Non-Fiction

When Humans Study Humans

If the goal of a philosopher was not only to inquire about the nature of life and the universe, but to discover concrete, testable truths, he should have been a scientist or mathematician. Discoveries in the hard sciences are no less revelations of truth than those sought by the persisting philosopher; they illuminate the unseen mechanisms that hint at how the universe works. But rather than focusing on the world of humans—a world comprised of emotions, personalities, spiritualities, etc.—these hard sciences exist in a realm of numbers, elements, and matter. And just as the pioneers of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and other hard sciences worked with a relentless diligence to discover scientific truths that are both testable and replicable, this same diligence can be found in the soft sciences, such as psychology and sociology. In the social sciences, philosophies regarding ethics, morals, values, and other “truths” of the human condition are now and shall ever be of great study. These soft sciences have made discoveries, crafted theories, and perform frequent studies for the betterment of the world at large.

But unlike the consistent, replicable world of mathematics, the social world is highly dynamic and fluid. This makes the study of the social sciences, as well as the political implications of its findings, a basis of great debate by those both in and outside these fields of study—and rightfully so. When it comes to morality, ethics, behavioral norms, and cultural practices, it seems rather bold to state that conformity of opinion should be a goal set by those within the social sciences; yet many within these fields propose that their data is proof enough to establish legitimacy, and that contradictory opinions to such findings are the result of either willful ignorance or wily indoctrination.

Despite the positive advancements in the social sciences, they have missed (or ignored) some important issues. The most concerning of these is that many practitioners, professors, and students in these fields adopt a “hard science mentality” toward their studies, often citing theories, findings, and methodologies as indisputable scientific facts, or “truths”, when they should, in fact, be taken with a grain of salt. Specifically, I will address this issue within the field of sociology.

Monopolization of the Cultural Narrative

What makes this topic important, especially regarding sociology? After all, the average person likely does not see this science as extremely relevant or influential in their day-to-day affairs.

Consider the ways in which the discoveries of mathematics, physics, and chemistry have influenced even the most minuscule details of our lives. Modern technologies, products, and systems, which have created and sustain our ever-advancing society, fundamentally owe their success to the studies and practices of these sciences. This can be paralleled to the field of sociology, which has rapidly become a powerful, influential science that informs many popular opinions throughout our globalized world.

Sociology is widely taught in high schools and universities in the United States; it is common knowledge that the scientific opinions popularly espoused by sociologists have established a standard in education that focuses on nondiscrimination and autonomy of the individual at nearly all costs. This has revolutionized generational outlooks on social phenomena such as gender identity, sexual identity, inequalities, etc., as well as the corresponding social obligations one must adopt according to such views. Sociological studies are often referenced in major magazines, editorials, and on major news channels. Public policy creators cite its findings and theories when pushing for legislation. Sociological research has been used to spark political debates about contemporary social issues amongst nonprofit organizations, lobbying groups, and congressional staff, among other highly powerful institutions[i]. As Daniel Little, a professor of philosophy and chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, noted in a Huffington Post article[ii]:

The content of sociology is particularly important in our rapidly changing social world. Sociology promises to provide data and theory that help to better understand the human and social realities we confront. Moreover, the discipline is defined around the key social issues we all need to understand better than we currently do, and our policy makers need to understand if they are to design policies that allow for social progress: for example, race, poverty, urbanization, inequalities, globalization, immigration, environmental change, gender, power, and class.

The culmination of sociology’s institutionalized influences has a substantial impact on our society. The sociological community, and the popular opinions of its members, dominate and retain a monopoly on the broad cultural narrative, discerning what is fact and fiction, right and wrong, and how the varying institutions of our society should respond accordingly. Sociology’s interplay of political and social influences is seen in the construction of policies and media-supported opinions that use its findings to: legitimize certain activist movements, influence outlooks on various religious ideologies, question the legitimacy of popular historical knowledge, normalize abnormal biological and psychological conditions (e.g. gender identity), criticize and regulate the use of language (e.g. political correctness), and attempt to deinstitutionalize “traditional” practices of gender, class, and race. In doing so, these practices impose moral and ethical belief systems (supported and legitimized by scientific sociological data) on the masses.

