What Is Sociology? (社会学: 一巻)



As part of my university training I studied both Western and East Asian philosophy rather extensively. Thus, as a supplement to my lecture notes for a class I taught at York University a few years ago, I often made reference to the ideas and history of philosophical thought. But I also included sociological theory too, and thought I would share some of that information with you all. Discovering the world through ethnomusicology, philosophy, sociology, etc., is really at its best when the student finds personal relevance in that discovery. It is very rewarding as a teacher to see students engage with socio-cultural artifacts passionately, and begin to question as much as understand and accept what they learn. But all too often the various “-ologies” are presented as rather boring, overly serious subjects that are only properly studied in classrooms and not in the daily life of a student. Sociology can be serious and properly done, and be fun. The following are a few of the ideas and concepts that make up the field of sociology. Though the notes are based on my own reading of various sociological texts, a lot of what I have written was cobbled together specifically to aid in understanding Rob Beamish’s book The Promise Of Sociology: The Classical Tradition and Contemporary Sociological Thinking, which I encouraged my students/everyone to read.


Philosophy can be thought of as the consideration of three main lines of intellectual inquiry in human history: (1) Metaphysics – what is the nature of our existence, (2) Epistemology – what is the nature of knowledge, and (3) Axiology – what is the nature of the values that we hold or aspire to? From Classical Greek mythology all the way to Meta-Modernism, what we call Western philosophy has considered these three lines of inquiry rigorously. The third line, though, is particularly important in light of organizing and understanding societies (humans gathering together and interacting), which is the focus of sociology. On an individual level this means we consider (1) what is of social significance to us, (2) who am I as part of society, and (3) who are all of us (defining “we”) when we are together? As a group we then try and establish a social order that addresses such matters as capitalism, the division of labor, social solidarity/conflict, the shape of and access to power, gender, identity politics, and so on.


To do this it is important to know a little about the history of sociological ideas, and so we must begin with the philosopher Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406 C.E.). He was what you might call the first social philosopher in the West to study culture and society as a burgeoning “science” as we know it today. It wasn’t until the 19th century though that the word ‘sociology’ was used by a philosopher of science named Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857 C.E) as part of his defense of Positivism – that all true understanding of anything is scientific. Also, many do not know this but Karl Marx, known as the Father of Communism, was a sociological thinker in the sense that his Communist theory focused on the use of capitalism by social institutions (government, businesses, etc.) to make/teach society to love their own exploitation (“commodity fetishism”). For example, we are told by advertising that buying Product X will make us more “valuable” through a higher social status: sexier, better job, fame ergo more “love” from the rest of society. We then want to buy Product X because it has been touted to have power, the power to transform you, the power to “give” you what you want (what you think you lack). But in many cases Product X is made by people being exploited in another country, e.g. by children forced to work 12 hours a day in unsafe, unhealthy environments for mere pennies while charging hundreds of dollars for the final product. The public/society often becomes so in love with Product X – desires it so much – we do not care about the human misery it actually represents. We practically worship these expensive items, giving objects at least in our minds almost supernatural power (fetishism) at the cost of human dignity and much human misery. Knowing something of even basic sociological concepts such as commodity fetishism, of the misuse/abuse of sociological power, can actually have positive real world effects when we act to correct social wrongs.

After Comte and Marx’s work, the social philosopher Emile Durkheim (1858-1917 C.E.), the Father of formal, academic sociology studied at universities, etc., focused on studying how “institutions” worked: society as (1) a larger network of recurring patterns (morals, values, political beliefs), and (2) how actual governing businesses, government agencies and such arise to sustain, promote, and often control these morals, values, etc. This was particularly important to Durkheim because educational institutions such as universities were concerned with developing a response or solutions to what was a growing social trend: urbanization, industrialization, and an increasingly secular society. But sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920 C.E.) disagreed with Positivism, rather suggesting that society is better served by interpreting social phenomena, rather than formally analyzing them through “purely” scientific techniques. Weber also focused on how a country or political State can claim or justify war as a “legitimate” use of violence.

The Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937 C.E.) discussed many of the issues raised by Comte, Marx, Durkheim, and others in terms of hegemony (pronounced heh-JEH-mony, not “HEDGE-eh-mony”). Hegemony is the act of a controlling power convincing the subservient classes of society to value what they themselves value, so they will have control of that society indefinitely. This is often seen in the notion that the controlling class’s values are universal values, and thus it only makes sense that they rule, because they represent the highest values and aspirations of mankind. This also can be part of commodity fetishism, as a corporation can advertise themselves as caring for humanity, i.e. moral because they seen donating a million dollars to cancer research, even while they hide the fact that they exploit Third World countries for labour and cheap goods, and make billions of dollars in profit as a result of child labour and unfair working conditions. This also ties in with how we as a society imagine or perceive the social forces active in our lives. This is often seen in political issues, as being perceived as moral often hides a political candidate’s actual morality.

