Everything about society seemed little more than a matter of common sense. But as soon as I began to learn about the origins and the nature of the state and religion and social class and power, I found that the previously taken for granted world had suddenly become so much more interesting. Matters that I’d previously taken for granted about the differences between cultures and peoples now became objects of curiosity and amazement. Instead of merely regretting the existence of such enduring social problems as crime and racism and social inequality, I now eagerly learned about their causes and the manner in which their impact might be modified.
At times it made me dizzy. Sociology can have that effect. It disturbs conventional ways of thinking, breaks up solid categories and throws doubt on accepted truths. When I was a Professor of Sociology at the University of York I used to give a lecture on Erving Goffman’s account of the social function of embarrassment. After one such lecture a second-year student came up to me and asked if she could be excused from the seminar on the topic. She explained that she had become so fascinated by Goffman’s brilliant analysis of face-to-face interaction that she could no longer enjoy her social life (I’m delighted to say that she soon got over this problem and went on to obtain a first-class degree).
It is sociology’s power to disturb and disorient which makes its students so suited to the media. Nobody wants to listen to a radio feature or watch a television documentary that simply repeats the obvious. Viewers and listeners expect programmes to have an original angle, provide a different perspective, introduce some new facts. And, of course, Sociology students not only tend to possess the imagination which can produce such results but also have the research methodology which can ensure that any such new findings have a proper basis in reality.
Sociology is continually surprising. Although I’ve been presenting R4’s weekly social science Programme Thinking Allowed for many years now, I find that I’m still as excited by the new research it introduces as I was when the programme began. I’m also constantly delighted to discover that the many sociologists I meet in the course of this job fully share my own abiding fascination with the subject. As an elderly professor once told me when I genially asked if he intended to retire in the near future, “You don’t retire from sociology any more than you retire from life.”
I don’t think that I ever really thought hard about the world around me until I began to study Sociology.
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