What do we call sociological research done by untrained sociologists?

In it’s simplest form sociological research is nothing more than the making and testing of hypotheses about the social world (i.e. groups of people, institutions, culture, etc.). We all do that every day. You can’t make sense of the world without doing informal sociological research. So what do we call this untrained sociological research?

What I’m talking about is not common sense. As Mathesin (1989) points out, common sense is a body of knowledge, not a methodology. What I want to talk about is the methodology people use everyday to explore the social world. To be clear, I’m talking about the non-systematic observations of anecdotal evidence, hearsay, and media reports used to draw conclusions about the social world. What should we call that?

We should call it intuitive sociology.

By definition intuition means “The ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning”. Furthermore, unlike scientific reasoning, intuition draws its conclusions,
“without the use of rational processes”. Intuition is also BFF with the confirmation bias, as it’s conclusions are often drawn “based on or agreeing with what is known or understood without any proof or evidence”.

Therefore I define Intuitive Sociology as the non-systematic, non-empirical process of making and testing hypotheses about the social world that is carried out without conscious reasoning. The findings from this methodology are often selected based on the prior beliefs and/or needs of the individual using the approach.

Why Intuitive Sociology Matters

Intuitive sociology matters because it is what our students bring with them into our class room. The first challenge any sociology teacher faces is convincing students that a rigorous, conscious, rational, empirical methodology offers them something that their intuitive sociology methods cannot. You have to show them that intuitive sociology is flawed and produces a vision of the world that is often inaccurate. You have to give them “new eyes” to see the world around them again for the first time.

Our students will spend the entire semester going back and forth between their intuitive and scientific sociological methodologies. They will waffle between anecdotal and empirical evidence. Keeping this in mind can help us be more empathetic and patient teachers.

Intuition is Flawed, Science is Flawed

Sociology is not a religion (to Comte’s chagrin). Obviously, sociology like all scientific endeavors is also flawed. Any first semester grad student can rail on the subjectivity of science, but I’ll spare you as I’m guessing you already know the deal. Empirical methods cannot give us the “Truth”, but they can provide us with a perspective that intuitive methods cannot.

We also need to honor the experiences of our students. Shaming their use of intuition or ridiculing their common sense is a counterproductive approach to teaching. We should not present sociology as diametrically opposed to intuition and common sense because in reality they are interconnected, but that’s a topic for another day. I think the best we can hope for our students is that when they leave our classes they will find ways to use their sociological imaginations in conjunction with their intuition and common sense.