Thinking Sociologically - Zygmunt Bauman - E-Book

Thinking Sociologically E-Book

Zygmunt Bauman

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Widely acclaimed insight on the human condition, updated to view modern issues through a sociological lens Now in its third edition, Thinking Sociologically continues to offer a stimulating exploration of the underlying assumptions and tacit expectations which structure our view of the world. This best-seller has been translated into 12 languages to bring key sociological concepts to students and general readers around the globe. The authors review recent developments in society and examine the applicability of sociology to everyday life. The world has changed a great deal since the second edition's publication. Issues of climate change, sustainability, inequality, social justice, inclusion and the role of social media have risen to prominence, and we are collectively challenging our ways of thinking about intimacy, community, consumption, ethics, social identity, and more. This new third edition has been revised to reflect these and other transformations in our lives, helping us to think sociologically about the consequences of these burgeoning issues, how we organize our societies, understand ourselves and lead our lives. This dynamic book: * Applies sociology to everyday life in the context of current issues * Contains contributions from major theorists that introduce central sociological concepts with modern relevance * Features a highly engaging and stimulating style that promotes critical thought and independent study Written for undergraduates, postgraduates, practicing sociologists and social scientists, this book also holds a broad appeal to a general audience. The third edition of Thinking Sociologically offers a compelling survey of sociological issues, recent changes in society and their influence on our day-to-day lives and identities. Learn more about Thinking Sociologically in co-author Tim May's recent piece for the British Sociological Association.

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Table of Contents


Preface to the Second Edition

Preface to the Third Edition


Thinking Sociologically: The Distinction

Sociology and Common Sense

Thinking Sociologically: The Content

Part I: Action and Understanding in Everyday Life

1 Understanding Ourselves with and through Others

Freedom in Living with Others

Sociological Lenses: Viewing Ourselves with Others


2 Sustaining Our Lives

Interaction, Understanding, and Social Distance

Boundaries and Outsiders

Segregation and Movement in the City


3 Social Bonds

Communities: Proximity and Distance in Consensus and Conflict

Constituting and Organizing “We”


Part II: Choices, Contexts, and Challenges

4 Values, Power, and Choice

Decisions: Chosen, Influenced, and Caused

Needs and Action

Expediency and Morality


5 Gifts, Exchange, and Intimacy

Gift, Exchange, and Expectation

Love, Intimacy, Caring, and Commodities


6 Body, Sexuality, and Health

Wellbeing, Security, and Shelter

Our Body, Ourselves: Satisfaction and the Pursuit of Perfection

The Body, Sexuality, and Gender


7 Space, Time, and Social Dynamics

Time and Space in the Dimension of Experience

Juggernaut Wheels: Risk, Action, and Change


8 Culture, Nature, and Territory

Nature and Culture: An Opposition in the Making

Territory: State and Nation


9 Consumption, Technology, and Lifestyle

Shaping in Action: Technology, Use, and Expertise

Purchase, Product, and Persuasion

Lifestyles, Flux, and Social Standing in the Marketplace of Possibility


Part III: Retrospect and Prospect

10 Sociological Lenses

Sociological Lenses: Relational and Contextual

Knowledge, Expectation, and Desire

Knowledge and Being

Tensions, Targets, and Transformations

Sociology and Freedom

Questions for Reflection and Further Reading


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Thinking Sociologically

Third Edition

Zygmunt Bauman

Tim May

This third edition first published 2019© 2019 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

Edition HistoryBlackwell Publishing Ltd (1e, 1990 and 2e, 2001)

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The right of Zygmunt Bauman and Tim May to be identified as the authors of this work has been asserted in accordance with law.

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9781118959985 (paperback); 9781118959947 (ePDF); 9781118959978 (epub)

Cover image: © redstallion/iStock/Getty Images PlusCover design by Wiley

in memory ofZYGMUNT BAUMAN(1925–2017)

Preface to the Second Edition

Writing the second edition of a book which was originally written by Zygmunt Bauman was a task that I approached with some trepidation. The original, after all, was written in a distinctive style that was attractive to numerous readers in several languages. At the same time, Zygmunt felt that a new, updated edition would benefit from my input. In the face of this, quite how I was to preserve this uniqueness, while adding my own materials, was bound to require some care.

The end result is a totally revised and expanded edition. Original chapters have been altered and we have introduced new ones, whilst materials have been added throughout the entire text: for example, on health and fitness, intimacy, time, space and disorder, risk, globalization, organizations, and new technologies. In the end, both of us believe that we have produced a book that maintains the best parts of the first edition, but adds to it in ways that significantly improve its overall appeal.

We are both concerned that Thinking Sociologically is attractive to a wide audience. In terms of those who are studying sociology, we have sought to anticipate the different topics that are taught within the curriculum, while writing in a way that we hope is illuminating to practicing social scientists in general. We are also keen that the book appeals to a wider audience who may wish to learn more of a discipline that is gaining greater attention for the insights it offers into society and social relations. For us, the reasons for this are clear: sociology provides a valuable and often neglected perspective on the issues that face us all in the twenty‐first century.

