Despite the expansion that Sociology has experienced in the modern world, outside the professional and academic circle there are not very clear ideas about what this discipline consists of. Sociology is a science that has been gaining popularity and about which many expectations have been created (and are being created), but it is also a science about which very little is known. Sociologists are usually consulted by politicians, institutions, business organizations, etc. They appear more and more frequently on television and radio programs. In both digital and traditional paper formats, newspapers often publish studies and surveys conducted by sociologists. There are even those who think that sociologists are a kind of fortune teller or prophets who can make predictions for the future … But,What is sociology?
When the professional or student of Sociology is asked this question, answering it, even today, is still a complicated task and on many occasions, without realizing it, we give tedious answers that clarify little to whoever asks us such a question. For these occasions it is good to always have a synthetic definition. However, we know, as with so many other sciences, that a simple definition is not enough to explain them in all their fundamental nuances. Sometimes it is convenient to use some metaphors that, although they do not offer a complete explanation, at least convey the essence of what Sociology means, and even, arouse more the curiosity of those who ask us what is Sociology? . Richard Osborne (1996) in his book Sociology for All 1, for example, use the following:
… Sociology is a lot like learning to ride a bike. When you know how to do it, it seems easy, although incredibly difficult to explain to another person. […] In other words, Sociology consists of explaining something that seems obvious (how our society works) to people who believe that it is simple and who do not understand how complicated it really is.
These types of metaphors try to offer a timely first impression to our interlocutor when we try to explain what Sociology consists of. It is about fleeing from the darkness that can be perceived from outside the circle of specialists, and avoiding esoteric languages that nobody understands. However, as is logical, in the attempt to establish an adequate dialogue with society – what sociologists say must be relevant to the concerns of citizens (Emilio Lamo, 2010) 2 – after the use of these useful metaphors, Do not fall into the use of trivial and lax arguments that misrepresent the good sociological work or generate false expectations. Thus, a well-constructed definition is always necessary, no matter how brief.
Since this discipline appeared at the beginning of the 19th century (Comte was the coiner of the term ‘Sociology’), many definitions have been made of them. Paul H. Furfey 3 collected in 1953 up to eighty-one definitions of Sociology. Today there will be many more than a hundred, and the curious thing is that none of them enjoys a totally unanimous agreement. However, it can be said that the latest definitions that we can find in the most current Sociology manuals tend to be quite similar in essentials. Some are shorter, others more complete, in others their authors try to highlight some nuances that they consider more fundamental than others … The simple, but concise, definition that Anthony Giddens (2006) offers in his Sociology 4 manual could help us:
Sociology is the study of human social life, its groups and societies. It is a captivating and attractive company, having as its object our own behavior as social beings. The scope of sociology is extremely broad, ranging from the analysis of ephemeral encounters between individuals on the street to the investigation of global social processes such as the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
But the following could also work:
Sociology is the science that deals with the study of social reality . Its unit of analysis is society and the individuals in it. Sociology observes, analyzes and interprets the set of structures and relationships found in every society within a given historical context. In addition, it seeks to predict its transformations and processes in order, a posteriori, to carry out diagnoses that allow intervention, that is, to improve the public and social policies proposed by governments and private and state institutions. For all this, Sociology tries to find the methods and techniques that are most effective for it, creating its own theories for its proper understanding.
While the first, that of Anthony Giddens, is at first glance more comprehensive due to its informal language, the second, that I myself have elaborated from the synthesis of other definitions in various Sociology manuals, although it is offered in a more academic language , I find it more complete and optimal to limit the most fundamental characteristics of this social science. We can see how Giddens, in the second part of his definition, places a greater emphasis on the nature of the field that Sociology has, in this case: the micro-social and the macro- social. However, in recent years the obsession to agree on a definition of Sociology has gone into the background. The fundamental thing in all science is not its defining character, but its capacity to offer practical results.
As we said at the beginning, we must not forget the necessary and timely dialogue of sociologists with society. Thus, José Félix Tezanos (2006), in The sociological explanation 5 , emphasizes that the fundamental task of Sociology continues to be its own explanation. More important than reaching better definitions and systematic theories, it is «to open up Sociology more to society, avoiding his confinement in closed professional circles, and explaining better and more clearly and convincingly the being and why of this scientific discipline ». The objective should be to give an explanation about Sociology, both of its “contextual reason for being” (what were the conditions for its appearance and in what historical context it appeared), and its “substantive reason for being” (what is its content and purpose). For this, it is necessary to answer the questions of when, why, how, for what and with what orientation Sociology emerged . Tezanos answers these questions as follows:
- When does Sociology appear? Practically in our historical time (the industrial age) in line with the emergence and development of industrial society.
