By “value-free-research,” the famed sociologist Max Weber was essentially arguing for an ethic of professional detachment among sociologists and other researchers in the social science fields (Macionis, 2013). In the social sciences, researchers are often asked to investigate socially and emotionally charged topics, such as the family, sexuality, crime rates, and socio-economic divisions. When a researcher is too highly invested on a personal or psychological level in the subject of their research, that can easily cloud their judgment, and they can produce biased results.
Oftentimes, this bias is unconscious on the part of the researcher, and does not indicate any malicious of deliberate “tinkering” with results in order to get a desired result. However, sometimes this bias is perfectly deliberate, and when the results are published, the effects can be long-lasting, skewing any research that follows based upon the original writing. Further, politicians and policy makers often look to social science publications in order to better inform their understanding of current social trends and issues, and so the implications of a politician making a decision based on poor research that has been deliberately manipulated by a researcher are disastrous.
However, it is important to remember that researchers in the social sciences, and in the hard sciences as well, are human beings just like anyone else, and to ask them to completely detach from their emotions and value judgments while conducting research is unrealistic. In fact, if a researcher had the ability to completely compartmentalize their emotions from their professional duties, that might indicate some disturbingly psychopathic tendencies on the part of the researcher. Further, some of the best social science research is performed by researchers who are passionate about the subject, their field, and their methodology, and this passion is often driven by value judgments. For instance, a sociologist performing a large-scale research study on the relationship between poverty and high rates of crime in a given area might be motivated by a sincere desire to help impoverished Americans.
In this instance, the researcher is making a value judgment, i.e., “poverty is bad, and it is even worse that the social environment in poor neighborhoods makes it almost impossible for its residents to get ahead in life.” This researcher’s value judgment is essentially what is getting them out of bed everyday to do their research, and to later put in the necessary grunt work to analyze that research, write it up, and publish it so that others can read it. Thus, sometimes value judgments are sometimes necessary to produce good research, and value-free research, as proposed by Max Weber, may not always be a good thing when it comes to the social sciences.
With regards to Max Weber’s philosophy of research, H. Peukert makes the following observation: “Weber’s outline and research program is only of limited relevance for present day economic sociology and heterodox economics because Weber had a rather narrow and static understanding of rationality and the economy” (2004). With regards to his assertions about the necessity of “value-free” research on the part of sociologists and other social scientists, it would seem Weber’s advice has limited relevance in this arena as well. Herein lies the dilemma with the social sciences. Sometimes, researchers take the “science” part a bit too seriously, and think that studying people is just the same as examining amoebae underneath a microscope. However, in the social sciences, researchers are studying something that they themselves are a part of—human society—and so “value free” research, as proposed by Max Weber, is a nearly impossible proposition. In fact, social science that is conducted in the absence of any values whatsoever seems like it would be a very undesirable thing.