A Manifesto and Poetic For Sociology


Ken Plummer

(Combining key sections of Sociology 2, 2016)


21 Theses for Thinking Sociology


1    Sociology is the systematic, sceptical and critical study of the social, investigating the characteristics, construction and consequences of human social worlds.

2    Sociology was born of radical social change and continues to dwell in major social change. Sociologists study this pereptual emergence and change.

3    Sociology brings a way of thinking – an imagination, a form of consciousness – that can/will change your life. It defamiliarises the familiar, questions the taken for granted, and destroys the myths we choose to live by.

4    For sociologists, the air we breathe is social. We can’t stop ‘experiencing the social’ and seeing ‘the social’ everywhere.

5   ‘The social’ captures the contrasting ideas that (a) we live with others ‘doing things together’ at the same time as (b) we live with a distinctive reality that exists independently to constrain and coerce us in our everyday life

6    Sociologists search for the patterns, prisons, predictabilities in human social life, creating the social structures and institutions in which we dwell.

7    Sociologists search for the patterns of meaning as humans acting in social worlds with others – creating culture and complex symbolisations to make sens of their lives and their worlds.

8    Sociologists search to grasp the contradictions between constraining structures and creative meanings: sociology sees this action/structure tension everywhere, working to find new ways of bridging the micro world with the macro world.

9    Human beings weave webs of cultures – ways of living which are composed of complex, multi-layered, negotiable and ever emergent symbolic actions. Cultures are never tight, fixed or agreed upon but are multilayered ‘mosaics of social worlds’.

10  Human beings live in the brute reality of material worlds (their environments, economies, bodies) which render them vulnerable.

11  We are both animals and cultural creatures (intrinsically dual) living simultaneously in material and symbolic worlds. We are ‘the little gods who shit’.

12  All social worlds are stuffed full of differences, ‘incorrigibly plural’, and we dwell with the tensions that arise from this. Everything in social life, including sociological thinking, brings its conflicts and contradictions.

13  Human differences are embedded in a deep swirling matrix of inequalities. Human capabilities are structured through divisive processes into structured inequalities which have damaging effects on our lives. Our opportunities for human flourishing can be thwarted by our class, gender, ethnicity, age, health, sexuality and nationhood.

14  Social life is contingent and always shaped in diverse, often unpredictable, ways by history and time, geography and space, situations and relations.

15  Social life is structured by power relations: we ask who and what can shape our lives?

16  Sociologists describe, understand, and explain the social world using the best methods they can muster. Straddling art, science and history, they think hard, conduct rigorous empirical research, and skillfully and critically make sense of data.

17 Digitalism is radically reforming this sociological project as it provides new tools for research, new sources of data and even new ways of thinking about social life.

18  All of social life is dialogical not monological. Human beings are narrators and are in a constant round of telling tales of lives and societies to each other. And all knowledge, whatever else it may be, works within this social dialogue: it is always local, contested, relational knowledge.

19  Sociologists are researchers, thinkers, critics, educators, dialogists, critical citizens, enhancers of art and creativity, and facilitators of unheard voices being heard. Above all, sociology fosters critical citizens alive and changing their own social worlds. They dwell in a flowing circle of sociological life.

20  Sociology lives in a world of values and takes such values seriously, investigating them and becming awar of their ubiquitous use.

21  Sociology can bring hope of a better world for all. It bring tools to help us assemble future imaginaries of better worlds, study experimemtal actions to empower new social worlds and act as critical citizens. The challenge is on for each generation to leave behind a better place for subsequent generations.


12 Theses for Doing Sociology

1    Get close to whatever you want to study. Stick to the concrete and ask: What is going on – by who? where? when? and why? Wherever possible stay engaged with people in their worlds and avoid becoming cut off or aloof from them. Keep yourself grounded.

2    Keep asking questions about the quality of the kind of material you are working with – your data. Think about what it is you are ‘measuring’, ‘observing’, ‘describing’ – are you getting at this as best you can?

3    Think about the kind of knowledge you are aiming for – and where you might stand in relationship to this. What is your own perspective, your standpoint? Maybe you are completely neutral, but this is unlikely. Learn to describe social realities from as many angles as you can. Draw some social maps of different perspectives around your topic and sense what your perspectives are leaving out.

4    Be imaginative with your research tools, making them the most appropriate tools for your study. There are a wide range of possibilities out there. You do not have to stay with the survey or the interview.

