Science in Christian Perspective



Sociology and Ethical Seriousness

Department of Sociology
University of Nebraska-Omaha
Omaha, NE 68182

From: JASA 36 (June 1984): 67-73.

Although Sociology is often understood as inimical to ethical seriousness, the current rethinking of the relationships of models of science makes it clear that both the logic of the research act, and the actual behaviors of scientists point not to ethical paralysis but to the possibilities of its vigorous applications.

Does the science of Sociology entail an end to the possibility of ethical seriousness? That question lies at the heart of misunderstandings of the discipline which are encountered in non-sociologists. In some measure, it may also be a question endemic to the discipline, and all the more so because it seldom is raised explicitly.

Perhaps it is encountered as a passing comment in a comic strip: "Funky Winkerbean," presented a Student Curriculum Guide which described Sociology as "(Learning) why our society is doomed and how, with some smart investing, you can really take advantage of it." (1 Feb 82) A journalistic review of a film may include the passing comment that the film addresses itself, "without sermon or sociology, to an inescapable human issue." (Schickel, 1981). At a more academic level, it is not uncommon to find current inquiries into ethical problems dealing directly with the relationship of Sociology and ethics (Ossowska, 1970; Roubiczek, 1969).

The question comes to a focus on the two issues of determinism and relativism, and the opening sentence of this essay could be restated, Does the science of Sociology entail relativism and/or determinism? While the two issues are closely related, they are not identical. It is possible to affirm one, or both, and to deny one, or both. Acceptance of the second-Sociology is deterministic-could lead to an end of ethical concerns, since determinism can imply no sense of .1 oughtness;- it can only describe "isness." Affirmation of the   first-Sociology entails relativism-could trivialize ethical interest by introducing a radical relativism into ethical issues. In turn, this could eventuate in reducing ethical decision making to the single question of power exercised in the interests of self.

For purposes of discussion, it is useful to treat the two issues of relativism and determinism as orthogonal. Figure 1 depicts this schema.

Examination of Figure 1 indicates that the question proposed in this essay is two-dimensional. On the one hand, it asks, Does the science of Sociology require a deterministic understanding of social phenomena, "require" in the double sense that it is an a priori axiom for scientific research and also the outcome of knowledge gained through such research? The question also asks, Does the science of Sociology eventuate in knowledge that requires the student to accept an ethic that is relativistic, contingent both in time and cultural locus? (Roubiczek, 1969:45: Berger, 1963:48+)

Area A, for example, represents an affirmative response to both tails of the question: Sociology is deterministic and relativistic. Should that indeed be the case, there would be no ethical question remaining. Human behavior, as the outcome of variables that are, in theory at least, capable of identification would be seen as the product of varying combinations of these variables: hence, cultural relativity would be a natural


                                                   (C)                     |              (A)
                                                   (D)                     |               (B)

                        Figure 1. Relativism and Determinism Are Orthogonal to One Another.

concomitant of these differing combinations. In all cases, wherever Sociology would be located on this area, ethical discussion could be preserved only in the sense that some alteration of the conditional combinations would result in different (and more desirable?) behaviors. In some sense, however, this kind of argument would covertly imply that behavior may not be fully deterministic, thus violating the previous assumptions. We will return to this possible dilemma later.

In Area B, Sociology is non-deterministic in its implications, but it is relativistic. This response would allow for human volition in behavior, preserving a possibility of ethical seriousness. It would see intercultural variation as an outcome of differing societal histories. It could also be understood as indicating cultural configurations as self-authenticating, and as representing nothing more than the range of responses natural to the human repertoire. In that case, ethics would be limited to each social locale, and translations or comparisons ruled out. Since Area B is the locus of the conclusion to be argued in this essay, its ethical implications will be passed over at this point, though they will be resumed in another place.

Area C, Sociology is both deterministic and absolutist in its implications, would seem to require further specification. The deterministic level of its claim would presumably invoke some biologistic rationale. Somewhat in the manner of Sociobiology, behaviors would be linked isomorphically to antecedent conditions of a 'racial' or environmental kind, or some combination of these. Ethics, as an epiphenomenon of behavior, could continue as a kind of descriptive activity. It would obviously have none of its traditional prescriptive functions.

