This article on the role of sociology in our world is being published on behalf of Applied Worldwide’s student essay competition. Students were prompted to respond to the question, “Why is sociology important?” We have awarded 16 finalists from all over the world, and we published these essays over the course of a few weeks.
This essay was written by Catherine Simpson from Coventry University in the United Kingdom. This essay received a second place award. We had a really great turnout and would like to thank everyone who submitted an essay. We received a wide variety of creative interpretations and responses, so browse our essay directory!
Catherine Simpson on the Role of Sociology in Society
The creation of a globalised society is indisputable. Within everyday life, both simple and complex examples of globalisation can be identified. The fact that I can sit at my desk (made in Poland) and use my laptop (made in China) to log onto Facebook (created in California) to contact people from across the world while residing in England is just one instance that demonstrates how globalisation has become deeply and, often unknowingly, integrated into our lives. However, the interconnection of the economies of capitalism has resulted in a dual impact (Cohen and Kennedy 2013 pg.105.).
With such luxuries as faster communication, greater consumer choice, and a substantial choice of new travel destinations, unequal distributions of power and wealth between people and nations have continued. Poverty has always been and continues to be a key focus for sociologists and, with the re-invention of sociological theory as global sociology, its role in the globalised, postmodern world is incredibly important in challenging ideological hegemony (Gramsci 1932 cited in Ritzer and Stepnisky 2018 pg.279.).
Importance of Sociology
This essay will focus on two reasons that I believe demonstrate the importance of Sociology in the globalised, postmodern world by:
- Firstly, commenting on the work of one of the greatest sociological contributions to the study of poverty by Peter Townsend in 1979 (Marshall 1990) that reshaped our understanding of the social phenomenon, and considering the relevancy of this research today when analysing the effects of consumerism.
- Secondly, examining how Sociology’s ability to self-reflect in its own contributions to inequality has enabled the discipline to remain relevant in a postmodern world, with specific reference to the diversification of its curriculum and efforts to increase academic participation of people from BAME and working-class backgrounds.
The Role of Sociology and Poverty
Poverty was formerly understood as something that could be solely measured by monetary factors, which is still used today as an effective approach to researching poverty. For instance, the World Bank (2015) and the United Nations (2019) include the international poverty line (that is currently $1.90) in their research on ending poverty in the 21st Century.
However, in his research Poverty in the United Kingdom: A Survey of Household Resources and Standards of Living, Peter Townsend (1979) was one of the first sociologists to develop social research that dealt with the difference between absolute poverty and relative poverty. This report uncovered how, despite people in the
UK being above the poverty line and having their basic needs met with the aid of the new welfare state (Marshall 1990), they still experienced feelings of deprivation. People can be said to be deprived if they lack the types of diet, clothing, housing, environmental, educational, working and social conditions, activities and facilities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged or approved, in the societies to which they belong. Townsend (1979) pg.413
Poverty and Consumer-Focused Societies
Despite Townsend producing this report in 1979, his work is incredibly useful for understanding poverty within the current context of consumerism-focused societies. There seems to be a fixation in first-world countries for creating and fulfilling new consumer ‘wants’, which has resulted in many people feeling incapable to keep up with these constant changes financially, physically and mentally.
The creation of fast fashion and cheap (but poorly manufactured) technologies has been an unsustainable solution for low-income consumers to indulge in the latest trends. Although consumerism has benefitted working-class people by improving accessibility of products/services that were previously limited to the richest people in society, its existence has further deepened unequal distributions of wealth and power on a global scale.
Therefore, the role of Sociology in continuing to challenge how people, organisations, and governments understand and combat poverty is crucial as sociologists regularly ask (and answer by conducting social research) some of the most difficult and uncomfortable questions that other disciplines, such as business, benefit from ignoring. For instance, sociologists have conducted research on corporate power and the role of transnational corporations (Cohen and Kennedy 2013 pg.176) to understand how these corporations operating in certain economies are disadvantaging the host population and environment.
