Early sociological studies considered the field to be similar to the natural sciences, like physics or biology. As a result, many researchers argued that the methodology used in the natural sciences was perfectly suited for use in the social sciences. The effect of employing the scientific method and stressing empiricism was the distinction of sociology from theology, philosophy, and metaphysics. This also resulted in sociology being recognized as an empirical science. This early sociological approach, supported by August Comte, led to positivism, a methodological approach based on sociological naturalism. The goal of positivism, like the natural sciences, is prediction. But in the case of sociology, it is prediction of human behavior, which is a complicated proposition.
The goal of predicting human behavior was quickly realized to be a bit lofty. Scientists like Wilhelm Dilthey and Heinrich Rickert argued that the natural world differs from the social world, as human society has culture, unlike the societies of most other animals (e.g., the behavior of ants, wolves, etc. is primarily based on genetic instructions and is not passed from generation to generation through socialization). As a result, an additional goal was proposed for sociology. Max Weber and Wilhelm Dilthey introduced the concept of verstehen. The goal of verstehen is less to predict behavior than it is to understand behavior. Outside observers of a culture relate to an indigenous people on both the observer's and the observeds' own terms in order to comprehend the cultural conditions. While arriving at a verstehen-like understanding of a culture employs systematic methodologies like the positivistic approach of predicting human behavior, it is often a more subjective process.
The inability of sociology and other social sciences to perfectly predict the behavior of humans or to fully comprehend a different culture has led to the social sciences being labeled "soft sciences." While some might consider this label derogatory, in a sense it can be seen as an admission of the remarkable complexity of humans as social animals. Any animal as complex as humans is bound to be difficult to fully comprehend. What's more, humans, human society, and human culture are all constantly changing, which means the social sciences will constantly be works in progress.
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