The Value of Sociology in Real Life

Today I learned that outside academia, very few people care about Sociology. In the working world, bosses want solutions, not problems. Having a degree in Sociology will not help you to stand up for voiceless groups in court. It will not help you to rescue flickering lives or counsel broken hearts. It will also not help you to engineer and sustain the structures which hold up the world as we see it.

This is not to say that Sociology is practically useless, whatever some may say. There are professions in which having a sociological imagination is valued: Journalism, Education, Social Services, Public Policy. In these professions, your ability to think about personal problems as public issues can help to shape the world for the better. You can speak up for voiceless groups outside court, give new life to those about to give up, and rework the structures which policies place on our everyday lives.

You can land jobs which strive to do good with Sociology.

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But I was not satisfied. I wanted to probe the boundaries. Theoretically, any profession which does not require a specialized degree is open to entry. Thus the business world — what some call the “real world” — is within reach, even if you didn’t study them in school. Indeed, I know peers who have entered the fields of Marketing, Digital Marketing, PR, HR, and Market Research. I did, too.

Nonetheless, chances are that we entered these worlds despite Sociology, not because of it. From the get go, our sociological imagination must take a backseat to strategic thinking. Money makes these worlds go round. I may believe that businesses can improve lives, but I cannot expect my company to be as altruistic, or engage only clients who are altruistic. Any company will go bust like that.

Even if you work in the “more altruistic” professions, your capacity to express sociological insights remains restricted. As a journalist, speed takes precedence. As an educator, syllabus and assessment govern lessons. In social services, a service orientation is more critical than a critical one. In public policy, bureaucracy slows any progress down considerably. There may be jobs which afford you enough freedom, but they will not be common.

Under such cultural constraints, our sociological imagination may go bust just like that.

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If we cannot open the sociological eye in paid employment, then we must find the space to do so outside. That is easier said than done. Few people give a hoot about Sociology. Is it social work? You mean psychology? Why do you need to study common sense?

Once in a while you will meet someone waxing lyrical about Karl Marx and even Emile Durkheim. What a pleasure if they also know of Erving Goffman and C Wright Mills! But when you look around the table in these instants, everyone else will have gone quiet and buried themselves in the latest news on Facebook or Instagram. Where, as they say, the real world is.

I do not disagree.

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There is a need for concepts to frame our thinking and theories to clarify our positions on the world around us. There needs to be people among us protecting our intellectual traditions and furthering them, in Sociology or other disciplines. These people stay in academia. A very particular part of the real world.

Yet outside academia, the question I see more and more of on social media is: Who cares? If people these days care little about most modern celebrities, you can be sure fewer will take interest in dead thinkers. Most people will have no patience to understand what “cultural capital” means, or what the “sociological imagination” is. They see no need to.

If Sociology — as the study of society — has value for the masses, it cannot be through the dissemination of abstract concepts or quantitative findings. Neither is the language of everyday life. They cannot change how people think.

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How then can we find that sweet spot, where we can speak for people, for causes, for Sociology as a way of thinking, and still be heard?

I have, in the history of this blog, followed disparate directions to no end. It was a wild goose chase. Working in the business world has allowed me to think more like a “normal” person would. A normal person is mentally very occupied. A normal person has enough problems to deal with. This is tricky for the Sociology advocate, because it is a discipline which specializes in posing new problems to everyday social life.

If Sociology is to form any impression other than a glare or a grunt, it must be easy to digest and also come with solutions. Citing Marx and Weber does not lessen the alienation employees face at work. It only makes them more helpless. The challenge for Sociology is to open windows to greater freedom, even as it closes the door on the illusion of free will. The challenge is to find better ways out.

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Finding better ways out — this is what I see as the most important value of Sociology for the masses. There is no point discussing who wins in the battle between structure and agency. It depends on how much structure an individual is subject to, and how much agency this individual has been able to carve out in his/her own life.

In the hearts of each of us beats the question: How can we lead a better life?

This is a question which Sociology can take on, even if it rarely does. Knowing where our shackles are can be frightening, but it also gives rise to the possibility of removing them. We may not be able to resolve the big problems of the world, but we can at least work to resolve our own problems in everyday life. We can dress up, or we can dress down. We just have to be smart in how we use our casual time.

All it takes to keep Sociology alive can be as simple as asking: “What have I learned today?”

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