Finally, Area D would depict the alternative, Sociology is absolute but non-determinist in its implications. While this claim would serve to preserve both voluntarism and some sense of 'truth as unitary,' it also would require one to show how sociological study could result in some kind of final understanding of the humail condition. This transcending of relativism would also entail delineation of some desired end-state, towards which any given set of conditions could be directed. It is a problem both of religious and humanist thought that specification of this end-state, apart from some level of faith commitment, eludes formulation.

It should be obvious that Areas A and C are inimical to ethical seriousness. If Sociology entails determinism, that is, a closed system of cause and effect in which every phenomenon is sufficiently 'explained' by its antecedents, ethics ceases to exist. The "ought" which forms its basis is replaced by the descriptive "is." Parenthetically, we may add at this point that the foregoing is not an argument against the conclusion Sociology entails determinism. It is merely a statement of its implication. An important part of this paper will be to indicate why determinism is suspect, that it contains a self-contradiction in its logic, and that it involves as well a behavioral contradiction.

Why is Sociology Seen as Deterministic?

Sociology does not entail determinism. That is not the impression one gains from reading the literature of the discipline, nor from listening to the views non-sociologically trained people express. On the contrary, without seriously overstating the point, it can be argued that either Areas A or C would be chosen both by professionals and non-professionals as the modal response. Indeed, the 'classical' sociologists are largely to be grouped in one (or both?) cells.

Auguste Comte, traditionally named as founder of the discipline of Sociology, can be taken as representative of many others in this regard. His hierarchy of the sciences and his "law of the three stages," were for him as immutable as the law of gravity. Advocating the need for a social physics, Comte ordered scientific knowledge in a sequence: Mathematics, Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Physiology and (his proposed) Social Physics (one-half of the discipline of Sociology; the other was Social Statics). The order was deterministic; one science's appearance was in Comte's view contingent on the development of its immediate predecessor. Ethics was located as a sub-area of Sociology (Comte, 1896; Fagotbey, 1972:75). The 'Law of the three stages' was proposed to be a closed system, a description of the inevitable development both of human understanding and of the social order. The point at issue is not how successfully Comte argued his case, but of recognizing his own understanding of what he was doing, The history of social thought to the present day may fairly be epitomized as a search for immutable laws as alternatives to those which Comte thought he bad discovered. In the past, these invariances were conceived in some unilinear fashion, "simple and sovereign theories (Allport, 1968). The well-known economic determinism of Karl Marx (1904) is paralleled by the evolutionary determinism of Herbert Spencer (1877-1897) or the conquest-conflict determinism of Ludwig Gumplowicz (1963), and the 'rationalist' determinism of Max Weber (1930). Contemporary theory is perhaps more modest in its claims and certainly more multivariate in its causal sequences-structural functionalism, for instance, grew quite complex in its search for equilibrating forces-but the assumption underlying each theory is deterministic. Given a sufficient understanding of whatever social forces may be involved, these forces satisfactorily account for human history. For the schematic proposed in Figure 1, Area A summarizes the correct conclusion, with Areas C (and perhaps D) as special cases of alternatives.

At this point, let us return to an anomaly previously suggested. It has been suggested that a behavioral contradiction occurs. Sociologists, in arguing for a kind of deterministic framework, have tended to give the impression that something is at issue in their argument, that it all has some practical implication. Comte, for instance, was provoked into his work by the excesses of post-revolutionary France in the early 1800's. Surely, he seems to suggest, society can do better for itself than drift through catastrophe like a rudderless ship battered by the storms of an unknown sea. The natural

It may be recalled that Comte not only founded the new science of Sociology: he also sought to establish a new "religion of humanity." The Enlightenment period in the history of ideas contained a strongly anti-religious theme.

sciences have shown it to be possible rationally to direct forces of the natural world; why not a social physics to direct the forces of the social world? "Prevoir pour pergevoir; pergevoir pour pouvoir." Comte wrote his Positive Polity (1875-1877, cf. 11:346-382) as a practical exercise in providing a suggested rudder for the ship of society.

That he did so, and that his behavior is by no means a curious aberration on the face of the sociological imagination, but an experience common to all scientific practice, constitutes a key to the problem of this essay. After all, there always has been an applied science, and applied science is a contradiction within a rigid deterministic framework.