But how is this a problem? The studies are peer-reviewed, the materials are cited, and the practitioners and professors are accredited. Surely these measures eliminate bias—this is science after all. Unfortunately, this is entirely untrue.

Regarding the objectivity of her field, a sociologist validates her work with studies and findings based on statistical and quantitative data and analysis. Any statistician (or high school statistics teacher for that matter) will tell you that statistics are among the most highly manipulated mathematical systems used. This is why we often hear conflicting information in the media about political positioning, consumerism and market statistics, and consumer feedback/ratings about products. Based on the information included or excluded from a study, the results can be misleading to say the least. Numbers don’t lie but statisticians do. Behind the curtain of “objective scientific data”, the biased practitioner can legitimize, rationalize, prove, and defend any claim.

The Problem of Humans as Numbers

The information collected, studied, and distributed as fact by the sociological community often is heavily biased. Sociological publications push agendas regarding political and social opinions about morals, ethics, religion, economics, power, and so on. What’s more, sociology claims its scope of study includes nearly every facet of materials considered social and scientific. According to the American Sociological Association[iii], sociology is:

  • The study of society
  • A social science involving the study of the social lives of people, groups, and societies
  • The study of our behavior as social beings, covering everything from the analysis of short contacts between anonymous individuals on the street to the study of global social processes
  • The scientific study of social aggregations, the entities through which humans move throughout their lives’
  • An overarching unification of all studies of humankind, including history, psychology, and economics

 

The last point in the above definition is the most important, as well as the most troubling, so much so that I feel it is worth repeating: “An overarching unification of all studies of humankind, including history, psychology, and economics.” With such a broad brush, the scope of sociological study is far more vast than any other social science, as it involves the comprehensive unification of many sciences as one and deals with both micro and macro perspectives of study and analysis. Considering the ever-changing nature of societies, cultures, and human practices, it is difficult to believe that when conducting sociological studies at any level there are not inherently elements of bias in the content included and excluded, intentionally or otherwise, throughout the analysis of varying social phenomena.

Although empirical and qualitative data and analysis are utilized in sociology, these methodologies are often considered unreliable, non-credible, and inconsistent means of gathering data and drawing conclusions. However, one must ask when faced with the alternative statistic-driven model—can a sociologist truly draw accurate, objective conclusions about social issues and human behavior (all which are highly complex when converted into mathematical models) if the number-driven findings are biased by such inevitably skewed statistical and quantitative methods?

Human beings are perhaps the least predictable subjects to study on Earth, and are consequently the least understood. As much as it may seem appropriate to calculate human behavior in a statistical or quantitative manner, are these the most legitimate measures of analysis in seeking to obtain consistent, as well as specific, social truths that will eventually guide social movements, socioeconomic policies, and other political policies? Unlike rudimentary mathematical equations, when human variables are plugged into a formula (no matter how seemingly identical) the results will subtly or even drastically variate every time.  In the professional sociological field, where studies are highly complex, it is impossible for any study to measure and include every influential variable that must be accounted for in order to draw rational conclusions about the nature of social phenomena and the cause-and-effect relationships these complex systems have on one another. This understanding of limitations was supported by one of the principle architects who fathered sociology, Emile Durkheim[iv]. At a certain unknown point, any analysis of such relationships becomes unquantifiable. This is a great concern when one applies the “hard science mentality” to this soft science. Further, in a world that proclaims one cannot place a value on a single human life (and also stresses personal autonomy) even the slightest standard deviations are no longer tolerable.