As two sociologists, separated by two generations, we are both devoted to our subject in terms of the understanding it offers for making sense of our experiences within the social environments we inhabit. Thinking sociologically not only helps us in our understanding of each other and ourselves, but also offers important explanations for the dynamics of societies and social relations in general. We hope, therefore, that you will emerge from reading this book and agree with us that sociology is an illuminating, exciting, practical, and challenging discipline.

Preface to the Third Edition

When the publisher first suggested a third edition, I contacted Zygmunt and asked what he thought about the idea. He thought it was a good one, but it was not something he wished to undertake himself. So we agreed I would produce the third edition and he suggested we move the authorship to place me as the first author. I have not done that. The book has sold extensively and been translated into a dozen languages. It is, if not unique, certainly unusual in its format and I believe this is something to be preserved. Zygmunt devoted his life to greater understanding of the human condition and its improvement and the book is dedicated to him.

A great deal of change has happened since the last edition was published. Some of you reading this book will have grown up with and been born into an age of information technology in which assumptions of connectedness across space and time and the use of social media are commonplace. Like all epochs, those who seek to characterize them reach for new descriptions often encapsulated in acronyms. Of course there are contemporary issues requiring novel ways of understanding and these are reflected in the new edition. However, we should not forget history in our fast‐paced world, for it acts as a corrective to our characterizations and enables us to learn from the past in order to inform the present and future. As we shall see, communication is enabled in new ways, but it also has the power to reinforce, reinterpret, and reconfigure our relations to each other in older ways.

Issues concerned with climate change, sustainability, advances in technology, inequality, social justice, and inclusion, to name a few, have all gained more prominence. With those and the above changes in mind, the book has been revised with new materials and discussions to reflect these and other transformations in our lives. In the face of these changes, the ability to think sociologically remains a vital component for understanding not only their contours and dynamics, but also their consequences for how we organize our societies, understand ourselves and lead our lives. This book is a route into that way of thinking.


I began writing the third edition as I started in a new post at the University of Sheffield in September 2016. The requirements of a new job, along with prior commitments, have made the time productive and intensive.

In this journey I would like to thank Beth Perry for being a supportive colleague, collaborator, and a good friend who also read through the manuscript. My thanks go to those who have been supportive of my endeavors now and in the past, including not only Zygmunt Bauman, but also Davydd Greenwood, Morten Levin, William Outhwaite, Bev Skeggs, Dorothy Smith, Carole Sutton, and Malcolm Williams. Thanks to Ken Parsons for the friendship and our frequent meetings over the years and to the “Kalkan 7” – Jane, Dave, Chris, Audrey, Steve, and Vikki – for sharing experiences, having fun, and the holidays.

My love and gratitude to Vikki, who not only read the manuscript with a keen eye and provided insights on the content, but also provided support and encouragement in the midst of her own busy life. To Cian, Alex, Calum, Nick, and Lewis, my sons and stepsons, my appreciation for their energy, zest for life, and for demonstrating that the world can be a better place through a care and concern for others. Finally, I would like to thank my new colleagues in the Sheffield Methods Institute, and express my gratitude for the support of the Mistra Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research which enables our participation in the Mistra Urban Futures Centre and the Realising Just Cities programme. Thanks also go to the editorial and production teams at Wiley Blackwell.

Introduction: Crafting Sociological Lenses

In this chapter we wish to examine the idea of thinking sociologically and its importance for understanding ourselves, each other, and our relations to the social environments we inhabit. For this purpose we are going to situate the idea of sociology as a disciplined practice with its own set of questions and ways of approaching the study of society and social relations.

Thinking Sociologically: The Distinction

Sociology comprises both ways of framing the social world and methods for understanding and explanation. It has a considerable body of knowledge accumulated over the course of its history. Sociological reflections are evident in the writings of philosophers and theologians over the course of two thousand years. The term was used in the earlier part of the nineteenth century and its development drew upon this extensive history for the purpose of studying social order and change. Now, books and journals in libraries represent the discipline as having a rich tradition of studies. They provide knowledge for the general reader, students, and those seeking to become professional sociologists; all of whom can then expand their understanding of the world in which we live. In the process we find systematic studies on such topics as: culture, economics, crime, organizations, sexuality, politics, identity, fashion, management, state, environment, media, youth, gerontology, health, housing, bio‐technology, and rural and urban life. Thus, sociology is a site of continuing activity seeking to understand new phenomena and to test established ideas against experiences and data. In the process, the form and content of the discipline evolves with societal transformations.

To situate sociology there must be some distinguishing features of its practice in terms of setting questions and illuminating the social domain that are different from other disciplines. By discovering these differences we can characterize what it is to think sociologically. At this point we can think of related disciplines: for example, History, Anthropology, Political Science, Law, Social Policy, Psychology, Management and Organization Studies, Economics, Education, Criminology, Information Science, Journalism, Philosophy, Architecture, Social Policy, Archeology, Linguistics, Literature, and Geography. All of these are concerned with the human world: that is, the interactions between people and with the environments of which they are a part. So, what sets them apart and why do they justify different names?

