What is Sociology

“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.” is what sociologist C. Wright Mills said in his book The Sociological Imagination (2000; 3). Mills maintains how a personal account connects to a historical event by several factors, which is why he coins sociological imagination to explain how we findthe connection.

Sociology is part of my life; the irony is that I wonder what Sociology means precisely. Socio- means people, and -logy refers to the study of people. However, we must understand the context of sociology to understand its definition. Sociology grew into a significant field. Sociology is a significant field by the way we use sociology. We treat sociology by acknowledging its significances, such as giving sociologists awards, colleges offering sociology courses, and even YouTube channels focusing on them. As sociology keeps growing in popularity, the field allows us to examine how we teach people to have a sociological imagination. The question comes to realizing why sociology is critical.

Sociologist Steven Buechler’s What is Critical about Sociology (2008) helps us to understand the critical elements of sociology: sociology helps us to understand the complex issues from both an individual and social perspective, we are able to debunk misleading ideas, and how we find out a hegemonic perspective in society (318). Buechler explains the two aspects of sociology: the audience and how knowledge is produced comes with four types of sociology: professional sociology, policy sociology, critical sociology, and public sociology (319). Professional sociology focuses on instrumental knowledge for an academic audience, such as publishing peer-reviewed articles for an academic journal. Policy sociology helps people within and outside of academia use instrumental knowledge, such as advocating changes in social policy. Critical sociology pursues academics to use reflexive knowledge, such as explaining how a concept explains a social phenomenon. Lastly, public sociology helps people within and outside academia use reflexive knowledge, such as teaching sociological theories on YouTube through a series of video essays. The four types of sociology help me reflect on how I can disburse sociological knowledge into a course as I can help people within and outside of academia enhance their career paths and interests. However, I must consider the limitations in sociological knowledge in order to understand a broader perspective.

In Julian Go’s Decolonizing Sociology: Epistemic Inequality and Sociological Thought (2017), he points out the two issues of sociology as a discipline: its epistemic inequality and marginalization and the spatial scale of inequality and marginalization (194). Go notes how sociological knowledge is situated by perceiving the world from a cisgender white man’s standpoint (195). The issues with the sociological discipline come back to what I fear in sociology, missing out on crucial details in researching sociological occurrences. As sociology grows as a discipline, more knowledge is uncovering by asking newer questions and gathering broader perspectives. Go’s argument reminds me of philosopher Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speaks. Spivak focuses on how we can interpret the world through the colonizer’s interpretations and a marginalized person but never the Subaltern’s interpretation. We do not know that the Subalterns even exist as they must not be colonized before they can tell us (de Kock, 1992; 29-47). The problem in finding knowledge to share comes down to what I am seeking and consider its significance.

In Patricia Hill Collin’s on Book Exhibits and New Complexities: Reflections on Sociology as Science (1998), Hill explains that as sociology grows as a discipline, we struggle to find books as the fields keep extending. We get to see the humanistic side of sociology as the discipline grows, as sociology shows the human comedy of everyday life (Selznick and Berger, 1964; 165). The social reality we live in requires noticing the human side of sociology: the art of listening and our awareness of our freedom. Sociology is getting us to ask how our lives differ from someone else’s and why so. An example includes a person’s socioeconomic status relating to their race and ethnicity. We learn how racism affects people through some people having limited opportunities by their culture and social capital. Sociologists must ask why people struggle to increase their social mobility, getting out of poverty, and why it is more common for Black Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). We must consider the impact of racism in history, such as slavery or discrimination practices, and current color-blind logic. The impact of racism comes back to how we interpret and respond to our social realities. 

Scholar Kai Erikson explains in Prologue: Sociology as a Perspective (1997) focuses on how we study sociology as more than an approach to social reality or society; it is a body of knowledge and how we are seeing. We are collecting information to put the pieces of social life together to see a more comprehensive image. Through several forms of methods and theories, we understand how social life is structured with a collection of documents and recordings. We use sociology through scientific, humanistic, and artistic orientations to answer questions, such as finding answers through ethnographies and statistical studies in urban lives, allowing us to reconsider changes in institutions or regulating more effective social policies (10-11). We learn how people struggle to adapt to current lives by finding out the core elements in our studies.

