What is Sociology? This perennially jarring – but valid – question cannot be answered without making sense of the diverse strands of research within the discipline. It is not enough to learn of distinct methodologies without knowing how they stand together. To this end, Arthur Stinchcombe’s (1984) commentary may serve as a useful starting point. A discipline, in itself, exerts a disciplinary power over its projects.
A discipline is a social system in which:
1. Prestige is distributed by a set of standards maintained by debate and consensus.
2. Prestige is applied to the work and worker, and determines reward.
3. Standards formed by consensual-debate are taken as authoritative.
In Stinchcombe’s words, “in order for a discipline to exist, the objects subject to the discipline, in our case the sociological papers, have to be sharply limited in their cultural characteristics in order to be judged consensually by the system.” Still in his words, “the social process in the discipline of sociology tends to prevent us from developing a proper empirical groundwork for judging our abstractions.”
The highest prestige is accorded to the subdisciplines of Methodology (statistics; tables) and Theory (mathematical treatments; analyses of historical texts). Conversely, the lowest prestige is accorded to Field Work, or subdisciplines “in which people come to us in raw form, without having been culturally processed.”
This means that the discipline of Sociology, as it stands now as in Stinchcombe’s time, tends to discipline us to study abstractions of people, rather than people themselves.
The danger, of course, is that we believe so much in our abstractions – based on, wow, data! – that we ignore their limitations and failings in the face of actual observations of real people. The upside is that because the real social world is messy, the dominance of more quantitative and abstract subdisciplines can never be complete.
Theories – like this one by Stinchcombe – can be very effective at framing our understanding of unknown worlds. Yet they must be seen only as nuggets that egg us on to consume less processed foods (i.e. knowledge by observation). And so the answer to the question of What is Sociology? can never be complete. Any answer is but a partial theory.
Arthur Stinchcombe – The Origins of Sociology as a Discipline (1984)