There is one simple answer: differences between these disciplines merely reflect divisions in the world that they investigate. It is human actions, or aspects of those, that differ from each other and disciplines take account of this fact. Each narrates its past and the peculiarity of its focus and constitutes its areas of inquiry. History is concerned with actions that took place in the past, whereas sociology concentrates on contemporary society. Anthropology examines human societies at different stages of development; political science focuses on actions and institutions relating to power, state, and government; economics deals with the allocation of scarce resources viewed in terms of persons acting “rationally” to maximize their individual utility, as well as the production and distribution of goods; law and criminology are interested in interpretation and application of the law and the norms that regulate human actions and how norms are articulated, made obligatory, enforced, and with what consequences. Yet, as soon as we begin to justify the boundaries between disciplines in this manner, the issue becomes problematic. After all, we are assuming that the human world itself reflects neat divisions which then become specialist branches of investigation. We now reach an important issue: like most beliefs which appear to be self‐evident, they remain obvious insofar as we refrain from examining the assumptions that underpin them.

We now have the idea that human interactions may be divided into certain categories which are then represented in clear disciplinary boundaries. A group of “experts” who are knowledgeable and trustworthy then claim exclusive rights to study aspects of the social and material worlds and furnish us with the results of their studies and reflections. However, from the point of view of our experiences, can we divide society into economics, geography, politics, history, or social policy? We do not live separately in the realms distinguished by political science or economics, nor do we move from sociology to anthropology when traveling from parts of the global North to the South, or from history to sociology when we grow a year older!

If we are able to separate these domains of activity in our experiences and so categorize our actions in terms of the political at one moment and the economic at another, is it because we have been taught to make such distinctions in the first place? Therefore, what we know is not the world itself, but what we are doing in the world in terms of how our practices are informed by an image of that world. Our ways of knowing are frames we deploy to comprehend the world and those are forged in the relations between language and experience. Thus, there is no natural division of the human world that is reflected in different scholarly disciplines. What we discover is a division of labor between the scholars who examine the world which is reinforced by disciplinary boundaries that enable practitioners to know what belongs to their areas of expertise.

In our quest to find the “difference that makes the difference,” how do the practices of these branches of study then differ from each other? There is a similarity in the ways in which they select their objects of study. After all, they all claim obedience to the same rules of conduct when dealing with their respective objects. All seek to collect relevant facts through methods of research and ensure that they are valid and then check and recheck those facts in order that the information about them is reliable. In addition, they all try to put the propositions they make about the facts in a form in which they can be clearly, unambiguously understood and tested against evidence. In so doing they seek to pre‐empt or eliminate tensions or contradictions between propositions in order that no two different propositions can be true at the same time. In short, they all try to live up to a particular ideal of systematic discipline and present their findings in a responsible manner.

We can now say that there is no difference in how the task of the scholar and their trademarks – scholarly integrity and responsibility – is understood and practiced. Those claiming to be experts seem to deploy similar strategies to collect and to process their facts: they observe aspects of human actions, or employ historical evidence and seek to interpret them within modes of analysis that make sense of those actions. It seems, therefore, that our last hope of finding our difference is in the kinds of questions that motivate each discipline: that is, those that frame the points of view (cognitive perspectives) from which actions are observed, explored, described, understood, and explained by different disciplines.

Take the frames that inform the work of economists. Consideration would turn to the relationship between the costs and benefits of human action. Human action can be viewed in terms of the management and allocation of scarce resources and how these may be utilized for maximum advantage. The interactions between people would be examined as aspects of the production and exchange of goods and services; all of which is regulated by market relations of supply and demand and the desire of actors to pursue their individual preferences according to a model in which actions are subject to a prior rational calculation of means and ends. The findings would then be arranged into a mathematical model of the process through which resources are created, obtained, and allocated. Political science, on the other hand, is more likely to be interested in those aspects of human actions that change, or are changed by, the actual or anticipated conduct of other actors in terms of power and influence. Actions can then be viewed in terms of the asymmetry between power and influence and so some people emerge with views modified more significantly than other parties to the interaction. In this way its findings can be organized around concepts like power, domination, the state, authority, and psephology (the study of voting behavior).

The concerns of economics and political science are by no means alien to sociology. This is readily apparent from works within sociology that are written by scholars who may self‐identify as economists, historians, political scientists, anthropologists, geographers, or who work in management and organization studies. Nevertheless, sociology, like other branches of study, has its own cognitive perspectives which inform sets of questions for interrogating human actions, as well as its own principles of interpretation. From this point of view we can say that sociology is distinguished through viewing human actions as elements of wider figurations: that is, of a non‐random assembly of actors locked together in a web of mutual dependency (dependency being a state in which the probability that the action will be undertaken and the chance of its success change in relation to what other actors are, do, or may do). Sociologists ask what consequences this has for human actors, the relations into which we enter and the societies of which we are a part. In turn, this shapes the object of sociological inquiry and so figurations, webs of mutual dependence, reciprocal conditioning of action and expansion, or confinement of actors' freedom are among the most prominent preoccupations of sociology.

Individual actors come into the view of sociological study in terms of being members or partners in a network of interdependence. Sociology celebrates the individual, but the atomism, or social isolation that is assumed to exist between us that is embodied in the idea of individualism, is another matter; which is not to say that this may not be a symptom of social dislocation. Sociology is primarily concerned with a relational viewpoint: that is, we are born into and are members of a society which pre‐exists us. We are forged in those relations and our experiences are influenced by social structures and our ways of seeing by cultural frames of references. We are dependent upon others and our views of ourselves are mediated in those relations. The central questions of sociology thus become: how do the types of social relations and societies we inhabit relate to how we see ourselves and each other, construct our knowledge, view our environments, and with what consequences? It is these kinds of questions –components of the practical realities that inform our everyday lives – that constitute what it is to think sociologically and which define the discipline as a relatively autonomous branch of the social sciences. Thinking sociologically encapsulates a relational way of understanding the world which also opens up the possibility for thinking about the world in different ways.