Sociologist Charles Wright Mills (ライト・ミルズ: 1916 – 1962) called this our sociological imagination  how our internal human nature and belief systems among other things influence our view of external social institutions and phenomena. Philosopher Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984 C.E.) added to this line of thought by discussing how all periods of history had/have conditions for what truths are acceptable. For example, the fact that our solar system was proven by Galileo to be heliocentric (the planets travel around the Sun) was not an acceptable truth for the Roman Catholic Church in the 17th century. The Church tried and imprisoned Galileo for heresy, because the fact that the Earth circled the Sun seemed to “oppose” such Bible verses as 1st Chronicles 16:30.


There are several social actions that sociology studies to understand the larger trends in society. Humans behave within general patterns, values, social norms, and group practices. So, as “individuals-in-groups”:

  1. How do we show respect to others?
  2. How do we come to know/learn about our own society?
  3. How do we develop and show empathy?
  4. How to we interact/talk with others, using both verbal and non-verbal communication?
  5. How do we function in groups, and how do we perform tasks and roles in groups?
  6. How does personal interaction relate to our function in such groups?
  7. How do we deal with unexpected, unknown behaviors and ideas?
  8. How do we judge society (or refrain from judging it)? How do we decide when, where, and how we judge?

Sociologists come up with various cultural theories to explain these patterns. One such theory is Symbolic Interactionism, which is the idea that humans give things meaning, and thus a social movement can be evil or good depending on what value and power we give something. Thus, someone might say an entire political party can be considered corrupt because one member is caught stealing, and someone else could counter that the party is upright, and one corrupt member does not change that. It is also how something as violent and evil as National Socialism (Nazism) could also exist to some as a supposed paragon of social and ethnic purity. When our symbols change though, our society changes, and thus we see social progress occur for women, homosexual couples, and ethnic minorities while being resisted by those who consider gay marriage for example an erosion of society’s moral standing. How we negotiate and debate such issues amongst ourselves is a sociological issue.


In his book The Sociological Imagination (1959) the aforementioned Charles Mills said:

Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct: what ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions, and their powers are limited to the close-ups scenes of job, family, neighborhood; in other milieu, they move vicariously and remain spectators. And the more aware they become, however vaguely, of ambitions and of threats, which transcend their immediate locales, the more trapped they seem to feel (p. 1).

This insightful statement was made at a time when American and indeed global society was rapidly changing (post WWII). At every level of society there was much moral as well as social change as the younger generation(s) questioned the social and moral structures of the previous generations who had gone to war (including the military-industrial-congressional complex of the USA). Mills goes on to say (p. 4-5):

The very shaping of history now out paces the ability of men to orient themselves in accordance with cherished values. And which values? Even when they do not panic, men often sense that older ways of feeling and thinking have collapsed and that newer beginnings are ambiguous to the point of moral stasis. Is it any wonder that ordinary men feel they cannot cope with the larger worlds with which they are so suddenly confronted? 

In order to cope many turn to religious faith, or find previously established faith deepened by the desire to survive and cope with these new worlds. Religion has been, and continues to be, a major force of influence on societies around the world: a force often both accepted and contested simultaneously. Though religious belief and practice are as much a continuum as part of a greater nexus, the real underlying social issue, to me, involves how we define the terms transcendental and supernatural.

This is then a question of soteriology: the question of salvation, being saved from evil, saved from social problems by a divine being. Human beings seek to understand the material world, and are ever curious about what might lay beyond our maximum ability to understand, catalogue, and especially, cope with Reality. Many also see this realm/divine state beyond human perception as beyond experience, a seemingly mystical realm that transcends our capabilities. But that does not mean they attach religious significance to it. The mysteries of the Universe are subjects of philosophy and science, and within this view are sufficient unto themselves as wonderful and awe-inspiring, a position held by many atheists. On the other hand the view that this realm/divine state is beyond scientific understanding and is governed by forces best described as “divine” is the underlying quality of the common usage of the word “supernatural” – a realm best described in religious terms: the creation or product of one or several gods, the result of mankind’s relationship with one or more gods, and so on. Thus, I find that many arguments occur over mistaken assumptions of what theists or non-theists “believe” because transcendent and supernatural concepts/objects are considered one and the same. Sociology in this instance can then analyze how and why people come to this conclusion, and how it affects the structure and function of society (the intersection of faith and politics particularly).


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