Science and Political Indoctrination

The greatest transgression of sociologists is not the manner in which they attempt to study humankind, but is their frequently observed utilization of the science as a mechanism for social activism. Using so-called scientific facts, many sociologists use limited studies to articulate causes for political action that supports their personal belief systems. These same practices are implemented into academic settings, where teachers and professors propagate social agendas, beliefs, and perspectives as facts to students. This is of obvious concern, as students may have a difficult time discerning where facts end and biases begin—especially when this information is taught and defended by a teacher, who is a trusted authority figure.

In my time studying sociology, I often heard professors criticize public unawareness about social issues regarding media manipulation and its methods of political indoctrination. According to the sociologist: based on the intentional strategizing of the media, who chooses what information is included and excluded regarding a given issue, they shape a conception of reality that is incomplete, false, or intentionally misleading in order to control the unsuspecting and vulnerable public.

It is ironic that sociologists, who take pride in educating the masses of their otherwise unknown puppeteers, implement these same strategies when attempting to justify arguments regarding controversial issues such as: gun control, “gendering” children, race relations, cultural stratification, recounting history, and so on. The studies the sociologist cites, which allow him to accredit “facts” to indicate why a person should take a certain position on a social issue, mimics the same tactics of the former scenario. Despite this apparent hypocrisy, identifying the information included or excluded in acquiring the scientific “facts” espoused by sociologists is rarely emphasized, considered, or debated in public conversations. This is of little wonder; it would be utterly exhausting for any person to sift through the innumerable variables of even one complex sociological study, especially if that person did not spend the majority of his or her time researching and analyzing such information. As with most other professions, the laypersons leave the opinions to the professionals. But this dependency is not necessarily wise or constructive in every case.

My experiences within the field and practitioners of sociology has influenced my outlook on how the theories and principles of this science are implemented into practice, and consequently are made either useful or harmful to the common good. I have observed that nearly all sociologists and students alike focus their work within collectivist-driven perspectives of analysis and approaches to problem solving.  This is of course no great surprise considering the extensive influence Karl Marx had on Sociology as one of the accredited founders of the science. Such collectivist perspectives are often associated with polarized political ideologies, which, when considered within this field’s larger population of students and researchers, creates a subculture of legitimized scientific bias. Such generalized biases discern what moral, ethical, economic, political, and academic opinions are received as credible and respected in the field, and conversely what opinions are considered closed-minded, small-minded, discriminatory, patriarchal, misogynistic, inferior, irrational, laughable, or otherwise not to be taken or considered seriously. These kinds of biases in any form of scientific research and practice are extremely dangerous—even detrimental—to obtaining any sense of truth or objectivity. Not only are they forms of bias, within the classroom this rhetoric is propaganda and its dissemination is a means of indoctrination.

Conclusion

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Sociology has grown in popularity greatly over the past several years. It has revolutionized the Humanities in the realm of academia, and its influences on a variety of academic, cultural, and political institutions is significant. When taking into consideration the inevitable biases and misinformation being propagated by sociological practitioners and teachers, this will have severe implications to the growing population who receives information from this field as concrete facts. Spreading subjective and biased opinions has objective results. As stated in the Thomas Theorem, a theorem popular throughout sociological studies, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”[v] In other words, whether or not something is in fact true or real, if it is believed to be so, the consequences of such a belief will result as if it was.

Hard sciences are not merely useful in their consistencies; it is that these bodies of knowledge can be used for pragmatic and utilitarian purposes that make these sciences valuable. If the data and knowledge acquired through a science does not advance strictly measurable, accessible, and consistent means toward human and societal growth, it is only as useful as any speculative science or philosophy, and should be regarded with the same fragility and skepticism. Every science at some point meets these inevitable human barriers, and sociology is of course no exception. Often it is not so much the findings of a science that are so controversial, it is how these findings are implemented into social, political, and otherwise human-influenced contexts. This is why sociology has the potential to be a particularly dangerous science if it is not understood in its limitations or limited in its use as an “objective” means of power and influence.