The Role of Sociology and a Changing Society
In addition, Sociology has significantly adapted in accordance to societal changes since its early eurocentric, male-orientated years of Comte, Hegel, Kant, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, and now, the work of historically marginalised and discriminated people from BAME and working-class backgrounds are accredited in academic curriculums and research organisations. A key example of this is the popularity of critical race theorist, Kimberlé Crenshaw.
Her work on intersectionality, how race and gender interact to shape the experiences of Black women (Crenshaw 1991 pg.1244), has been used frequently to criticise the white, eurocentric perspectives of Feminism (Reed 2015 pg.138.) Moreover, the recent establishment of Queer Theory as a recognised theoretical framework has victoriously challenged heteronormativity and continues to advocate for LGBTQI+ rights.
Queer Theory promotes anti-identitarianism in order to be as inclusive as possible (Green 2007) and has attempted to challenge other social theories that organise people into groups by using labels that could be deemed offensive, inappropriate or irrelevant. Consequently, as Sociology has grown to accept these new theoretical perspectives, the discipline has maintained applicability within the globalised, postmodern context.
Adapting to social change is crucial for survival and, because sociological theorists and academics have reflected on how the discipline has contributed to inequality in the past, Sociology’s importance has remained in contemporary society. For instance, the call to decolonise curriculums resulted in Sociology questioning its founding theories and addressing the lack of recognition of working-class and BAME academics. Now, the limitations of Sociology’s origins are questioned and discussed regularly, which has only improved the subject’s significance.
To conclude, this essay has successfully outlined two of the numerous reasons why Sociology is important by outlining an example of the discipline’s great contributions to improving society and how its self-awareness has enabled drastic change in how it is taught and who participates in academic spaces.
As a last note, I believe that this line from Les Back’s book, The Art of Listening (2013 pg.1), beautifully summarises the points raised in this essay that “while the scale and complexity of global society may escape our total understanding, the sociologists can still pay attention to the fragments, the voices and stories that are otherwise passed over or ignored.” This is why Sociology plays a crucial role in the globalised, postmodern world.
1. Back, L. (2013) The Art of Listening . London: Bloomsbury.
2. Cohen, R. Kennedy, P. (2013) Global Sociology: Third Edition . London: Palgrave Macmillan
3. Crenshaw, K. (1991) Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review [online] 43 (6), 1241-1299. Available from < https://www.jstor.org/stable/1229039sid=primo&origin=crossref&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents > [28 May 2020]
4. Gramsci, A. (1932) Letters from Prison: Antonio Gramsci . New York: Harper Colophon. Cited in Ritzer, G. Stepnisky, J. (2018) Sociological Theory: Tenth Edition . London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
5. Green, A. (2007) Queer Theory and Sociology: Locating the Subject and the Self in Sexuality Studies. Sociological Theory [online] 25 (1), 26-45. Available from < https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1467-9558.2007.00296.x > [30 May 2020]
6. Marshall, G. (1990) In Praise of Sociology [online] London: Taylor & Francis. Available from < https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/coventry/detail.action?docID=179636# > [25 May 2020]
7. Reed, K. (2015) ‘Racing the Feminist Agenda: Exploring the Intersections Between Race, Ethnicity and Gender’. In Gender & Women’s Studies . Ed . by Robinson, V. Richardson, D. London: Palgrave. 133-147.
8. The United Nations (2019) The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019 [online] available from < https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2019/The-Sustainable-Development-Goals-Report-2019 .pdf > [29 May 2020]
9. The World Bank (2015) A global count of the extreme poor in 2012: data issues,
methodology and initial results (English) [online] available from < http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/360021468187787070/A-global-count-of-the-extreme-poor-in-2012-data-issues-methodology-and-initial-results > [29 May 2020]
10. Townsend, P. (1979) Poverty in the United Kingdom A Survey of Household Resources and Standards of Living. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd.