In what ways is a sociological approach to understanding society distinct to common sense?

Reg Hamster

Berger (1963:45) states, “ To ask sociological questions, presupposes that one is interested in looking some distance beyond the commonly accepted or officially defined goals of human actions.”

This in part, summarizes a sociological approach to the structure of society. It also appears to imply a degree of skepticism towards widely accepted views and perhaps that there is a facade, that is, there is something to look behind
Nietzsche simply called sociology “ the art of mistrust.” The word “mistrust” might suggest that a common sense view of the world is simply an acceptance of our social constraints and constructs, whatever the society or culture we live in.
Therefore a sociologist could look at many things in life and question their validity and people’s motivations. Examples might be; Religion, economics, the law or government. It is worth examining a sociological viewpoint of each of these to illustrate a different perspective to that of society as a whole, or what we might call common sense. 

The public or official interpretation of what interests sociologists are often called, “social problems.” That is, something in society not working or behaving in a supposed “normal” manner. The authorities (or even a company for economic reasons) might wish the sociologist to study the perceived problem and find a cause and remedy.

The sociologist is more likely to try to understand how the system works as a whole, rather than studying a section in isolation that does not appear to conform. In this way the sociologist may wonder if the social problems and causes of divorce might actually be the system of marriage itself. Not crime, but the law. Not racial discrimination, but the opportunities of different layers of society.

Also, there are different viewpoints as to the choice of the individual within the framework of our societies. Perhaps whether society determines behaviour or individualism creates society.

Therefore there are two or more value systems to study ideas as a whole, and how society interacts and coexists.
Looking at marriage as an example of differing perspectives, it is possible to work out statistically, largely who marries who, from their background of social class, income, education, lifestyle, race and religion. Love and marriage might be desirable only if these criteria are met and therefore most factors are predefined and constructed to allow a relationship. The individual would not question any of the factors that allowed their choice of partner, simply that they were in love.  There is also the current social climate; currently a high number of people are simply living together and more women are choosing to have children as single parents.

The government and certain media sections may see this as undesirable, but acceptance amongst ones peers and the fact that currently, roughly one quarter of children are born without married parents over-ride the previous morality that was a terrible handicap to not only the child but the mother also.

Fifty years ago single mothers and illegitimate children were discriminated against; common sense would tell us that single parenting might not be ideal but surely possible. Therefore, it could be claimed that there is an institutional structure passed down to us, especially with marriage; history and current morality largely determining our actions. Marriage is seen as a “social good” deemed desirable by the church and government and, until the 1970s strong enough reasons to conform. Other cultures see having several wives as perfectly normal.

These ideas of time, a precedent concept and the current framework of society were summed up by Berger (1963:p109) “ Society antedates us and will survive us. It was there before we were born and will be there after we are sum, society is the walls of our imprisonment in history.”

A second simple example of this looking beyond the accepted views might be looking at a town or community. An economist or resident might see the regulations allowing or preventing trade within the area, the sociologist would suspect that there was an “informal” power structure, not publicly visible, operating behind the scenes. A study would assume vested interests controlling, or at least influencing matters, perhaps even the elected officials themselves, decisions taken outside the community. This might be corporate executives, a small number of like minded business men, a powerful union or even a Mafia like criminal organisation. None of these are the official powers, yet may be the dominant forms of control. 

The example of this in modern day life, is the advent of huge multi national corporations operating in third world countries. Not only do they virtually dictate their terms to the governments once established, they alter the traditional cultures of the people. What was once a simple agrarian lifestyle becomes a more industrial, Westernised culture of consumer needs, introducing all the goods and services that we perceive necessary for our standard of living. Their old society and culture is often lost. 
These examples appear to show a certain preordained nature to our lives, events somewhat out of our control. It shows a degree of social autonomy. This was one of the central ideas of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, that to live in a society automatically means to be dominated by it; often with little awareness of this control, which questions the validity of people’s own ideas of their motivations. 

The theoretical approach to this question raised by Durkheim is now called functionalism, (Alpert 1939) that the system of society is not visible, or at best blurred, to those within it. The American sociologist Robert Merton explained this concept as either “manifest” or “latent” functions. (Merton 1938 cited in Berger 1963)  Manifest refers to the deliberate and conscious actions and decisions, and latent refers to the possibly unintended outcomes. For example;

  • Anti-gambling legislation - illegal gambling empires.
  • Alcohol prohibition - illegal drinking clubs, smuggling and manufacture.
  • Communism - instead of equality lead to a replacement ruling class of bureaucrats with their privilege.
  • Spreading Christianity - destroys tribal cultures and beliefs.
  • Charitable works - social kudos and admiration.
With all these examples there has been a decision that such action would be a social good. However, although the results are often not what was expected, all have had a rationalisation or ideology behind them. 

An alternative approach was the work of Max Weber. He thought similarly that society had a degree of determinism but stressed the part of the individual for change. He thought that our own acts created and supported society and may occasionally change it, rather than being trapped within it. He thought that the rationalisation that we use to justify our actions was; “ the substitution for the unthinking acceptance of ancient custom of deliberate adaptation to situations in terms of self-interest” (Weber 1921 cited in J Eldridge) 

Again the suspicion that self interest is the prime motivation.

As to modern sociology, to what use or purpose is its study? There are many issues that affect public policy such as the penal system. The death penalty has been shown to have little affect on the behaviour of criminals and has been stopped in several American states. Similarly, the treatment and conditions of prisoners has an effect on their likelihood to re-offend, although it would be interesting to see how many people would like to see prisons used as punishment. 

Homosexuality has been another issue that has required studies to prove that they, as a group, were not such deviant members of society as once thought. These helped change not only the public’s perception, and therefore their discrimination, but also legislation.

Lastly, recent studies have looked at the hooligans that attach themselves to football teams. The understanding of their behaviour has helped the football clubs and police, control, and to some degree, predict violence.

In conclusion, a sociological understanding of society suggests that man is in some state of doubt about himself and his real motivations. His rationalising actions to suit and justify the social situation of his time. It is this idea of time that is very important, the social norm changing through time.

The other important factor for a sociologist appears to be a strong mistrust of “ that is just the way things are” type of statement. A degree of cynicism may help to initiate an initial attitude of investigation. The question, are you sure, who benefits? might be a good starting point. This is different to the idea of common sense and an simple acceptance of the times we live in, questioning how much are lives are determined for us and how we might want to change them.


Alpert, H. (1939) Emile Durkheim and His Sociology. Columbia University Press:United States
Berger, P. (1963) Invitation to Sociology. Hunt Barnard: Harmondsworth.
Eldridge, JE. (1971) Max Weber. Wheaton and Co: Exeter

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