It is not inappropriate to note that Sociology has had an implicit agenda. It may be recalled that Comte not only founded the new science of Sociology: he also sought to establish a new "religion of humanity." The Enlightenment period in the history of ideas contained a strongly antireligious theme. Sociology, as one of the precipitates of the Enlightenment, incorporated this anti-religion stance into its own view of things. Explicitly and implicitly the project of European Sociology, at least in France, was to provide a secular religion to take the place of the moribund Christian faith of the West. (Fenn, 1978:6, cf. 14)

It was part of the agenda of Sociology that it should offer an alternative socioethical nexus for society, one that could replace the outmoded and outdated Judeo-Christian framework. For various reasons Comte, Spencer, Durkheim, Weber, among others, were convinced that social change was certain to bring about the demise of institutional religion (the only kind of religion that they were concerned with in any formal way). In general, they were pleased that this should be so, for they were persuaded such religion belonged to a no longer tenable world-view. This emphasis is not merely of antiquarian interest. In general, sociologists continue today among the lowest participants in organized religious expressions (Glenn and Weiner, 1969). An Introductory Sociology textbook, first published in 1948, but a standard text for nearly a generation, maintained  

... dependent as it is on subjective faith, religion withers like a leaf before a flame when the scientific attitude is brought to bear on it ... If the public in general undertook an analysis of religious behavior, using systematic research tools, it would be the death of religion. (Davis, 1949:536)

As religion withers " like a leaf before a f lame, " what is to take its place as a social cohesive? If urban-industrial society and the "scientific attitude" inevitably erode religious belief, does this not require some new form of social control mechanisms? (Eldridge, 1980:137) In all modesty, could not some form of sociological understanding provide the integrating paste?

Tempting as it may be to respond to that naivet6 as it deserves, no useful purpose could by served by that kind of debate. It is sufficient at this point to merely note that the position does not appear as self-evident as it may once have seemed to practicing sociologists. The current critique of all forms of scientism has served to remind us that determinism is not a conclusion derived from data, but an axiom integral to

George Barger received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. He is a professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His teaching and research interests are primarily in the area of the Social Psychology of Religion, and in improving teacher effectiveness in large classes.

the pursuit of science. Determinism is a methodological stance, not a conclusion. It is useful, remarkably useful, to assume such determinism, but each proposition in its series carries with it the implied preface, "If all phenomena were determined by immutable law, how would they appear in this instance and under these sets of conditions ... ?" (cf. Vaihinger, 1924). The various humanist sociologies (and psychologies) (Glass and Staude, 1972; Maslow, 1968) point to alternative formulations of scientific understanding which see human behavior as in some measure voluntarist. It would be an overstatement to claim that such alternatives hold the field; it would be fair to maintain that they do offer a non-determinist approach to human behavior that is able to hold its own in the arena of theoretical debate. in addition

The current critique of all forms of scientism has served to remind us that determinism is not a conclusion derived from data, but an axiom integral to the pursuit Of science. Determinism is a methodological stance, not a conclusion.

and more recently, some sociologists have come to question certain assumptions which have characterized the discipline, presuppositions relating to Sociology's self -understanding. Sociology has been said to be 'value free,' in the sense that it is objective and non-advocative. Its data output has been described as nothing more than the presentation of social facts, and its only further 'work' the suggesting of possible alternative consequences given a rearrangement of data relationships (Weber, 1949). This "innocence" is not so self-evident as it appears once to have been. It has been called pretentious (Gouldner, 1962), specious (Hoult, 1968) and simply untrue (Becker, 1967). What is happening, and how does this relate to the questions raised at the beginning of this essay?

