Sociology is a weird field in that it’s relatively well established but it’s also widely understood to be a messy discipline which doesn’t have a clearly defined subject matter. Efforts to define the field and its subject matter tend to be vague and question-begging in nature.
It is also a field that I have developed a stronger interest in over recent years as I have become more familiar with social theory. However, I have no formal training in sociology and this provides a barrier to engagement and understanding.
I decided to go back to basics. I bought a book aimed at an audience with no prior knowledge: Sociology: The Basics by Ken Plummer (published by Routledge in 2016 [second edition]). Sadly, like many other books claiming to provide a clear, introductory overview of sociology, Plummer’s book doesn’t provide a very clear definition of the field, however it does suggest some interesting ways of thinking about sociology as an intellectual activity and about what professional sociologists are attempting to do.
Plummer notes that “in the past, the sociologist may have been characterized as a person who uses interviews, surveys and [social] statistics, but not now” (p.162). These research tools are now widely used, taking away any uniqueness that might have existed. Sociologists’ work is claimed to now be much broader than using such social research tools to gather and analyse data on human societies. So, what is this broader work?
Plummer suggests that ‘sociology’ is both an effort to contribute to a better empirically-based understanding of the social worlds we live in and also an effort to foster a more “critical attitude to social life” (p.217) and related forms of “critical consciousness” (p.xii):
- Sociologists “research and document the nature of the social times we live in” (p.216). “All good sociology is empirical in the sense that it engages with what is going on in the social world (if it does not, then it becomes something else)” (p.160);
- Sociologists try to see and question what is routinely taken for granted by members of a given society: sociologist must try to “adopt an outsider stance” (p.17) and thereby gain a fresh perspective (e.g. on their society or group); and
- “The overall goal of sociology is to help us all act as critical citizens in a world we never made but every day help to re-create” (p.235)
Well, OK… those aims are a little abstract but I mostly get what he’s trying to say or suggest. But what is the real focus of sociology?
The closest Plummer gets to defining this is the following set of ideas. He suggests that sociology is the systematic, skeptical and critical study of “all that is social in human life” (p.14). In his view, “If it involves people coming together socially, then it can be studied sociologically.” Moreover, he explicitly argues that a sociological approach can be adopted when examining almost any research topic, thus broadening the scope of inquiry enormously.
His more formal definition is the following one: “Sociology is the systematic, sceptical and critical study of the social, investigating the characteristics, construction and consequences of human social worlds” (p.237). Related to this he asserts that “if sociology wants to understand the humanly social, then it is charged with inspecting closely the nature, content and consequences of the ways in which human activities create little social worlds of human meanings” (p.42). However, he never really tells us what a ‘social world’ is, nor what they main constitutive elements are and if these are all necessary or perhaps can differ. Is a social world something as simple as a group, or an organisation, or something more comprehensive like a community or human society? This is what I mean when I say that definitions are often question-begging in nature (in this case, what are ‘human social worlds’?).
What seems more clear are the proposed aspirations to foster “a critical attitude to social life” (p.217) and to help people to act as “critical citizens” (p.235). However, I don’t think that sociology can claim this to be its sole turf so where does that leave us?
Plummer acknowledges that “sometimes sociology is mocked as a rather wild and silly discipline because it can study the most seemingly ridiculous things and seem to be trivial in the extremes” (p.14). Plummer disagrees with this assessment, but he acknowledge its partial basis in reality. He notes that scholars have developed a ‘sociology’ of almost anything and everything with seemingly no logical bounds on inquiry.
A core proposition in Sociology: The Basics is that sociologists begin with a particular view of human life – which emphasises its social aspects and related distinctive realities of life – and then explores the implications of this. The related claim is as follows: “What makes sociologists distinctive are the ‘questions’ and ‘perspectives'” (p.152). For Plummer the emphasis on a particular view of human life is “why it is an ‘ology'” (p.20).
Another central aspect of Sociology: The Basics is Plummer’s ideas about sociology as a particular kind of consciousness. He asserts that sociologists need to become ‘outsiders’ and adopt what he calls an “outsider stance” (p.17). According to this view, sociologists are people who develop the ability to temporarily abandon their own taken-for-granted views whilst entering (and studying) unfamiliar human social worlds. Moreover, he asserts that “it is only the outsider who can see (and question) what is truly taken for granted” (p.5), thus questioning the ability of ‘insiders’ to understand their own social worlds.
Some further underlying premises (or guiding assumptions) are as follows:
- Human beings are never solitary: “there is no such thing as an isolated individual” (p.28);
- The ‘social’ influences more things than people commonly recognise: “Even the most seemingly natural things – like our individualities, our bodies, our feelings, our senses – change enormously under different social situations” (p.28);
- Human beings are coerced by ‘social facts’ of various kinds, and this means that they are not as free as they think they are;
- Human sociality is “marked by its complex symbols: we are the meaning-making, symbol-manipulating animal that creates culture, history, memory, identity and conversation” (p.42). “Only humans built complex systems of meaning making”;
- The social is a continuum ranging from individuals and their senses of self and interactions, to groups, society, and the wider world;
- “To understand the humanly social” sociologists must attend to “the ways in which human activities create little worlds”; and
- And some sociologists argue that ‘the social’ has a dual characteristic: the social is “an external fact – like a crowd – that coerces us to behave in certain ways” (p.46), and the social also takes the form of relationships with others” (p.46).
The final key set of ideas in the book at that sociology is an acquired form of consciousness, a ‘critical’ form of imagination – a form and way of thinking. Plummer suggests that becoming a ‘sociologist’ is “a slow process of acquiring a sociological imagination” (p.153).
Personally, some of what I connect mostly strongly with is the central idea that sociology seeks to promote a skeptical and ‘critical’ consciousness – that is, trying to inform and to foster a more “a critical attitude to social life” (Plummer, 2015, p.217). Plummer (2015, p.217-218) asserts that an important contribution of sociology is better “seeing that things are never quite what they seem and common sense never quite that common.”