We live in a highly complex, very diverse and extremely self-conscious society in a rapidly changing and shrinking world made up of a great many other equally complex, diverse and self-conscious societies. Sociology and the other social sciences (e.g. Anthropology, Economics and Politics, parts of Psychology, Geography, History, Law, Linguistics, Philosophy, Social Policy, Criminology, Education; Management, Health, Gender and Media Studies etc.) clearly has a number of important, but very far from straightforward, roles to play today: (a) in charting and monitoring the nature of social, economic, political and cultural changes; (b) in political decision-making and the implementation and evaluation of policies; (c) in education and training; and (d) in our own personal intellectual and social development.
What is Sociology?
(1) Sociology is a very large and important subject all over the world today. It is also a controversial, ambitious, sprawling and diverse subject.
Everyone's a practising sociologist and there are many different views, ideas and expectations about Sociology's nature and relevance (commonsense, trendy?, radical, essential?) - providing systematic, reliable and relevant information about social life has turned out to be a very much more complicated, demanding, partial and controversial task than it once appeared to be.
(a) There is no guarantee that any of the social sciences can ever achieve the same kind of precision and reliability as the natural and physical sciences (i.e. "scientific").
(b) More than any of the other social sciences, Sociology involves studying a vast range of complex factors, processes and relationships among a great variety of different groups of people whose attitudes, values and ways of life are very different from our own (i.e. "complexity"? "impartiality"?).
(c) As sociologists, we're inextricably part of the same social processes and social relationships we study (i.e. "objective"?)
(a) Sociological research always overlaps with the concerns of other subjects - Anthropology, Economics, Politics, Psychology, History, Geography, Law, Linguistics, Social Policy, Criminology, Education, Health and Medicine etc..
(b) Sociology contains a very large and ever-expanding range of specialist fields Of study - deviance and crime, community, family, religion, sport, war etc..
(c) Sociologists use an extremely wide range of different research styles and methods - analysis of documents and official statistics, surveys, case-studies, many types of interviewing, observation and "participant observation" etc..
Sociology has always been a battleground for a wide range of complementary and competing ideas and theories about the nature of society and the basis of social life - most notably what have come to be known as the consensus, conflict and interactionist (or "interpretive") perspectives. More recent ideas adding to the diversity of Sociology include "feminism", "environmentalism", "globalisation", "postmodernism" and "structuration theory" etc. All this, without even mentioning the influence of contemporary social, economic, political and cultural trends, issues and problems.
(2) What about a basic description or definition of Sociology ?
Dictionaries usually describe Sociology as one of the three core social science subjects, together with Economics and Politics. Then they define Sociology as "the study of society", sometimes also adding "systematic". They go on to say that Sociology is concerned to investigate the role of class, status, power, inequality, age, gender, occupation and education, residential and family background, attitudes, values, life-styles, social organisation (e.g. the formation of groups and group membership), social interaction (e.g. social relationships and face-to-face encounters) and other factors in order to describe and explain different aspects and features of social life and changes in society.
Now, this is all well and good as a very basic description of Sociology, but it really doesn't get us very far.
Let's see what we can learn about Sociology by taking a look at some of the basic textbooks. Then let's see what we can learn about Sociology from looking at some of the kinds of research sociologists actually do.
(3) Looking at the Textbooks
Even a cursory glance at the table of contents of any two or three basic Sociology textbooks reveals that Sociology is made up of an enormous range and number of more specialised fields of study:
Historical Sociology; Political Sociology; Sociology of Industry/ Work; Sociology of Religion; Sociology of the Family; Sociology of Law; Sociology of Organisations; Sociology of Science; Sociology of Knowledge; Sociology of Health/ Medicine; Sociology of Age/ Life-Cycle; Sociology of Youth/ Youth Culture; Sociology of Race and Ethnicity; Sociology of Education; Sociology of Sport; Sociology of Leisure; Sociology of Tourism; Sociology of Art; Sociology of Literature; Sociology of Housing; Sociology of Gender; Sociology of Sex; Urban Sociology; Rural Sociology; Environmental Sociology; Sociology of Underdevelopment; Sociology of Deviance and Crime; Sociology of the Mass Media; Sociology of Economic Life; Sociology of Popular Culture; Sociology of Food; Sociology of War; Sociology of Language; Sociology of Comunication; Sociology of Sociology; [add your own]
(4) Just a few items from the menu of sociological research [bibliography as given on the handout with italics for underlining and added full stops]:
W. F. Whyte (1943), Street Corner Society.
N. Dennis F. Henriques and C. Slaughter (1956) Coal is Our Life.
R. Frankegberg (1957), Village on the Border.
H. Gans (1962), The Urban Villagers.
M. Weinberg (1956), "Sexual Modesty and the Nudist Camp," . Social Problems, Vol. 12, No. 3.
J. Lofland (1966), Doomsday Cult.
J. Rex and R. Moore (1967), Race, Community and Conflict.
S. Cohen, L. Taylor (1967), Psychological Survival: The Experience of Long-Term Imprisonment.
S. Cohen (1973), Folk Devils and Moral Panics.
P. Willis (1977), Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids get Working Class Jobs.
P. Woods (1979), The Divided School.
C. West (1984), "When the doctor is a 'lady': power, status and gender in physician-patient encounters," Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 7, No. 1.
R. Wallis (1984), The Elementary Forms of the New Religious Life.
G. Marshall et al., Social Classes in Modern Britain.
M. Riley (1988), Power, Politics and Voting Behaviour.
D. Morrison and H. Tumber (1988), Journalists at War: The Dynamics of News Reporting During the Falklands War.
H. Gouldbourne (1990), Black People and British Politics.
B. Gunter and J. McAleer (1990), Children and Television: The One Eyed Monster.
D. Martin (1991), Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America.
J. Chandler (1991), Women Without Husbands: An Exploration of the Margins of Marriage.
V. King and M. J. Nazaruddin (1991), Issues in Rural Development in Malaysia.
M. Featherstone (1991), Consumer Culture and Postmodernism.
D. J. Smith (1992), Understanding the Underclass.
R. Edwards (1993), Mature Women Students.
C. Ritzer (1993), The McDonaldization of Society.
J. Coates (1993), Women, Men and Language.
J. Scott (1994), Poverty and Wealth: Citizenship, Deprivation and Privilege.
H. Brod and M. Kaufman (1994), Theorizing Masculinity.
H. Clark, J. Chandler and J. Berry (1994), Organizations and Identities.
D. Cameron (1995), Verbal Hygiene.
K. Kumar (1995), From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society.
S. Widdicombe and R. Wooffitt (1995), The Language of Youth Subcultures.
P. Atkinson (1995), Medical Talk and Medical Work.
A. J. Vidich (1995), The New Middleclasses: Life-Styles Status Claims and Political Orientations.
S. G. Jones (1995), Cybersociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community.
D. Rowe (1995), Popular Cultures: Rock Music, Sport and the Politics of Pleasure.
P. Flichy (1996), Dynmics of Modern Communication: The Shaping and Impact of the New Communication Technologies.
S. Stephens (1996), Children and the Politics of Culture.
P. Hirst and G. Thompson (1996), Globalization in Question.
[Handout continues with advice on priority reading ahead of necessary attendance at classes. This is meant for Sociological Analysis undergraduate students, many quite new to the subject. It advises as vital the purchase of Haralambos and Holborn, Sociology: Themes and Perspectives], now published by HarperCollinsPublishers.
Ray Francis, Adrian Worsfold