Why Sociology Should Matter To Everyone
And how some level of exposure to the subject could be essential in our everyday lives — now more than ever in these unpredictable times.
“The calling of the humanities is to make us truly human in the best sense of the word.” — J. Irwin Miller
Sociology suffers a bad reputation in several countries for a myriad of reasons. For instance, Asian countries strongly favour the natural sciences and technology with a common misunderstanding that an individual opting for the humanities either
1) got low grades in high school or chose an easy degree subject to breeze through the undergraduate years,
or 2) wishes to pursue an academic career i.e. an assumption that unfortunately limits possibilities in professional choices.
Call it the inherent bias of a sociology student or the opinion of someone raised around people with a lifelong appreciation for the humanities, here’s my attempt to share the fascinating broad strokes of sociology and offer an 8-minute crash course for your next (hopefully) stimulating dinner conversation.
Now, what is sociology all about?
When we really look at sociology as a discipline, it’s seen as something that can be practiced and observed in every sphere of your life, both in daily activities and uncommon/social phenomena (Johnson 1997) you experience; while walking down a street, sitting in a coffee shop and glancing at that attractive person out of your periphery, or questioning the interconnectedness of human lives and our role in them.
As Johnson, an all-around great guy, says that if there’s a problem — racism, sexism, etc., and we are not doing anything to solve it in our own personal ways (by making informed decisions), we are invariably a part of the problem, even though we may not have any personal prejudice or bias against a particular community or ideology.
It has to do with our lives and their connection to the world, and how to observe our role relationships in it. This really ties up with a famous concept by C. Wright Mills in sociology called (unsurprisingly) the sociological imagination — it’s about an individual’s personal life, how it relates to the wider society, time period and historical context, and one’s awareness of it.
For example, would Mahatma Gandhi or Barack Obama have become as famous as they did, if they had been born in a different time period and under different circumstances?
Sociology is more than studying “some larger world out there”, which is why I’ve tried to divide it into broad sections here, starting with stratification and inequality.
When we look at stratification, exclusion and inequality, with some groups being considered superior to others, it’s usually on account of differences in population, and what causes these differences.
Privileged groups have restricted access to only those who fulfil a certain criteria, and when criticised for their discrimination, tend to either retreat into their protected environments perhaps out of quiet guilt, or retaliate in self-defence.
Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, USA in 2005 is a good example of this. We can see stark racial differences in the USA and how the privileged white-dominant race reacts to accusations of racism (in this case) against people of color (PoC).
In the aftermath of the hurricane, out of the thousands of people left stranded without food, water, and other basic facilities, a massive majority of them were PoCs- a fact that could not be undisputed by anyone keeping track of evacuation efforts and the news.
If in doubt, check out this great story map by Esri on the environmental racism following Katrina.
When a national dialogue was attempted at looking into the idea of race and class in the United States, the white majority protested that the segregated New Orleans relief efforts had nothing to do with race. The brunt of attempting to disturb the status quo often falls on the minority communities, be they (in the US) lesbian, Latino, gay, African Americans, or people with disabilities.
While quite a few white Americans might see themselves as “post-prejudicial”, they still consider the impact of racist patterns of exclusion as something that victims of racism should take responsibility of redressing. That’s why, when you look at Katrina’s relief efforts, there’s a disproportionate number of PoCs systematically ignored their government, both in pre- and post-Katrina policies.
If that example doesn’t make sense, a similar one is how admission committees in elite colleges justify the low levels of diversity in students by saying “but there just weren’t enough qualified minority candidates!”
In order to move beyond the potential for guilt that we may have at being a privileged part of a differentiated society, we can observe how to make a difference once we realise that we are not the system itself, and vice versa.
Here’s where sociology gets really interested in the individual versus the collective.
Most people tend to consider a society nothing more than a collection of individuals living together in a particular time and place.
But what if we look at society like it’s a forest?
A collection of trees (a.k.a. individuals), but at the same time, a lot of interconnections between them. You can’t look at a single tree to determine the relations between them all, but must look at the forest from different perspectives and vantage points to understand it.
This ideology of individualism (where freedom and thought of the individual takes precedence over shared effort) means one believes that all social issues are caused due to flaws in individual character. This stream of thought can be isolating, promote divisive competition and focuses on one’s own well-being over the community.
We can trace the roots of individualistic thinking back to the European Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment, where rational thought of the individual and science took precedence in the hierarchy of things over the Church.
This perspective rationalizes that the way to make the world better is to put the “right” people in important positions, and removing the people who are holding progress back, or are unable/unwilling to change for a so-called better world. The solution to social issues is then, not a collectivistic one, but rather a collection of individual solutions.
This next broad section is about these human connections and the systems that are born out of them.
If you’ve ever played a game of Monopoly, you’ll see that it has positions (cars), rules to prevent cheating, a material reality (the board, a bank), and ideas that connect all these elements together.
Similarly, in sociological practice, one sees that individuals and social systems are deeply interconnected. People make a system (physical or social, such as a business or marriage, respectively) function; without them, the system is nothing more than “an idea with some physical reality attached” to it (ibid).
Is sociology a social or natural science?
Early sociologists during the Age of Enlightenment were positivists, and wanted to fashion sociology along the lines of the natural sciences, which is one of the many reasons why Émile Durkheim’s study on Suicide is considered an absolute classic in the discipline.
Durkheim wanted to know what the social cause of suicide rates were in a given time period in a particular area; whether they went beyond individual psychological phenomena of guilt, depression, honor, loyalty, etc.
In his findings, he found that we cannot reduce these acts to a particular “kinds of people” because of their psychological or emotional reasons, but look at the historical and current social context in which they commit actions that seem bizarre or pathological to others.
Among other findings, some were that women committed suicide less than men, and single people committed suicide more than romantically partnered people. He argued that the more socially connected someone was, with that sense of belonging, the less likely they were to commit suicide.
On the whole, sociology across countries is divided based on how its taught, with Western countries preferring a more methodological, statistical approach while others follow a more theoretical pattern.
Are you sure sociology isn’t just common sense turned into a subject?
Mostly because common sense isn’t very common — everyone’s definition of it varies based on their geography and social background. One might say it’s common sense to use indicators when you’re changing lanes while driving, but as an Indian driver, we’d say it’s common sense you should have expected us to overtake you either way.
But it’s true that sociology can be confused for common sense to the average person, as it touches on your everyday experiences at so many levels. This is one of the reasons why it’s so difficult for a practising sociologist to detach themselves from making a common sense analysis.
“The difficulty, in sociology, is to manage to think in a completely astonished and disconcerted way about things you thought you had always understood.”
- Pierre Bourdieu
A major issue in India’s academic sociology, according to Andre Beteille, is that students:
- Tend to either write well-written but superficially-knowledgeable answers, or
- Present reasonable answers on their own society, but are unable to deal with topics in societies of other regions like Africa, France, Australia, etc.
So, sociological reasoning searches for interconnections between elements in a given social context, and compares them.
Durkheim and Beteille consider comparative sociology extremely important in the practice of sociological research. There are methods and procedures, so that no matter what one is examining, they are able to make connections and identify differences between two societies or social phenomena.
Sociology has both anti-utopian and anti-fatalistic elements to its practice against common sense.
It’s anti-utopian because it looks at the lack of correlation between reality and the ideal, between what is right and what is the true condition of their existence. Its anti-fatalism prevents it from accepting the “taken for granted” ideas as rigid and fixed.
A final broad section: political correctness.
This is language and policies that aim to avoid offending or causing disadvantage to any group or members in society, and brings people with extremist opinions into order as such. James Garner altered the story of Little Red Riding Hood to be more politically correct, and it’s a great example of what this means.
He repeatedly attempts to deviate from assigning gender-specific roles to the characters, using phrases such as “a young person named Red Riding Hood” and “woodchopperperson”.
He also alters the original storyline- here, the grandmother (who Garner reinforces is a capable and independent matriarch, thus removing the ageist notion of dependency and senility) jumps out of the wolf’s mouth and cuts the woodchopperperson’s head for assuming that Red Riding Hood was a delicate young girl who needed saving from the threat, as she was unable to handle the situation herself.
So there we have it, what sociology and its perspectives are.
This is by no means exhaustive or even a complete set of broad sections to cover the entirety of the discipline (would that be possible?), but a good enough start to understand that people are infinitely complex results of their environments and must be treated as such, no matter how much they decide to talk loudly in public or walk on the right side of the road.
A caffeine-dependent being, A studies sociology and is in search of sleep, sanity, and the Fortress of Solitude. You’ll find them trying to recruit people for marathons, DC Comics discussions, and trying out new cafes and restaurants in the city.