Doing sociology: 

a very short introduction

Friso van Houdt (vanhoudt-at-fsw.eur.nl)

Sociology as a martial art
Sociology has been famously described by Pierre Bourdieu as a martial art, a means of self-defence. That is, sociology can be used to defend yourself without having the right for unfair attacks. This short piece aims at further clarifying what sociology is, how it can be done and it illustrates my own way of doing sociology.

What is sociology and how to do sociology?
Sociology is derived from socius (Latin for companion) and logos (Greek for study). Sociology is a science that offers authoritative insights into social relations. Thinking sociologically implies thinking relationally, using proper methods and accepting rules of responsible speech while studying questions of social order, social change, social action and social identity. Sociologists gifted with sociological imagination show how individual troubles and -biographies are related to public issues and social processes. Sociology shows that men make their history but under conditions not of their making.

There are, schematically, three ways of doing sociology, all related to underlying interests. First, sociology may imitate the natural sciences by using “exact” and “objective” methods geared towards the uncovering of social laws. The primary interest is prediction and control (sociology as technology of social control). Secondly, sociology as study of symbolic interaction and classification. Here sociology is an interpretation of interpretations aimed at cross-temporal and cross-cultural understanding (sociology as technology of social understanding). Thirdly, doing sociology as a critical science aimed at emancipation (sociology as technology of freedom). This implies studying the present (“how it is”) while relating it to a normative yardstick (“how it should be”). Critical social theory aims at kick-starting social change by showing that the present could have been otherwise (contingency), by formulating alternatives (possibility) and giving means to enhancing individual and collective freedom (capacity).

Against sociological zoo-keeping
Some sociologists practice sociology to enhance social prediction and social control. This way sociology becomes a kind of zoo-keeping. In contrast, my specific way of doing sociology aims at a critical understanding of the governing of the human zoo. That is, my primary research questions are: how do we govern ourselves, others and the state in the present? This way sociology leads to better self-understanding (how do I govern myself in daily life for example my health, my work or leisure time) but also an understanding of the governing of others (classified as ‘child’, ‘sick’, ‘sexually deviant’ or ‘criminal’) and the state (for example the transformation of the ‘welfare state’ into ‘participation society’). In addition to understanding, this way of doing sociology also has a critical dimension. Forms of governing are related to forms of truth and modern forms of governing are primarily related to scientific knowledge. My way of doing sociology also implies a reflexive understanding of the social sciences, studying their connections to power structures (such as the state) and the effects of identification (for example the sociological practice of labelling deviants). This way of doing sociology has the critical aim of showing the excesses of power, as well as the limits of our knowledge and reductionism of our identifications. From this perspective I am currently studying the rise and implications of neuro-criminology and brain-crime images produced by brain scanning technology (such as MRI scans used to scan the brains of prisoners).