According to Andre Beteille, a famous Indian sociologist, sociology has to steer an uneasy path between two unfruitful alternatives, namely the scholar’s own common sense and the technical virtuosity detached from the substance of social enquiry. Nothing would be achieved by abandoning either of the two. Beteille argues how sociology is different from common sense but at the same time tries to explain their interpenetration. He illustrates this problem with regard to the difficulty of teaching sociology at universities which accrues from its ambiguity. Sociology is a loosely defined field of activity which touches one’s everyday experiences and thus appears close to common sense so much so that there is an inevitable tendency to use one in place of the other.
What leads to this ambiguity?
(Particularly in the context of India)
Due to the apparent familiarity with the concepts used in sociology, students often wonder as to what is there to learn in sociology. Moreover, there is no formal theory which could be communicated to the students which lead to the discipline being considered a soft subject when compared to other disciplines.
There is also a lack of a clear and established framework. Students are not able to make connections between items as easily they are able to grasp these items. There is not one argument that is absolute or one solution to the problem, a fact, as well as its opposite, could be true. A significant problem faced by students and teachers of sociology in India is of integrating the sociological theory with the teaching of a sociology of India.
Beteille also points out towards the shift in focus of the academic seminars in India. Research seminars have side-lined the theoretical subjects to focus on current affairs and social issues such as reservation, caste politics, communalism, secularism etc. Sociology does have a remote interest in what is going around but it is much beyond these localized happenings. Research seminars have come to lack a broader comparative theoretical interest.
Sociology as a discipline
In spite of what appears to be a porous boundary between common sense and sociology and the former flowing into the latter, sociology is still different from common sense. Sociological knowledge aims to be a general if not universal. On the other hand, common sense is particular, localized, and highly variable and subject to constraints of time and place as against what is popularly conceived of it. No matter how loosely coordinated the methods and concepts of sociology are, they cannot be substituted by even the most well-established kind of common sense. Sociology does not limit itself to time and space, it deals with both facts and arguments.
However, it must not be assumed that sociology is about something arcane or esoteric as its nature makes it difficult to separate it from common sense in the analyses of human conditions. Common sense is believed to make things seem simpler but Beteille argues that it is not always so.
In order to practice sociology as a serious academic discipline, it becomes imperative to draw from the vast reservoir of sociological concepts, methods, and theories created by scholars over the past century. The founding fathers of modern sociology, all belonged to the western world, therefore, a bias was inevitable. Nevertheless, even when their focus was on their own societies, their studies took the entirety of human society with its diverse and changing forms. For the founding fathers, common sense was not enough, objectivity needed to be attained through new tools and the disciplined application of methods was the spirit of sociology.
This is demonstrated by Emile Durkheim in his treatment of suicide as a ‘social fact’ rather than something which could be explained by human psychology. He drew a distinction between the incidence and the rate of suicide. Suicide rate differed across societies, religious, occupational and other kinds of social groups. Fluctuations in the rate were often caused by certain changes such as economic or religious. Thus, a systematic study revealed the social causes behind an act which common sense perceived to be individual and supremely private. Similarly, Max Weber showed that the consequences of human actions have not been the same as the intentions of the actors, they could also be diametrically opposite at times. It could be seen in his study of the role of religion (Protestantism) in the organization of economic life (capitalism).
Preoccupations of Sociology
There are two fundamental preoccupations of sociology: (1) searching for interconnections among the different domains of society and, (2) the systematic use of comparison. The former is the reason that sociology has a kind of ‘functionalist bias’. The procedure for the search of interrelations, which includes survey, research, statistical analysis, participant observation and case studies, is laborious and time-consuming; it may not always lead to spectacular results but meaningful and unsuspected connections unlike common sense; it is also unlike the religious or materialist interpretations of the world; detailed analyses by sociologists have led to the very fruitful distinction between ‘social integration’ and ‘system integration’. For instance, M.N. Srinivas formulated the important distinction between the ‘book view’ and the ‘field view’ of Indian society and drew attention to the drawbacks of the former. He also falsified the wide perception regarding the caste system as a rigid or inflexible system. Beteille himself realized through his studies conducted in Tanjore district that villages, which were popularly perceived as ‘little republics’ were generally riddled with inequality and conflict. A.M. Shah cleared the misconceptions about the Indian family system by establishing that the proportion of ‘joint family households’ was never larger than that of ‘nuclear family households’ and that the average size of the households in India has remained roughly the same over the past century.
It is due to the comparative method that sociology scores over common sense. Emile Durkheim claimed that comparative sociology is not a special branch of sociology but it is sociology itself. Comparisons, according to him, could include facts borrowed either from a single and unique society, or from several societies of the same species, or from several distinct social species. India offers wide possibilities for sociological comparisons. Beteille, has to his name various comparative studies, for instance, his comparative study of caste and land-based conflicts across the taluks of Tanjore district; in another study, he compared India’s positive discrimination and the United States’ affirmative action.
Sociology and common sense
Looking at the examples above, we can decipher that common sense is both localized and unreflective. Localised because it is time and space bound and unreflective because it does not question its own origins. It is based on a limited range of experience of particular people in particular places and times. Relying on common sense, people tend to think that theirs is the only correct way of going about things. On the other hand, comparative sociology helps in acquiring and maintaining a sense of proportion. Sociology not only collects facts from such comparative study but also places such facts on the same plane of observation and analysis. Common sense does not follow any rules of procedure for placing the facts. Common sense could also be both utopian and fatalistic, whereas, sociology moderates such tendencies by showing the reality. While common sense envisages a perfect social arrangement, sociology is preoccupied with the disjunction between the ideal and the real and thus is anti-utopian in its orientation. It is anti-fatalistic in the sense that it does not buy the common-sensical idea of eternity or immutability of social arrangements. Sociology provides a disciplined and methodical judgment of the social costs and benefits of the social arrangement.
Sociology, by and large treats the questions of facts as distinct from judgments of values. However, it is still debated as to what extent this distinction could be maintained in practice. Sociology is modeled after the natural sciences, and thus, it eliminates or minimizes the investigator’s bias. Values are to be treated as facts and insulated from the investigators own personal and social values. Common sense, in this view, is a source of such potential bias and error.
In sociology, different aspects of the subject could be revealed from different viewpoints. It is true that sociology does not or should not express moral preferences but moral preferences in sociology may have a different basis other than common sense. It cannot be said if sociology can influence the moral preferences of the individual but it could certainly provide a better sense of the alternatives at the disposal of the individual.
Beteille,Andre,2009, Sociology : Essays in Approachand Method, Delhi : Oxford University Press,Chapter 1, ‘Sociology and Common Sense’,Pp 13-27