Because sociology prides itself as a field of research worthy of being called a major form of science, its practitioners and teachers should be held to the same standards of non-bias present in other major sciences. The context and scope of the field’s research and findings must be regularly considered in order to avoid inappropriate conclusions based on limited data that supports an unfairly biased, desirable outcome that is based on ideological preferences. This means paying due respect and attention to every side of social arguments, no matter if that goes against opinions popularly held within the sociological community.

Unlike a mathematical formula, human beings are extremely dynamic, and will always be changing no matter what controls are set in place to attempt to replicate or predict results. We must give due care and consideration for our inconsistencies, as well as the vast amount of variables that influence each of us throughout our lives. Most importantly, we can never expect that the social spectrum will ever allow us to reliably teach as fact universal laws about our personal opinions, however idealistic and romantic that idea may seem. After all, we’re only human.


Works Cited

[i] Herring, Lee, and Johanna Ebner. “Sociologists Impact Interpretation of Federal Welfare Legislation.” American Sociological Association, Footnotes May/June (2005). Accessed December 2, 2014.
http://www2.asanet.org/footnotes/mayjun05/fn4.html

[ii] Little, Daniel. “Why a Sociology Major?” The Huffington Post, July 3, 2012. Accessed December 2, 2014.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-little/college-sociology-major_b_1641546.html.

[iii] American Sociological Association. “What is Sociology?” Accessed December 2, 2014.
http://www.asanet.org/about/sociology.cfm

[iv] University of Chicago. “The Rules of Sociological Method.” The Durkheim Pages. Last modified October 10, 2011. Accessed December 3, 2014. Originally published in Robert Alun Jones, Emile Durkheim: An Introduction to Four Major Works, 60-81. (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1986).
http://durkheim.uchicago.edu/Summaries/rules.html

[v] Bakker, J. I. (Hans). “Definition of the Situation.” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology Online (2007). Accessed December 3, 2014. doi: 10.1111/b.9781405124331.2007.x
http://www.sociologyencyclopedia.com/public/tocnode?id=g9781405124331_yr2011_chunk_g978140512433110_ss1-12#citation

11 thoughts on “When Humans Study Humans”

  1. Shirley Burley says:

    Hullo JF – great essay!

    Living in australia, I was surprised this essay positions sociology as a major influence in american cultures. Here, there is little emphasis in mainstream discussions on ‘society wide’ or sociological influences – an individual’s abilities (and responsibilities) are championed.

    This essay (no insult intended), seems to describe ‘propaganda and indocrination’ rather than sociology. Like any discipline sociology is vulnerable to distortion and manipulation to accommodate a person’s beliefs and opinions – which is why the essay’s questioning of sociology as a hard science is valuable. Some sociological ‘facts’ survive scrutiny, for example in australia (nationwide) a female earns 75% of the average wage of a male. Other sociological ‘facts’ are very questionable, and are better described as an illustration of the motivations and political agenda of the person quoting them.

    Perhaps I have been lucky and have had outstanding teachers of sociology – I understand a fundamental basis of the discipline to be a continual questioning of what is considered normal, natural, acceptable, e.t.c.

    Thanks :-)

    1. John Foster says:

      Thank you for offering such a wonderful perspective about this essay. I agree with you wholeheartedly about finding the balance of using the science constructively. I greatly appreciate your feedback–it is a valuable and insightful contribution to the conversation.

  2. Barry says:

    Although being a complete amateur in social sciences, I see from time to time, arguments supporting changes (or the status quo) using what is supposedly scientific “proof”. Even I can see glaring holes where some of the evidence raises more questions than answers and appears to be unsafe due to assumptions being taken as “facts”.

    Perhaps I have an advantage in that my family is very multicultural. All my in-laws (parents, and children) come from different ethnic groups where what is accepted as “normal” and “universal” are so very different from my own. It might also explain why my daughter (who has a PhD in sociology) was so often at odds with her lecturers.

  3. David Teachout says:

    Reblogged this on Life Weavings and commented:
    An excellent overview of sociology, both its limits and the why the discipline should continue to be explored.

