Thinking Sociologically in Turbulent Times

By Professor Tim May, University of Sheffield

Photo of Tim May.When the publisher’s approached us to produce a third edition of Thinking Sociologically, I contacted Zygmunt and asked what he thought about the idea. He thought it was a good one, but not something he wished to undertake himself. We agreed I would produce the third edition and he suggested we reverse the order of authorship. The book has sold very well and been translated into a dozen languages and is unusual in its format, content and style. Zygmunt devoted his time to greater understanding of the human condition and the new edition retains the order of authorship and is dedicated to his memory.

Sociology needs to be an adaptive discipline in order to produce insights which resonate with current conditions. That requires particular ways of understanding and these are reflected in the new content of Thinking Sociologically. However, we should not forget history in our fast-paced world for that acts as a corrective to characterisations and enables us to learn from the past in order to inform the present and future. Like all epochs, those who seek to characterise them reach for new descriptions often encapsulated in readily reproduced acronyms. In the desire for recognition for the production of novel insights, there are no shortage of gurus peddling their panaceas for our contemporary ills. To paraphrase Milan Kundera, innovation may easily become the triumph of forgetting over memory.

Issues concerned with climate change, sustainability, advances in information technology, the role of economic calculation, inequality, social justice and differences in identity, to name a few, have gained prominence. The book has been revised with new materials and discussions to reflect these and other transformations in our lives. The dynamics between numerated and narrated selves in what are intensified, yet abstracted forces that inform our everyday lives and sense of ourselves and others, are part of these changes. Communication is enabled in new ways, but that can easily reinforce and reconfigure our relations in old ways. In illuminating these issues, a distinction is found in thinking sociologically through it being relational and contextual, intensive and extensive and a site of knowledge production where meaning and validity meet to produce an understanding in positions and dispositions which we both inherit and seek to shape. 

Thinking Sociologically is an excavation of the conditions that inform our everyday actions. It provides us with lenses with which to consider the human condition in terms of the forms and effects of the changing social landscape. It is a site of knowledge of how we are and an investigation of what we have been which has implications for what we might become. It possesses an ethic of development blended with characteristics of science without resort to a blinkered scientism. The result is a rich body of work that sits within an ambivalent space as part of the world. That easily lapses into endogenous considerations where method and expertise may combine in the desire for coherence. Reflexivity thus becomes an inherent part of its practice.

In holding up lenses with which to examine ourselves and societies, it will be contested: what is seen, by whom, how and why and with what implications for how we live together? There are those for whom the ideal of society is a dynamic that motivates their actions through the contributions they apparently make to human well-being. The assumed benefit of actions in the present may be conveniently parked in some imaginary future where the court of judgement will eventually reside.

Any discipline which brings attention to these and other practices can easily be constituted as a trouble-maker and castigated as being without a basis of legitimate justification for its insights. Denial, followed by denunciation, so characteristic of contemporary politics, follows. For example, to examine a politics of nostalgia as one that operates as a thinly disguised nationalism with its cry for a return to an era of coherence and clarity, leads to opprobrium. It is for such reasons that Zygmunt wrote: 'Practising our vocation requires a balanced blend of self-confidence and demureness. It also take some courage: interpreting human experiences is not the kind of life I would recommend to weathercocks'.

Thinking Sociologically ends by saying that what lies ahead of us is a matter for collective action informed by the insights of what it means to think sociologically, but one is not dictated by the other. In that dynamic lies its distinction and value, as well as a source of contestation. If there are no simple solutions to our common problems that do not lie in techno-economic magical thinking, where can we can place our hope? Surely knowledge must, in the correct, measured doses, lead us towards resolution?

Here we see an intensification in the relations between democracy, voice, inclusion, recognition and knowledge. For its part, the great service that sociology is well prepared to render to human life and cohabitation is the promotion of mutual understanding and recognition of us with our environments as a condition of shared freedom. Due to its forms of inquiry, thinking sociologically cannot but promote the understanding that informs tolerance and the tolerance that makes understanding possible.

*Tim May is Professor of Social Science Methodology in the Sheffield Methods Institute, University of Sheffield. His recent books include: ‘Reflexivity: The Essential Guide’ (Sage, 2017); ‘Cities and the Knowledge Economy’ (Routledge, 2018) and a forthcoming fifth edition of ‘Social Research: Issues, Methods and Process’ (McGraw-Hill, 2019).