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The Essence of ‘Thinking Sociologically’

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“The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society” - C. Wright Mills, ‘The Sociological Imagination’.

C. Wright Mills defined the sociological imagination as “the vivid awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society”. When he published his book in 1959, his attempt was to connect these two seemingly unrelated and abstract concepts of life- the ‘individual’ and the ‘society’. For most people, their ‘universe’ is made up of relatively small groups like their families, friends, colleagues, neighbors and so on. Their understanding of the world is also derived almost entirely from this understanding of their ‘universe’. However, what Mill attempted to illustrate was that our personal experiences, the people we interact with and the way in which we interact, the positions we occupy in life, our goals and ambitions are all related to larger, complex patterns in society that have been historically created and maintained by the people who came into this world before us. To understand this better, he offered insight into the relationship between structure (social institutions) and agency (personal experience) by explaining that often what we consider to be our ‘personal troubles’ – like not having enough money to buy food or pay bills - is actually a ‘public issue’- the result of a larger social problem that affects many, like systematic economic inequality and poverty. Thus, what/who we are and where we come from (our biography) is related to the larger world that exists beyond our existence (historically created social constructs) and sociological imagination enables us to think in terms of this relationship and practicing this thinking is the essence of ‘thinking sociologically’.

This seems pretty simple to grasp and one might assume that everybody thinks in such a manner already. However, that is not really the case. I will further elaborate upon what makes such thinking so distinctly ‘sociological’. And also, what doesn’t.

Understanding sociology in terms of being ‘about’ social life is problematic, since it encourages the tendency to confuse common sensical thinking with sociological thinking. Both Allan Johnson and Andre Beteille have stressed on the gravity of this misconception since it promotes the viewpoint that when anyone comments on something ‘social’, they’re thinking sociologically. When Beteille mentions, “sociology seems by contrast to be grist to everybody’s mill”, he is referring to this general misbelief that there is no distinction between sociological thinking and common sense and then, he proceeds to challenge this misconception.

Common sensical thinking, by its very nature, is localized, personal and informal. It is localized because it is constrained by time and space and the degree of an individual’s integration and interaction with the society. Hence, we can say that ‘common sense is not so common’ since what is common sense for someone from a particular vantage point may turn out to be either not-so-common for another from a different geographical, cultural and historical background. It is personal because it is dependent on the individual and restricted to the individual’s surroundings. It is informal because common sense lacks technical resources-good knowledge in concepts, methods, approach, techniques, schools of thought - that cannot be substituted with even a very well-informed and articulate kind of common sensical thinking.

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In contrast, sociological thinking is general, external and disciplined. It is general and external because sociological thinking demands thinking in terms of the whole of human society. The greatest contribution to this approach was done by Emile Durkheim, Max weber and Karl Marx- the builders of modern sociology. Sociological thinking is not restricted to an individual’s belief but it is rather about ‘where’ and ‘how’ the individual participates with the larger world and ‘why’ their participation unfolds in a particular manner and not in another. As Allan Johnson states, “We are always participating in something larger than ourselves, and if we want to understand social life and what happens to people in it, we have to understand what it is that we’re participating in and how we participate in it” when he elaborates upon what he considers to be the ‘one thing’ that sociology could teach everyone, henceforth the ‘one thing’ that is integral to thinking sociologically as well. It is essential to think in terms of not just the individual or just the collective but both the collective and the individual, the relation between them, how they influence and are influenced by each other - it is truly about the ‘forest and the trees. Sociological thinking makes us realize that for all that we think we know about the world, beneath that is all that we don’t know as well.