  4. niharikabapna says:

    Having been a humanities student I agree with how you speak of studying and applying the discipline of sociology.

    It has always fascinated me how the entire ‘industry’ of the sciences has its foundations in mathematics, or rather a repetitive logic that will happen every time the same elements are involved.
    On the other hand it is difficult to find such definite logic in humanities which deal with the more elusive human mind and behaviour.

    I think it is this uncertainty and a possibility of finding an entirely new way to see the facts at every corner, which makes this family of subjects so interesting.
    This was a lovely read.

    PS: Thank you for taking the time to stop by my page. :)

    1. John Foster says:

      Absolutely. It’s refreshing to read your comment and know I’m not alone in having this perspective about it. Thanks for offering such wonderful and in-depth feedback. I’m happy to stop by your page and look forward to reading more of your interesting insights. Thank you for stopping by to read and comment.

  5. gentlekindness says:

    I remember looking forward to taking sociology in college, with a misconception about what it was based on. I was quickly disappointed, and found that conclusions were drawn most certainly from biases and ethnocentric ideas of the western world.

    The teacher I had not only drew conclusions (or read them in her teacher’s guide) but also thought that we could base solutions for completely different cultures than our own, based on the statistics gathered that were evaluated without enough understanding of that culture.

    She once said to the class that a person would physically die without romantic love and a companion with them. I argued with her that although I enjoy a companion, there are hermits and monks that live isolated for long periods of time and do not physically die.

    I guess she did not like me after that. I think it was the first confrontation I had with someone about glaring irrationality. I enjoyed the essay this evening. Intellectual circuits of the brain light up and can reduce too much emotional overload.

    Thank you for your blog
    Annie

    1. John Foster says:

      Again, thank you for the outstanding feedback. I too felt out of place in my Intro to Sociology class, though the challenge of ideas eventually led me to major in it. I truly appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

  6. kvennarad says:

    Thank you very much for the reply.

    Regarding 2) I would suggest an alternative analysis, which is that as society (almost without exception worldwide) defaults to a capitalist norm, any critique of that society is bound to have the appearance of coming from the left because there is, in effect, nowhere else to go.

  7. kvennarad says:

    This is a very interesting and thought-provoking essay. But may I ask – and I’m not trying to be dismissive here – whether what it boils down to is that, in your opinion:

    1) sociology is a pseudo-science (a little like phrenology turned out to be), and

    2) anything left-wing must be, by definition, unscientific.

    1. John Foster says:

      Thank you very much for reading this piece, and moreover for engaging its content. I am more than glad to clarify any points that may be unclear.

      1) Sociology is built and practiced using the scientific method, and therefore is not a pseudoscience; however, I believe its limitations are far more vast than any other science due to the extraordinary amount of data and interactive variables that must be taken into account in order to accurately deconstruct social phenomena. This certainly does not discredit many of the findings of sociological studies; I simply mean to call attention to the contextually limited frameworks of much of these findings. Whereas pseudosciences such as phrenology were based on limited physical variables of the skull and brain, sociology often times works in abstract environments, and with a much larger pool of study. Cultures and social environments vary greatly across the world–whereas a human skull and brain are relatively homogenous.

      2) I believe you may be focusing too intently on the political aspect of a broader point which I was making in the piece. Due to the fluid and subjective nature of interpreting much social phenomena, as well as the limited contexts of scientific study in the sociological field (as described in the first point), there is great leeway with which to draw findings and base studies on variables that will produce a desired result–and this is often fueled by personal political agendas. It just so happens that the predominant culture of those in the field of sociology sympathize with left-wing political ideologies. If I believed the circumstances were shifted to that of the right-wing, the issue would nonetheless remain the same–these types of political biases have no place in science, and jeopardize the integrity of scientific practices. The correlation that anything “left-wing must be, by definition, unscientific” is not the point I was attempting to make.

      I hope my explanations have both made my intended points clearer and that my tone has remained innocuous. I’m very glad to have this discussion with you.

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