Sociology and Common Sense

Thinking sociologically has a particular relationship with what is often called “common sense.” Because of its subject matter, sociology and common sense are implicated in ways that have consequences for its standing and practice. It is precisely these relations that lead to it being relevant, insightful and, at times, contentious. The physical sciences, after all, do not appear to be concerned with spelling out their relationship to common sense. Whilst there are undoubtedly social components to the practices of the physical sciences – from the ways in which phenomena may be inferred, rather than observed by scientists, to what sort of science is funded and how the findings of science have implications for how we see ourselves and the world around us – there tends to be a separation of the immediate effects of the content of the knowledge from the social contexts in which it is produced. Boundaries thereby exist with a rich yet often disorganized, non‐systematic, sometimes inarticulate and ineffable knowledge referred to as common sense.

Common sense appears to have nothing to say of the matters that preoccupy physicists or chemists. The subjects they deal with do not seem to fall within the daily experiences of people. Those without knowledge and skills do not normally consider themselves able to form opinions about such matters unless aided by the scientists who focus on the domain of the content of their research. After all, the objects explored by the physical sciences appear only under very special circumstances: for example, through observed effects in giant particle accelerators or the lenses of powerful microscopes. The scientists view or infer the phenomena, subject it to experimentation under certain conditions, and then justify their findings within a bounded community of inquirers. Being the owners of the experience, the process, analysis, and interpretations remain within their control. Results have to withstand the critical scrutiny of other scientists trained in the specialist area. Their resulting knowledge does not compete with common sense for the simple reason that there is no commonsensical point of view on their subject matter.

Is the characterization of this separation as simple as the above implies? The production of scientific knowledge contains social factors which inform and shape its practice, while scientific findings can have social, political, and economic implications which, in any democratic society, are not for scientists to determine. Scientific and contextual, or indigenous knowledge, interact with one other: for example, how long people accumulate knowledge to maintain habitats for human survival in relation to plants and animals, or the increasing availability of medical information to the general population with which to question the expertise of medical doctors. We cannot, in other words, easily separate the means of scientific research from the ends to which it may be put, nor practical or local knowledge from scientific knowledge itself. How research is funded and by whom may have a bearing upon the results of that research with these interests potentially distorting results. Public concerns over the quality of the food we eat, digital storage of our personnel usage of the Internet, the protection of the environments upon which we rely and live in, the role of genetic engineering, the patenting of genetic information are just a few of the matters that science alone cannot determine. These concern not just the bounded justifications for scientific knowledge within an expert group, but other forms of justification, as well as its application and consequences for our lives and futures. After all, we are talking about the control we have over our lives and the direction in which our societies are moving.

Such matters are the raw materials for sociological investigation. All of us live in the company of other people and interact with each other. In the process we display an extraordinary amount of tacit knowledge that enables us to get on with the business of everyday life. Each of us is a skilled actor. Yet what we obtain and who we are depend on others. After all, most of us have lived through the agonizing experience of a communication breakdown with partners, friends, and strangers and we experience varying degrees of social dislocation, ostracization, togetherness, and belonging. The subject matter of sociology is embedded in our everyday lives and without this fact we would be unable to conduct our lives in the company of others. Yet whilst deeply immersed in our routines, informed by a practical knowledge oriented to the social settings in which we interact, we may not systematically think about the meaning of what we have gone through or the reasons for its occurrence, nor compare our private experiences with the fate of others; with the exception, perhaps, of seeing private responses to public issues paraded for consumption on television and social media. Here, however, the privatization of social issues is often reinforced thereby relieving us of the burden of understanding the dynamics and consequences of social relations within what is seen as individual reactions, rather than more general cultural expressions.

Sociological thinking takes us into a relational understanding. It sees the individual, but situated within a social milieu. As a mode of investigation, it will then ask questions such as: “how do our individual biographies intertwine with the history we share with other human beings?” Or, “how do our cultures shape what we see and do?” Sociologists themselves are part of that experience and so however hard they may try to stand aside from the objects of their study – life experiences as objects “out there” – they cannot break off completely from the knowledge that they seek to comprehend. Equally, however, this can be an advantage to the extent that they possess both an inside and outside view of the experiences they seek to comprehend through the methods of research that they deploy: from the extensive through general comparisons within and between societies, to intensive experiences of immersion in social groups to understand their dynamics. The result is a rich and insightful body of studies into the human condition whose basis of comprehension, seen from within the frames of practical reason, ranges from the proximate to the distant.

