Bauman - Thinking Sociologically - Ch1Excerpt

Bauman - Thinking Sociologically - Ch1Excerpt - 6...

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Unformatted text preview: 6 Introduction: Sociology - What For? It seems, therefore, that our last hope of finding the sought-after ‘difference which makes the difference’ is in the kind of questions typical for each branch of inquiry -— questions that determine the points of view (cognitive perspectives) from which human actions are looked at, explored and described by scholars belonging to different disciplines — and in the principles used to order the information such questioning has generated and to assemble that information into a model of a given section or aspect of human life. Introduction: Sociology -— What For? 7 At a very rough approximation, economics, for example, would look primarily at the relationship between the costs and effects of human action. It would probably look at human action from the point of view of the management of scarce resources that the actors want access to and to use to their best advantage. So it would see the relationships between actors as aspects of the creation and exchange of goods and services, regulated by offer and demand. It would, eventually, arrange its findings into a model of the process through which resources are created, obtained and allocated among various demands. Political science, on the other hand, would be interested more often than not in that aspect of human action that changes, or is changed by, the actual or anticipated conduct of other actors (an impact usually discussed under the name of power or influence). It would consider human actions from the point of view of the asymmetry of such power and influence: some actors emerge from interaction with their behaviour changed more profoundly than that of their partners. It would probably organize its findings around concepts like power, domination, authority, etc. —— all referring to the differentiation of the chances of obtaining what the sides in the relationship are striving for. Such concerns of economics and political science (much as the interests pursued by the rest of the human sciences) are by no means alien to sociology. You will find this out the moment you look into any list of recommended reading for sociology students: it will most certainly contain quite a few works written by scholars who call themselves, and are classified as, historians, political scientists, anthropologists. And yet sociology, like other branches of social study, has its own cognitive perspective, its own set of questions for interrogating human actions, as well as its own set of principles of interpretation. As a first and tentative summation, we may say that what sets sociology apart and gives it its distinctive character is the habit of viewing human actions as elements of wider figurations: that is, of a non-random assembly of actors locked together in a web of mutual dependenqyldependency being a state in which the probability that the action will be undertaken and the chance of its success change in relation to what other actors are, or do, or may do). Sociologists 8 Introduction: Sociology — What For? would ask what consequences this being locked together would have for the possible and the actual behaviour of human actors. Such interests shape the object of sociological inquiry: figurations, webs of mutual dependence, reciprocal conditioning of action and expansion or confinement of actors’ freedom are the most prominent preoccu- pations of sociology. Single actors, like you and me, come into the view of sociological study in their capacity as units, members or parmas in a network of interdependence. The central question of sociology, one could say, is: in what sense does it matter that in whatever they do or may do people are dependent on other people; in what sense does it matter that they live always (and cannot but live) in the company of, in communication with, in an exchange with, in competition with, in cooperation with other human beings? It is this kind of question (and not a separate collection of people or events selected for the purpose of study, nor some set of human actions neglected by other lines of investigation) that constitutes the particular area of sociological discussion and defines sociology as a ‘relatively autonomous branch of human and social sciences. Soci- ology, we may conclude, is first and foremost a may of thinking about the human world; in principle one can also think about the same world in different ways. Among these other ways from which the sociological way of thinking is set apart, a special place is occupied by so-called common sense. Perhaps more than other branches of scholarship, sociology finds its relation with common sense (that rich yet disorganized, non-systematic, often inarticulate and ineffable knowledge we use to conduct our daily business of life) fraught with problems decisive for its standing and practice. Indeed, few sciences are concerned with spelling out their re- lationship to common sense; most do not even notice that common sense exists, let alone that it presents a problem. Most sciences settle for defining themselves in terms of boundaries that separate them from or bridges that connect them with other sciences — respectable, systematic lines of inquiry like themselves. They do not feel they share enough ground with common sense to bother with drawing boundaries or building bridges. Their indifference is, one must admit, well justified. Common sense has next to nothing to say Introduction: Sociology — What For? 9 of the matters of which physics, or chemistry, or astronomy, or geology speak (and whatever it has to say on such matters comes courtesy of those sciences themselves, in so far as they manage to make their recondite findings graspable and intelligible for lay people). The subjects dealt with by physics or astronomy hardly ever appear within the Sight of ordinary men and women: inside, so to speak, yours and my daily experience. And so we, the non-experts, the ordinary people, cannot form opinions about such matters unless aided — indeed, instructed — by the scientists. The objects explored by sciences like the ones we have mentioned appear only under very special circumstances, to which lay people have no access: on the screen of a multi-million-dollar accelerator, in the lens of a gigantic telescope, at the bottom of a thousand-feet deep shaft. Only the scientists can see them and experiment with them; these objects and events are a monopolistic possession of the given branch of science (or even of its selected practitioners), a property not shared with anybody who is not a member of the profession. Being