Critical criminology and the social sciences
Critical criminology and the social sciences

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Critical criminology and the social sciences

1.3 Sociology

In the following video, Dr Peter Redman introduces the discipline of sociology.

Activity 3

Spend some time watching the video, and then try to summarise the defining characteristic(s) of sociology as an academic discipline in the text box below.

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Transcript: Video 3

What is sociology? The obvious answer to that question is that sociology is the systematic study of society, but that only leaves us with another question, what is society? Rather than answer that question head-on, let's try to creep up on it from behind by asking, what is it that sociologists actually study? One answer, given by the celebrated American sociologist, Peter L. Berger, was that sociologists study what happens when people do things together. That phrase, "doing things together," draws our attention to sociology's interest in the collective. If I told you I like to walk around balancing a frying pan on my head, this in itself would not be of great sociological interest. It would be an individual preference or quirk. But imagine if a number of people started to walk around balancing frying pans on their heads. This would be of sociological interest because it would indicate a collective phenomenon- something shared. Whether this was confined to a relatively small social group, we might call it a subculture, or was more widespread. If the collective or shared is one dimension of the sociological, another is durability. For instance, a brief craze for frying pan balancing would certainly be of some sociological interest, in the same way that crazes in children's games are interesting, Pokemon Go being a fairly recent example. But sociologists are most interested in things that become stable features of the social world. For instance, when women in Europe and America started wearing trousers in public sometime around the middle of the 20th century, it might have been a brief craze, here one moment and gone the next. The fact that it became a stable feature of social life indicates that something sociologically important was going on, doubtless related to women's changing role in society. So now we have three things that help distinguish sociology. First, sociologists study what happens when people do things together. Second, they are interested in collective rather than individual phenomena. Third, they tend to focus on things that persist over time as well as moments in which they change. From here, we can begin to fill in more of the sociological details. For instance, when people do things together, they tend to develop recognisable social practises that allow them to achieve whatever it is they are doing. Preparing food, for example, involves multiple practises- chopping, mixing, heating, stirring, and so on. We know these practises are social rather than given in nature because different cultures have different ways of doing them and the practises have to be taught and learned. Similarly, as people do things together, they develop social roles. For instance, in contemporary Western societies, it is often adults in the household, not children, who are responsible for food preparation, even when the children are older. And often, it is women who are responsible more than men. In turn, those roles imply particular social relations- patterned ways in which one group of people relate to another, often hierarchically. The social roles of food preparation imply a relation in which adults are in charge and children are looked after, for example. Social practises, roles, and relations are just three of the many terms sociologists have developed to describe what happens when people do things together. Notice that social practises, roles, and relations are not only widespread and persist over time. Once established, they also take on a life of their own. They become taken for granted and exert a pressure on us to conform. Doing something different either doesn't occur to us or takes some imagination and courage, as must have been the case for the women who first wore trousers in public. We are now in a better position to answer our earlier question, what is society? Put simply, society is a term for those social practises, roles, and relations, as well as all the other features of social life we have not had time to explore. Some features are relatively localised, some much more widespread. Some are relatively small scale, others much larger in scale. Though they can appear solid and unchanging, all are constantly in motion as they are reproduced, negotiated, and sometimes challenged. It is all of this activity that sociology seeks to describe, understand, and explain.
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Sociology can be defined as the study of society or the social world. In practice, this can mean studying what happens when people do things together. For this reason, sociologists are often characterised as being interested in collective, rather than the individual, phenomena. Finally, sociology often involves a focus on enduring aspects of society – what are commonly referred to as ‘social structures’.


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