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Sociology and Common Sense

Updated on March 3, 2014

But first, there is a need to be clear about what sociology is. There are many views of what sociology is. For example:

  • The study of human institutions.
  • The study of patterns of collective human life.
  • The study of relations and interaction between human individuals.
  • The study of the ways in which human individuals are shaped by the collective.
  • The study of human society.

There are also many sub-disciplines. Sociologies of...religion, the family, work and employment, childhood, organisations, and so on.

The word ‘sociology’ was first used, as far as we know by Auguste Comte, a French philosopher, in 1838. It developed first in Germany and France and a little later in The UK and the US. It was an attempt to understand massive rapid social change:

  • Industrialisation
  • Transition from feudalism to capitalism
  • Urbanisation
  • Migration
  • Protestantism
  • Secularisation
  • Democracy, and the development of individual citizenship

These changes had been on the move arguably since the 16th century,but they gathered pace into the 19th century. The concerns they inspired converge on two issues, which have characterised sociology ever since:

  • the need to understand social change
  • the need to understand the relationship between the individual and the collective.

The second of these needs a little more explanation. The move away from feudalism and the development of democracy and citizenship, combined a new relationship to God, and urbanisation and the greater anonymity of the town, all gradually made the place in the world of individuals less certain, and more open. This stimulated philosophers to problematise both individual selfhood and the ‘social order’. This can be described as greater reflexivity about ‘the social’.

There are some things that sociology is not: socialism, or a crusade to make the world a better place.

Sociology is, in important respects, an umbrella discipline:

  • social history
  • social anthropology
  • social psychology
  • social policy

All of these are interested in social change and the relationship between the individual and the collective.

Bauman and May, Thinking Sociologically...

now, to focus on the relationship between sociological sense and common sense (i.e. the everyday, taken-for granted points of view that inform our daily lives).

Zygmunt Bauman (Bauman and May, Thinking Sociologically)...

Sociology, for Bauman, is characterised by:

  • responsible speech,
  • the size of the field, and
  • the desire to ‘make sense’.

Responsible speech means that what we say and write, as sociologists, should be disciplined by an awareness that when we speak as professionals:

  • we cannot just say the first thing that comes into our heads,
  • we have a responsibility to attempt to be objective,
  • we have a responsibility to locate what we say in the context of what others have said on the same topic
  • we have a responsibility to be honest, and
  • we have a responsibility to ensure that our conclusions are the products of proper investigation and based on evidence.
  • Responsible speech is thus about intellectual rigour and trust.

The size of the field is a matter of where we draw our evidence and other material from…we aim for a point of view or a perspective that is wider than our individual ‘life world’. This is a matter of being able to bring to bear different resources than we have available to us as private citizens; and time is an important resource in this context.

Making sense means that we have a different attitude to the matter in hand that we might have to our everyday business. We are attempting to understand and explain, rather than trying to get things done. Making sense can and often is part of a bigger process of trying to get something done, but it is in principle an activity in its own right.

This is also a move away from an individual point of view towards a more networked point of view.

Richard Jenkins, Foundations of Sociology...

Sociology is characterised by

  • systematic inquiry
  • objectivity
  • theory

Systematic inquiry: this is sociological research, which can take many forms, from the large-scale anonymous social survey, to ethnography and observation, to archival research with documents. It produces information that is quantitatively and qualitatively different from everyday knowledge: more and more detailed information.

Objectivity: this is less straightforward. Two kinds: the first is to do with values, and is probably impossible. We live in the everyday human world, we have opinions and beliefs and we cannot suddenly forget them. The best we can do is to be transparent and open about them, and try to prevent them getting in the way.

The other kind of objectivity is about standing back and being detached from the matter in hand: instead of being ‘part of the action’ the sociologist’s objectives should be knowledge oriented, striving to understand rather than get involved. This is possible. Epistemological objectivity.

Theory is a particular way of talking about the world: It has three components: generalisation/abstraction, explanation, communication. It is about constructing models of the matter in hand that will allow it to be compared to other, similar social phenomena, to allow general statements about that class of phenomena.


The distinction that is being drawn between sociological sense and common sense is not a difference between the collective (sociological) and the individualist (common sense): sociology encompasses the individual and common sense recognises the collective.

So, what's the value of sociology? A changed point of view...

A few interesting extracts from 'Thinking Sociologically'

Humans want to understand and explain events and circumstances. We act on our intentions. Therefore we take our understanding from a sense of action of individuals, of intentions of others and yourself. Our ‘life worlds’. People may refuse to accept that an out come was not the intention of the individual they single out.

‘Things become familiar and the reasons for the familiar become self-explanatory’ Things are how they are. Fatalism? things are how they are and it is foolish to try and change that.

It is sociology’s job to examine ‘that which is taken for granted’. Taking it out of the context it has been placed and questioning it. Sociological knowledge is a power. It makes that which seems unbreakable and oppressive flexible and open to change. To promote solidarity in a mutual understanding and respect. The divisions drawn between the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ can stop being about fear and antagonism and start to be based around tolerance.

Conflicts with politicians, and others in power, whom want to see society as forming naturally, a time when ‘people knew their place’.

Seeking to expand peoples understanding not replace ‘error’ with unquestionable ‘truth’.

The groups we feel most at easy with may very well limit our actual freedoms. Whether it be class, religion, mode of speaking etc because of the expectations placed upon a member.

© 2014 jaskar


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