What is Sociology? (Bauman and May)

Last Updated on March 1, 2017 by

What is Sociology

Below is an extended summary adapted from Bauman and May’s (2001) work ‘Thinking Sociologically’ which to my mind remains one of the best introductions to Sociology there is!

What is Sociology?

Sociology is a disciplined practice with its own set of questions for approaching the study of society and social relations. It is important for understanding ourselves, each other, and the social environments in which we live.

In search of Distinction

As well as being disciplined set of practices, it also represents a considerable body of knowledge that has been accumulated over the course of history…. it is a site of constant flux with newcomers adding new ideas and studies.

Sociology has the following similarities with ‘cognate’ disciplines such as anthropology, psychology and history –

  • They aim to collect relevant facts and to check them for validity and reliability

  • They aim to present information in a clear and unambiguous way

  • They aim to make clear propositions which are free of contradictions and stand up against the evidence.

‘Sociology is distinguished from other disciplines through viewing human actions as elements of wider figurations: that is, of a non-random assembly of actors locked together in a web of mutual dependency.

Individual actors come into view of sociological study in terms of being members or partners in a network of interdependency. The central questions of Sociology concern how the types of social relations and societies that we inhabit relate to how we see each other, ourselves and our knowledge, actions and their consequences.

Thinking Sociologically also opens up the possibility for thinking about the same world in different ways.

Sociology and Common Sense

Thinking Sociologically is also distinguished by its relationship with so called ‘common sense’. This is because the objects of study of Sociology ( the family, education, media, and so on) are tightly bound up with our ordinary day-to-day routines, and thus everybody already has common sense understandings of these things.

However, in common-sense understanding, we tend to only see these things in terms of our own individual, private, experiences, we rarely pause and ask questions about the social-settings in which we live our lives. ‘Sociological thinking asks us to ‘step back’ and to ask ‘how do our individual biographies intertwine with the history we share with other human beings’.

It is important to draw a boundary between common sense and sociology, and Bauman and May see four ways this can be achieved:

  1. Sociology, unlike common sense, subjects itself to ‘rigorous rules of responsible speech’ – Sociology tries to confine itself to statements that can be baked up by reliable, valid and representative evidence which others can verify, rather than making untested propositions.

  2. Sociology aims to ‘broaden horizons’ and to examine individual biographies in the context of wider social processes. In this sense Sociology encourages people to lift themselves above the level of their daily concerns and see what we share in common with others, and what these commonalities have to do with our particular historical social context.

  3. Sociology is not about understanding things from the individual’s perspective – it stands against the view that someone’s biography is purely down to their own motives, efforts and intentional action. Thinking Sociologically is to make sense of the world through looking at the manifold webs of human dependency.

  4. Sociology involves examining ordinary life in a more fully conscious way – and going through a process of defamiliarisation – looking at society in new ways and realising that ‘this is not the only way we could do things’ – this will not be to everyone’s liking, especially those who benefit from existing social relations.

It involves constantly examining the knowledge we have of selves and others – this is an ongoing process. If we open ourselves up to this processes then it should have the following benefits –

  • It should make us more tolerant of diversity
  • It should render flexible that which may have been oppressive
  • It should make individuals more effective agents of social change – realising that society does act as a restraining force in many ways should enable the individual to direct their efforts more effectively at making changes. (A nice quote here – ‘Sociology stands in praise of the individual, but not individualism’)
  • It should enhance social solidarity – as it makes us realise that many of our private troubles are shared by several (possibly billions) of other people.

Action, Identity and Understanding in Everyday Life

‘Possessing feelings of being free and unfree at the same time is one of the most confusing issues that gives rise to feelings of ambivalence and frustration, as well as creativity and innovation.

You could now choose to carry on reading this, or abandon it and do something else. The ability to make conscious decisions is an exercise of your freedom.

Choice, Freedom and Living with Others

Our choices are not, of course, always the product of conscious decisions, many are habitual.

We are often told that we are responsible for our decisions and their outcomes – the way Unemployment is talked about is a good example of this – the discourse surrounding unemployment is very much one of ‘if you try hard enough you can get a job’. However, if one lives in an area of high unemployment and cannot afford to move, this is simply not the case.

There is thus a difference between one’s ability to reskill and look for a job and the actual capability of making one’s desires manifest in reality (actually getting a job). We are limited by the following things (sticking to the unemployment example):

  • Scarcity – there may be a lack of jobs available

  • Material constraints – we may lack the money to be able to broaden the area in which we search for work.

  • Cultural Constraints – we may live in a sexist/ racist/ classist/ homophobic area – and thus not be able to get a job because of prejudiced views held by employers

  • Our accumulated experiences as part of a particular group – our own norms and values may limit the range of possibilities open to us – we may not feel comfortable interacting with people who we perceive are very different to us.

How we act and see ourselves is informed by the expectations of the groups to which we belong – we are born into various groups (e.g. class/ gender/ ethnicity) and we have no choice over this – these groups give us a set of norms and values which both give us skills which can use to be creative (and express our freedom) but they also constrain us in certain ways.

First – there are ideas about what goals are worth pursuing

Second – there is the matter of how we should pursue these goals

Third – we are expected to identify with certain people and against others – those who might assist and prevent us from meeting expectations one and two.

Being part of a group assumes a huge amount of unconscious knowledge – a ”natural attitude” to do with the minutiae of every day life – from how we dress, to how we speak and our more general value-set. We learn this ‘natural attitude’ through growing up with others, and we generally don’t question the norms and values that we are socialised into, as revealed by the ethnomethodology of Harold Garfinkel.

Oneself with Another: Sociological Perspectives

For Mead ‘who’ we are is not something we are born with, but something we acquire through time, through interaction with others. In order to understand how this occurs, Mead divided our sense of self into two parts – the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’ – the ‘I’ is best thought of as a conversation that takes place within ourselves where we use language to think of ourselves as a whole, the ‘Me’ on the other hand refers to how we organise the expectations of groups within our actions.

To my mind this is better understood as follows:

The ‘I’ – is the internal dialogue you have with yourself about who you are. ‘I’ is your stream of consciousness’

The ‘Me’ is the various ‘social selves’ or ‘roles’ you need to play in day to life and the norms and values you have to make that self conform to. ‘Me’ is the self as others see you.

Our reflexive character is built up by treating ourselves as objects of our own actions as they are understood through the responses of others.

Following Paul Ricoeur, in the course of the acquisition of self-identity we ask questions of ourselves and the first reflexive question of selfhood is ‘who am I’? Here we first experience the contradiction between our inner desires and what we feel obliged to do because of the presence of significant others and their expectations of us.

Freud suggested that the whole process of self-development and the social organisation of human groups may be interpreted in the light of the need and the practical effort to tame sexual and aggressive instincts – but these instincts are never tamed, rather they are ‘repressed’.

The question of exactly how society tames individual instincts and balances these with obligations has been further theorised by the likes of Nancy Chodorow and Norbert Elias.

Socialisation, Significance and Action

The process of how our selves are formed and how instincts may or may not be suppressed is often given the name socialisation.

This is a complex process which involves assigning differential significance to expectations, and goes on from childhood through to adult life.

Making a selection from our environments means choosing reference groups against which we can measure or actions and find the standards to which we aspire.

We may, of course, aspire to be like groups apart from the ones we are born into, increasingly likely in the age of the mass media, where we are exposed to a range of potential groups which we might aspire to, but not actually be part of.

Socialisation is a never ending process which involves a constant rebalancing of freedoms and dependencies.


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