When it comes to studies of the human condition, sociology needs to understand the meanings that are attributed to human actions, artifacts, and environments before they commence their investigations with questionnaires, interviews, visual materials, or observations. Families, organizations, kinship networks, neighborhoods, cities and villages, nations and churches, and any other groupings held together by regular human interaction have already been given meaning and significance by the actors involved. As a result, sociological phenomena are already endowed with meaning and so it is implicated in the realities that make up practical reason. With fluid borders between these forms of knowledge, their boundaries also move. As with the application of the genetic scientists' findings and their implications for social life, the sovereignty of sociology over social knowledge is one of reflection, reinforcement, and even contestation. Whilst this is not peculiar to sociology and is of relevance to the social and physical sciences in general, we can consider the relations between sociology and common sense in the following ways.

In the first place sociology subordinates itself to the rules of responsible communication according to its modes of justification: that is, accepted and institutionalized ways of constituting understanding and explanation based on evidence. This is an attribute of science among a common community of inquirers that distinguishes a discipline from other forms of knowledge and ways of justification. Sociologists are expected to take great care to distinguish between the statements corroborated by available evidence and those propositions whose status is of provisional, untested ideas. The rules of responsible speech require that the procedures which have led to the resulting insights be open to scrutiny. Further, that it should relate to other works on the topic and engage with those in a manner that is argued to advance its understanding. In this way, credibility and applicability will be significantly enhanced. Indeed, the legitimacy of science is based in our belief that its practitioners have followed the rules of responsible speech whilst those scientists, in turn, can refer to the validity and reliability of the knowledge they produce according to the rigor of the production process.

Second, there is the size of the field from which sociological thinking is drawn. For most of us, our terrain is our life‐worlds: that is, the things we do, the people we meet, the pursuits we follow, and the times and places in which we normally interact. We also find ourselves confronted with the experiences and viewpoints of others mediated through, for example, the Internet, television, newspapers, books, and social media. To this extent, the horizons of our experiences are broadened. However, this can be selective and reliant upon particular viewpoints which can be nothing more than the amplification of existing life‐worlds where differences can turn into objects of distrust and opprobrium, rather than understanding. Thus, despite the rich and various conditions and experiences in the world, each is a particular point of view which may be partial and even prejudiced. These issues can be examined only if we bring together and compare experiences drawn from a multitude of life‐worlds: that is, a disciplined viewpoint on those points of view. Only then will the bounded realities of individual experiences be revealed, as will the complex network of dependencies and interconnections in which they are entangled – a network which reaches far beyond the realm that may be accessed from the point of view of a singular biography. It is for this reason that the sociologists' pursuit of this wider perspective makes a great difference – not only quantitatively, but also in the quality and the use of knowledge. Sociological knowledge has something important to offer that common sense, for all its richness and insight cannot, by itself, provide.

There is a third way in which these forms of knowledge differ: in the ways that each makes sense of human reality in terms of how they understand and explain events and circumstances. We know from our experiences that we are “the author” of our actions; we know that what we do is an effect of our intentions or feelings even though the outcomes may not be as we intended. We normally act to achieve a state of affairs whether, for example, in order to possess an object, to receive praise, or to prevent something we do not like or help a friend. Quite naturally, the way we think of our actions serves as a model for making sense of other actions. To this extent the only way we can make sense of the human world around us is to draw our tools of explanation solely from within our respective life‐worlds. We tend to perceive everything that happens in the world at large as an outcome of somebody's intentional action. We look for the persons responsible for what has occurred and once we have found them, we believe our inquiries to be complete. We assume that goodwill lies behind those events to which we are favorably predisposed and ill intentions lie behind those we dislike. In general, people find it difficult to accept that a situation was not an effect of the intended actions of an identifiable person.

Those who speak in the name of reality within the public realm – politicians, journalists, market researchers, commercial advertisers – tune in to the above tendencies and speak of the “needs of the state” or the “demands of the economy.” This is said as if the state or economies were made to the measure of individual persons with specific needs and wants. Similarly, we read and hear of the complex problems of nations, states, and economic systems as the effects of the thoughts and deeds of a select group of individuals who can be named, pictured, and interviewed. Equally, governments and their spokespersons often relieve themselves of responsibility by referring to those things outside of their control, or speaking of what “the public demands” through the use of focus groups or opinion polls.

Sociology stands in tension and sometimes opposition to the particularity of such views as if they can easily translate into believing they represent some general state of affairs. It does not take for granted ways of understanding as if they constituted some natural way of explaining events that may be simply separated from historical change, or the social location from which these utterances emerge. As it starts its survey from figurations (networks of dependencies) rather than from individual actors or single actions, it demonstrates that the common metaphor of the isolated, motivated individual as the key to understanding the human world – including our own, thoroughly personal and private, thoughts and deeds – is not an appropriate way to understand ourselves and others. To think sociologically is to seek to make sense of the human condition via an analysis of the manifold webs of human interdependency – those toughest of realities to which we refer in order to explain our motives and the effects of their activation.

We should also note that the power of common sense has a twofold character. Whilst it enables us to navigate our ways through our worlds, it thereby depends on the self‐evident: that is, not to question its precepts and to be self‐confirming in practice. It may easily, therefore, rest upon the routine, habitual character of daily life that informs our common sense and is simultaneously informed by it. We need this in order to get on with our lives. When repeated often enough, things tend to become familiar and the familiar becomes self‐explanatory; it enables us to navigate our ways through the world, presents no problems and so may arouse little curiosity. Questions are not asked if people are satisfied that “things are as they are” for reasons that are not open to scrutiny and, should they be questioned, resistance to such intrusion may easily follow. Fatalism may also play its role via the belief that one can do little to change the conditions in which we act, thereby relieving us of the burden of change.

