發文作者:Albert Tzeng | 2007/02/11

Sociology, Do I Regret?

A friend of mine, whose “commitment to sociology" is now “shaking", sent me a letter in which she jokingly wrote " you shouldn’t have given up the simpler and more logical world of Chemistry to jump into this pit of Sociology."

Do I ever regret? I wrote the following pasages in my reply:

Indeed, the firmly-grounded knowledge system in chemistry does provide greater cognitive clarity and a stronger sense of certainty, and sometimes I do fell into nostalgic mood while staggering in the quagmire of the end-less self-criticism notorious in sociology. But whenever I look back, what I see more clearly in chemistry is a highly-restricted domain where my curiosity is not bounded within. And the vision obtained in chemistry world, no matter how simplistic and beautiful (yes, there’s a great sense of beauty in chemistry), helped little in having my deepest questions answered and my soul settled.

Soul? Shouldn’t the answer to questions related to that be sought in religions? Fairy well. But the truth is I tried but I remained an agnostic. I’ve experienced the psychological shaking when I prayed or sing in a church, or sit and ponder in a temple, yet despite the touch, I still find it possible to give an account for whatever I felt from a alternative perspective …say, for instance, the “activity-induced brainwave pattern shift" rather than “being touched by god’s hand." And since I can’t be satisfied by the “package answers" (like package software like MS Windows) provided by the few major faith-supplier brands (Christianity, Buddhism…), then I have to take the pain to device out a system where the meaning of my life, or even our common fate (if by any sense it exist), can be adequately anchored. This, arguably, is what sociologists …or most of the social thinkers since Enlightenment did – to do the job of God, to answer the question originally known only to God.

Can any human-made knowledge system really do the job of God? This question is like to ask whether I can really visit all the corners in the world, and the answer is definitely a “No." However, recognizing our human limits does not prevent us from taking a bit more responsibilities than our predecessors, just like knowing you can’t be everywhere does not discourage you from going to somewhere. And since human affairs do not always have simple, straightforward answer, what we need in this journey, then, is not a set of clearly laid principles and rules, but a delicate sense of responsiveness by which we can balance ourselves in the multiple fronts of different issues. Such a capability, which I could paraphrase with a popular word “critical reflexivity," is what I found as the core the merit of the painful, endless-self criticism characteristic in the academic training provided in sociology, at least here in UK.

I do have discontent with the ruling status of the positivist sociology in US (though I was good in that rationale and statistics), and the aspiration for an alternative was indeed one of my motif for coming to UK instead. This decision, however, does not entail an unduly endorsement of the sociology in British way. Rather, while I am sure I can further enhance my critical mind here, I always found many British sociologists are so unhealthily indulged in the philosophical issues that they gradually lose a secure grasp of how ‘the social’ is experienced in our daily life. Nonetheless, dissatisfied with the disciplinary sociology in both US and UK (let alone Taiwan) I may be, at least sociology as a discipline, is most open to challenges to its disciplinary foundation. And this ongoing “identity crisis" that had haunted sociology for decades, curiously, is what I consider the most healthiest of this field of study (notice my avoidance of the term “discipline.")

Now, maybe I can safely describe myself as a sociologist-wanna be still-looking for my paradigm. Only halfway toward a clear articulation to what ‘my sociology’ should be, there are, however, some preliminary sketch of what I have in mind:

– Sociologist should retain the capability of communicating with the society at large, in understandable language, rather than hiding behind the ivy tower and academic jargon, seeking the protection from broader conversation.
– Sociologist’s job is to bridge up, as C Wright Mills notably wrote, between “biography with history," between the immediate personal experience with the broader context.
– Sociologist is inheritently political. Sociologists are obligated to take initiative, a micro-process critical to Popper’s social reengineering.

[still under development]

All these self-expectations, I found, are applicable no matter one opt the ‘legislator’ (let’s change the rules to improve the world) or interpreter (let’s provide a new account to loose the established power relations) doctrines.

In the last remark, I think it may clear that, my somewhat optimistic assessment of the prospect of sociology does not come from my unshaken faith on the integrity of this discipline, but in the contrary, because of my realization of how much sociology had been (and still is) errant. As you know, I didn’t come to this point of committing myself of sociology through a straightforward way. I had of course encountered doubts of its disciplinary basis. But it is exactly this painful process, that made me the more confident with the viability, and necessity, of this field of study.

So, I never regret for the transitions I made.



  1. pls delete or ignore the previous comment.
    I tend to believe the subject of longer history is more interesting than the newer ones from my previous experience of learning advertising in the ungrads.
    however, sociology is still quite new, but as it claims its object is society. It has good reason to put politics, culture and economy under its concern. 
    Combt\’s theory of sociologism at this point could be seen an attempt to break the division of disciplinary.
    So for me? Not yet.

  2. A discipline of longer history is not necessarily better… it only differs in terms of how it match ones personality.
    Advertising studies tend to be versitle and fasionable, while admittedly it may lacks a sense of profoundity that you might desire. But after all, it\’s what advertisement is about…. the creation of impression, the manipulation of preference.. all in all but not "elaboration of the essence."
    Back to the discipline of sociology, a hundred years of history is not necessaarily \’new\’… but ther\’s indeed a sense of crisis about the disciplinary identity, which is well reflected by the quesiton on its subject matter: "does society still exist?" Well… this quesiton goes far beyond from what I can say in this short feedback.



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