Why should sociologists try to study society dispassionately rather than trying to reform it?
Whether sociologists should study society dispassionately or whether they should be engaged actively in trying to reform it is a subject of considerable debate in the field.
On the one hand, any sort of reform depends on access to dispassionate, nonpartisan, unbiased analysis. One cannot reform effectively unless one has adequate data enabling one to understand social problems and analysis through small scale studies of which methods of reform actually help and which do not. For example, most sociologists and economists believe that education may help address issues of poverty and social inequality, but without dispassionate studies and analysis, it is difficult to determine whether it is, in fact effective, and what other factors are important. When state actors or NGOs fund projects, they want reliable unbiased information, and if they feel sociologists are strong advocates for a cause or demonstrate partisan bias they might be less likely to trust the data and conclusions sociologists provide.
On the other hand, in so far as sociologists are experts in certain social problems, they are in an ideal position to advocate for solutions to the problems they have studied. Social work often involves application of sociological knowledge to specific problems.
First of all, we should note that not all sociologists would feel this way. Some would think that they should use their knowledge to reform society. However, if we must argue that sociologists should simply study dispassionately there are two interconnected arguments that we can put forward.
First, we can argue that dispassionate study leads to better actual research. If a sociologist wishes to reform society, that sociologist is likely to approach his or her work in a biased way. A sociologist who wishes to implement certain reforms is likely to produce research that always argues for that particular reform. This degrades the quality of the sociologist’s work.
Second, we can argue that the sociologist will not be trusted by research subjects or by government decision makers. For example, if a sociologist wanted to end prostitution, the prostitutes they studied might not trust them and might not answer their questions or tolerate their presence. Government officials would also lose trust. They would see the sociologist’s work as advocacy, not as serious scholarship and would be less inclined to act on that work.
For these reasons, we can argue, sociologists should study society objectively and dispassionately rather than trying to reform it.