Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Sociology as a Population Science

John H. Goldthorpe

Oxford Street London crowds - photo: Nicholas Hutchinson via Creative Commons.

Photo: Nicholas Hutchinson via Creative Commons.

Is sociology a science?

If not, should it try to become one?

If it should, what kind of science might this be?

These are questions that sociologists have for long debated. Programmatic statements -and critiques of such statements – have abounded. I have, over the years, contributed to the debates myself. But my book is different. It does not try to tell sociologists, from some a priori position, what they should be doing. Rather, it tries to provide a rationale for what a large, and growing, number of sociologists are in fact doing – even if often in a rather unreflective manner.

The main argument is that sociology should recognise itself as a population science: a kind of science that emerged from the ‘probabilistic revolution’ of the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. Populations are collections of individual elements that are highly variable and that may appear – or indeed be – indeterminate in their states and behaviour. But populations may nonetheless exhibit aggregate-level regularities of a probabilistic kind which can in turn be explained by causal processes, operating at the individual level, that incorporate chance.

Sociologists are concerned with human populations, although populations of scientific interest could be other animal populations – or populations of molecules or galaxies.

For sociology as a population science the first task is then to establish – to describe as accurately as possible – regularities found in human populations across place and time. And the second task is to try to explain how these regularities are created and sustained – or perhaps disrupted and replaced by other regularities – as a result of the action and interaction of human individuals.

The growing acceptance, even if largely implicit, of sociology as a population science helps explain several interrelated tendencies apparent today, especially among sociologists engaged in systematic research.

First, there is the de facto abandonment of a ‘holistic’ in favour of an ‘individualistic’ paradigm – one that rejects the idea of human individuals as sociocultural puppets and gives full recognition to the degree of autonomy from sociocultural ‘systems’ that individual action can display and to the diversity of ends towards which it is directed.

Second, there is the increasing predominance of methods of both data collection and data analysis that have a statistical grounding. In any population science, the recognition of individual-level indeterminism must go together with attempts at the ‘taming of chance’ – of making chance and its consequences intelligible – on the twin bases of assemblages of representative numerical data and of analyses ultimately reliant on probability theory.

But third, there is also a growing awareness that while statistics is foundational in establishing population regularities, explanations of these regularities cannot be simply cranked out of statistical analyses. Sociologists have to hypothesise causal processes, or mechanisms, at the level of individual action and interaction, that could generate their statistical findings, and then test their hypotheses in rigorously as possible.

I realise that sociology considered as a population science would have a reduced scope compared to that to which it presently pretends. But the argument running through my book is that, to echo Mies van der Rohe, less would be more.

About The Author

John H. Goldthorpe

John H. Goldthorpe is author of Sociology as a Population Science (2015). He is Emeritus Fellow of Nuffield College, University of Oxford....

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!