Scholar Randall Collins’ The Sociological Eye and Its Blinders (1998) explains how we can find sociology’s core elements, as he states that every type of examiner has the same type of sociological eye, is that we must actively wonder about the world we live relating to our intellectual interest (3). I like that Collins mentions Mill’s grand theorists and abstracted empiricists. Both groups lose focus on what Mill highlights as a critical element for sociologists: commitment to making society progress (4). Collins’ article relates to another called Does the Center Hold? Reflections on a Sociological Core (2016) which the authors also focus on the core of sociological knowledge. The authors argue that we find the core, the central elements by our habit of mind and patterning in our sociological knowledge. The beauty of sociology growing as a discipline is that we are able to find information that helps us to understand patterns in culture and politics. The patterning in sociology includes the way people live their lives, how they react, and how they think, such as how they react to an illness to how they form their political opinions. Patterning comes back to Mill’s Sociological imagination, in which Mill notes how we format thoughts by asking questions about how the economy, culture, and history impact our current lives through their connections to each other. The sociological core is found in what reading materials we most value, regardless of the length of the reading list. An example is masculinities, I have a collection of articles and books relating to the topic, yet I find myself going back to certain articles and books, such as Connell’s Masculinities or articles relating to anti-feminism or how hegemonic masculinity is part of Westernism.    

In conclusion, sociology is not a mere social science discipline, as the areas of sociology include various aspects of social life and other areas. We should teach sociology by understanding its purposes, such as Buechler’s four types of sociology or the patterning and habit of our mind. How we teach sociology requires us to exercise our sociological imagination. We can teach sociological theories, ranging from Karl Marx to Judith Butler, just as we can sociological methods like qualitative and quantitative methods, including even more approaches in using sociological methods. An example is teaching undergraduate students how to do interviews, and I may require students to interview one person and require them to analyze the aspects of the interview through a series of questions. I may ask students to do tasks that will activate them to ask questions on their own. I may ask students to ask the people they are interviewing questions, such as where they come from and their passions. I want to lead students to ask their questions for the interviews, leading them into intellectual curiosity. The sociological theories will also them to interpret their social reality in ways they will comprehend. For instance, the theory of alienation helps us to understand how we feel alienated in several factors. How sociological theories help us understand how macro-level issues relate to micro-level issues is how sociological elements affect how people live and interpret reality. An example is neoliberalism relating to mental health, we live in a culture that values work ethics, but a mass number of people struggles to live a more sustainable life under capitalism, which includes having long work hours, lack of access to resources in treating mental health, and normalization of having high-stress level. The misconception and vague idea that a person must work hard helps us analyze and debunk the misconception. Through their studies and theories, we have scholars who discover how neoliberalism impacts mental health, such as the U.S. government defunded programs for the self-care movement to cultural acceptance to undermine depression and stress. The sociological eye is a tool that every sociologist has, just as every person has a desire in life.  

Resources

Ballantine, Jeanne, et al. “Does the Center Hold? Reflections on a SOCIOLOGICAL CORE.” Teaching Sociology, vol. 44, no. 3, 2016, pp. 151–162., doi:10.1177/0092055×16647432.

Buechler, Steven. “What Is Critical about Sociology?” Teaching Sociology, vol. 36, no. 4, 2008, pp. 318–330., doi:10.1177/0092055×0803600402.

Collins, Patricia Hill. “On Book Exhibits and New Complexities: Reflections on Sociology as Science.” Contemporary Sociology, vol. 27, no. 1, 1998, p. 7., doi:10.2307/2654698.

Collins, Randall. “The Sociological Eye and Its Blinders.” Contemporary Sociology, vol. 27, no. 1, 1998, p. 2., doi:10.2307/2654697.

de Kock, Leon. “Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: New Nation Writers Conference in

South Africa.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 23:3 (July 1992): 29-47

Erickson, Kai. “Preface.” Sociological Visions, pp. 1–11., doi:10.2307/j.ctt1xp3v27.3.

Go, Julian. “Decolonizing Sociology: EPISTEMIC Inequality and Sociological Thought.” Social Problems, vol. 64, no. 2, 2017, pp. 194–199., doi:10.1093/socpro/spx002.

Mills, Charles Wright. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Selznick, Philip, and Peter L. Berger. “Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective.” American Sociological Review, vol. 29, no. 2, 1964, p. 285., doi:10.2307/2092134.

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