The discipline of sociology

One of the least intuitive aspects of sociology is that it sees everything as real, with a very broad definition of everything. UFOs? Real. The existence of the divine creator of the world? Real. The metaphysics of sports? Real to a fault. Astrology? That’s a mother lode of reality. Everything, it’s all real. All of it.

This is such a counterintuitive claim that most people write the whole endeavor off as soon as they catch wind of it. “Really everything? All of it? That cannot possibly be right” they think to themselves, only to read on to discover that, yes, all of it, everything, the whole shebang. Anything and everything goes, nothing is out of bounds. Which, unfortunately, can cause folks of a literalist and positivist bent to just write the whole discipline off as an exercise in lunacy, a waste of time and, frankly, a bunch of gobbledygook unworthy of anyone’s attention.

The key to unlocking this counterintuitive claims is to realize that it is not operating on an ontological level. Sociology makes no claims about the factual existence of UFOs, gods or the predictive properties of stellar phenomena. Sociology does, however, assert the existence of social contexts structured around these entities, which can be studied systematically and scientifically. And, since sociology is the study of social structures and contexts, this is exactly what sociology goes on to study.

This places UFOs, divine beings and horoscopes in a strange ontological position. On the one hand, there is scant empirical evidence for the existence and/or efficacy of any of these things. On the other hand, they evidently operate as an organizing principle in the lives of the people who are interested and engaged with the communities surrounding them. While no UFO has been conclusively spotted, this poses no difficulty whatsoever for UFO spotters who travel far and wide in their quest to make contact. Nor does it negate the existence of UFO believers. For the purposes of understanding why these people do what they do, we have to posit that UFOs have real social effects, which makes UFOs – you guessed it – real.

Durkheim called these strange objects in the shadowlands of reality “social facts”. Regardless of the ontic facticity of flying saucers, a sociologist has to treat their status as an organizing principle as a thing that factually exists in the world. And, more crucially, the purpose of studying a community of UFO enthusiasts is not to finally nail a photo of those flying buggers; it’s to watch how the social fact plays out in actual physical reality, as an empirical process which (fortunately) can be observed, studied and documented. This is the empirical reality of sociology.

As you might imagine, this has methodological implications. If someone were to barge in to these contexts in the name of Science, proudly proclaiming that organizational principle of said context is pseudoscientific bullshit that has a less than zero chance of being real, then the response will (quite rationally) be to throw said person out the door and ask them to never show their face again. In methodological terms, this is a critical mission failure; the scientist has failed to secure access to the empirical material. When working with people, you have to get along with them. This means approaching the object of study with a measure of politeness, and to come prepared, having done your homework. They key to methodological success is to know intimately what it means that Mercury is in retrograde.

Given that sociologists study real social contexts, it follows that these very same contexts have no obligation whatsoever to let the agents of sociology roam free to make empirical observations to their hearts content. These are real people with things to do, time tables to keep, budgets to consider and kids to pick up. Making room for strangers suddenly appearing to ask nosy questions is, for all intents and purposes, well above and beyond. This means that gaining access to the relevant social milieus, a sociologist either have to be very patient and play the long game in building trusting relationships, or otherwise pull their weight in some significant way. To be sure, being able to say that you work at the university of [insert name here] opens a great many doors, but it also closes others, and at times it makes no impression whatsoever. There is no one correct way to gain access, but a great many ways to find oneself barred from it.

This raises the question of scientific objectivity. The scientific ideal is a dispassionate observer who observes and analyzes the data according to strictly defined criteria in a rigorous manner. Ideally, it should be utterly irrelevant who interprets the data; if the method is followed, the same results should follow every time. For obvious reasons, this does not work when studying real social settings – a sociologist who has spent years building up trust and mutual respect within a community is not interchangeable with a physicist whose main activity is to juggle variables. Indeed, this very same sociologist is not even interchangeable with another sociologist – the community under study simply does not know the guy. When the method of measure is a particular person, things get personal indeed.

On the basis of this, it might be tempting to write off the results of sociological investigations as unscientific. Indeed, if results can only be replicated by one singular person, then that would be quite a blow. However, this state of things is not a deviation from the scientific method, but an application of it. The fact that the methodology includes lengthy, and at times downright anthropological, aspects does not take away from their methodological necessity. It is simply an admission that humans are as humans do, and that if you want to play along you also have to play nice. Play being a function of time spent together. There is a sociological method; the fact that it sometimes takes an extended period of time and a counterintuitive amount of effort to go through the steps of said method does not make it less methodical. We could make a parallel to the investment costs of particle accelerators; the fact that you or I will never be able to build one for purposes of replication does not negate the value of those already in existence.

The alternative to accepting the social sciences would be to delegate human activity to an unknowable black box, whose inside mechanisms are utterly inscrutable and beyond the reach of scientific investigation. Which, to be sure, would make the lives of university administrators that much easier when the perennial round of budget cutbacks comes around. But it would also limit the project of extending human knowledge to a very narrow range of topics. We know, through the application of our powers of reason and intellect, that nothing changes when a goal is scored in a big match. The ball passed an arbitrary line, and that’s it. We also know that the massive cheering and displays of emotion that result from this very same goal is a very real thing indeed, and that it can be studied as an object in the world. There is a method to it, and at some points of your investigation you might have to drink a celebratory – or commiseratory – pint at the bar, but thus are the rules of entry.

The discipline of sociology