Sociology is usually defined in terms of the scientific or systematic study of society, two notions that postmodern – and just serious – thinkers today openly question. In fact, a recent check at Wikipedia reveals that the word “academic” has been highlighted.¹ So we could say that sociology is the “academic” study of social institutions, tendencies, and how they fit together. But I think this also falls short because it tends to give a potentially undeserved legitimacy to sociology and sociologists, when really, it’s not always right to do so.
Many sociologists stress empirical methods but, on closer examination, the validity of these methods are usually open to debate and sometimes downright bogus. Others dive deep into their books, stressing that they want to do “content” studies instead of empirical work or theory. This is fine, but it’s hardly anything different than what any serious book lover would do. Just because a person gets a paycheck and retirement income for being a sociologist, it doesn’t necessarily follow that their thinking is rational, integrated or helpful to society.
Another branch of sociology looks at what is called “theory;” that is, some kind of “critical,” “postmodern” and more recently, “digi-performative” or “digi-modern” theory. To be critical in the theoretical sense doesn’t necessarily mean to cut everything down. Ideally, it means to try to look at things behind their face value. To question, examine, in some cases intuit,² and to think. However, some academic, communist-leaning ideologues try to push their special agendas—but only as far, of course, as they can without losing their (big fat Capitalist) paychecks.
The sociologist Peter Berger was a pioneer in the theoretical approach to knowledge. Along with Thomas Luckmann , Berger contributed to a groundbreaking book called “The Social Construction of Reality” (1966). This has been hailed as one of the most important books in the Sociology of Knowledge. Before that, Berger wrote “Invitation to Sociology” (1963) which was still being used in universities when I did my undergrad in the 1980s. Berger argues for a multiplicity of perspectives and suggests that being a sociologist necessitates standing “outside,” to some degree, from the taken for granted truth claims within one’s culture. It’s like being an historian of the present.
An example of this idea would be questioning the latest dogmas about climate change. Now that Pope Francis is on board with that agenda, even more people will probably unquestioningly accept it. But that’s not doing sociology. It’s just mindlessly following the crowd.³
Historically, the term sociology is usually said to have been coined by Auguste Comte (1798-1857). But many others were thinking sociologically – examining social trends and truth claims – well before his time. In the New Testament story, we hear Pontius Pilate say “what is truth” (John 18:38) And this idea is elaborated on in the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar (1973):
Pontius Pilate: Then you are a king.
Jesus: It’s you that say I am. I look for truth, and find that I get damned.
Pontius Pilate: And what is ‘truth’? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours? 4
¹ Always changing with the weather, Wikipedia provides good coverage of the main players in what is now understood as sociology » http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sociology
² A leading figure here is Michael Polanyi » http://infed.org/mobi/michael-polanyi-and-tacit-knowledge/
³ See, for instance, http://www.friendsofscience.org/index.php?id=3