From education to employment

Appreciating Sociology


Professor Steve Bruce has added (1) another volume (one hundred and twenty pages) to a busy library of short introductions (from Accounting to Zionism); and his book could be a worthwhile read for students considering options at A-Level. His first and last chapters – The Status of Sociology and What Sociology is Not – explain the nature of sociology; though the other chapters certainly aren’t dull, frequently slanted towards the author’s background in religion. Important past scholars such as Marx, Durkheim, and Parsons have written about their chosen topics – class, anomie, and the family – as a result of their serious observations of the world.

We are advised sociology must be empirical, and Professor Bruce believes the best model for how it should be practised is the natural sciences. He and others working within the discipline investigate (and create social constructions) via ‘systematic examination’ of important questions and unintended consequences to do with, say, the causes of crime or the west’s declining interest in religion. Big questions then, not mere idle conversation among small groups.

Theory put forward by scientists needs to be internally consistent, fitting the evidence in both simple cases as when an apple falls down, not up, and, far more complex studies, like the drug trials which rely on double-blind testing on large groups through time. Given science respects regularities, comparable results should reappear when trials are repeated on similar mixes of volunteers.

The author acknowledges there are special difficulties in the field of sociology, the sort of terrain and diversity trickier to navigate than a physicist’s scientific laboratory or remote stretches of some South American rain forest. Industrial scientist turned systems researcher Peter Checkland (2) has mentioned that a hallmark of the ‘hard’ sciences physics and chemistry is the way their findings constitute ‘public knowledge’: we have no choice but to accept the happenings in the experiment.

A fundamental concept in chemistry put forward by Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) states that in a chemical reaction the amount of matter involved remains the same before and after the reaction occurs. Based on repeatable experiments, this law is universal, it applies to experiments by junior school pupils in Alaska, septuagenarians in San Francisco, and robust NASA cosmonauts when they eventually land on the surface of Mars.

By contrast, a distressed parent’s opinion about the scant hours of homework their child receives from teachers constitutes private knowledge: we don’t have to concur with the parent. Or the child’s school inspectors for that matter. The choice is ours ‘to accept it or not’.

Checkland’s first book also distinguishes between the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences, the former epitomized by physics and chemistry, the latter including psychology and sociology, sciences in which causes and effects are often hard to pin down. Yes, physics excels at handing over instances of regular relationships of how and why the world ‘is’, as when the north and south poles of two magnets are brought close together. But the reason such illustrative findings are extraordinarily successful is they omit a great deal of our world’s rich variety. What about biology or zoology, not as ‘hard’ as physics and yet less complex than psychology?

Zoology can be classified as a descriptive science, in the sense that a lioness chasing impala won’t be successful on each hunt – most of her quarry will avoid being brought down. Even a secretly observed average number of kills for one family of lions won’t necessarily match either their nearest neighbours’ kills or the pride’s cubs as they grow to mimic their parents’ hunting behaviour. Each cub must make its own way through a life far more complex and heterogenous than Lavoisier’s chemical formulae.

Thanks to courageous zoologists and other scientifically minded adventurers, lay readers can use the scientific name Panthera Leo to look up and discuss features which have been observed and recorded about adult African lions: their length, weight, speed, and sleeping habits.

Though only an average, a textbook’s dimensions for carnivores (assisted by up close photographs) are part of a science whose terms leave few nagging doubts. But enthusiasm for turning education into a science would encounter a quagmire of difficulties on the nature of the subject – where it begins and ends – and the scope of cause and effect. Lions get on with performing a regular pattern in their lives: sleeping, hunting, eating, and defending the pride. They do not exchange nagging doubts about how their existence might be interpreted and changed. Only one species does this.

Suppose a college’s history results turned out to be remarkably good in the academic year 1981-82: congratulations to the students and staff. But what about the parents and other relatives for that cohort – do they deserve more than a little credit? Are half of the teachers of recent recruits au fait with modern teaching practice, is that a causal factor? Or was it the period of history offered that stirred extra effort? And should an analysis of that group also bring onboard recent findings on intelligence from the social science of psychology? This link up with psychology would be relevant if academic intelligence is often a gift from our genes, rather than the result of gifted coaching by tutors. Or a consequence of pushy parents, the sort who threaten young John and Jenny with a ban on weekend access to the Movie Channel at the start of an academic year, hoping to counter below average scores on juniors’ IQ tests.

At least the founder of taxonomy Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) left us a clear approach to discuss a standard hierarchy of class, order, genus, and species, but also assign names to plants and animals via binomial nomenclature. However, despite the complexity of highly variegated species Homo sapiens, such linguistic precision is not acknowledged as necessary in Professor Bruce’s paperback.

For example, it does read as sensible that good scientific theory should be internally consistent – but exactly what type of internal consistency within the discipline sociology did Mr Bruce have in mind? Can it be ranked by adjectives – excellent, good, or average? How do we recognise it and check appropriate standards of consistency have been maintained?

Unfortunately, and perhaps due to the publishing constraints on page numbers imposed by A Very Short Introduction, the book’s jargon tripped up this reader a couple of times. A longer text would have allowed a glossary of sociology, preferable when discussing, say, partisanship, which apparently should be discouraged in social research, and objectivity, a goal worth defending by practitioners.

However, since Ofsted has been the focus of unease expressed in media recently, would it be a good idea for partisans within Ofsted to deliberately consider and reconsider the personal feelings of other groups (like teachers, parents, and employers) when drafting a curriculum, no matter how comfortably objective and ‘neutral’ they feel about their previous schemes?    

It seems important to distinguish between an abstract set of qualitative tools and strategies ‘r’ for conducting research in the complex real world and the complex real world ‘R’ itself. Big R can always hold the messy, the mysterious, and the unpredictable, composed as it is of fallible human beings, hidden agendas, and – according to Tacitus – The lust for power, for dominating others, inflames the heart more than any other passion. Hence, I’m unconvinced sociologists can rely on common sense (p106) to provide the best warrant for the possibility of social science. Better to drop any underlying admiration of physics and develop r which can assist an appreciative dialogue for investigating inconstant social scenarios (examples of R). The mission here would be to complement science, not replace it, encouraging lay folk’s participation in a process of social research which at best will deliver worthwhile adjustments within problematic settings.

By Neil Richardson

1   Steve Bruce          Sociology A Very Short Introduction   OXFORD  2018 2nd edition

2   Peter Checkland   Systems Thinking, Systems Practice   J WILEY 1981

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