‘Written for those who know little to nothing about sociology, the book presents sociological theory, theorists, and key terms and concepts while enticing readers with humor, illustrative stories, and sociological antidotes, producing a foundational level of understanding in sociology. Valuable to the most novice student as well as to the well-versed sociologist. Highly recommended’ – Choice May 2011
A lively, accessible and comprehensive introduction to the diverse ways of thinking about social life, Sociology: The Basics examines:
the scope, history and purpose of sociology
ways of understanding ‘the social’
the state of the world we live in today
suffering and social inequalities
key tools for researching and thinking about ‘the social’
the impact of new technologies.
The reader is encouraged to think critically about the structures, meanings, histories and cultures found in the rapidly changing world we live in. With tasks to stimulate the sociological mind and suggestions for further reading both within the text and on an accompanying webpage, this book is essential reading for all those studying sociology, and those with an interest in how the modern world works.
About the Author
Ken Plummer is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex, UK and is internationally known for his research on sexualities and narrative. He is author of the best selling Sociology: A Global Introduction (with John Macionis, 5th edition, 2011).
We are met here to discuss “Social Knowledge: Heritage, Challenges, Perspectives.” I shall argue that our heritage is something I shall call “the culture of sociology,” and I shall try to define what I think this is. I shall further argue that, for several decades now, there have been significant challenges precisely to that culture. These challenges essentially consist of calls to unthink the culture of sociology. Given both the persistent reassertion of the culture of sociology and the strength of these challenges, I shall try finally to persuade you that the only perspective we have that is plausible and rewarding is to create a new open culture, this time not of sociology but of social science, and (most importantly) one that is located within an epistemologically reunified world of knowledge.
We divide and bound knowledge in three different ways: intellectually as disciplines; organizationally as corporate structures; and culturally as communities of scholars sharing certain elementary premises. We may think of a discipline as an intellectual construct, a sort of heuristic device. It is a mode of laying claim to a so-called field of study, with its particular domain, its appropriate methods, and consequently its boundaries. It is a discipline in the sense that it seeks to discipline the intellect. A discipline defines not only what to think about and how to think about it, but also what is outside its purview. To say that a given subject is a discipline is to say not only what it is but what it is not. To assert therefore that sociology is a discipline is, among other things, to assert that it is not economics or history or anthropology. And sociology is said not to be these other names because it is considered to have a different field of study, a different set of methods, a different approach to social knowledge.
Sociology as a discipline was an invention of the late nineteenth century, alongside the other disciplines we place under the covering label of the social sciences. Sociology as a discipline was elaborated more or less during the period 1880 to 1945. The leading figures of the field in that period all sought to write at least one book that purported to define sociology as a discipline. Perhaps the last major work in this tradition was that written in 1937 by Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action, a book of great importance in our heritage, and to whose role I shall return. It is certainly true that, in the first half of the twentieth century, the various divisions of the social sciences established themselves and received recognition as disciplines. They each defined themselves in ways that emphasized clearly how they were different from other neighboring disciplines. As a result, few could doubt whether a given book or article was written within the framework of one discipline or another. It was a period in which the statement, “that is not sociology; it is economic history, or it is political science” was a meaningful statement.
I do not intend here to review the logic of the boundaries that were established in this period. They reflected three cleavages in objects of study that seemed obvious to scholars at the time, and were strongly enunciated and defended as crucial. There was the cleavage past/present that separated idiographic history from the nomothetic trio of economics, political science, and sociology. There was the cleavage civilized/other or European/non-European that separated all four of the previous disciplines (which essentially studied the pan-European world) from anthropology and Oriental studies. And there was the cleavage – relevant only, it was thought, to the modern civilized world – of market, state, and civil society that constitued the domains respectively of economics, political science, and sociology (Wallerstein et al., 1996, ch. I). The intellectual problem with these sets of boundaries is that the changes in the world-system after 1945 – the rise of the U.S. to world hegemony, the political resurgence of the non-Western world, and the expansion of the world-economy with its correlative expansion of the world university system – all conspired to undermine the logic of these three cleavages (Wallerstein et al., 1996, ch. II), such that by 1970 there had begun to be in practice a serious blurring of the boundaries. The blurring has become so extensive that, in the view of many persons, in my view, it was no longer possible to defend these names, these sets of boundaries, as intellectually decisive or even very useful. As a result, the various disciplines of the social sciences have ceased to be disciplines, because they no longer represent obviously different fields of study with different methods and therefore with firm, distinctive boundaries.
The names have not for that, however, ceased to exist. Far from it! For the various disciplines have long since been institutionalized as corporate organizations, in the form of university departments, programs of instruction, degrees, scholarly journals, national and international associations, and even library classifications. The institutionalization of a discipline is a way of preserving and reproducing practice. It represents the creation of an actual human network with boundaries, a network that takes the form of corporate structures that have entrance requirements and codes providing for recognized paths of upward career mobility. Scholarly organizations seek to discipline not the intellect but the practice. They create boundaries that are far firmer than those created by disciplines as intellectual constructs, and they can outlast the theoretical justification for their corporate limits. Indeed, they have already done so. The analysis of sociology as an organization in the world of knowledge is profoundly different from the analysis of sociology as an intellectual discipline. If Michel Foucault may be said to have intended to analyze how academic disciplines are defined, created, and redefined in The Archaeology of Knowledge, Pierre Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus is the analysis of how academic organizations are framed, perpetuated, and reframed within the institutions of knowledge.
I am not going to follow either path at the moment. I do not believe, as I have said, that sociology is any longer a discipline (but neither are our fellow social sciences). I do believe they all remain very strong organizationally. And I believe that it follows that we all find ourselves in a very anomalous situation, perpetuating in a sense a mythical past, which is perhaps a dubious thing to do. However, I wish rather to turn my attention to sociology as a culture, that is, as a community of scholars who share certain premises. For I believe that it is in the debates in this domain that our future is being constructed. I shall argue that the culture of sociology is recent and vigorous, but also fragile, and that it can continue to thrive only if it is transformed.