Sociology is Hard


When I’m introducing my discipline to college students I often quip that if sociology were easy, physicists would do it. After all, physics is guided by natural laws that do not deviate, for which there are no exceptions. A particle, being accelerated around a huge magnetic ring until collided with another particle will act in certain, mathematically predictable ways.

That is not the case with people as they are influenced by and interact within a social matrix. True, there is a certain predictability to human behavior, if there weren’t, there would be no scientific discipline of sociology. However, our scatter plots and regressions are often frustratingly inconsistent. The best we can do is suggest probabilities, and not the cool quantum physics kind of probabilities, but rather the annoying, ambiguous probabilities influenced by multiple variables with tangential explanations.

A human being is not a particle in an accelerator. Each human is the object of socialization, power dynamics, labels, historical impacts and any of an assortment of influences. At the same time, human beings are subject to their own personal experiences, identities, relationships, memories and interpretations of reality, all of these, in turn, subject to the same objective social arrangements. The outcomes of one person raised in urban poverty will not exactly match the outcomes of another person raised in the very same neighborhood, even in the very same household. The best we can do is identify certain similarities in individuals, and consistent patterns in populations as a whole.

Sociology is not easy.

That’s why I was heartened by this Tweet from perhaps America’s best known scientists acknowledging the complexities of my discipline.


Look, I’ll admit I’m being tongue in cheek with the whole “physicists would do it,” thing. My apologies to Dr. Tyson and other so-called “hard scientists.” The fact is that I love physics, cosmology, chemistry, biology, the whole gamut of the sciences. In fact, I believe that a sociologist and/or a historian must be proficiently informed of all such disciplines in order to conduct valid sociological analysis. I’m intrigued by the movement of galaxies and seeming contradictions and “impossibilities” of quantum mechanics. I’m awed by the capacity of scientists like Dr. Tyson to reveal the complexities of the cosmos from the graceful dance of galactic clusters to the frenetic qualities of subatomic particles. Frankly, though I believe I have more than a working understanding of these disciplines, the nuances of their research is quite beyond me.

That being said, I’ve found more than a few hard scientists who find sociological analysis well-nigh impossible. Yes, they can understand the results, the output of our research, just as I can understand the conclusions of a physics paper, but the nature of sociological thinking, what Mills referred to as the sociological imagination, is frustratingly…well…non-linear. I understand what Hawking Radiation is, but I have no idea the process by which that great mind figured it out. Well, the process of sociology is often just as inaccessible.

Non-linear abstractions are the very fabric of the sociological imagination. When Mills talks about examining the intersection between biography and history, I get it. When Foucault talks about knowledge/power, I get it. The social construction of reality. Yeah. That makes perfect sense. To the hard scientist…well, the words make sense, but the application is clumsy. Mills is right. Imagination is the key.

As I pursue my interests, which often takes me into many different domains, I realize that all disciplines have a particular kind of imagination. What exactly does this mean? In this context, imagination is the means by which we create and understand our perceptions (images) of reality. When we look at the universe through our particular lenses, what do we see?  To over-simplify, perhaps the physicist (Dr. Tyson, I’m sure you are reading this, please feel free to comment…please) sees bodies in motion, the chemist sees molecules reacting.

The sociologist, by contrast, sees interconnecting and overlapping patterns of interaction. These interactions are like shifting strings between individuals, yes, but also groups, institutions, communities and nations. We see a huge, polymorphous global mesh, constantly shifting, swaying, collapsing and expanding. Where these strings intersect, where they cluster, where strings are sparse, these are spaces of interest to the sociologist.

As such, sociology, as well as history, requires the disciple to recognize patterns of abstraction. Inductive reasoning is key. We then find theoretical frameworks by which to understand the phenomena, develop deductive tools test their validity, sort our conclusions into discursive formations through which we can make sense of that little pattern we see, and then try to apply our paradigm to the real world. If what we describe holds, is generalizable and predictable, we may be on to something.

Or we may be on to something else…something else that can be looked at from a slightly different angle and be understood with a different frame. This, I find, is baffling to the hard scientist. There are many theoretical frameworks in sociology, many of which can be used to adequately describe the same patterns, each valid, but perhaps differently valid.

Ug. In physics, we have a phenomenon like gravity. For hundreds of years, gravity was understood using Newton’s brilliant theory. Newton theorized that gravity was a force innate to bodies based on their mass. The amount of force bodies exert on each other is proportional to their mass and distance from each other. This theory works pretty well to explain gravity and to make predictions. Newton’s laws were the standard for analyzing gravitation for about three hundred years, until a patent clerk named Einstein formulated a theory that explained gravity as a distortion in space-time. Newton’s theory was fine, but Einstein’s was better. Scientists use Einstein.