To this extent, familiarity, and inquisitiveness can be in tension. The familiar world has the power to confirm established beliefs leaving sociology viewed as an irritant whose credibility is then to be questioned. By examining the taken‐for‐granted and the basis in which the life‐world is constituted and sustained, it has the potential to disturb comfortable certitudes whether it sees that world as a topic for its investigations or as a resource upon which to draw for its insights. With the daily ways of life and the social conditions in which they take place under examination, they emerge as one of the accomplished ways, but not necessarily the only way, of getting on in our lives and organizing relations between us. Here, however, routines and the ways in which we constitute understanding between us, have their place. After all, they enable us to do things without continuously reflecting upon our actions, which could easily lead to uncertainty. Here, we may recall Kipling's centipede, who walked effortlessly on all her hundred legs until a sycophantic courtier began to praise her exquisite memory. It was this memory that allowed her never to put down the eighty‐fifth leg before the thirty‐seventh, or the fifty‐second before the nineteenth. Having been made self‐conscious, the poor centipede was no longer able to walk. Equally, defamiliarization has benefits. It opens up new and previously unsuspected possibilities of living one's life with more self‐awareness, understanding of others, and comprehension of our surroundings in terms of greater knowledge and, with that, perhaps more freedom and control.

To those seeking to live their lives in a more conscious way through an understanding of the environments, its effect upon ourselves, our actions, and how we live together and organize ourselves, thinking sociologically is a welcome guide. When addressing, illuminating, or challenging our shared knowledge, sociology prompts and encourages us to reassess our experience, to discover new possibilities, and to become in the end more open and less reconciled to the idea that learning about ourselves and each other has an end point, rather than being an exciting and dynamic process whose aim is to enhance an understanding of the human condition in the environments we inhabit. A distance from the realms of our particular experience cannot diminish the significance of sociological insight whose justifications cannot be based within the province of practical reason alone.

Thinking sociologically is a challenge whose process can render us more sensitive to and tolerant of difference and diversity. It sharpens our senses and opens our eyes to a relational horizon beyond our immediate experiences in order that we can explore and explain. Once we understand better how the apparently natural, inevitable, immutable, eternal aspects of our lives have been brought into being through the exercise of human power and resources, it becomes a power in its own right that opens up a world of possibilities. It widens the scope and practical effectiveness of our degrees of freedom and so has the potential to make us less subject to manipulation and even more resilient to times of oppression and control. As a mode of thinking it can enable us to become more effective social actors in seeing the connections between character, action, and context and how those things which, by their fixity, claim to be irresistible to change, are open to transformation.

There is also that which lies beyond us as individuals and requires us to stand back and enter into the realm of analysis. Whilst situated in networks of social relations, our work can take us into an extensive terrain of investigation that deals with movements and changes within societies as a whole through the generation and use of different forms of data. That is important, but not to the extent that matters of concern should then be dissipated in the exercise of dispassionate indifference. Sociology stands in praise of the individual, not individualism. To think sociologically means to understand more fully the values, hopes, desires, worries, and concerns of people. In this way, we may better recognize and respect different cultures and how people practice their lives according to particular values. To this extent it also has the potential to promote solidarity between us: that is, solidarity grounded in mutual understanding and respect and in a joint resistance to suffering and a shared condemnation of the cruelties that are its causes. Going back to what we were saying about the fluidity of that which appears inflexible, sociological insight into the inner logic and meaning of forms of life other than our own may well prompt us to think again about the boundaries that have been drawn between ourselves and others. We perhaps have more in common with each other than those forces which seek to separate us. Ultimately, if this is achieved, the cause of freedom will be greatly enhanced through being elevated to the rank of common cause.

To analyze and represent sociological findings can draw attention to the extent to which individual and collective freedoms are enabled and constrained. That has a destabilizing effect on existing power relations or what are called “social orders.” Charges of “political disloyalty,” or questions concerning its status as a discipline, are often made against sociology by corporations, governments, and power‐holders of the prevailing social order. This is very evident among those who seek to view reality in their name, or claim that an existing state of affairs is somehow natural. When we witness reactions of this type, it is often what has been revealed which is the subject of contention and sociology the means through which it has been brought into the public realm. It is here where its implications can be debated and actions decided upon, but this may also reveal the extent to which only certain voices are then heard.

Sociology can be a powerful instrument in the hands of organizations and its ideas may be drawn upon not for the furtherance of freedom, but control. No discipline can prevent this happening, but it can bring attention to its presence and effects. There is no guarantee that thinking sociologically can dissolve and disempower the “tough realities” of life for that is to over‐extend its practices into realms of deliberation and action that are rightly beyond its remit. Quite simply, the power of understanding may be no match for the forces of coercion or those who mobilize people through the rhetoric of blame of particular populations which provides apparently easy solutions to feelings of estrangement induced by prevailing political and economic conditions. Without that understanding, however, the collective management of shared life conditions would be diminished further. It is a way of thinking whose value is often cherished by those who cannot take it for granted and when it comes to those who can do so, it may easily be undervalued.

