Sociology H Social Sciences (Sociological versus common sense explanations) Today’s class outline • Sociological thinking • Examples & origins of common sense/naturalistic thinking • Private troubles/public issues
Suggested texts • Sociology Alive (2nd edition) Stephen Moore Stanley Thornes Publishers Ltd • Sociology a new approach (3rd edition) Haralambos, Smith, O’Gorman, Heald Causeway Press
What is distinctive about sociological thinking? • The study of human behaviour is not unique to sociology • What makes sociology distinctive is not what is studied but how it is studied • Most of us will be familiar with ‘common sense’ answers to social questions and may rely on a number of non-sociological ways of thinking
‘Common Sense' Explanations • ‘Common sense is not something rigid and stationary. It creates the folklore of the future…of popular knowledge in a given time and place.’ Antonio Gramsci • Or, as Gary Young (2008) puts it, ‘Common sense represents the received wisdom of years and the widespread opinion of the day. It may be rooted in fact, fiction, rumour or reality. On one level it doesn’t matter. So long as it is commonly held, then, in essence, common sense becomes a fact of life.’
Examples of typical ways of thinking • Biological arguments – gender • Psychological arguments – suicide • Moralistic arguments – poverty
Origins of these ways of thinking These viewpoints derive from: • Individualistic assumptions that don’t recognise the importance of wider social forces • Naturalistic assumptions that don’t recognise that behaviour is primarily social (learned)
Origins of these ways of thinking The essential points are: • One person’s ‘common sense’ is often another persons ‘nonsense’ • That there is probably no such thing as ‘a’ human nature except in a very restricted sense that would not include most forms of what we would call behaviour
Examples of sociological explanation Marriage • Naturalistic (common sense) explanation: It is only natural that a man and woman should live together for life because they fall in love and want to raise children • Sociological explanation: Monogamy (one woman and one man) is only one form of mating. Mating patterns depend on a variety of economic and social factors. Marriage is a human institution.
Examples of sociological explanation The domestic role of women • Naturalistic (common sense) explanation: Women raise children because this satisfies maternal instincts, and the children’s need for a mother • Sociological explanation: Ideals concerning domesticity and femininity confine women to the home
Examples of sociological explanation Poverty • Individualistic explanation (common sense): People are poor because they are lazy or stupid and can’t handle money, or have no skills • Sociological explanation: Poverty is caused by inequality in society, and is experienced by those who suffer from a chronic irregularity of work, low wages and unemployment
Examples of sociological explanation Suicide • Individualistic explanation (common sense): The most individual of all acts, committed by a person who is unhappy or mentally ill • Sociological explanation: Suicide is socially patterned. Suicide is governed primarily by social factors such as religion, family and marriage patterns, and not by individual factors
Private troubles/public issues When starting to think sociologically, it is important to try and start by asking the right questions. To do this, we need to employ what Mills called ‘the Sociological Imagination’. If one person is unemployed, Mills argued that this was a personal problem, and for that person, a trouble. As long as there are jobs available, we look to character or training for an explanation. But, when a large proportion of a nation's labour force is unemployed, it is impossible to explain this in terms of individuals.
Private troubles/public issues We instead look at the groups they belong to and their organization, the way society is organised, for an explanation. It becomes a public issue. Another example given by Mills is of marriage. If one marriage fails, this is a personal trouble. When, as in contemporary western society, divorce assumes epidemic proportions, then although it appears as a personal problem to each couple, we are justified in seeking an explanation outside of individuals. The same point could be made as regards other sociological concerns, for example: child abuse, domestic violence and poverty.
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