility and authority, thereby lending credence to the Christian definition.

On the other hand, the Christian must be able to understand the meaning of sin sufficiently well to allow him to apply it to our society. The requirement of middle-range theory is to find those indicators which will identify the absoluteness of sin and its consequences in our relative society. It is this level of finding common indices of concrete phenomena and their abstractions which is most profitable for the development of a clear understanding of the relationship between them and the supporting ideologies.

"Verstellen" Analysis

The nature of sociological analysis permits the use of a method which would be less appropriate when dealing with non-human referents in a more mature discipline. The analytical procedure of "Verstehen" refers to the subjective perception of the meaning of human action and is claimed by many as a legitimate source of sociological knowledge.5 Indeed, the initial support given to the concept by Max Weber was sufficient to make it acceptable in the field.

The concept is based on the assumption that if empirical thought is based on observation, then actual experience of the social phenomena by the individual would provide empirical knowledge of its existence. Although "Verstellen" is not a method of verification, it provides the basis for the belief that the stated explanation of the phenomena is a possible one, though not necessarily the true causal one. Simply, "Verstellen" allows the Christian to claim validity for his religious experience; he has experienced it. It must then be given consideration as a possible means of explaining social phenomena.

At this point of sociological development, there is little more that could be done. Even the most sophisticated theoretical models cannot be proven with adequate reliability. The lack of appropriate tools makes the testing of such hypotheses as may be derived by "Verstellen" unlikely. At present, then, it seems that the Christian has as much to contribute to sociology as the atheist. The question is how he will fare when theoretical systems can be tested and discarded or modified until the valid one is found. The challenge will be there and it will be met if Christian sociology is no longer on the defensive.


1Kingsley, Davis, "The Myth of Functional Analysis as a Special Method in Sociology and Anthropology," American Sociological Review, Vol. 24, December 1959.

2For a particularly lucid description of this topic, see David Moberg, "Cultural Relativity and Christian Faith," journal of the American Scientific Aßiliation, Vol. 14, June 1962.

3For an excellent defense of the ultimate and moral bases of values in the Christian frame, see William Kolb, "Values, Positivism, and the Functional Theory of Religion," Social Forces, Vol. 31, May 1953.

4Robert K. Merton, Social Tbeory and Social Structure (Glencoe: The Free Press, 1949), pp. 5-10.

5The best secondary sources for study of the concept are Theodore Abel, "The Operation Called 'Verstchen,'" American journal of Sociology, Vol. 54, 1948, and Peter Munch, "Empirical Science and Max Weber's 'Verstehende Soziologie,'" American Sociological Review, Vol. 22, 1957.