Duncan Watts recently wrote a wonderful piece on the myth of common sense for Freakonomics.com. What resonated most for me was the challenge that sociology faces in making our public contribution valued. Watts points out that sociologists deal with everyday social experiences that are familiar to many people – such as family, gender, social networks, fame and success, popular culture and so on. Due to the familiarity of these topics, most people think they can explain sociological phenomena using their common sense. Watts argues that common sense is problematic because the people we have around us have similar worldviews and this does not necessarily make informal observations valid. The problem with sociology is that unlike other sciences, such as physics or mathematics, sociologists do not offer up concrete answers or predictions. Duncan writes:
Sociology, of course, has its own conflicted history with common sense. For almost as long as it has existed, that is, sociology has had to confront the criticism that it has “discovered” little that an intelligent person couldn’t have figured out on his or her own.
Nevertheless, Duncan includes some great examples about the strengths of sociology being its methodological tools, which provide a way to understand the complexity of social behaviour and social change.
Clearly we’re a long way from a world in which cause and effect in social and economic systems can be established with the level of certainty we’ve come to expect from the physical sciences. In fact, the world of human behavior is sufficiently complicated and unpredictable that no matter how long or hard we try, we will always be stuck with some level of uncertainty, in which case leaders will have to do what they’ve always done and make the best decisions they can under the circumstances.
It sounds like a lot of effort for an uncertain payoff, but curing cancer has also proven to be an enormously complex undertaking, far more resistant to medical science than was once thought, yet no one is throwing up their hands on that one. It is time to apply the same admirable resolve to understand the world—no matter how long it takes—that we display in our struggles to address the important problems of physical and medical science to social problems as well
This is a great piece and I’m glad to see it because just yesterday I revisited the work of Peter Berger (as I do often). Berger made this exact same point in the early 1960s: sociology often deals with social issues that are familiar to the general public, but Berger argues that sociology allows people to see that the things that seem normal/natural to us are ‘not quite so familiar’ once we begin to delve critically into our taken-for-granted assumptions about the world (1963: 22). Given that sociology has been struggling with getting different publics to understand what we can do for society since the time when Berger was writing – and given that Watts is wrestling with the same topic, but trying to show sociology’s relevance in the present-day where social media has proliferated various public experts… We really need to get our act together! Duncan’s piece provides yet another eloquent example of why applied sociological professionals should be collaborating more with academics in order to make our science more relevant.
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