the sole owners of the experience which provides the raw material for their study, the scientists are in full control over the way the material is processed, analysed, interpreted. Products of such processing would have to withstand the critical scrutiny of other scientists — but their scrutiny only. They will not have to compete with public opinion, common sense or any other form in which non—specialist views may appear, for the simple reason that there is no public opinion and no commonsensical point of view in the matters they study and pronounce upon. With sociology it is quite different. In sociological study there are no equivalents of giant accelerators or radiotelescopes. All experience which provides raw material for sociological findings — the stuff of which sociological knowledge is made — is the experience of ordinary people in ordinary, daily life; an experience accessible in principle, though not always in practice, to everybody; and experience that, before it came under the magnifying glass of a sociologist, had already been lived by someone else — a non-sociologist, a person not trained in the use of sociological language and seeing things from a sociological point of view. All of us live in the company of other people, after all, and interact with each other. All of us have 10 Introduction: Sociology - What For? learned only too well that what we get depends on what other people do. All of us have gone more than once through the agonizing experience of a communication breakdown with friends and strangers. Anything sociology talks about was already there in our lives. And it must have been, otherwise we should be unable to conduct our business of life. To live in the company of other people, we need a lot of knowledge; and common sense is the name of that knowledge. Deeply immersed in our daily routines, though, we hardly ever pause to think about the meaning of what we have gone through; even less often have we the opportunity to compare our private experience with the fate of others, to see the soda] in the individual, the general in the particular, this is precisely what sociologists can do for us. We would expect them to show us how our individual biographies intertwine with the history we share with fellow human beings. And yet whether or not the sociologists get that far,- they have no other point to start from than the daily experience of life they share with you and me — from that raw knowledge that saturates the daily life of each one of us. For this reason alone the sociologists, however hard they might have tried to follow the example of the physicists and the biologists and stand aside from the object of their study (that is, look at your and my life experience as an object ‘out there’, as a detached and impartial observer would do), cannot break off completely from their insider’s knowledge of the experience they try to comprehend. However hard they might try, sociologists are bound to remain on both sides of the experience they strive to interpret, inside and outside at the same time. (Note how often the sociologists use the personal pronoun ‘we’ when they report their findings and formulate their general propositions. That ‘we’ stands for an ‘object’ that includes those who study and those whom they study. Can you imagine a physicist using ‘we’ of them- selves and the molecules? Or astronomers using ‘we’ to generalize about themselves and the stars?) There is more still to the special relationship between sociology and common sense. The phenomena observed and theorized upon by modern physicists or astronomers come in an innocent and pristine form, unprocessed, free from labels, ready-made definitions and prior interpretations (that is, except such interpretations as had Introduction: Sociology — What For? 11 been given them in advance by the physicists who set the experiments that made them appear). They wait for the physicist or the astron- omer to name them, to set them among other phenomena and combine them into an orderly whole: in short, to give them meaning. But there are few, if any, sociological equivalents of such clean and unused phenomena which have never been given meaning before. Those human actions and interactions that sociologists explore had all been given names and theorized about, in however diffuse, poorly articulated form, by the actors themselves. Before sociologists started looking at them, they were objects of commonsensical knowledge. Families, organizations, kinship networks, neighbourhoods, cities and villages, nations and churches and any other groupings held together by regular human interaction have already been given meaning and significance by the actors, so that the actors consciously address them in their actions as bearers of such meanings. Lay actors and professional sociologists would have to use the same names, the same language when speaking of them. Each term soci— ologists may use will already have been heavily burdened with mean- ings it was given by the commonsensical knowledge of ‘ordinary’ people like you and me. - For the reason explained above, sociology is much too intimately related to common sense to afford that lofty equanimity with which sciences like chemistry or geology can treat it. You and l are allowed to speak of human interdependence and human interaction, and to speak with authority. Don’t we all practise them and experience? Sociological discourse is wide open: no standing invitation to every- body to join, but no clearly marked borders or effective border guards either. With poorly defined borders whose security is not guaranteed in advance (unlike sciences that explore objects inac- “ cessible to lay experience), the sovereignty of sociology over social knowledge, its right to make authoritative pronouncements on the subject, may always be contested. This is why drawing a boundary between sociological knowledge proper and the common sense that is always full of sociological ideas is such an important matter for the identity of sociology as a cohesive body of knowledge; and why sociologists pay this matter more attention than other scientists. We can think of at least four quite seminal differences between 12 Introduction: Sociology - What For? the ways in which sociology and common sense — your and my ‘raw’ knowledge of the business of life — treat the topic they share: human experience. To start with, sociology (unlike common sense) makes an effort to subordinate itself to the rigorous rules of responsible speech, which is assumed to be an attribute of science (as distinct from other, reputedly more relaxed and less vigilantly self-controlled, forms of knowledge). This means that the sociologists are expected to take great care to