- Why does Sociology appear? Because the appropriate maturity conditions have been reached to lead to its development: great sensitivity and attention to the social (due to the impact of the intense changes) and adequate intellectual requirements (liberation from dogmas and obstacles) that have nothing to do with explanations traditional magical and sacred.
- How did Sociology arise? By a sequential process of the evolution of social knowledge towards greater specialization, differentiation and complexity. First was the autonomy of the Political Science of Religion and Morals; then, the appearance and development of Economic Science (with logic to industrial society); and finally, Sociology emerged (as an attempt to respond to the intense changes, conflicts, social disorder, which were caused by the dynamics of industrial society).
- Why did sociology arise? In the short term: to scientifically and rigorously address the “social question”. Medium / long term: to build a specific science of society.
- With what orientation did Sociology emerge? With an orientation based on the assumptions and approaches of the scientific method.
Salvador Giner (2010), in his manual on Sociology 6 , briefly defines the main features of Sociology:
- Sociology is an empirical discipline. All its stock of knowledge comes from observations and reflections made on the data provided by a specific society, or a given social situation. Given thesui generis qualityof aspects of social life, the methods used by sociology vary widely, but what is important is that they all aspire to rigorous examination of verifiable data. Like any science that claims objective knowledge, Sociology, by subjecting data to scrutiny and admitting its errors, is fundamentally analytical.
- Sociology is a theoretical discipline. Sociological theory universalizes and integrates the partial conclusions that empirical research contributes.
- Sociology is an open discipline. That is, it is not dogmatic. As in the other sciences, nothing can be accepted on the principle of authority. Any sociological theory can and should be reexamined and questioned. It has to be potentially refutable [Karl Popper’s Fallability Principle ].
- Sociology is cumulative knowledge. The most irrefutable information and the most plausible theories must overcome and eliminate the less satisfactory. Cumulativeness should not be a mere perennial accumulation of information, on the contrary, sometimes a revolutionary theory causes an entire «knowledge» to collapse [Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ]. In these cases, the result is usually an enrichment of our social knowledge, progress .
- Sociology is a discipline whose methodology is morally neutral but whose concern for the human condition is not morally indifferent. It is only fruitful if those who practice it are not amoral beings who pretend to live in a sterilized world. In the empirical and theoretical activity neutrality is necessary, but this does not mean that the true vocation of Sociology is the ethical concern for the human condition. In fact, it was this vocation that made its emergence possible.
- Sociology involves a critique of society.Sociology evaluates (morally judges) a given situation, even an entire social order. The sociologist must be independent of those vested interests that compromise objectivity. The sociologist must overcome his own passions and try to be truthful and calmly judge the world around him. Otherwise, it will produce ideology; and the ideological interpretation of a society is inadmissible in Sociology. However, this is not completely watertight, and it is inevitable that the sociologist, even in his best intentions, does not introduce some ideological elements into his study of social reality. The important thing is that a true effort towards objective knowledge always predominates. For the incompatibility between Sociology and ideology or any distortion produced by the sociologist in his observation to be effective, the critique of society must move to the same terrain as sociology. Thus, sociological inquiry always ends up becoming a critique of society (this makes many see Sociology as an uncomfortable discipline). It is not necessary to use the term critical sociology. Giner emphasizes that “All good sociology is critical sociology, or it isn’t . “
Regarding Giner’s trait number 3, it is convenient to clarify, in Giddens’s words, that “the study of sociology cannot be a routine process of acquiring knowledge. A sociologist is able to free himself from the immediacy of personal circumstances to put things in a larger context. Thus, the sociological task depends on the expression that Wright Mills (1970) coined as the sociological imagination. 7
Wright Mills’ expression also helps us to clarify Giner’s traits 5 and 6: The sociological imagination demands that we be able to “think apart” from the personal routines of our daily lives to face them as if they were something new. This is one of the greatest difficulties in determining the object of sociology, since in sociological research there is a coincidence of subject and object. “In general, any science in which man is, at the same time, subject and object of research, will have a margin of theoretical uncertainty and methodological imprecision” (Morales and Abad, 2008). Inevitably, our attitudes, interests and prejudices distort the analysis of the object – man -, which is already characterized by its great plasticity and “instability”. Therefore, Sociology is “a science immersed in its own object which, by itself, is an unfinished and changing object.” 8
Society should not be viewed as the image of something external. “Society is as intimate to the person as their own individuality, it is something subjective (elaborated by subjects who give it its meaning) and objective (independent of the subjects who have been able to elaborate it)” (Lucas, 2006) 9
Berger and Luckmann (1986) in the Social Construction of Reality 10 introduce a precise formula to define the social dialectic between man and his social product:
Man builds society, which becomes an objective reality, which builds man.
