Everyday sociology: objective but not detached

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I studied sociology as an undergraduate. And while I don’t feel a strong desire to claim a disciplinary home, if I am compelled to assume one: then it would have to be sociology. I can say that these days with pride. Or at least without embarrassment. There was a time when to declare yourself a sociologist was to disclose something a little bit embarrassing. Sociology at one time had the academic status currently enjoyed by ‘Media Studies’ and other ‘Mickey Mouse’ subjects (just ask any regular reader of the Daily Mail and they will confirm this for you). As a PGCE student, I was informed by colleagues that a degree in sociology was a degree in ‘common sense.’

But times have changed; if the apparent everydayness of sociology damaged its disciplinary status in my undergrad years, its status may have improved but its everydayness continues to be a challenge. After all, as one tweeter has commented: ‘I learn more about society after a few hours  travelling the length of the bakerloo line than I do an an undergrad seminar’. We are all sociologist now because we are all engaged  in more or less self-conscious attempts to understand the society we live in and we all have access to vast bodies of data on a mouse click. (Data that – in any other era – it might have taken a sociologist a lifetime to generate).  The crisis in empirical sociology has simply been updated for the digital era.

If the disciplinary home is important, if sociology rather then education is to be a disciplinary home, its worth considering what is particular abut sociology. And here its its everydayness that might well be the thing.

the value of sociology lies in its capacity to make connections between public issues and private troubles, between history and biography, or what some might call structure and agency. The value of the sociological imagination […], is that it ‘enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and external career of a variety of individuals’ (Gane & Back 2012 p 402) 

Sociology occupies a common space. And there is a ‘sleeping sociologist in all of us’ (Blackshaw, 2005 p 60).  Social analysis is not our discrete province. If there is something particular about sociology, it is (according to Buroway 2005) that is adopts the ‘standpoint’ of civil society. The sociologist engages in a critical project to resist the excesses of the state and the market and their capacity to colonise the social. Critical sociology is publicly engaged.

It is the cultivation of a sensibility, an attentive and sensuous craft within a moral and political project.

It is also, as C.Wright-Mills himself has stated

… a navigation device. It is a set of competences and a way of holding onto the world that is to provide clues about how to defend oneself against its whims and mystifications. It is to do so by instilling a particular quality of mind – a sociological imagination – which makes the unfamiliar more familiar and treats the familiar as a source of astonishment (see Bauman, 2011: 160–72; Mills, 1959: 14).

He further advises, the aspirant sociologist to:

Avoid the fetishism of method and technique. Urge the rehabilitation of the unpretentious intellectual craftsman [sic], and try to become such a craftsman [sic] yourself. Let every man [sic] be his own methodologist; let every man [sic] be his own theorist; let theory and method again become part of the practice of a craft. (Mills, 1959: 246)

References

Bauman, B. (2011) Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age. Cambridge: Polity.

Burawoy, M. (2005) ‘2004 American Sociological Association Presidential Address: For Public Sociology’, British Journal of Sociology 56(2): 259–94.

Gane, N., & Back, L. (2012). C. Wright Mills 50 years on: The promise and craft of sociology revisited. Theory, Culture & Society, 29(7-8), 399-421.

Mills, C.W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination . Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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