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What do you understand by the term sociology?

Updated on January 12, 2013

What exactly is sociology? That’s an argument sociologists loved to have. I mean serious LOVE. If they spend all that time deconstructing problems then we probably would have the answer for everything. So as with any sociological piece of work this is more whom I see as key in understanding what sociology is as oppose to some sort of master list. Enjoy!

Sociology is the study of society and the patterns that exist between individuals. Society is a collective of people living in the same area that have similar beliefs, our norms and values. As an everyday definition this one serves its function, however, it can be seen as too simple. Individuals and their relationship with those around them, what they have in common and what they do not, are difficult to define, let alone understand, when using such a broad definition. Giddens defines sociology as ‘the scientific study of human life, social groups, whole societies and the human world as such’ (Giddens, 2009). Understanding the difference between common sense and a sociological sense is key. That is being able to take what we see as familiar (common sense) and taking it out of its familiar setting to examine it more closely (sociological sense).

C. Wright Mills
C. Wright Mills

To Mills the development of a sociological imagination is key to understanding the question ‘what is sociology’. C. Wright Mills(1959) saw the understanding of what sociology is as a problem. Sociology, according to him, had been taking the wrong path in understanding its role within society. So in the late 50s he set out that sociology starts 'a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason' (Mills, 1959)which he called the development of a ‘sociological imagination’. According to this the sociological imagination is made up of three aspects. Firstly, the importance of the relationship between public issues and private troubles. The idea that, for example, poverty for one person is a private trouble but a society where many are in a similar situation is a public issue. Secondly, the importance of understanding the history of state and the biography of individuals, ‘neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both’ (Mills, 1959). An understanding of the journey of the individual, their development, socialisation and so forth combined with an understanding of the development of the history allows for understanding of the culture they are within. Finally, the apparent structure of society and existence of an individual’s environment. How will the structure of society effect the choices, mobility etc., of the individual in that situation at that time. Mills argued from the start that sociology should be about studying those people in that time and looking at it in context, not assuming findings will be unlikely to change.

Z. Bauman
Z. Bauman

Bauman and May state sociology is about ‘responsible speech’, the’ size of the fields’ and the desire to ‘make sense’. When Bauman says ‘responsible speech’ what he means is that, as professionals, sociologists need to be objective in their research and make conclusions and suggestions based on evidence they gather from research, not using only research results to fit their initial theory. Sociologists must ‘seeking to expand peoples understanding not replace “error” with unquestionable “truth”’ (Z. Bauman T. May, 2001). Bauman refers to ‘the size of the field’ meaning that sociology should be about furthering understanding by incorporating as many different views points from other fields as possible. The bringing together all the various wells of knowledge we have available to us cannot be over stated as an important part of sociology. The third, and arguably the most important point that Bauman makes about the nature of sociology, is the desire to ‘make sense’. This is idea is key as ‘things become familiar and the reasons for the familiar become self-explanatory’ (Z. Bauman T. May, 2001). Without a need for ‘sense’ situations and ‘facts’ would be blindly accepted as they stand. Bauman puts emphasis on the importance of being able to ‘unfamiliarise’ the familiar to be able to look at it in an objective fashion.

R. Jenkins
R. Jenkins

Jenkins(2002) argues that to understand sociology you must understand what characterises it, the first is Objectivity. Objectivity is the ability to remove oneself from what is happening, to be able to see the actions and interactions taking place as purely that. To be able to look at the familiar as alien and be able to note the difference between that which is actually happening and the value the individuals apply to what is happening. Another important part of objectivity is striving to make the study, observations etc. value-free. Jenkins argues that it is near impossible to make research value free, but it is still important to make a concerted effort to make it value free. Jenkins himself is unsure about this as he explores in his book Foundations of Sociology ‘disinterested, value-free sociology… is at best a contradiction in terms’ (Jenkins, 2002). Next, is that of systematic inquiry, the heavy use of research methods. Regardless of sample size or theoretical background of the method, as long as the methods are used to gather data that can be used to build an intimate understanding of the subject the sociologist is studying. Jenkins also talks about the importance of theory within sociology. To be able to see the general trend within the situation(s) that are studied allows for ideas to start to become theories and then theories to start to become rules. That is, once a particular pattern has been observed within research and a theory even proved by it, or based around it, that theory can begin to be applied to other, similar, social situations.

Sociology is a complicated subject with multiple sub-sections within and multiple different fields with those sub sections. The fact that within sociology there is an on-going debate, with many theorists present within, about exactly what sociology is or should be shows versatility as a subject and its ability to change. Exactly what sociology can be defined as, and what its about, is up to individual interpretation. Still, the importance of sociology cannot be understated. It is a valuable school of thought that leads to deeper understanding of many everyday events. 'We have an ethical responsibility… the people about whom we write deserve to be able to understand what we say about them’ (Jenkins, 2002).


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