Monday, November 5, 2012

How does ‘sociological thinking’ differ from commonsense?

It is often argued that sociological thinking is just a branch out of commonsense. People associate it with analysing the obvious and providing circular reasoning that never seem to have an empirical way of validation. However, further comparison of the two can show the distinctions that can be illustrated by a simple reflection on our own lives. Everything around us exists in a commonsensical dimension the size of clothes we’re wearing, the brand of car we drive, or even the manner this essay is presented. It is commonsense that we choose the clothes that fit us whether we’re an S or L size, we choose a certain type of car just because it allows us to be perceived in a certain way, and this essay is written in formal English and passed up on time because it contributes to our first year evaluation. These facts may seem unquestionably simple and straightforward, but there is a deeper sociological value in them. Who gets to decide which body shapes get to be a small size or a large size? Why do we feel much better driving a Mercedes than a Hyundai? What is so important about a degree? These are the questions sociological thought would implicate that commonsense would not able to.

First, the difference of the two is that commonsense is a collective body of observed knowledge based on personal experiences, but sociological thinking is not. Nonetheless, it is understood that a part of sociological thought is derived from commonsense and everyday observation. As Berger once claimed,

“To ask sociological questions, then, presupposes that one is interested in looking some distance beyond the commonly accepted or officially defined goals of human actions. It presupposes a certain awareness that human events have different levels of meaning, some of which are hidden from the consciousness of everyday life.” (Berger, 1963)

Sociological thinking tries to view the society not as a group of isolated individuals or separate institutions, but as a whole (Bauman and May, 2001, p. 8). According to Brown, the society is an abstract concept that cannot be seen physically. It is a conceptual web of relations between people and the social institutions (1979, p. 1-2) While commonsense is extracted and slowly built up by practical knowledge of the everyday life, sociological thinking differs as it encourages thoughts and ideas that are levels higher than individuals’ personal experiences; it sprouts thoughts on society as a whole.

Second, sociological thinking allows challenges to the presumed commonsense and urges a more radical and provoking approach to the social facts. According to Bauman and May, the relationship between commonsense and sociological thinking is a rather dependent one where sociological thinking is interpreting and investigating the meanings of social actions and facts that has been branded by commonsense. Commonsense has already labeled meanings and responses to most of the social facts that are collectively known by the members of society. (2001, p. 7).  The repitition of the actions become habitual, there are no more questionings for the meaning behind commonsense and they are somehow categorised as true and standing ways of life. (Bauman and May, 2001, p. 10) Another view of Brown’s can be incorporated to provide a clearer view of the distinction of commonsense and sociological thinking. He argues that the collection of the facts derived from collective comon sense are not equivalent to sociological thinking and research. It can only be fully understood with sociological theories(1979, p. 6-7) with are formed with the sociological thought and imagination.
Third, sociological thought can be categorised as scientific while commonsense cannot. An analytical comparison between commonsense and science by Nagel shows that science cannot be leveled with commonsense (1974, p. 21). In his rebuttal to Nagel’s claim, Elliot strived to prove that commonsense is a part of science in the most basic ways, such as the conduct of experiment requires observation that is mainly an action that requires engagement and interpretation of the researcher himself (1974, p. 24). To further assert the claim, Emile Durkheim explored the positivist methodology in social science with his research on suicide. He thus affirms that sociology can be a science, alongside biology and psychology (2004, p. 31). Sociological thinking tries to view and analyse the social world from an objective standpoint while commonsense is a product of an individual’s subjective experiences and therefore, the latter cannot be considered science.

Commonsense is culturally angled knowledge that is subjectively varied between individuals and societies. However, sociological thinking attempts to postulate a higher level of consciousness and objectiveness to the macro social trends and happenings in relation to the society as a whole. C. Wright Mills once wrote, “The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals.”(1959, p. 5). So, with the points above, it can be concluded that sociological thinking is commonsense further evolved and probed to allow a greater understanding of society.


Berger, P. (1963). Introduction to Sociological Thought. New York: Doubleday.

Bauman, Z., & May, T. (2001). Thinking Sociologically (2nd edition). Singapore: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Brown, C. (1979). Understanding Society: An Introduction to Sociological Theory. Bath: John Murray (Publishers) Ltd.

Garfinkel , H., Elliot, H. C., Pollner, M., Smith, D., Sharrock, W. W., Moerman, M., et al. (1974). Ethnomethodology. (R. Turner, Ed.) Aylesbury, Bucks: Penguin Education .

Billig, M., MIlls, C. W., Durkheim, E., Wallace, W. L., Campbell, D. T., Cook, T. D., et al. (2004). Social Research Methods: A Reader. (C. Seale, Ed.) London: Routledge.

Wright Mills, C. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. London and New York: Oxford University Press.