5    Cultivate good language, good concepts and good writing. Avoid jargon, shun pretentiousness and pomposity; and stay intelligible as far as you can in your thinking and your writing. New words can be helpful – but go for the simpler word wherever you can. Do not be too easily impressed by complicated expressions – many academics are very poor at expressing themselves! Think of your reader – be kind, and learn to write stylishly so you are a pleasure to read. Read Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing; or better still, read George Orwell’s classic little book Why I Write (1940), and his line: ‘Break any rule rather than saying anything outright barbarous’.

6    Develop basic skills of numeracy, writing, thinking and ‘seeing’ the world. The best way to do this is to practice the skills a little every day. Develop good work habits.

7    Become sensitive to the political and ethical relations inside your research and outside of it. Recall the old adage that ‘knowledge is power’ (Pope), but also the significance of ethics and remain empathetic to the ways you engage with people. Respect people and their worlds.

8    Stay open. Things will change and your proposals will change. This is normal. Keep a flexible eye on what you are finding and change with it. Never stick to fixed protocols if your study takes you elsewhere.

9    Know yourself and be comfortable with who you are in relation to your study. Unlike many areas of study, sociology is social. And it means you need to know a bit about what you want to study, how it links to your own life, what your reasons are for studying this, how it might be shaped and indeed impact your own life.

10 Be organized. Make plans, write lists, get files – and get a useful manual to help you (like Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis, but there are lots of them around these days).).

11  Nobody can tell you how to do research – and reading guides on how to interview, design questionnaires and do content analyses etc are pointless until you have a project in mind. Research tips devoid of a project mean little. But once you know your project, read and study voraciously on how others have used these methods and practice them in dummy runs. Never unleash yourself on others or make data without detailed preparations.

12 Finally, the cardinal rule: let methods be your servant. Read widely, think a lot, keep critical, stay grounded, get organized, practice daily and be passionate about what you do. Aim for adequate objectivity. And to thy own methodology be true – but make sure you have one!


A Poetic for Sociology

The Haunting Of Social Things
(this is the fuller version of the poetic found on page xi in the second edition)

We live the social electric-
The air we breathe is social.
The tiny things and the major things.
The social haunting of life in vast time and space.

The social is natural and the natural is social.
We do things together, drenched with people,
attuned to others: there is always the other.
And the haunting of social things.

We make social life stuffed full of the possible
yet we dwell in our habits, the patterns and structures,
the predictable positions we trap ourselves in.
The prisons that engulf us, a daily haunting.

Pounding patterns of structure and wobbly worlds of meaning.
We are prisoners, puppets, and people. Always fragile.
World making actions, and resistance, rebellion-
in worlds not of our making that haunt till we die.

Ubiquitous differences, divisions,dominations: the inhumanities of people.
A haunting ‘matrix of inequalities’: generations at war,
gendered classed races, sexy nations disabled.
And the troubled pathways of excluding and exploiting, dehumanizing and disempowering.

At the brink of a change- a world seething with gushing movements.
Pasts, presents and futures collide in the moment.
Where did it come from and where is it headed?
Cyber capitalisms in global ferment haunting the world.

Standing amazed at this chaos and complexity
of the humanly produced social world;
and its joys and its sufferings,
we celebrate it and we critique these hauntings.

Yet the dreadful dullness of professional knowledge.
Its earnest desire for respectability and order,
abstractions to kill you. Standards to die for.
A dark cloak thrown over the mind.

We need ‘the tricks of the trade’ : practical questions with practical answers.
Rich descriptions and explanations of dense social life.
An intimate familiarity through all the senses.
Explore and respect the empirical world. And look for it hauntings.

We dwell in social tensions, conflicts and contradiction.
Observing schisms, thinking paradox,
and struggling with opposing paths: living with the contradictions.
The hard trick of dealing with them in our lives.

The vast multiplicities of social life: Contested. Contingent. Creative.
And thriving. Progressing. Regressing. Sometimes surviving.
Incorrigibly plural. Intransigently vast.
The complex tales how we order our past.

And the blindness of human beings?
The taken for granted need not be taken for granted.
Doubting the familiar; living with radical doubt.

Yet all we know is incomplete and open,
Necessarily provisional, partial, perspectival.
Reality is inexhaustible, too complex and dense to be fully comprehended
No finality. Or closure.

The dream of a better world haunts sociology.
Empowering lives and imagining utopias.
More justice in each generation?
A flourishing life for all?

A dialogue: being personal, being political?
Passionate knowledge? A garden to cultivate?
A quiet catharsis of comprehension? With the other?
Haunted by doubt, love and hope.

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