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Course no: SS 601N Theoretical Orientations in Sociological Analysis

Course Teacher: Prof. Maitrayee Chaudhuri

Submitted by: Smriti Tandon

M.Phil (Semester-1)

CSSS/SSS

Date: 13.09.2010

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What is sociology?

Sociology has arisen in part from a conviction that social life needs to be viewed as a
whole if it is to be well comprehended. The whole is more than some of its parts.
Durkheim says that society is ‘suigeneris’. As for sociology, it is an organised endeavour
to increase human knowledge and self understanding through the systematic study of
social life. For many sociologists, it represents an attempt to apply to the study of human
society the same scientific method and approach that have been so dramatically in
yielding an understanding of the physical world.

Sociologists have never hesitated to trespass boldly the political, economic, the
psychological and the demographic aspects of any particular social group or social
situation and have readily accepted sociology as a discipline aiming for interdisciplinary
research.

There have been many social thinkers like Comte, Spencer, Durkheim and Weber, who
owe the credit for having established sociology into an independent and separate
discipline. For Weber, ‘sociology is a science which attempts at the interpretive
understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its
cause and effect. Action is social by the virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by
the acting individual (or individuals), it takes account of the behaviour of others and is
thereby oriented in its course.

Durkheim, in his book ‘The Rules of Sociological Method’ argues that there is a genuine
distinction between the natural and social sciences. The methods of science applicable in
the natural science are nevertheless valid within the social field. For Durkheim, sociology
is the study of social facts and for sociology so be a scientific study, the study of social
facts is essential. Durkheim states which fact are called ‘social facts’. Durkheim lays
down two empirical tests for the existence of social facts. The first of these is that it has
the property of being general throughout the extent of a given society. The second test
that he applies is that a social fact is capable of exercising constraints or coercive power.
He tries to explain empirical constants in the phenomena of suicide and marriage and
death rates. Durkheim treats social facts on the ground that they are, though they are not
themselves compulsive and constraining.

C.W, Mills, In his book ‘The Sociological Imagination’, interestingly views sociology
differently. He says, ‘neither the life of an individual nor the history of society can be
understood without understanding both’. The sociological imagination enables its
possessor to understand his own experience and gauge his own fate by locating himself
within a period.

For Mills sociology arises from sociological imagination, a quality of the mind to
understand the intimate realities of ourselves in connection with larger social realities. It
is not merely perceived as cultural sensibility but as the promise that human reason will
have a greater role in human affairs. Mills way of perceiving sociology seems antithetical
to that of Durkheim, for he is looking at sociology with a more imaginative, secular,
humanistic, social sensibility view. He has added a human meaning and social role even
to scientific endeavour. For him, military, commercial issues, issues of political
rearrangement have undergone ‘confused re-appraisal’ and cannot be merely solved by a
scientific view.

He views sociology as the ‘centre of reflection about social sciences’. He perceives that
sociological work has tended to move in one or more of three general directions. First
tendency is towards ‘theory of history’. For example, in the works of Comte, Marx,
Spencer and Weber, sociology is an encyclopaedic endeavour, concerned with the whole
of man’s social life. Second tendency is ‘towards a systematic theory of nature of man
and society’. It is concerned with the use of classifying social relations and components
of social structure. For example, Simmels and Parsons. Third tendency is ‘towards
empirical studies of contemporary social facts and problems’. For example, studies of
cities, families, racial ethnic relations and small groups. Thus for Mills, sociology
becomes an encompassing study of some special areas of society and social structure.

In an age when sociologists have tried to imitate the ‘quantifying methods’ and ‘opaque
idiom’ of the hard sciences, Robert Nisbet went against the current. In ‘Sociology as an
Art Form’ sociological breakthroughs are traced primarily to counter revolutionary
Europe. Nisbet’s idea can be drawn from the opening line of his book which states;

“Sociology is, without question, one of the sciences, but it is also one of the arts-
nourished, as I argue in this book, precisely the same kinds of creative imagination which
are able to be found in such areas as music, painting, poetry, the novel and drama.”

He argues that what is common to art and science is vastly more important than what is
different. He quotes the example of ‘metallurgy’ which began with the making of
necklace, beads and ornaments before knives and weapons could be made. He tries to
draw a close relation between art on one hand and science and craftsmanship on the
other. Nisbet opines that in art as in science, experiments tend to follow
‘conventionalised routines’. Among sociologists it was Max Weber, in ‘Science as
Vocation’, who called attention to the relation of art and experiment in science.