distinguish — in a fashion clear and visible to anybody — between the statements corroborated by available evi- dence and such propositions as can only claim the status of a provisional, untested guess. Sociologists would refrain from misrep- resenting ideas that are grounded solely in their beliefs (even the most ardent and emotionally intense beliefs) as tested findings carrying the widely respected authority of science. The rules of responsible speech demand that one’s ‘workshop’ — the whole procedure that has led to the final conclusions and is claimed to guarantee their credibility ~ be wide open to an unlimited public scrutiny; a standing invitation ought to be extended to everyone to reproduce the test and, be this the case, prove the findings wrong. Responsible speech must also relate to other statements made on its topic; it cannot simply dismiss or pass by in silence other views that have been voiced, however sharply they are opposed to it and hence inconvenient. It is hoped that once the rules of responsible speech are honestly and meticulously observed, the trustworthiness, re- liability and eventually also the practical usefulness of the ensuing propositions will be greatly enhanced, even if not fully guaranteed. Our shared faith in the credibility of beliefs countersigned by science is to a great extent grounded in the hope that the scientists will indeed follow the rules of responsible speech, and that the scientific pro- fess10n as a whole will see to it that every single member of the profession does so on every occasion. As to the scientists themselves they pornt to the virtues of responsible speech as an argument in favour of the superiority of the knowledge they offer. The second difference is related to the size of the field from which the material for judgement is drawn. For most of us, as non- professionals, such a field is confined to our own life—world: things Introduction: Sociology — What For? 13 we do, people we meet, purposes we set for our own pursuits and guess other people set for theirs. Rarely, if at all, do we make an effort to lift ourselves above the level of our daily concerns to broaden the horizon of experience, as this would require time and resources most of us can ill afford or do not feel like spending on such effort. And yet, given the tremendous variety of life conditions, each experience based solely on an individual life-world is necessarily partial and most likely one-sided. Such shortcomings can be rectified only if one brings together and sets against each other experiences drawn from a multitude of life-worlds. Only then will the incom- 4 pleteness of individual experience be revealed, as will be the complex network of dependencies and interconnections in which it is en- tangled — a network which reaches far beyond the realm which could be scanned from the vantage point of a singular biography. The overall result of such a broadening of horizons will be the discovery of the intimate link between individual biography and wide social processes the individual may be unaware of and surely unable to control. It is for this reason that the sociologists’ pursuit of a perspective wider than the one offered by an individual life-world makes a great difference —- not just a quantitative difference (more data, more facts, statistics instead of single cases), but a difference in the quality and the uses of knowledge. For people like you or me, who pursue our respective aims in life and struggle for more control over our plight, sociological knowledge has something to offer that common sense cannot. The third difference between sociology and common sense pertains to the way in which each one goes about making sense of human reality; how each one goes about explaining to its own satisfaction why this rather than that happened or is the case. I imagine that you (much as myself) know from your own experience that you are ‘the author’ of your actions; you know that what you do (though not necessarily the results of your actions) is an effect of your intention, hope or purpose. You normally do as you do in order to achieve a state of affairs you desire, whether you wish to possess an object, to receive an accolade from your teachers, or to put an end to your friends’ teasing. Quite naturally, the way you think of your action serves you as a model for making sense of all other actions. You 14 Introduction: Sociology ~ What For? explain such actions to yourself by imputing to others intentions you know from your own experience. This is, to be sure; the only way we can make sense of the human world around us as long as we draw our tools of explanation solely from within our respective life-worlds. We tend to perceive everything that happens in the world at large as an outcome of somebody’s intentional action. We look for the per- sons responsible for what has happened and, once we have found them, we believe our inquiry has been completed. We assume somebody’s goodwill lies behind every event we like and somebody’s ill intentions behind every event we dislike. We would find it difficult to accept that a situation was not an effect of intentional action of an identifiable ‘somebody’; and we would not lightly give up our con- viction that any unwelcome condition could be remedied if only someone, somewhere, wished to take the right action. Those who more than anyone else interpret the world for us — politicians, journalists, commercial advertisers - tune in to this tendency of ours and speak of the ‘needs of the state’ or ‘demands of the economy’, as if the state or the economy were made to the measure of individual persons like ourselves and could have needs or make ' demands. On the other hand, they portray the complex problems of nations. states and economic systems (deeply seated in the very structures of such figurations) as the effects of the thoughts and deeds of a few individuals one can name, put in front of a camera and interview. Sociology stands in opposition to such a personalized world-view. As it starts its survey from figuration: (networks of dependencies) rather than from individual actors or single actions, it demonstrates that the common metaphor of the motivated individual as the key to the understanding of the human world —— including our own, thoroughly personal and private, thoughts and deeds — is inappropriate. When thinking sociologically, one attempts to make sense of the human condition through analysing the manifold webs of human interdependency -— that toughest of realities which explains both our motives and the effects of their activation. Finally, let us recall that the power of common sense over the way we understand...
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