Thinking Sociologically: The Content

This book has been written with the aim of helping people to understand their experiences through and with others according to the above spirit. We seek to show how the apparently familiar can be interpreted in novel and different ways. Each chapter addresses issues that are part of our daily lives, or inform our lives, even if they may not be at the forefront of our everyday understandings. They concern ways of seeing and issues we routinely encounter, but may have little time or opportunity to reflect upon. Our aim is to prompt sociological thinking, not to “correct” knowledge. We seek to expand horizons of understanding, not to replace erroneous ideas of error with some unquestionable Truth. We hope to encourage a questioning attitude in which understanding others enables us better to understand ourselves with others in the world. To aid this process, we provide a section at the end of the book of studies which we have drawn upon to illuminate our journey, as well as those which will be helpful in continuing this path of sociological understanding.

The book is a sociological commentary on matters that directly inform our lives and experiences. It is divided into parts and chapters with that concern in mind. In this guide our narrative will not develop in a linear manner because there are some topics to which we shall return throughout the book. For instance, issues of social identity will appear in many different guises in the chapters, for this is how the effort of understanding works in practice. We will also consider care of the environment within which we live and how we are all dependent upon it for our futures and those who will come after us. After all, as we examine new topics, they will reveal new questions and so bring to light issues we had not previously considered. This, as we have said, is part of a process in which we gain better understandings – an exciting and rewarding task without end.

Part IAction and Understanding in Everyday Life

1Understanding Ourselves with and through Others

We can feel isolated, alone and seemingly unable to reach out. Yet we do not stand in simple isolation from one another. We can resent being constrained by circumstances over which we feel we have no control and also assert our freedom by refusing to conform to the expectations of others. We may express frustration at the absence of instantaneous entertainment on our mobile devices, or use time to read, digest, discuss, and reflect. We need the recognition of others, but if not forthcoming or offered in a manner expected, disappointment and resentment may result. Possessing conflicting feelings or exhibiting different actions depending on the circumstances is a common part of our experiences. The human condition appears to give rise to confusing states that lead to frustration, as well as imagination and creativity.

How our actions are seen, by us and others, are constituted in these relations. Actions, self, and social identities and understandings are intimately related. These factors are informed by prevailing ideas on what it is to be human. We are, for example, free to choose and act on those choices in order to reach our goals. You can get up now and make a cup of coffee, or get a glass of water, before continuing to read this chapter. You can also choose to abandon the project of thinking sociologically and embark upon another course of study, or abandon the idea of study altogether. For you to continue to read on is a choice among the alternative courses of action that are currently available to you. Your ability to make conscious decisions in this way is said to be an exercise of your freedom.

Freedom in Living with Others

We are surrounded by particular ideas of individuals and, from there, their actions, choices, and degrees of responsibility. Adverts of all types are targeted at aspirations linked to what one wants to be in the world linked to the possession of goods. Surrounded by these techniques of persuasion into which are poured enormous resources, can we say our choices are the product of conscious decisions that we formulate in a clear, rational manner, prior to the determination of any action? Many of our actions are habitual and not subject to deliberate and open choice. Despite that, we may be reminded that our decisions leave us responsible for their consequences. You can hear it now: “No one forced you to do so, you have only yourself to blame!” If we break rules that are meant to guide people's conduct we may be punished and those punishments can range from informal to formal sanctions: for example, breaking the norms of a group may lead to us being ridiculed or temporarily excluded, to having our liberty removed through incarceration in prison due to law‐breaking. The act of punishment is one confirmation that we are held responsible for our actions. Rules, in this sense, orientate not only our actions, but coordinate interactions with others enabling an anticipation of how we and they are likely to act. Without this orientation in place, communication and understanding in everyday life would seem inconceivable.

If we are the authors of our destinies we have the power to act in controlling our lives. We have both the ability to monitor our actions and the capability to determine their outcomes. Nevertheless, is this really how life works for most people? It might be claimed, for example, that being unemployed is entirely the fault of the individual concerned who, if they tried hard enough and acquired suitable knowledge and skills, could earn a living. People might retrain themselves and look for work, but the area in which they live has high unemployment and they cannot afford to move, or have relatives and friends for whom they care and so, despite actively seeking employment, there is none on offer or they have limited mobility due to dependents. There are many circumstances in which our freedom to act is limited by circumstances over which we have little or no control. It is one thing to have the ability to change or modify our skills and quite another to possess the capability to reach our goals. Let us consider this in more detail.

Take conditions of scarcity. These, as well as how we are judged by others, limit our capabilities. People might seek the same goals, but not all reach them because access to what they seek is limited. In this case we might compete with each other and the outcome may be only partially dependent on our efforts. We might seek a college place, only to find out that there are 20 candidates for every place available and that most of them have the qualifications required. In addition, the college may tend to favor candidates from certain social backgrounds and those with connections to those who have attended before. Our actions are dependent upon the judgments of others over whom we may exercise limited control, but also related to our social networks and how those enable and constrain our aspirations. Others set the rules of the game and act as the referees. They are positioned by their institutions to exercise discretion and, in so doing, draw a boundary around the freedoms of others. Factors such as these heavily influence the outcome of our efforts. In this case we become dependent on others because they evaluate whether our efforts are good enough and consider whether we exhibit the right characteristics and background to justify our admission.

