Wednesday, 2 May 2012

What is Sociology?

By Mark Featherstone

Sociology is the study of society and social relationships. It allows us to understand individual problems in their proper social context and reflect upon the ways in which everyday life concerns, such as family relationships, education, and work, are conditioned by forms of social organisation and social systems. For example, we may believe that the forms our relationships with other people take are absolutely about who we are, but for sociologists the way we relate to other people is characterised and conditioned by social norms and values about how we should behave in relation to other people. Similarly, we may imagine that the career we choose, and the amount of money we earn, is about our individual ability, but for sociologists this is conditioned by shifts in the labour market which take place beyond the individual in the social sphere. This is, of course, hard to see in everyday life because in our society we imagine that our fate is determined by our own individual behaviour.

The objective of Sociology is to show us that nobody is an island and that our fates are inter-related. We live in society, which sociologists conceive as the totality of social relations that make up our lives as family members, friends, neighbours, citizens of nations, and finally human beings. It is the object of sociology to study these different scales of sociability in order to allow us to understand why our lives and the lives of others are the way they are. However, Sociology is not simply descriptive, and sociologists do not simply produce accounts of social systems. Sociology is also concerned to produce sociological accounts of individual problems by understanding the social roots of phenomenon such as divorce or unemployment. In this way, Sociology is a diagnostic discipline. It diagnoses social problems with a view to critically analysing sociological conditions. In other words, we may ask why are there such high levels of unemployment in society and what it is about society and the labour market that means that people struggle to find work. In this respect Sociology is also a critical discipline because it asks us to critically analysis society and social conditions in order to be able to understand why problems, such as unemployment, exist in the first place. Although critique is valuable for its own sake, because it is important to have critically engaged citizens in democratic society, the final objective of Sociology is to suggest productive interventions into social problems and design social policies that may make our society a better place.

In this way Sociology comprises three phases (diagnosis, critique, and intervention) that require us to first, exercise our imaginations in order to understand individual problems sociologically; second, think ethically and make judgements about fairness so that we can critically analyse social systems; and third, construct practical interventions that will make a real difference to people’s lives. It is this three phase approach to the study of society which makes Sociology essential for the 21st century when our world is more complex than ever before. It is this three phase approach to Sociology which informs the practice of the discipline at Keele.