Sunday, 31 July 2011

Sociology and Common Sense


Sociology is criticized for being merely common sense and stating the obvious but in more detail than what we already know. Read and be informed…



Sociology and other social sciences focus on the study of certain aspects of human behavior. Yet human behavior is something with which we all have experience and about which we have at least a bit of knowledge. In our daily lives, we rely on common sense to get us through many unfamiliar situations. However, this knowledge while sometimes accurate is not always reliable because it rests on commonly held beliefs rather than systematic analysis of facts.

 Common sense is knowledge and awareness that is held communally (shared by majority of people). It does not depend on specialist education and in some respects states the obvious. Sociology is study of society and of people and their behavior. Positivists claim that it produces scientific knowledge.

Many people argue that sociology merely state the obvious by reporting what common sense already tells us. In other words, sociology is criticized for being merely common sense and stating the obvious but in more detail than what we already know. Many sociologists have responded that common sense is wrong and obvious truths are not so obvious.


Common sense ideas and explanations represent a form of social perspective since they claim to represent the things that everyone knows about the social world and / or human behavior. These ideas are not necessarily incorrect but they seem to be different from sociological forms of knowledge.

Differences between sociology and common sense:

1. Common sense views are based on people’s immediate and often limited experiences. This leads to a distorted view of reality. Hence common sense knowledge is statement of the obvious which is simply based of assumption.
Sociological views are based on rigorous research and therefore evidence based. This can either be based on large scale quantitative research or in-depth qualitative research. Sociology knowledge is, therefore, the product of theory development and testing.

2. Common sense views tend to reflect social traditions and conventions and therefore tend to reinforce the status quo and resist social change.
Conflict approaches in sociology raise serious questions about the status quo and call for social change.

3. Common sense views tend to be historically and culturally specific and are often based on stereotypical images.
Interactionist / social action theories recognize that social life is socially constructed and relative to time and place. It actively challenges stereotypes.

4.  Common sense views lack validity and reliability.
Sociological knowledge has relatively greater reliability and validity. Sociological views based on quantitative data are high in reliability and those based on qualitative data are high in validity.


Whether sociological knowledge is superior to common sense forms is a matter of debate. Some postmodernists would claim that sociological knowledge is not superior to common sense knowledge. This is because they claim that there is no such thing as the truth and therefore all knowledge is uncertain. Sociologists of course stand up for sociology over common sense. Sociology is more important than common sense as it is evidence based and challenges common sense views of the world and enhances human life and freedom. Giddens claims that sociological knowledge often becomes common sense knowledge.

 Most sociologists describe common sense in very negative terms. They see it as biased, subjective and incomplete.  Common sense is shown to be not only wrong but also contradictory. E.g. out of sight out of mind and absence makes the heart grow fonder. But there are also many cases in sociological writings where beliefs long held as factual have proven to be wrong or unsubstantiated. On most important issues in sociology there are two or more theories and statements often contradicting each other.

Common sense – knowledge and understanding of social life – must be correct some of the time otherwise people who are not sociologists could not survive. Some people possess more valid and empirical knowledge than others and this knowledge is indispensable for social life. As sociology becomes a profession, practitioners have more time to study individuals, groups and societies thereby having more advantages over most other people. However, there are instances where people have profound understanding of the social world gained through careful, repeated and varying observations of the world. Common sense is often wrong but that does not prove that all common sense wrong.

Like other social scientists, sociologists do not accept something as fact because ‘everyone knows it’. Instead, each piece of information must be tested and recorded, then analyzed in relationship to other data. However, this method is also partial and limited.

Sometimes sociological findings confirm the common sense view; sometimes they do not. The only way to test common sense assumptions about society is to do it scientifically.  Sociology relies on scientific studies in order to describe and understand a social environment. At times, the findings of sociologists may seem like common sense because they deal with facets of everyday life.

This does not mean that there is no place for intuition or common sense in sociology. These approaches are rich sources of insights. But they can provide only hunches. The hunch must be tested by the methods of science.

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