The British Sociology Association (BSA) defines sociology as ‘the study of human social life, groups, social institutions* and societies. It is the study of how society is organised and how we experience life’ (1)
(*Social Institutions are those relatively stable aspects of social life which are found in the majority of societies and include the government, various economic institutions (banks, companies), the workplace, legal institutions such as the police and the courts, religion, the media, schools and the family.)
A fuller outline of what ‘doing sociology’ involves can be found in Bauman and May’s (2001) work ‘Thinking Sociologically’ which to my mind remains one of the best introductions to Sociology there is – below is a summary of the introduction
Having pointed out that Sociology is both (1) a disciplined practice and (2) a body of knowledge which is constantly being added to, Bauman and May go on to distinguish four things which further distinguish Sociology as a unique discipline and separate Sociology from ‘common sense’ (it’s important to do this because the subject matter of sociology is every day life, of which we all have our own common-sense understandings):
- Rigorous Research Methods 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.
- Understanding individual human behaviour through looking at wider social relations – 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.
- 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.
- Defamilarisation – 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.
The Advantages of Sociology
Sociology 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.
For a fuller summary of the chapter – please see this post
This question is one of the first things I teach as part of my introduction to sociology module.
(1) The British Sociological Association)