Let us approach this question from another direction. It is possible to understand human behavior, and human thought as one form of such behavior, as the outcome of deterministic forces. These forces may be conceived as chemical, as in physiological /pharmacological psychology, or as the outcome of reinforcement schedules, as in behaviorist psychology. They may also be explained as the precipitates of complex social forces, in theory at least amenable to specification. On any of these bases, however, it is difficult to make sense of the work of the scientist as scientist (Evans, 1979). Putting it in a most extreme form, it may be argued that human thought is best understood as the current product of the complex collocation of atoms which make up the human brain. The brain itself is a part of the human organism, which is in its turn the current result of the fortuitous combination of atoms which have been patterning themselves in various ways over immense periods of time, and all originating with the 'big bang' of some sort when the first mass of primaeval material was hurled on its deterministic, but fortuitous, path. Now, the problem with all that is briefly stated: who could trust such a reason as that? (Lewis 1970) if human thought is simply the result of a sequence such as t he foregoing, doesn't that entail a contradiction? Reason turns out to be non-voluntarist-one doesn't actually engage in operations involving manipulation of ideas. Mind itself is a part of the process. Who can trust such a reason? It cannot even be argued, "Well, we can trust the process because it is evolutionarily adaptive; time has shown it to be so." Has it indeed? By what criterion do we reach such a judgement, and in what sense is that a judgement? Given the current state of the world-atom bombs, neutron bombs, environmental pollution, each the result of human 'mind'-it could be as plausibly argued that reason, a relatively recent arrival in the universe, is an aberration in evolution, and is well on the way to showing itself completely non-adaptive. (Parenthetically, existentialist and neo-romantic attempts at building ethical seriousness can be seen as evidences of despair, not of hope.)

Summarizing to this point, does Sociology entail determinism? The question does not hinge solely on the exigencies of logic. We also have shown that sociologists, even some practicing a most rigid kind of determinism, have argued their case as if they believed it was desirable for others to 11 see the world in this way." There has been a behavioral implication that in some sense a decision was to be made as to whether or not such a position is 'true,' required of any sensible person.

Sociology has aimed at being a science. Virtually every textbook in Introductory Sociology has contained an early chapter, "Why Sociology is a Science." In this sociologists are faithful to their heritage, for Comte, Spencer and the rest certainly considered themselves rigorous scientists. The model of 'science,' it is generally agreed, which informed their axiology was that of the natural sciences, particularly the mechanistic determinism of 19th century physics. Although not always stated, the criteria offered as most characteristic of acceptable theory included, in addition to parsimony, heuristic value and the like, the notion of a closed causal system (Cohen, 1968:1-2). The implication to be drawn is that successful theory will represent a closed, deterministic system.

It should be clear that the answer being advocated to our first question, Does sociological practice imply a deterministic stance? can be twofold. (1) Sociology has been seen as deterministic because it was believed that a proper science required such an approach. This axiom, however, was taken as a conclusion rather than recognized in its actual status, an a priori axiom. Scientific understanding does indeed involve the practitioner in an objective approach to subject matter. It may not be obvious that the natural scientist treats the world in disinterested fashion, but once the obvious is called to attention, what could be more natural than that this objectivity would be extended to the scientific study of society, and sociologists cautioned to seek a similar methodological objectivity. That the requirement is methodological but not necessarily an outcome of data, is clearly seen in the dictum of Emile Durkheim: treat social facts as things (Durkheim, 938). Since 'things' are easily seen as subject to deterministic laws, social things could be generalized under the same rubric. For Durkheim, this was an a priori for sociological study.

Sociologists were interested in objectivity as an answer to the claims Of religious authority. Seeing religion as irreducibly subjective, and quite wrong in its claims, objective study of society was proposed as an antithesis to the thesis of religion.

(2) Sociologists were interested in objectivity as an answer to the claims of religious authority. Seeing religion as irreducibly subjective, and quite wrong in its claims, objective study of society was proposed as an antithesis to the thesis of religion. Quite plainly, much Sociology was anti-religious in its formulations. While this was not unique to the discipline at that time, it did lead to a misunderstanding of the relationship between religion and science, a misunderstanding which neither term of the equation has fully confronted.

In addition, it also has been shown that a deterministic approach commonly involves one in a logical contradiction, and in a behavioral non-sequitur. Cumulatively, these considerations seem sufficient to support a denial of the proposition, sociological science entails determinism. The possibility of ethical seriousness remains.

Why is Sociology Seen as Relativistic?

Does Sociology entail relativism? This aspect of the interrelationship between Sociology and ethical seriousness is, in some respects, not so clearly to be disposed.