Nisbet refers to Karl Mannheim’s work, who recognised the affinity of art and science in
the concept of style. Mannheim emphasised that social science too has its styles which
enable us to distinguish ‘the work of a Ricardo from a Keynes and of a Comte from a
Weber’. He points out that what is true of styles is equally true of themes in art and in
science. Nisbet in his book points out certain themes that have guided the energies of
sociologists since Comte brought the discipline of sociology into being and is very
evident in the writings of Tocqueville, Marx, Le Play, Toennies, Weber, Simmel and
Durkheim among Europeans and in United States in the work of Sumner, Cooley, Ross,
Mead and Thomas. These themes are: community, authority, status, the sacred,
community, masses, power, egalitarianism, anomie, alienatation and disorganisation.

Nisbet has chosen to describe sociology in its great formative age. The age that reaches
from Tocqueville and Marx through Weber, Durkheim and Simmel, in terms of
‘sociological landscape’, ‘portrait’ (bourgeoisie, worker, bureaucrat), ‘the illusion of
motion’ and through the ‘rust of progress’.

Giddens in the ‘Social Theory and Modern Sociology’ is concerned with the
“comparative study of social institutions, giving particular emphasis on those forms of
society brought into being by the advent of modern industrialism”. Giddens explains that
sociology tells us about things that we already know, though ordinarily we do not know
them in the sense of being entirely aware of them. That is to say that a good deal of our
knowledge of our social conventions consists of being able to ‘go on’ in the multifarious
context of social activity.

Goffman’s writings tend to produce a feeling of privileged insight into the mundane and
everyday affairs that constitute an important part of sociological discipline.

Peter Berger views sociology not as a practice but as an ‘attempt to understand’. He


agrees with Max Weber’s understanding of sociology as a ‘value free’ discipline. Berger
says, “The sociologist will have many values as a citizen, a private person… but within
the limits of his activities as a sociologist there is one fundamental value only - that of
scientific integrity”. He points out that it is the part of the intellectual training that he
tries to understand and control the ‘bias’. He is able to check the grotesque exaggeration
of this ‘methodism’. Berger draws our attention to the point that in order to distinguish
sociology from the commonsense knowledge, it is really important for the discipline to
develop a terminology. Berger points out that the first wisdom of sociology is that ‘things
are not what they seem’. He reveals that sociology will be satisfying to those who in the
long run can think of nothing more entrancing than watching men and to understand
things more humanely. He talks of sociology as a kind of ‘individual pastime’, a special
kind of passion and also as a ‘form of consciousness’.

People commonly speak of a social problem when something in society does not work
the way it is supposed to or expected to. For Berger, the ‘sociological problem is always
the understanding of what goes wrong in terms of sociological interaction’. ‘The
fundamental sociological problem is not crime but the law, not divorce but marriage, not
racial discrimination but radically defined stratification, not revolution but government.’
The ‘problems’ that the sociologists would want to solve concern an understanding of the
entire social situation, the values, and modes of action in both systems, and the way in
which the two systems coexist in time and space. The very ability to look at ‘a situation
from the vantage points of competing systems of interpretation’ is one of the hallmarks of
sociological consciousness. Berger thus contends that there is a ‘debunking motif’
inherent in sociological consciousness.

Berger says that man is located in society not only in space but also in time. The society
is a historical entity that is it was there before we were born and it will be there after we
are dead. While locating the society in man, Berger feels that ‘the society penetrates us as
much as it envelops us’.

Agreeing with Berger and Goffman, we locate ourselves in the society and recognise our
own social positions. The fact remains that sociology has a ‘humanistic character’ that
will manifest itself and sociology will find ‘a living space in our contemporary situation’.
References:

Durkheim, Emile. 1938. The Rules of Sociological Method. New York. The Free Press.

Giddens, Anthony. 1987. Social Theory and Modern Sociology. U.K. Polity Press.

Nisbet, Robert. 2002. Sociology as an Art Form. New Brunswick, U.S.A. and London
U.K. Transaction Publishers.

Mills, C.Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. New York. Oxford University
Press.

Goldthrope, J.E. 1968. An Introduction to Sociology. Cambridge. Cambridge University


Press.

Berger, Peter. 1966. Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective. Great Britain.


Penguin Books.