Thursday, 10 July 2014

Does sociology need to be rubbish?


I'm not a sociologist. Indeed I have on many occasions criticised the discipline of sociology for its lack of rigour, its preference for anecdote (OK "qualitative research") over robust experiment and quantitative analysis. But, given that 'society' (whatever we may mean by that cursed term) is central to us human animals, we should perhaps give its study a little more credit and attention.

This thought was prompted by yet another of those trite poster slogans that people recycle and share as if they are some sort of great insight into the human condition. It went:

'How about we live in a society rather than an economy?'

A moment's thought reveals the inanity of this gloriously sweeping observation - we live (and have no choice in this) in both a human society and an economy. But beneath this specious statement there might be a little glimmer of real insight from whoever penned the aphorism. We spend a great deal talking about economics and the economy. Economists are the particle physicists of social science, feted and celebrated simply for the fact of their being such masters of an impenetrable subject that brings such knowledge to our world.

Even those who seek to popularise economics fall into a trap - they'll smugly post something prefaced with a parenthesised observation: "wonkish". This usually means filled with either some chunky maths or, more usually, a dense forest of entwined jargon. And for all that we read the author's other stuff and imbibe of their wisdom, we have a sneaking suspicion that behind that innocent word "wonkish" lies the real truth. If we could only get to see through the pea-souper of indulgent jargon then the scales would fall from our eyes and we would ascend to a higher plane of understanding.

Sociologists are different. They are the botanists of social science, a bunch of folk who flit about the world saying, "ooh, that's interesting. look at that!" Except that sociologists, rather than just looking and describing have taken the idea of participant observation to the point of the ludicrous - they want to reform society in some way that would end sin and perfect mankind.

I spent a happy few years reading the output of marketing academics. And especially those writing in the field of consumer behaviour. In this field you'll find loads of quantitative research, experiment, ideas hypothesised and tested - everything you expect from a robust social science. These researchers help us understand how we respond to advertising (it's not as simple as you think), the manner in which we make in-store choices and how colours or images affect behaviour. And this is - in a manner not grasped by the actual discipline - sociology.

So here's a challenge to sociologists. Put aside the Alinsky-light social activism, step back from relating the sorrows of interviewed sufferers and embrace something more interesting and exciting. Something you can learn from those studying the behaviour of consumers. Stop with the political posturing and campaigning. And actually study society. Explore how we respond to the multiple stimuli of modern communications, poke away at why social capital declined rather than just saying it has, and explore the world as it is rather than as it would be in your perfect sub-Marxist utopia. In simple terms do the -ology bit of the sociology.


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