Specificity of sociology and sociological knowledge (42992)

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Belarus State Economic University



Minsk 2008

1. The concept of social reality and social fact

Very often we come across the concept of social reality and believe that social reality is something that can be understood and learnt. But yet the given concept hasn’t been defined precisely in sociology and it is often used as a synonym of such concepts as “social life”, “society”, “social world”, “social and historic existence” etc. Moreover, the problem is made more complicated due to the fact that judgments “social reality” and “social world” belong to different theoretic paradigms. Theorists are united only by the circumstance that human social world can be learnt.

In sociology there are two dominating theoretic approaches – individualistic and positivistic ones that specifically explain the nature of social reality. The individualistic position views social reality as a result of purposeful or sensible human behaviour. An Austrian sociologist Alfred Schutz, founder of phenomenology, defines social reality as “a total sum of objects and phenomena of social world” in the way how social world is shaped in everyday consciousness of people living among other people and connected with them by various interactions. Thus, social reality is an everyday world, experienced and interpreted by people living in it; it is a world of meanings which are typical notions about the objects of this world.

In contrast to an individualistic approach, a positivistic approach suggests a viewpoint according to which social reality is something with its own life having an external and compulsory character to a person (i.e. that his behaviour is determined by reality) and materializing human consciousness.

The ideas of the positivistic position were shaped under the influence of a French sociologist Emile Durkheim who is considered its smartest representative. This approach suggests interpreting the concept of social reality through the prism of a social fact. According to the paradigm of a social fact, social reality is represented by two groups of social facts – social structures and social institutions, and emphasis is made on the nature of their interaction. E. Durkheim believed that social facts are characterized by specific properties; they are samples of thoughts, actions and feelings which are capable to exist outside man and have a compulsory influence which makes man acquire and interiorize them.

The concept of a social fact was criticized by Sigmund Freud and his followers, supporters of the paradigm of social behaviour. They consider the concept metaphysical as it ignores human behaviour which, in their opinion, is a single social reality.

Many theorists agree that social reality is formed in the process of people’s social interactions; it is a result of their consciousness and activities in a definite limited territorial and temporal (historic) area. Social reality may be fixed in people’s behaviours, in the character of their value orientations, in forms of life organizion and in role behaviour. A summarized index of social reality is culture considered as a system of values, social norms of life, patterns of behavior, language, character of communications, customs and traditions, material culture etc.

As levels of interactions may differ, levels of social reality or social life may also differ. A social world of man, group, society or world community can be spoken about. Very often differences between these social worlds may be polar. A proof is a layer of beggars existing in an economically prosperous society like in the USA, France or Great Britain, or people with a very low cultural level in a highly cultural society.

What is a social fact? Traditionally, world is divided into three groups of facts. The first group includes biological facts such as breathing, nutrition, sleeping, human recreation etc. The second group includes psychological ones such as emotions of love, hatred or perception, emotions giving satisfaction, for instance while admiring works of art. The third group includes social facts connected with social relationships and society. The term “social fact” was coined by E. Durkheim to describe human behaviour that is not attributed to the human’s characteristic but to social facts. He considered social facts as things that force people to do certain behaviours.

A social fact is a socially meaningful event or a totality of homogeneous events typical for a definite sphere of the society or definite social processes.

In the ontological meaning, a social fact is any event or any totality of events which took place at a definite time at definite circumstances, no matter whether or not they were watched by researchers or other subjects who were not participants of the given events. As social facts become known only by registration, they are considered true or reliable in case they are given a grounded description taking into consideration their whole integrity and their connections with essential characteristics of a social situation.

The following fragments of social reality can be fixed as social facts:

  • behavioural socially meaningful people’s acts, i.e. what they do;

  • results or products of people’s activities acquiring social significance, i.e. material and cultural artifacts;

  • people’s verbal acts, i.e. socially significant expressed views, judgments, opinions;

  • different interactions.

But the point is how to see if a social fact is reliable. As a rule, scientific grounds of social facts depend on the researcher’s world outlook, the objective character of the sociological theory, in the concepts of which social facts are measured or described, and reliability of the method and technique of registration of sociological data characterizing the manifestation of this or that social fact.

Let’s consider the following example. A man is buying a packed trip to Thailand for a family of four. In Thailand they’ll spend a fortnight. A psychologist would like to know why the man decided on Thailand. An economist would like to see if there could be another way to spend money. A sociologist would see that it is a family of four and would like to find out how the wife and children could influence on the head of the family’s decision. Thus, one and the same fact is explained in a different way by different sciences.

2. Laws and categories of sociology

As sociology is a relatively young science, its system of laws and categories is still being actively formed. For any science, having such a system is a basic question of its status as it is categories and laws where the obtained knowledge is concentrated in.

A direct object of research of sociology is the social in the process of its development, transformation, usage, management at different levels of a social system. So the first mostly wide category is the concept of “the social”. Other important concepts include “social interactions”, “social institutions”, “social groups” etc. In sociology there are a lot of categories that reflect qualitative state of social processes such as collectivism, groupism, social homogeneity, social differences and interests etc. But the kernel of any science is its laws. A law is known to be reflection of significant, stable and necessary ties taking place both inside of a process, system or phenomenon and between them. As a rule, laws are expressed in categories. So each branch of science has its language. When specialists speak their professional language, other people can hardly or not understand them. A famous joke explains that science happens when known things or phenomena are spoken about in the language impossible to understand.

A famous Russian sociologist G.V. Osipov defines a social law as relatively stable and systematically reproduced relationships between peoples, nations, classes, socio-demographic and professional groups, between the society and social organization, society and labour collective, society and family, society and personality etc.

Sociology should be noted to deal with social laws that take place in all spheres of human activities and differ from each other by the form of their influence, the area of extending etc. For instance, some laws embrace only small groups or classes, others – the society as a whole.

Like all scientific laws, social laws possess the following characteristics:

  • a law acts only under certain conditions;

  • under certain conditions a law is displayed without any exceptions;

  • conditions, under which a social law acts, are realized not in full measure but partially and approximately.

For instance, a statement like “A constructive social conflict in the organization is always solved after getting rid of the causes of its emergence unless external factors influence or/and redistribution of recourses within the organization take place” describes the action of a social law because its conditions are clearly defined. It means that in the organization it’s impossible to completely avoid influence of external factors or hinder material resources and information from redistributing within the organization. On the other hand, it may happen that external factors don’t influence so the law is realized partially.

Social laws can be divided into two main groups: those of functioning, or organizing, and those of development. Of primary importance are laws describing integrity of the organization and development of the whole society and civilization. They are called all-sociological or grand laws. For instance, dependence of any social phenomenon on correlation of the basis and superstructure, law of time economy etc.

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