Sociology gets a bad rap, often quite justifiably in my opinion. But I am a sociologist and although I’m not working at the moment I think sociology gets into your bones and to an extent becomes part of what you are. I want to say a bit about that here, but first I need to get defensive, as sociology is often laughed at, one of the ‘fake degrees’ (“oh you have an ‘ology’!)
There are perhaps three reasons why sociology is criticized. The first is that people don’t know what it is and just go along with the crowd of critics. I won’t even go into the conspiracy theories and suchlike as they’re not worthy of attention. There are two more reasonable criticisms though: one based on experience and one on its definition as a ‘science’. Let’s look briefly at these.
One of the reasons why people criticize sociology is that they studied it perhaps at school or more likely at university and formed their opinions of it based on that. I think most of us expect that a three (or four) year degree in a subject would give us a rounded and balanced understanding of it, but I think actually the really interesting part of sociology is what you learn at (post)graduate not undergraduate level. At undergraduate level you learn some of the big theories (of the ‘dead white men’, although increasingly more diverse voices are included), some methodology and will have courses on broad topics such as race, gender, perhaps class/social stratification and aging. You might have some courses on development sociology, looking at theories of social/economic development and aid. It’s all interesting, but tends to give a skewed view of what sociology is, partly because sociology now is incredibly broad but mainly because these topics are an important foundation, but just that, a foundation. People leave their studies thinking that sociology is the study of race/gender/sexuality/class. While its true that these are research areas, not all sociologists look directly at them, though they may be lenses with which to look at other topics.
Another reason that sociology is criticized (or downright laughed at) is that it’s not ‘scientific’ enough. Some sociologists even have the gall to call themselves ‘social scientists’! I think this is a fair enough criticism if you expect the subject to be a science. There is a scientific side to sociology. The scientific method is followed by many sociologists as closely as is reasonably possible considering the subject matter. Consider this intro to sociology site that states quite clearly that “Sociology is the scientific study of society”: https://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/savvy/introtosociology/Documents/Field%20of%20sociology033108.htm
This is only one view of sociology (although it is the predominant one). I won’t try to defend or support this view here except to say that it is most obviously applied to quantitative or positivist sociology (that is, quantifying social phenomena; putting objects of study into numerical form). There is another view of sociology though: that it is more like an art or craft which nonetheless can still explore and expose some aspects of the social world. I increasingly feel part of this view.
Anyway, enough about that. On to the main topic of this post which is how I happened to find myself becoming a sociologist.
You may recall in my previous post that I had to quit my degree in Music and Drama because of a mental breakdown (agoraphobia). I loved that degree and part of me wishes I could have finished it, but it was not to be. I moved back to my home town to convalesce and after recognizing that it would be difficult to continue with this first degree I enrolled at a local college to start a degree in Social and Urban Studies. This would mean I could still stay in my hometown and study while continuing to recover. As for why I chose Social and Urban Studies, I’d like to say that it was because of a sudden revelation that I needed to understand society, but frankly it was just the most interesting looking degree available at the college. So I stumbled into the social sciences because… well, it was the path of least resistance.
Fortunately I found it interesting and eye-opening. The degree looked at multiple social sciences and included modules on psychology, economics, urban planning, sociology, women’s studies and social science methods (statistics). The environment was totally different to my former institution. You see, my hometown built its economy on mining and manufacturing. And these industries were taken apart during the 1980s (much could be written about that but probably the less the better…). So you had a lot of unemployed ex-miners who were retraining and in my degree we had a lot of their wives who were getting a higher education as ‘mature students’. The age difference between us was quite large but most importantly the difference in life experience was stark. While I’d gone straight from school to university, had a bout of illness and then straight back into education, these people had lived. When the topic of socioeconomic class was explored, my course mates were well aware of it; they had experienced the hardships of the Margaret Thatcher years. When, in the women’s studies module we talked about traditional gender roles, some of the women struggled, because to them it was simply the way they’d been raised. In my first degree, lecturers had found getting young students to give an opinion rather like getting blood from a stone, in this degree everyone had an opinion. Discussions were not based on just the texts we read, but based on the experiences of the participants. It was exciting (and a little frightening if I’m honest).
I wasn’t really sure what I would do after the degree. I enjoyed learning but I had no grand plan of what I would do. Although each module was interesting, none of them grabbed me and gave me inspiration, until… Michel Foucault. We had one module taught by one of the strictest lecturers on Michel Foucault. We read Discipline and Punish. We visited an old Victorian prison. I found it fascinating. I could see how education itself could be a technology of disciplining bodies. Foucault is divisive, a bit like Marmite, you either love him or hate him. I loved him. That strict (he really was… a lot of the students couldn’t stand him to be honest) lecturer’s module is what turned me on to sociology. Around the same time I had to decide what my final year’s thesis would be and I was really hooked on postmodernism—hey, it was the ‘90s—and another module on social psychology. I decided to write my thesis on “The Postmodern Self” and use qualitative interviews to explore it.
From being a student who was just going through the motions to get a degree I’d become driven. I spent hours and hours in the library reading books on postmodern theory, existential phenomenology and social psychology. I interviewed people about their lives and the choices they had made and how they viewed themselves, their ‘identities’. I loved the book “The Saturated Self” by Kenneth Gergen and, when I wanted clarity on part of his theory I emailed him—yes email was now a thing—and amazingly he replied. (Side note: this is why I made it a policy to reply to undergraduate students who emailed me. Many professors think it beneath them unfortunately).
So I was hooked. Although my thesis was grounded in social psychology, I was mainlining authors who were (at least considered by many to be) sociologists: Giddens, Bauman, Baudrillard…
I enjoyed writing that thesis so much that I knew I had to study further, a Masters or preferably a PhD. But what to study? And where?
Well that… will be a future post. But through the experience of doing a degree at a small college I had fallen down the rabbit hole and was on my way to becoming a sociologist.