In this way, man is the product of the society in which he lives, and this is due to the process we call socialization , by which culture is acquired. In turn, man builds society, which becomes an objective reality – alien to the subject – through the triple “reifying” process that habituation, institutionalization and legitimation entail . (Lucas, 2006). Put more simply: man is a product of his society, just as it is of man.
Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, we live in a worrisome world full of uncertainties, a world where changes are taking place more and more rapidly, a world full of tensions, conflicts and social inequalities … people ask themselves questions like why that our societies are so different from that of our parents or grandparents? What kind of changes will occur in the future? Faced with these changes, will our children live better or worse in the societies of the future? … These are precisely the main ones questions to which sociology must answer, a discipline that, in the words of Anthony Giddens, “has to play a fundamental role in modern intellectual culture.” eleven Therefore, Sociology must not only be explained, but must also meet the demands of issues such as the previous ones, and must offer valuable results to carry out diagnoses that allow intervention, that is, improve public and social policies, among others. things.
Manuel Pérez Yruela, professor and researcher at IESA , in his closing conference Sociology thirty years ago. Sociology in thirty years at the X Spanish Sociology Congress held in Pamplona in July 2010, listed the following signs or opportunities that allow us to think about the return of Sociology:
- The growing demand for social data for public and private decision making.
- The need to have frameworks of interpretation to understand the meaning of these data.
- The proliferation of institutions dedicated to producing social microdata.
- The need to introduce the concept of social innovationas part of the chain of production and transfer of knowledge in the social sciences, as is done in other disciplines.
- The implications that changes in public administration known as new public managementhave for sociology .
- The popularization of the sociological perspective, which raises the question of the relationship between sociology and society.
To finish, I reproduce here the great reflection on a joke about future policies with which Salustiano del Campo ended his lecture on the day of his tribute on the occasion of his retirement in the Paraninfo of the old Central University, in Madrid, 8 April 2002 12 . Apparently, the joke about future politics is attributed to Anthony Giddens.
A man goes to the tailor and, while trying on his new suit in the mirror, complains that the right sleeve is too long. The tailor advises him to raise his shoulder. Next, the client notices that the left leg is short. The tailor suggests that he arch his leg. And so on. Days later, the client leaves the tailor’s shop wearing his new suit, which makes him walk like a deformed person. Two pedestrians comment: “How good must a tailor be able to make a suit that suits such a deformed guy so well.”
With this joke, Salustiano del Campo explains the ill-fated relationship between politicians and sociologists. A society that has changed so much, like the Spanish one, for which many people had their own recipes, has ended up dressing it up in a new suit, a poorly made suit that disfigures society. According to Salustiano, today it is common for politicians to act as omniscient and for communicators to act as intellectuals, but neither are endowed by their trade with the knowledge and neutrality necessary to cut good tailored suits for society current, and, above all, so that they do not artificially impede their ability to grow and develop.
The sociologist professionally has the task of diagnosing what this society really is like, what its measures are, fundamentally rejecting what is not going for it and proposing in the form of options what might be going it.
At the beginning of this article we made use of some metaphors to get closer to an explanation of what Sociology is. Using the brilliant reflection of Salustiano del Campo, we could end with one more metaphor: Sociology is the art of taking the true measures of society and proposing suitable suits for it.
In short, Sociology is not comprehensive enough to explain it in an article like this one. However, I hope that the reader who has come this far has acquired some notions about what this discipline consists of, at least that he has been able to find some use in it. With that alone I am satisfied. In addition, I hope that the reader will find more information on this website over time, if he wishes to deepen more about this science.