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What is a Sociologist and How can we Improve Society?

Editorial Note: This article answers the question of “What is a Sociologist?,” and 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 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 Shannon Fernandes, a student at the St. Xavier’s College in India. The essay received a first 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!

Shannon Fernandes – What is a Sociologist: A Prelude to Future Sociology

“SUPPOSING that Truth is a woman—what then? Is there not ground for suspecting that all philosophers, in so far as they have been dogmatists, have failed to understand women—that the terrible seriousness and clumsy importunity with which they have usually paid their addresses to Truth, have been unskilled and unseemly methods for winning a woman? Certainly, she has never allowed herself to be won.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil)

– Friedrich Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil)

The universe is pure anarchy, most probably meaningless and the joke is that we are condemned to make sense of it. The absurdity of our existence, thus, lies in that according to thinkers like Camus (1965), our desire to find meaning in a meaningless world. What is ‘Truth’ then if the universe has no [absolute] ‘Truth?’ How are we to know anything for certain? Or how do we know that the ‘truth’ that everyone claims they have is the actual thing? To establish these answers we must first answer what is a sociologist?

What is a Sociologist?

I believe that is the task of the sociologist, to scrutinize the ‘truth claims,’ for there is nothing of higher value than that in sociology or other fields. Our beliefs, ideologies, morality, and many other such systems are influenced by our personal ‘truths.’ Everyone has different personal truths but not all of them could be true for most of them are contradictory in nature. What is true for one culture could be untrue for the other and we remain with a contradictio in adjecto.

The task of the sociologist is thus to be like Oedipus, in search of the truth as well as to become like the Sphinx ourselves where we learn to ask ourselves questions, as Nietzsche mentions in Beyond Good and Evil (1989), which is what makes the task important. This is a reference to the reflexive nature of the sociologist who analyzes their biases, prejudices and belief systems while looking for the truth which ipso facto boils down to one’s interpretation of the nature of reality.

Phenomenology in Sociology

Since the introduction of phenomenology in sociology, we have learned to take a look at ‘truth’ academically, as an individual’s subjective interpretation of reality. However, that is not the case in the real world, which differs from the academic world. In the real world, people prefer holding their ‘truths’ as absolute, divine in some sense.

At times this could result in killing and mass murders or genocide, the Rwandan genocide and conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi for example, based on the desire to protect our ‘truth’ at all costs. Other times it leads to ignorance, like the Flat Earth movement who will be skeptical towards ‘truth’ that isn’t theirs but consider theirs as absolute, hold it as a sign of elitism, the feeling of being a part of something important. Both of these are manifestations of the desire to find meaning.

Zarathustra and Sociology

Sociology, in my mind, will always be personified as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (1977), descending the mountains in hopes of enlightening the masses about that which is ‘true’ or at least that which isn’t, a negation. Just the way Zarathustra is the overman, preaching about the bridge between animals and the overman, i.e. humans, I visualize sociologists as those who will enlighten us about the bridge between our delusions and Truth.

The sociologist has no knowledge of the ‘Truth’, let me clarify that. If the sociologist claims so, there would be no difference between the power structures. The sociologist helps us analyze our individual ‘truths’ concerning others and vice versa. A great example would be the feminist movement and advances in feminist science studies. We see thinkers like Beauvoir (1989) and Butler (1999) who help us scrutinize the idea/image of a Woman.

“A Woman is she who cooks and does her womanly chores and that is ‘Truth’”, echoed the past. “That is not the ‘Truth’ for we all are free. There is no “Woman”, there are women, individuals with freedom and conscience”, yelled back the present (I should clarify that “Woman” here refers to the gender role expectation and not an individual).

Sociology and Cultural Truths

The sociologist analyzes the cultural truths to find that which is of cultural value and that which does damage. This cultural capital, as Bourdieu (1977) calls it, contains truths dear to cultures which is why they are embodied, practiced almost daily. What is the purpose of studying different cultures and their cockfights (a reference to Geertz)?

What is a Sociologist and How can we Improve Society?
“The point of my work is to show that culture and education aren’t simply hobbies or minor influences. They are hugely important in the affirmation of differences between groups and social classes and in the reproduction of those differences.” – Pierre Bourdieu

Is the purpose of sociology documentation of the different cultures and their capital? In my understanding, it is more than just documentation, and that’s exactly why I’ve called this essay as “A Prelude to Future Sociology,” to emphasize that sociology is not just a branch that studies societies for that would be the most futile activity, almost as if it were a page from Sisyphus’ diary.

Feminism and feminist science studies, as I mentioned before, are not only a part of ‘documented sociology’ or ‘armchair sociology’ but are actively promoted, even in non-western cultures, like the one I come from where the feminist movement is blooming rapidly (Phadke, 2015). The purpose of sociology is thus then the betterment of mankind and since I’ve already touched upon cultural values, let me elaborate on what I mean when I say ‘damage.’ Sexism and racism are examples of the damage, one that is actively opposed in hopes of creating a better world.

