Sociology: What is it? and What does it do?

SOCIOLOGY is many things. It is the systematic study of human behaviour in groups (using statistical analysis, interviews, focus groups, content analysis, historical data, documents, theory). It is an academic discipline, usually located in a college or university as a “Department.” It is a body of professionals. It is a social science. It is a movement in theory and paradigm construction since the late 19th century, with roots in social change. It can be, in its advocacy (promoting o assisting applied social change) form, a change agent.

“Of all the social sciences, it is sociology that most closely scrutinizes change and conflict in the wider society. The range of the discipline and the importance of the arguments that are disputed within it, still make it the most exciting of the social sciences.” (Oxford Concise Dictionary of Sociology, 1996. p. 501)

Sociology attempts to discover regularities in human behaviour which, over sufficient time or with sufficient accuracy, can ultimately inform social policy in a meaningful and lasting way. The goal of sociology is “not to teach you that the biological realm is a residual category with a minor role in explaining human behaviour”, but “to disentangle what is biological from what is socially constructed” and how each relates to the other (Giddens, et al, Introduction to Sociology, 2012. New York: Norton). Constructed aspects of society at micro- and macro-levels that sociology focuses on include gender/sexuality, family, social class,  education, inequality/conflict/feminism/power, institutions, corporations, demography, health, aging, religion, volunteer and government agencies, deviance/conformity/crime, communities, social change, criminology, work, values, norm, and race/ethnic relations. So this ‘pot pouri’ is extensive, and takes sociologists into many and varied areas of research and writing concentration.

Like other professional domains, sociology evolves to contain adherents to particular and sometimes conflicting viewpoints about society. Conflict theorists may not agree with the tenets of structural functionalists, nor symbolic interactionists, with feminists. While politically divisive at times, these differences feed strength into the discipline as clarity and accommodation lead to a unified voice over time on policy choices.

In his indictment of the social sciences for their inherent self-deception, Trivers (The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, 2011. New York: Basic Books) states: “We have seen numerous ways in which self-deception may deform the structure of intellectual disciplines. This seems obvious in both evolutionary biology and the social sciences, where increasing relevance to human social behaviour I matched by decreasing rates of progress, in part because such fields induce more self-deception in their practitioners. One common bias is that life naturally evolves to subserve function t higher levels. Not genes but individuals, not individuals but groups, not groups but species, not species but ecosystem, and, with a little extra energy, not ecosystems but the entire universe. Certainly religion seems to promote this pattern, always tempted to see a larger pattern than is warranted.” (pp.319-320) Trivers implies therefore that the social sciences are “pseudo-sciences” because they lack the enough integrity to ward against deceit and self-deception (like psychology has done). He cites cultural anthropology’s shortcoming by not “synthesizing social and physical anthropology”, and chides all social sciences for not incorporating the discoveries of the biological sciences. Bias lies with the researcher, and bias lies with the respondent, so how can ‘laws’ of society ever hope to be discovered.

Well they can’t. Trivers misses the “for all intents and purposes” point about scientific rigour and social policy. The point of sociological work, from research to advocacy, is to make the applicability of findings the best for all intents and purposes. And so with the other social sciences. Sociology informs policy aimed at improving the human condition, by discovering patterns of behaviour that may and may not, be beneficial to the rest of us.

As a sociologist, one of my goals has been to question prevailing patterns where I see injustice, or in-egalitarian practices, or ways of behaving that just don’t make sense. Human body acceptance for instance, is one area I see as a rich ‘frontier’ for research and commentary, especially as it has to do with norms of nudity, rights, and self-expression.

Going ‘where others dare not go’ is a practitioner feature of sociology over the other social sciences. The sociology journals are full of fascinating discoveries about humans, as well as trade magazines and populist publications sociologists also write for. As ‘risk-takers’ at times, some sociologists doing research and advocacy can fill in the knowledge voids others refuse to investigate.

Terry Hill, PhD

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