At the beginning of this academic year, Chris and I set a goal: we wanted The Society Pages to do a better job of representing the field of sociology as a whole. This aim is driven by our sense that the site does a great job in certain areas and specialties (race, gender, and sexuality, for example), but not so much in others. In addition, much of our content tends to be more oriented toward commentary, advocacy, and critique than the facts, empirical data, explanations, and discoveries which are so crucial to the research orientation and contributions of the field. We’ve made some great progress on these fronts, especially with building the topical beat pages (which we will unveil soon), revitalizing the Reading List, and launching the new There’s Research on That! feature. But there is still work to be done. In addition to these innovations—actually, as a supplement to them—we want to push for a renewed emphasis on developing content and material that does a better job of identifying, illustrating, and advocating for distinctly sociological approaches and perspectives to the study of human life.
A lot of what sociologists have to contribute is data and social facts in key societal domains (gender, inequality, etc.) as well as critical commentaries that extend from this work. But sociology is also more than new information and critical analysis in a few topical areas. It is also—as anyone who’s ever had an reasonable introduction to sociology class or heard the term “the sociological imagination” can tell you—a whole way of thinking about the world, an orientation, a unique perspective or lens. Too often, however, the distinctively sociological orientation and set of sensibilities is something we sociologists “know when we see it” but have a hard time specifying, articulating, or elaborating explicitly. This distinctive orientation and set of sensibilities is what we want and need to do a better job of identifying, explaining, and promoting in all of our content.
What follows are a few key elements or dimensions of the distinctively sociological vision of and contribution to society. I’m hoping this list can help us—and others—orient and guide our work both on the site and in the world.
- (w)holistic or synthetic: The sociological perspective doesn’t see social life as separate or discrete parts, but as an entire system or set of relationships; there is a real focus on how things fit and work together, how things are connected, shape, determine, and constrain.
- contextualizing: Situating things in a broader social context is a real key for sociology, and it extends from the wholistic or synthetic orientation. People, groups, organizations, ideas, events—none of these exists on its own, in a vacuum. They take shape and meaning in a context, in relation to other phenomenon and forces.
- constructionist: In the sociological vision, very little about human life is inevitable, universal, or predetermined. Nothing can really be assumed or taken for granted. This in mind, we are fascinated how social life is made (or constructed), how it is remade and reproduced, and how it can be changed or transformed. Connected with this is our fascination with identifying and explaining both regular patterns and general processes (making the familiar strange, calling commonsense into question, and exploring underlying forces) and accounting for things that are otherwise puzzling or unexpected (making the unfamiliar more intelligible).
- collectivist: A focus on the social or communal or collective aspects of social life and social action; groups, networks, and commonalities. Sociology also examines institutions, organizations, social systems—all those things we do together, with others.
- attentive: We must be attentive to variation and social and cultural diversity—to outsiders and others who are typically marginalized, disadvantaged, or ignored, and to the unique ways that different people and different groups have of understanding, experiencing, and explaining the world.
- critical and questioning: Attention to inequalities and injustices are part of this, but it also includes social problems and all manner of dysfunctions and conflicts. It also involves generally questioning the taken-for-granted and unseen aspects of social life.
It is this distinctive orientation and set of sensibilities that compose the unique sociological perspective that we mean to do a better job of capturing. Our task is to improve our efforts to spot sociology’s unique take, identify sociological research and writing that adheres to and illustrates these core principles and world views, and find ways to bring all of this out on the site.
Vania — January 29, 2014
Thanks, Doug! This is exactly what I needed to share with my soc theory course this week.
Letta Page — January 29, 2014
We heard the same from a St. Thomas instructor - great news! Thanks, Vania.
Doug Hartmann — January 29, 2014
Letta: I've been getting emails about the proper spelling of wholistic...or is that holistic? Apparently quite important to sociologists. Thoughts?
Friday Roundup: Jan. 31, 2014 » The Editors' Desk — January 31, 2014
[…] “Representing the Field: What—and Where—is ‘Sociology’?” by Doug Hartmann. A call to arms and lenses, a reorientation and focusing of the sociological imagination, and a sort of manifesto from our co-editor. Also: an adorable photo and a kerfuffle over the spelling of (w)holistic. […]
Sarah Lageson — January 31, 2014
I thought part of the benefit of academia was creating new spellings to accurately capture the messy world we live in ;)
Either way, I think this is an excellent piece to share with students as part of an Intro course or as a nice mid-semester refresher once you've gotten into the nitty-gritty. Well done!
Corey Remle — February 6, 2014
I agree with the comments above about sharing it with students in my theory course and intro course. Well said!