What is sociology? What is its relationship to social policy and social anthropology?

     I begin this essay by first briefly defining what sociology is. I discuss how sociology is not just a discipline that studies society, it a frame of mind, a way of thinking.  I use C, Wright Mill’s, Z. Bauman’s and R. Jenkins’s work to demonstrate this, by looking at the relationship between common sense and sociological sense. I examine the reasons why sociology came about, by looking at the changes that occurred in the 18th and 19th century. I outline the key influential thinkers of that day, and their impact on the three classical theoretical perspectives that still very much define sociology today. I then go on discuss the relationship between sociology and social anthropology by drawing on R. Jenkin’s work. I then attempt to illustrate the relationship between sociology and social policy.

     ‘Sociology is the systematic study of society’ (Macionis & Plmmer,2002: 4). This does not provide enough detail to convey what sociology is all about so to elaborate I will say that sociology studies   the interaction that occurs within and between social groups. In this sense sociology would be described as a subject that places individuals in their social context as members of social institutions such as within the family or their position within an educational institution. Sociology begins with the idea of the wider social networks and societies within which people are to be found.    

     Sociology is a ‘way of thinking’, and many writers have attempted to explain the relationship between common sense and sociological sense. C. Wright Mills is famous for his idea of the sociological imagination (Wright Mills, 1959). Mills is providing sociologists with a set of guidelines with which to carry out social analysis. The sociological imagination requires us to engage in the study of an individual’s biography; but to place that biography in the wider context of the history and tradition of the society in which that individual lives. Mills suggests that to use the ‘fruitful distinction’ between, on the one hand ‘the personal troubles of milieu’ and on the other ‘the public issue of the social structure’ (Mills, 1959: 14). For Mills then, the sociological imagination is the ‘promise’ of sociology. It is this promise, which potentially empowers all who study the subject of sociology. Jenkins argues that this creates an image of sociology that is only concerned with social problems and that there are many things in the human world that are not social problems but still sociologically interesting. Jenkins also suggests that the key aspects of the sociological imagination are aspects of everyday talk, so it does not really help us to understand the relationship between common sense and sociological sense. (Jenkins, 2002, 28-29)

     Other writers have proceeded to understand the relationship between sociology and common sense, for example Bauman’s ‘thinking sociologically’ (Bauman & May, 2001: 5-12). Bauman suggests notions of sociological thinking that are unlike common sense. The first is “rules of responsible speech”. Within a structured sociological argument there should always be evidence to present such claims, and to ‘guarantee the credibility’ it should be open to scrutiny. The second notion is “the size of the field”, which relates to the wide range of information form which sociological thinking is drawn. This results in a broader understanding of the social world. The third is “making sense” of the social world by recognising the collective nature of society and how this can be used to explain out motives and actions. Bauman goes on to explain that within sociological thought one should “defamiliarize the familiar”. One should challenge the ‘taken for granted’, by asking those questions that may seem to “disturb the comfortable certitudes of life” and to look at society as if it was unknown. Jenkins points out that this portrays common sense as individualistic. However common sense does include many aspects the collective, for example the family, community and so on. (Jenkins, 2002: 29). Jenkins himself offers a description of the sociological sense, which is slightly different from that of Baumans. He states that it is through systematic inquiry that sociologists are able to obtain more information on the social world. He believes that sociology should aim to be objective, and in that way different views within a social situation will be represented.  He also points to the importance of theory: generalisation, analysis and communication, which “liberates sociology from concrete specificities of local common sense … wider possibilities of critique and revision”. Overall, it can be claimed that sociological sense does make better sense of the social world.

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     So how did sociology begin? Firstly it can be argued that sociology is a development of, as well as reaction too significant events, which took place in the 18th and 19th century. The first of these events is the enlightenment, which was a revolution of ideas. Philosophers and social theorists of the period were seeking to change the way we understood humanity, to one based upon rational thinking and empirically based findings. The next influential great events were the Democratic revolutions of the United States of America in 1776 and France in 1789. The old absolutist Monarchies were either overthrown ...

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