I am quite used to being the butt of other teacher’s jokes about my subject. I am lucky enough to teach both sociology and psychology and whilst people often wilfully suggest a sinister undertone to psychology suggesting that we can read people’s minds or secretly analyse them, when discussing sociology many have a look of utter bewilderment.
According to popular opinion sociology is easy, mostly common-sense and requires very little application. However, I would argue to study it properly it is exactly the opposite. Students are required to eschew common-sense understandings in favour of a more nuanced analysis that makes reference to complex ontological and epistemological debates.
The Russell Groups list of ‘facilitating subjects’ does not help matters and even amongst fellow social scientists there is sometimes a tacit understanding that in the hierarchy, sociology is not as challenging as it’s more well established brothers and sisters of psychology, economics and politics. Even the mothership of philosophy looks down on it’s offspring. Moreover, our image in popular culture may be forever tarnished by the association with Rick from the young ones.
But it is up to us to challenge these stereotypes and remind the world of the value of our way of thinking. Perhaps there is something useful about our outsider status? As Howard S. Becker would say – beware the underdogs, sociology should not become too comfortable or too established. The promise of sociology is to remain critical and true to it’s radical purpose.
Sociology is a demanding academic discipline that has a range of perspectives and concepts to make sense of the world. Its heart is empirical but with a healthy cynicism about the social construction of knowledge. Its passion is truth with an understanding of statistical significance. Just as we can only observe the effects of the laws of gravity, similarly the laws of society makes themselves known in quantitative and qualitative analysis. The effects of sexism, racism and poverty are self-evident, our purpose is to explore the causes and possible solutions.
I enjoy using my sociological imagination and seeing the strange in the familiar and the general in the particular. Sociology is the ability to think ourselves away from the familiar routines of our daily lives in order to look at things afresh and anew. We do not take our everyday world for granted – we seek to question and ask why it takes the form it does. Like an inquisitive four year old, it is essential that we continue to ask why are things the way they are? Disrupting our normal thinking and justifications is an important step in understanding social phenomena. Asking who really benefits from things being the way they are is an essential life skill, peeling back the layers and seeing things as they really are.
At times of Brexit, Trump fake news and political spin, it seems a sociological approach is needed now more than ever. Tony Blair was famously influenced by the Antony Giddens but I suspect you will find very few sociology graduates near Theresa May’s Downing Street. The hierarchy of the social sciences is also played out on the evening news and daytime sofas as the experts and pundits who are invited on carry the title, chief economist or psychologist. Where are the sociologists who spend their careers trying to make sense of how societies work?
The polymath, Richard Osman has usefully contributed to this debate by stating.
“Sociology should be taught everywhere, that’s my view. Even GCSE Sociology arms you against a lifetime of spin, ‘fake news’ and moral panic.”
“Sociology and Media Studies were always derided as Mickey Mouse subjects, but now they’re the only subjects which really explain our world.”
“I’ve always said that the two things I learned at school that I use every day are A Level Sociology and O Level Statistics!”
Comrades, we need to fly the flag for sociology. There is much to be gained from more understanding rather than less. How do we make sense of globalisation and the challenges of a changing world. How do we understand the myth of meritocracy and the inequalities that deepen on a daily basis. How do we separate evidence from dogma?
I am not advocating that we ignore the other disciplines in our family, moreover that we need to fight for our continued place at the table. We need to demonstrate how relevant and useful our ideas are. Sociology offers important lessons that some of the other subjects may not.
Social science is at its best when we are able to work together in a multi-disciplinary way to make sense of the world. There is a problem if we allow any one of the social sciences to dominate – when all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail. The risk is that if every political advisor is an economist or financier then all our problems may be seen to have an economic aetiology. For example, the Brexit debate was reduced down to its simpler components of money and sovereignty where a more nuanced discussion would include issues of culture, identity and the threat of globalisation. Equally, the issue of criminal behaviour can also be explored with psychological explanations around the criminal mind but by only adopting this perspective ignores the wider social context of crime. Crime as a complex interaction of norms and values as well as an insight into power and inequality. As this 17th Century folk song suggests:
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.
Governments have long distrusted sociology, to the extent that the Thatcher government almost got rid of us as a school option altogether. I guess if there is no such thing as society, why would you need to study it. The subject itself is not without its own internal critiques as the ethnomethodologists and post-modernists pick at its fabric.
However, we have persisted and there is much to be gained from a sociological insight for teenagers and politicians alike. To understand social phenomena we must be able to examine the root causes. One of the challenges is that often the social policy prescriptions are complex, there are very few panaceas to overcoming social problems. Sociology also has a role in evaluating the effectiveness of it’s policy suggestions for example the long term success of sure start initiatives which have been threatened by austerity policies. Sociology was borne out of a desire to understand the unprecedented social changes that accompanied industrialisation and capitalism. To make sense of globalisation, consumerism, individualism, Trump and Brexit, we have never needed sociology more.