Public Sociology

The following was published online at NC State University’s student newspaper, Technician 

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Why sociology? Why study society? Why examine the processes that underlie how a school becomes a segregated school or a law a racist law? I discuss these questions with a specific population in mind, undergraduates. What does an undergraduate bring to the “world” post-university? And here, I do not mean “bring” in the capitalist sense, some capacity to create profits. This is not necessarily a useful nor wholly positive restriction on thinking through “why sociology.”

Rather, sociology is a public good. The public benefits when we understand how you end up with Flint, Michigan drinking water contaminated with lead. So, we do sociology because we know that studying society reveals certain important truths to make a better society.

Sociology then provides undergraduates with the tools to make a better society, to address issues that affect the common good. It also acts as a form of intellectual self-defense by providing the theoretical and empirical knowledge to assess claims made by public relations firms, politicians, and corporate spokespeople.

Yet, we run up against a socially constructed conundrum here. Already we are aesthetically flirting with liberal arts idealism. It’s as if we’ve decided to know society without touching society, without being society. The student who majors in sociology should know that by “making a better society” they will apply the knowledge they build with the help of critical race studies, environmental justice, political economy, and queer theory, amongst much more. It is to actualize Marx’s eleventh thesis, “interpret, and change it.”

What if you know that a social system’s standard operation is racist? The system puts a pile of trash next to a working class, black community as if it was a planning guideline. Or, that the structural violence of poverty manifests in the poor living up to 10 to 14 years less on average than someone who is wealthy. As a future government official, concerned citizen, or militant activist, you could purposefully affect the process to eliminate such a grotesque violation of human rights.

Therefore, sociology seminars have a responsibility that such pertinent, critical knowledge is employed by those who make decisions; life or death decisions. As a discipline, we are a detective on the prowl of the most depraved crimes. We have a duty to act to abolish such grotesque disparities. At least, if we are ethical and understand these inequalities as wrong and equality a virtue.

In that sense, sociology is the search for absolute freedom, to root out any collective punishment to provide the maximal space for individual creativity. The Kantian practical anthropology writ large to pass on and reinforce thinking that challenges “common sense,” and stares upon the bare immoral soul of society to declare, “we can be better than what we are.”

We cannot do with repeating the mistakes of the past, not with a future so fraught with peril as ours; climate change, mass migration, and war, to name a few. To do so is to put life at risk and jeopardize the moral worth of civilization. As such, sociology has a lot of responsibility. Whoever studies it should gaze upon the obligation they undertake and understand its ability to aid in revolutionizing social relations in beneficial ways. “Why sociology?” Because there’s a world to win.