It is the case that different societies have different normative structures. The extent of these differences can easily be exaggerated, and their implications misunderstood, but they cannot be discounted. In some instances the variations are quite remarkable. Some societies eat tubers and vegetables only; others eat meats, including on occasion their fellow man. If a student is to make sense out of either set of behaviors, s/he must suspend judgement and try to understand the different behaviors in their settings: that is, in their meanings to the members of the society under study. The illustration involving dietary norms could be expanded a hundredfold, and include variations in family norms, norms of allocation of power, norms relating to the sacred, to technology and the rest. Ethnocentric tendencies in all of us are sufficiently documented that it is required of the student continually to be reminded to adopt a relativistic stance as a method of procedure. Relativism is more than that, however, it is a substantive finding of comparative sociology.

But, what does this imply? Specifically, does this entail the consequence, "Therefore, ethical norms can only be anchored in a similar relativist framework"? Does the kind of relativism which issues from comparative Sociology require assent to the consequent, "Therefore there are no absolutes"? To pursue this question would take us into murky waters, and require an ordering of argumentation far beyond the intended scope of this paper. But, three points may be emphasized as an indication of the type of context in which such discussion could be conducted.

Some behavioral scientists (Skinner, 1971) have not hesitated to accept the implication, "Relativism implies that the ethical question is completely open." It is up to man, at least to an elite among mankind, to set in motion the required reinforcement patterns that will bring about a desired social order. The question begging word, "desired," is customarily ignored, or taken for granted.

Other students, in this case those more directly in the sociological tradition, have advanced the notion that some sort of 'free floating intellectual,' armed with the assured results of the sociological imagination, can function to promote the kinds of ethical relationships required for modern societies (Mannheim, 1940). The locus of direction is from an elitist group to a plastic social order; the manipulationist tendencies are perhaps not readily apparent, but the problem of building ethical relationships through what must seem to be unethical means-manipulation and even coercionremains to be rationalized in depth. Ethical seriousness is confined to the elite; other social strata are treated as objects to be ordered in some way.

One could argue that here is another point at which the latent anti-religious bias of Sociology covertly appears. One type of religious orientation, indeed, until recent decades in the West and still dominant in non-Western cultures, is that which understands religiosity as adherence to a compendium of absolute rules. The religious community, however defined by the society, is mandated to enforce those rules so far as it is able. Against such an authoritarian stance Sociology proposed a relativist mandate, one that shared many of the ethical dilemmas of the religious authoritarianism. (It would be difficult to distinguish the two approaches in any meaningful sense. It is a case of, "If you can't lick 'em, join 'em. ")

There certainly are other factors which have supported the relativist implications of Sociology. Adopting the previously described model of "scientific work and practice" of the natural sciences meant that their methods and supporting axioms would be incorporated into sociological study. It was not immediately asked if such methods and axioms were fully appropriate to the human subject matter.

For at least these reasons, and one other to which attention shortly will be directed, it has become common both to friends and foes of Sociology to see the discipline as entailing radical relativism. The statement was accorded the status of  presupposition, and any questioning of it was as likely to be greeted with a hoot of derision as answered by some kind of argumentation.

It is, however, possible to agree that Sociology is relativistic,
but to deny the radical consequences associated with this antecedent: therefore, all ethics is inevitably relative. How has this come about?

In all candor, an important support for the scientific world-view has yet to be introduced. That support can be characterized by the phrase, a religious frame of reference. If we consider that science is a framework for meaning as well as for technological mastery, and that it is of recent

Relativism implies that the ethical question is completely open. It is up to man, at least to an elite among mankind, to set in motion the required reinforcement patterns that will bring about a desired social order.

Ivintage-perhaps three or four centuries at most-the question of "Why then, and not at some other time?" arises. This kind of historical question is, of course, quite opaque, and easily misunderstood. Witness the continuing debate of Weber's original formulation of this question as it relates to the beginnings of capitalism (Little, 1970).

Elements for scientific understanding are at least as ancient as the Milesians: Thales and his successors. These beginnings, however, combined with other elements into a new dynamic scarcely three centuries ago.

The argument, suggested by Merton in a much neglected essay of a generation ago, may be summarized as follows (Merton, 1938). The practice of science depends on certain paradigms (Kuhn, 1970). Until the scientific enterprise attains a certain level of self-legitimation, a part of its justification depends upon external supports.

