Foucault and Introducing Sociology?

I always found giving students an “Introduction to Sociology” – whether as part of a recruitment or induction process, first lesson or whatever – something of a chore because it was difficult to:

a. Sum-up Sociology in a short, pithy-yet-evocative sentence or two.

b. Build on the description I offered to get students to reflect on the subject they were thinking about studying.

After a few years (what can I say? I’m a slow learner) I sort-of distilled everything down into the idea that sociology is the study of our relationship to others (the recruitment version) or, if I was doing things a bit more formally, I’d go into how Sociology is the study of social order – how it’s created, maintained and changed.

Since I’ve stopped teaching and have consequently had far more time than is actually necessary to reflect on stuff – why is it always the way that you think of your best lines the moment you leave the room? – I thought of a more-provocative way to “introduce sociology” to new / potential students.

Somewhat surprisingly if you’ve ever tried to read any of his stuff, the inspiration for this better way is Michel Foucault (Dreyfus, Hubert and Rabinow, Paul (1986) “Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics”).

He summed-up for me the essence of sociology in a neat, pithy and it must be said, delightfully obtuse, way:

“People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does”.

The genius of this idea is not only that it seems, at first glance, convoluted and wonderfully-nonsensical, but that it repays careful unpacking and consideration. You can, in other words, simultaneously bemuse and dazzle and enlighten your students by discussing these three ideas in turn:

1. As thinking, rational, beings we’re all perfectly aware of the things that we do.

2. For most of the time we have a reasonable idea about why we do the things we do or behave the way we do – although that’s not necessarily always the case.

3. This is where the “sociology” part of things really comes into play: as sociologists we’re trying to understand how what people do and why they do it impacts on others. The role of the sociologist, in other words, is to show how the consequences of individual choices and behaviours ripples through society.

And this, I hope you’ll agree, opens up a wide range of ideas for discussion and dissection – from introducing the Sociological Imagination to talking about socialisation, roles, norms, values, culture, identity…in a meaningful way.

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