Furthermore, sociological thinking is disciplined since it is grounded in empirical reasoning, careful observations and extensively requires the systematic use of the comparisons. These aid a sociologist to think in terms of the wider human society and find interconnections between different domains of social life. Meaningful and unsuspected connections are often reached only by sifting through stacks of connections that are ‘trivial and easily accessible to common sense’. As a sociologist, one’s thinking and understanding of the world goes beyond the common-sense point of view which is highly variable. All these factors therefore, make sociological thinking anti-fatalistic and anti-utopian in its approach and differentiates its empirical, generalized, critical knowledge from localized common-sense. Durkheim believed that the disciplined application of the sociological method and thinking would help an individual to understand their society better, and this understanding would be nourished and expanded by the use of systematic comparisons between their own and other societies. To illustrate on this, it would be useful to mention Durkheim’s classic work on ‘Suicide’, which contributed much to expose the ‘illusion of understanding created by common sense’. Durkheim thought beyond the common-sense prevailing at his time which looked at suicide as a highly individual act and instead treated suicide as a ‘social fact’- as ‘general, external and coercive’ - by studying suicide rates. Through his research he was able to show that suicide rates depend more on an individual’s degree of social integration and that the difference in suicide rates across countries, gender, race, and other contexts is not merely just the sum total of individual suicides but actually a reflection of the society they live in.

However, it should be mentioned that the distinction between sociological and common-sense thinking is not to deliberately make the former seem superior and esoteric in nature with the use of sophisticated jargon and ‘technical virtuosity’. According to NK Bose, “there are two kinds of scientists, those who make complex things simple and those who make simple things complex, and that his preference was for the former”. Although, Beteille argues that common sense by itself is insufficient and often unsuccessful in making complex things simple but it shouldn’t be entirely overlooked since common sense is also an element of our social life. Thus, sociological thinking must be alert and reflective in order to identify an individual’s own biases when they’re studying their own society and also be able to identify other knowledge that was created from a common sensical point of view. Thus, sociological thinking must strike a balance in the ‘inter-penetration’ of common sense with the technical virtuosity of the discipline by moderating the fatalistic and utopian elements of the former. In some cases, it has actually been able to contribute to common sensical thinking on topics such as education, politics, class and inequality.

Allan Johnson has stressed upon the distinction between sociological thinking and the individualistic model of thinking. The individualistic way of thinking tends to see everything only in terms of individuals- this reduces the society to only a collection of individuals existing independently of each other, in a given time and place. This not only affects how we choose to participate in society but also how we think about social life and the larger world. The ‘Individualistic model’ has only existed for a few centuries and its roots date back to the 19th century and the United States, where the work of William James- influenced by the age of ‘European Enlightenment’ and ‘modernist thinking’- and later the unconventional insights of Sigmund Freud-discovery of the psyche and levels of consciousness- influenced people to think increasingly in terms of individual experience with greater ‘self-awareness’ than before. Johnson has illustrated upon the problems of this mode of thinking by explaining that when members of privileged groups react negatively - by reacting aggressively or avoid talking about it- to the consequences of their membership resulting in the oppression of the prejudiced group, they’re thinking from an individualistic perspective which shows them as being ‘flawed’ and having a ‘personal need’ to behave in oppressive way. The individualistic solution to social problems such as inequality or natural disasters or terrorism then becomes “a matter not of collective solutions but of an accumulation of individual solutions. If we want to have less poverty in the world, the individualistic answer lies in raising people out of poverty or keeping them from becoming poor by changing what sort of people they are, one person at a time”.

The main issue that arises from the individualistic way of thinking, is that it fails to understand the difference between people and social systems - it misses ‘the forest for the trees’. People and social systems are not one and the same but they’re closely related to one another and influenced by how the individual chooses to participate in them. Social systems are made up of several different elements that exist in a particular relation to one another and form a distinct pattern that makes it function as a whole, for example, the family system is made up of certain roles such as that of mother, father, son, daughter etc. and also of certain ‘ideas’ that are collectively accepted in a society such as ‘being obedient to your parents’ and so on. Understanding what makes up a system, how they function and differ from one another is crucial to understanding the consequences that result when people follow without questioning its legitimacy i.e. the path of least resistance. Social systems are strengthened by attaching positive and negative sanctions that ensure adherence to it. This path of least resistance hence, makes common sensical thinking so utopian and fatalistic in nature as there is a tendency to take everything for granted and attach ‘personal reasons’ to ‘public problems’ for example, blaming your ‘luck’ for being born into a ‘poor’ family.

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The Essence of ‘Thinking Sociologically’. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 6, 2023, from
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