What I want to think about
(and want you to think about maybe)
I think it is difficult to talk about sociology and communication, because any conversation automatically precludes some amount of information. My take on sociology is that as a discipline the point is to try, as much as possible, not to preclude information. In almost all the social sciences there is an attempt to bracket some elements of information or study. Politics attempts to look at pretty direct exercise of power and this is usually done on an assumption of rational actor calculations, by independent individuals or actors aware of their choices (implicitly that they have choices) and that this can be demonstrated in policy decisions, party ascription, involvement levels etc. Economics deals with (mostly) quantitative assessments of material distribution, history is about what has come before, geography is about spaces, etc. Sociology, in my opinion and experience, more than any other, is about trying to assess those brackets, why are they made, what do they highlight, what do they hide, and, most importantly, what about the things that fall between. Sociology is a place of questions more than a space for answers. Part of why I find it difficult to make a ‘statement’ for communication is because I’m never really sure where we stand, what we stand for, and who and how and why. I think the point, as much as possible, is to keep moving, looking at things in different and innovative ways. I had a teacher tell me that ‘culture’ is all the things we use, the ways we use them, and the way we think about both, in short its ‘everything all the time’. I think sociology is the same. It asks over and over those fundamental questions: who are we? Who do we think we are? What are we doing here? Are we really doing that? Are we succeeding in what we are attempting or intending to do? Why or why not? Who is this ‘we’? Why this ‘we and not that ‘we’? Why are these people part of our ‘we’? What is the implication for those people who are not? And for us that we have excluded them? The questions go on and on and on. I think sociology is a group of people dedicated to asking questions, and every time we ‘answer’ a particular question, we ask another.
If I was to think about a way of communicating sociology, I would try to express the processes that go on in terms of individuals and the impacts on society. In terms of individuals its about the process that we go through, learning how to ask questions, how to try to answer them, how to try to give evidence that our answers are more compelling than other interpretations and how to internalise and sustain that uncertainty. We choose areas that we think are important to ask and answer questions about, because we are personally interested, because we think that area matters, because the people involved need our attention. We try to pose good questions, and use appropriate methods for those areas and questions and solutions. Because it is important to note that in asking those questions, finding those answers, formulating the narrative and the process in this way and not that we are making decisions about the future as well as the present. According to the International Social Science Council we are drawing maps but that those maps are also blueprints. Sometimes we intend them to be, sometimes we don’t think about that. We can see in so many areas, usually intangible, the results of the work that we have done and are doing. It is easy to see the ways physical technology change the course of things. It is harder to trace the subtle shifts in thinking that add up to massive normative change, or intellectual formulation that proliferate through society pervasively. Often this is because sociology, the things that really rock our foundations are a few steps removed from the policy choices that address the price of milk or NHS funding. Part of the reason I chose sociology as a post-grad was because of the number of things I read that turned spotlights on intangible questions that had been floating around in my head without any good explanation. I think it may be similar for many of you. That first time you read about habitus, or governmentality, or semiotics. The ways it illuminated things you couldn’t put a name to, or the worlds it opened up for you to explore. I enjoyed the other things I studied and learned, but the excitement of finding a whole new way to think about something is beyond that practice and is the root of what is special about what we do. If there was anything I would want to communicate, especially to people who haven’t had those lightbulb moments is the possibility that sociology has for transformation, individually and collectively; the value in learning to question, and how. That every time one asks a question there is hope for something different (and maybe something better). I would try to communicate the unique process that sociology has and maybe some examples of what that process can achieve. I would be interested in a space that tries to bridge gaps, between bracketed disciplines, between the ivory tower and policy makers, between academics and lay-people. I think communication offers transformative possibilities as much as sociology does, and marrying the two could be extremely useful/ interesting. Part of the difficulty with both is that asking questions can be a difficult place to start from. Brackets allow a space of assumptions, a premise from which to begin. For sociologists it is a choice (which usually then must be defended). A conversation can be had from many places and pieces of it can be put together many ways. In thinking about this I think one needs to decide where to begin from, what you hope to accomplish, or just how we could see it happening. In refining our own opinions and discussing amongst ourselves the ways that we can put things together, the questions we are interested in asking and answering, the people who we are interested in to provide their own answers and the people who we wish could hear those answers we can begin to see the shape of the thing we are trying to do. I’m not trying to advocate in any particular way, and I would never presume to tell anyone how it ‘should be’ (when I have no idea what that would look like). The point I’m trying to make is that sociology in theory and practice is so expansive, that to ‘do’ anything with ‘it’, in my opinion, it needs to be tied to something; rooted if you will. That could be in so many ways: who do we want to hear? Who do we want to listen? Is the speaking and listening the point? (process) Or do we think a report or publication is important? (conclusion) Is it important to explore the decisions people are already making? Or to explore decisions that could be made? Are there priority topics, issues or areas? Is it about bringing new groups together? Or an opportunity for a community to (re)connect? There are so many pieces, and so many ways to put them together…
In writing this, I think that for me, the place of communication and sociology is questions not answers. I don’t know if this makes sense, or is helpful in any way, but there we are.