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Taking your first steps into higher education
Taking your first steps into higher education

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1 Social science and the everyday

I suggested in the introductory video that beginning to see the world as a social scientist adds another perspective – it makes the world an even more fascinating place. Please have a go at the activity that follows and which shows that social science thinking can even be applied to everyday encounters.

As you work through this week of Taking your first steps into higher education you will find that there is the same emphasis on doing activities as there was in the first three weeks of this course. All the authors share a conviction that learning at university level has to be active. The activities are a vital part of your work as they enable you to build on what you already know and to integrate new understanding.

Activity 1 Sometimes people do bump into each other

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

This activity is an opportunity to see how much you already know about everyday social encounters. The activity is also a chance to see how a distinctive social science approach can build on this understanding.

Watch this very short (11 second) video.

Sometimes people run into each other
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Then answer the following questions:

  • Why do you think the two women bumped into each other?
  • How do you think they felt about colliding?
  • What did they do to ‘repair’ the situation?
  • How else could they have reacted?


My first thoughts were about how a topic like this is approached at university:

Did asking questions about this minor collision seem an odd thing to do? In some ways it probably is. Although there may often be times when we wonder about the meaning of things that happen, that’s not necessarily the same as posing questions about everything. The simple act of asking questions about what might be going on is an essential starting point in most academic disciplines, not least social science.

However, to get back to my thoughts about the questions I asked you, I think the woman the camera was following was walking quite slowly and the woman who came in from the left carrying the bottle did not seem to see her.

Of course, if the camera had been following the other woman we might have a different perspective on this. I also found myself building up a story. The woman we followed still had her coat on. Perhaps she was thinking about a meeting she was going to and didn’t spot the other woman until it was too late. It wasn’t so clear about the other woman who we only saw at the last minute. Perhaps she was taking the bottle of water to a meeting and was thinking that she needed to get back into her meeting. If this was the case perhaps she was thinking about other things and did not notice the other woman.

I think both women were a little embarrassed. The woman carrying the cup was surprised.

I thought that they attempted to resolve the embarrassment through apologies and by making a little joke about it. They also reached out to touch each other.

They could have been annoyed rather than embarrassed and tried to blame each other.

The other thing that surprised me was that I had to keep looking back at the video. To begin with I thought the woman in the coat was walking really fast and that the other woman was carrying a cup of coffee. When I checked back, neither was true.

The video clip lasted just 11 seconds. But just think how much went on in this small fragment of time.

To deal with the encounter in the corridor the two women drew on a huge amount of knowledge about what to do to deal with the situation. We apply this knowledge (sometimes called ‘implicit knowledge’ to our interactions with other people. Social scientists are interested in studying these same interactions but they draw on other ways of understanding apart from implicit knowledge. You will come across these as you work through this course.