Material factors inform our capability to reach our goals. Whilst self‐determination is important, what if we lack the means? We might be able to move to seek work in places where more jobs are available, only to discover that the cost of houses or of rents is far beyond our means. Similarly, we might wish to escape overcrowded and polluted conditions in order to move to a healthier location. However, we find those with more money have already done so and therefore it is not affordable, or they have created enclosures or live in high‐rise buildings to secure environments separate from their surroundings. In the process house prices increase, rents go up, and the job does not pay enough to obtain somewhere to live. We can say the same thing about education and health. Some areas have better equipped schools and hospitals, yet are too far away, whilst our society does not have a public, universal health‐care system and private health insurance is beyond our income. Thus, freedom of choice does not guarantee freedom to act on those choices, nor does it secure the freedom to attain our desired ends. To be able to act freely, we need more than an idea of free will.

Most commonly we think of being limited by the amount of money at our disposal, but we have also mentioned symbolic resources. In this case our freedom may not depend on what we do, but on who we are in terms of how others view and value us. We have used the example of a college, but we may also be refused entry to a club, or employment, because of the manner in which our qualities are judged: for example, on the grounds of class, race, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, or disability. Alternatively, access to the club may depend on past achievements – acquired skills, qualifications, length of service, the people who we know and will sponsor us, or the manner in which we have been brought up to speak and address people. These are the lasting consequences of past choices which, when they become sedimented in more durable social structures over time, have an effect on individual actions. Freedom to act in the present is thus informed by past circumstances, accumulated experiences, and the value accorded to those by others.

How we are positioned in these ways interacts with how we feel about and act in the social situations into which we enter. Let us return to our college example. We may find that a mode of speaking and particular accent is expected during the interview, but it is one with which we are unfamiliar. Coming from a working‐class background, we may feel uneasy among middle‐class students, or our sexual orientation is not judged to be “normal” and so we experience a sense of isolation and an absence of others seeing our choices as valid. Perhaps, being a Catholic who follows orthodoxy, we cannot accept divorce and abortion as the choices that others have a right to make.

Here we come to a possibility: those groups with whom we feel most at ease may actually limit our freedom by restricting the range of opinions we can hold. Informal and formal groups are often constituted by the expectations that they place upon their members and in so doing exclude those who are presumed not to live up to those requirements or ways of life. When these gaps in understanding occur between groups, they are frequently filled by stereotypical assumptions which are prejudicial and inaccurate, but enable a separation between “us” and “them.” The very fact that we may be adjusted to the conditions of action inside our group circumscribes our freedom by preventing us from engaging with experiences beyond the confines of that group. Having been trained in the ways of our groups, we practice a freedom whose price is to limit engagement with other ideas and practices.

We are both enabled and constrained in the everyday practices of freedom. At one level we are taught that there are types of desires that are acceptable and achievable within a group. Appropriate ways to act, talk, dress, and conduct ourselves provide an orientation to get us through life within the groups to which we belong. We judge ourselves according to those expectations and our self‐esteem is directly informed in these ways. Groups enable boundaries that orientate us through common interests and/or by proximity and these advantages may become problems as we traverse from one group to another and find ourselves in environments where different ways of being and forms of evaluation are promoted. Alternative ways of conducting ourselves may be seen as appropriate and the connections between other people's conduct and their intentions are not familiar to us and appear alien. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu referred to this gap as the “Don Quixote” effect: that is, between our dispositions and the social contexts in which we find ourselves.

One way in which we can gain a sense of the appropriateness of conduct is through our physical presence with others and hearing what they say and seeing how they act. However, if one is exposed to the reactions of online communities, there may be no way to see the actions of others over time and their utterances may be anonymous. As a result, their actions are not constrained by the consequences of being judged by those who are in physical proximity. As we move from one setting to another, whether in virtual or real space, the background understanding that allowed us to navigate and belong in one group can appear as a limitation. Where a disjuncture occurs between our expectations, experiences, and actions, it may be because of the unintended consequences of intentional actions. In other words, despite intentionally seeking one outcome, another arises because circumstances unfolded in a way we did not anticipate, or there were factors we did not know about and over which we had no control.

When it comes to the factors that inform our dispositions, or ways of being in the world, the reference groups to which we belong are not ones we have opted for out of free choice. Quite simply, we can be members of a group because we are born into it. The group that defines us and orients our actions may not be one that we have consciously chosen. When we first joined it or were seen by others to be a part of it, it was not an act of freedom, but a manifestation of dependence. We do not decide to be French, Caribbean, white, or working or middle class. Such apparent fate can be accepted with equanimity or resignation, or it can be transformed into our destiny through an enthusiastic embrace with the identity of the group and what it stands for – being proud of what we are and the expectations placed upon us as a result. If we want to transform ourselves, however, it will require a great deal of effort against the taken‐for‐granted expectations of those who surround us. Self‐sacrifice, determination, and endurance will take the place of conformity to the values and norms of the group. The contrast is one between swimming with the tide, or against the current. This is how, despite not always being conscious of it, we are dependent upon others: even though we may swim against the current, we still do so in a direction that is oriented or informed by the expectations or actions of those who lie both inside and outside of the familiar group. How we act and see ourselves is informed by the expectations of the groups to which we belong. This is manifested in several ways.

First, there are the ends