The emerging men of modern science ... required legitimation and support in all manner of ways. Not least ... they were at times seeking to justify the ways of science to themselves. And to make science go, they required more by way of resources and facilities than was being provided. (Merton, 1938:[1970:xx])

Ascetic Protestantism, as it has been termed, happened to provide a part of that justification. It was not the only leg of the emerging trapezoid supporting science-Merton lists economic, military and nationalistic sources as well (Merton, 1938 [1970:xx-xil) but it was an important one. Apropos the point at issue, religion offered a stable platform from which to launch the new enterprise, an enterprise which involved challenge to the religious order itself as then understood.

The argument is that a bench mark is needed, a set of propositions generally accepted and with which one may take issue. The development of ideas demands a substratum upon which subsequent construction can be based. If it can be taken for granted that the general view of things reinforces stability and order, it becomes possible seriously to propose scenarios that deviate widely from this accepted state of things. (Utopian thought is an obvious illustration pertinent to this point.) Conversely, it is only within the past generation or so that whatever consensus of value may have once characterized the provincialist culture of Post-Renaissance Western European society has largely been dissipated. The energetic rethinking of the meaning of science (Kuhn, 1970), is paralleled in virtually every area of human endeavor, and the way out is not yet clear.

Fitting Sociology/Behavioral Science into the Schema

What is clear is that the enthusiasm of the past need not be continued into the present. Sociology has an important part to play at just this point, but it will be a Sociology that has rethought its own roots and implications. The naive acceptance of natural science as the only acceptable model for a science of behavior must be seriously questioned (Gergen, 1973). The remainder of this essay will outline a defense of that claim, and answer the original question of the paper: Does sociological practice entail the end of possibilities for ethical seriousness?

It is proposed that human behavior be viewed as voluntaristic and as relativistic. The latter term, however, is understood as descriptive, not as prescriptive. There is no doubt that social norms differ interculturally-within age cohorts, kin cohorts and the like. They also differinter-and intrapersonally-behavioral repertoires change with levels of learning, and for a variety of personality factors.

The question is, What do these differences signify? it has been the assumption long implied that such differences are best understood as the outcomes of historically unique conf igurations of complex combinations of variables, or as the outcomes of varying patterns of reinforcement schedules, and so on. Hidden in these 'explanations' were levels of assumptions involving deterministic relationships. Undeniably, the paradigm has been useful in advancing behavioral understanding. It has been a purpose of this paper to point out, however, that the approach has served to undermine its own foundations. What is essentially a methodological stance has come to be mistaken as a "confirmed result of scientific study." Neither the logic of the research act, nor the general behavior of the scientist, necessitates that conclusion.

The question is not that of utility of framework, but of philosophical (=axiomatic) status. It usually is not so crudely stated, but the unmistakable implication is suggested, "Therefore, there can be only variation and description; there is no fundamental basis for morality or ethics. " The conclusion is a non-sequitur, for it ignores the status of research steps, the logic of thought, and the actual practices of scientists as scientists.

An alternative framework is possible, and desirable. Determinism is not entailed by data; it is generic to method. Relativism is not a last step, but among the first steps to be taken in ethical seriousness.

The sociologist must take relativism seriously. Both research and theory indicate its centrality. Cultures and persons differ; and the Self, seen as a social product, is relational (i.e. relative). Allied with the presumption of determinism, relativism leads to an end of ethical questions. But, taken in its proper context, it implies the opposite: the beginning of ethical seriousness, for variety is indicative of freedorn/voluntarism.

Allied with the presumption Of determinism, relativism leads to an end of ethical questions. But, taken in its proper context, it implies the opposite: the beginning of ethical seriousness, for variety is indicative Of  freedom/voluntarism.

Understanding relativism as generic in a non-deterministic world leads to the possibility of radical seriousness in human responsibility for the world. Whatever can be done, it is ours to do. The domain of human freedom is not as wide as classical or neo-romantic thought may have imagined; neither is it a necessity in the world-view of 'man come of age' that we see ourselves as prisoners in some deterministic model.

Increasingly Sociology can help discover ways to freedom from whatever social milieux may bind, and help us to understand the nature and context of the decisions we are required to make in our status as Homo sapiens, man.


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