Well, the use of gravity in understanding social phenomena is a bit…well…non-linear. See, our best theories use reasonably well to explain broad phenomena ranging from power dynamics to identity formation to deviance. However, it’s impossible to identify the best theory to understand a particular issue. Want to understand, for instance, identity formations that might contribute to internal conflicts on body image? Well, feminist theory might work pretty well, but which feminist theory. An understanding of good, old-fashioned Role Taking or Looking Glass Self or Dramaturgy might contribute to our understanding. Marxist analysis? Foucault’s power/knowledge? All of these theoretical approaches will work, offering valuable insight into an issue that is a significant problem within our society.

But which one of these theories is the best? Well…yes…From a sociological perspective, they all work. The consequences of the analysis may have different applications if we are talking about, say, establishing educational curriculum for addressing the issue, or a counseling protocol or a social policy. However, all of these approaches can be of value in understanding the phenomena. And this is a multiplicity that sociologists are perfectly comfortable with. I suppose it’s possible to do a meta-analysis in which we compare the most effective approaches to dealing with negative body image in the context of these approaches’ governing theory, plot the results and get an idea of which theory actually works the best, but I would wager the standard deviation on that scatter plot would be so wide as to render the analysis meaningless.

And therein lies the internal dilemma of sociology which confounds the hard scientist. That is the challenge of objectively analyzing what is, by its very nature, subjective. Everything that happens in the human experience does so within a social frame. The analysis is automatically distorted by the subjectivity of the actors, the subjectivity of the observers and the overlapping subjectivity inherent in the interaction. In sociology, we often refer to the Hawthorne Effect, after the well-known results of a study conducted by Elton Mayo in which the individuals in the study changed their behaviors as a result of being observed rather than as a result of changes in the environment. I often like to compare this to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. My apologies to Dr. Tyson. I know this isn’t an exact analogy.

Sociologists endeavor to objectivity, running complex regressions with controls,

This classic painting by Norman Rockwell illustrates one of the conflicts of sociological study. We as sociologists are, in essence, studying ourselves.

triangulating our analysis from multiple perspectives, grounding our work in predictable theoretical perspectives. The bottom line is that the object of our analysis being society means that the true subject we are trying to reveal is ourselves. This complicates matters as we are trying to understand the man in the mirror, someone with whom we are especially intimate. Contending with the inevitable confirmation bias requires considerable self-discipline. After all, anyone who does not see what I see when I look in the mirror…obviously needs glasses.

That being said, even the hard sciences are subject to this kind of distortion as theorists become emotionally invested in their own contributions, promoting their theories as they promote themselves. The history of science is rife with defenders of Lamarck in the face of Darwin. The difference is that this conflict is inherent in sociology.

I’m reminded of one of my colleagues in graduate school who had the opportunity to sit in and observe group therapy sessions with convicted sexual predators. She ended the research before it was complete. She was viscerally bothered that the men in the focus group did not conform to her expectations that they would be monstrous and vile individuals. Instead, she found them to be…human…insecure, remorseful, even frail. She could not compartmentalize this internal conflict between preconceived notions and perceptions. It’s unfortunate. She could have uncovered some valuable truths. However, she was right in recognizing that her internal discipline was compromised. She could not offer a reliable analysis in the face of her own subjectivity.

As sociologists, we must also contend with moral issues that the physicist or chemist does not have to contend with. One of my former professors once told us that it would be very easy to calculate the probability that someone who was intoxicated could successfully drive home from the bar. All we would have to do is get a thousand people drunk, and make them drive home, then tabulate who made it. Yeah. Obviously, we are not going to do that. When the subjects of your research are human beings and, unlike psychologists, sociologists do not have the luxury of torturing innocent mice in order to conduct our research, great care has to be taken to protect the well-being of our subjects. That is total well-being, physically, psychologically and socially.

This becomes an issue when studying criminal behavior. Obviously, if I want to do a study mass murderers, it can’t be a participant observation. I’ll have to find less direct ways to do the research. And as a human being, a researcher, interacting with human beings, albeit in a research setting, what is my responsibility to my subjects as fellow human beings? What if my subject reveals complicity in a crime during the course of my research?

It’s my experience that all disciplines, if done well, are hard. It is especially hard to the non-adept or the outsider. Dr. Tyson can probably calculate the distance of a distant star with one brain tied behind his back. That process is inaccessible to most of us.

To my hard science students taking Principles of Sociology because they think it is an easy A and satisfies their humanities credit, however, prepare yourself.

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