Sociology and Social Inequality

The Slovenian Marxist philosopher and sociology professor, Slavoj Žižek, criticizes the capitalistic system and ideology as a whole (Žižek, 1989). He recognizes the damage done by capitalism, often considered as the cultural capital of the western civilization backed by figures like Ayn Rand, and his works focus on making us understand how we are blinded by ideology. “I’m already eating from the trash can all the time. The name of this trash can is ‘ideology,’” says Žižek (2014).

Žižek is a good example if you were to ask me to illustrate the “sociologist.” I’m not going to make a ‘No True Scotsman’ like fallacy and call him the only sociologist or others as ‘not real sociologists’, that is not my intention. I intend to point out the task and reflexivity of the sociologist. Žižek is a Marxist thinker and strongly promotes Marxist thought but will also make sure to critically evaluate his own stance.

This is a necessity because it enables one to speculate on the nature of one’s existing reality. For example, even though Žižek is a Marxist thinker, if he were to be placed in the early stages of Stalinism (before he could be shot perhaps for talking against the regime), he would stand up against that form of communism.

So, What is a Sociologist?

This brings us a very important realization, i.e., the sociologist’s definition . Žižek’s definition of Marxism, for example, would enable him to understand and differentiate between Marxism and Stalinism and thus he would speak against it. The task of the sociologist, lastly, is to know the limit of truth.

Conclusions on What is a Sociologist?

According to Žižek (2002), “We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.” The sociologist’s reflexivity should include the limits of its own reflexivity. Sociology is crucial not because it documents reality but rather because it understands that there is most probably no [Absolute] ‘Truth’ but instead there are individual truths that need to be voiced, like that of the rights of women and the marginalized.

Equality isn’t something found in nature fundamentally to make it an [Absolute] ‘Truth’, but we can agree it’s a truth we need, one that should be exercised. The reason I called this one as “A Prelude to Sociology Of The Future” is that sociology is nearing the end of its adolescence, which means it’s time to get to work.

References on What is a Sociologist?

  • Beauvoir, S. . (1989). The second sex. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Bourdieu, P. (1977). Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction.
  • Butler, J. (1999). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.
  • Camus, A. (1965). The myth of Sisyphus, and other essays. London: H. Hamilton.
  • Fiennes, S., Wilson, J., Rosenbaum, M., Holly, K., Žižek, S., Fiennes, M., British Film Institute… Zeitgeist Films,. (2014). The pervert’s guide to ideology.
  • Nietzsche, F. W., & Hollingdale, R. J. (1977). Thus spoke Zarathustra: A book for everyone and no one. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books.
  • Nietzsche, F. W., & Kaufmann, W. (1989). Beyond good and evil: Prelude to a philosophy of the future.
  • Phadke, S. (2015). Risking Feminism?. Economic & Political Weekly, 50(17), 63.
  • Žižek, S. (1989). The sublime object of ideology.
  • Žižek, S. (2002). Welcome to the desert of the real!: Five essays on 11 September and related dates. London: Verso.

Frequently Asked Questions about Sociologists

What is a sociologist, and what do they study?

A sociologist is a professional who studies society, human behavior, and social interactions. They analyze patterns, institutions, and relationships to understand how societies function and how individuals are influenced by their social environment.

What are the key responsibilities of a sociologist?

Sociologists conduct research, collect and analyze data, and interpret social phenomena. They may also teach, write publications, and contribute insights to inform public policies or address social issues.

In what industries or sectors do sociologists typically work?

Sociologists can work in various sectors, including academia, government agencies, non-profit organizations, market research firms, healthcare, and business. They may contribute to diverse fields such as education, criminal justice, and social services.

How does a person become a sociologist?

Becoming a sociologist typically involves earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology or a related field. Many sociologists pursue advanced degrees (master’s or Ph.D.) to specialize in specific areas of sociology and conduct independent research.

What are the different specializations within the field of sociology?

Sociology has various specializations, including but not limited to criminology, medical sociology, environmental sociology, gender studies, and social inequality. Sociologists may choose a specialization based on their interests and career goals.

What is a Sociologist and How do sociologists contribute to addressing social issues?

Sociologists contribute to addressing social issues by researching and analyzing root causes, proposing solutions, and advocating for change. Their insights can inform policies and programs aimed at improving societal conditions.

What skills are essential for a successful career as a sociologist?

Key skills for sociologists include research and analytical skills, critical thinking, effective communication, and the ability to work collaboratively. Proficiency in quantitative and qualitative research methods is also important.

Is it common for sociologists to collaborate with professionals from other disciplines?

Yes, sociologists often collaborate with professionals from diverse disciplines such as psychology, economics, public health, and urban planning. Interdisciplinary collaboration enhances the understanding of complex societal issues and promotes holistic solutions.