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Just before I was born, Peter Berger in his Invitation to Sociology lamented that, ‘There are very few jokes about sociologists. This is annoying… but it may also be instructive. The dearth of jokes about sociologists indicates ... that there is a certain ambiguity in the images that people have of them...’ (1963, p.2).

I am now inclined – having studied, taught and researched in this discipline for well over 30 years – to think that Berger was wrong. There are far too many jokes about sociologists. I’ve heard most of them. Some of my favourites include those pertaining to spoof definitions of the discipline. For example, ‘Sociology is the study of people who do not need to be studied, by people who do’ (cited in Meighan 1981). Or, more recently,

‘Sociology is a cult based around the intellectual pseudoscience of studying society. Originally popular with old bearded men who smoke pipes whilst reclining in arm-chairs, it has now managed to find a younger generation of converts thanks to its introduction into colleges and universities. Synonymous with Scientology, Sociology uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop and refine a body of knowledge and theory about human social activity…’ (Uncyclopedia 2013)

In one respect, at least, Berger (1963) was correct: there remains considerable ambiguity in the public understanding of sociology. What is sociology? How is society studied by sociologists? What, if anything, is the utility of the discipline? Big questions. Indeed, this status ambiguity also pervades the academic community within higher education more generally, especially among those researchers inclined to view themselves as natural scientists (correctly speaking, of course, researchers engaged in a social enterprise labelled ‘natural science’).   

Berger’s (1963, p.25) answer to these questions was to advocate sociology as ‘a form of consciousness’ promoting a critical understanding of the relationship between individual biography, institutions and society. Hence sociology is a humanistic discipline, similar to philosophy or history, capable of: debunking common sense; looking behind the social construction of reality; and discovering human meanings and values to explain society in a non-prejudiced manner. Berger also cautioned sociologists against ‘humorless scientism’ since the dominance of a ‘foolproof methodology’ in the discipline would ‘lose the world of phenomena that it originally set out to explore’ (1963, p. 165).

Now, this is an intentionally humorous, polite and, unfortunately, benign definition and vision of sociology. At one time I would have agreed. However, years of teaching and research in Cambridge have persuaded me otherwise (Kettley 2007, 2012). So what would my preferred definition and re-invitation to sociology look like?

Negative definitions are generally to be avoided in academic work. In this case, however, I will make an exception. Let’s start by saying what sociology is not and then proceed to my preferred definition. Most definitions of sociology, qua Berger (1963), deploy antimonies or dichotomies to characterise sociology, its method and its utility. For example, sociology is either the scientific study of society, using a statistical method, to produce generalisations about behaviour which facilitate prediction and/or social engineering. Or, alternatively, sociology is the study of individual meanings and motivations, analysed through qualitative and narrative techniques, focused on understanding the social construction of reality to ‘give voice’ to disadvantaged people (Kettley 2012, p. 64).

These opposing definitions of sociology, problematically, trot out tired dichotomies in social science such as the supposed distinctions between: society and the individual; natural and social science; the quantitative and qualitative; pattern identification and causation; and social control and individual agency. In these cases, defining sociology, including its methods and utility, becomes a self-indulgent debate about the possibility of doing social science, given our subject matter is human creativity and freedom, rather than the production of powerful explanations of patterned behaviour – the social in sociology – and their underlying causes. (Kettley 2012, p. 38).

This conflation of the possibility of doing sociology with the study of the genuine causes of social behaviour has been labelled the ‘social scientific fallacy’ (Holwood and Stewart 1991, p. 42). If we accept such epistemological anxiety about the definition of sociology, its method and its utility, furthermore, there is little wonder that: 1) there is continued public and academic confusion and scepticism about the discipline; and 2) there has been a proliferation of jokes about sociologists, contrary to Berger’s (1963) wisdom, because sociologists have confused their scholarly activity with the object of their inquiry (patterns of social behaviour and their underlying causes).

Drawing on researchers such as Stewart, Prandy and Blackburn (1980) and Holmwood and Stewart (1991), the so-called Cambridge school, I prefer a definition of sociology that foregrounds the unity of various strands of the discipline (Kettley 2012). Sociology can only make sense of its object of inquiry – the underlying causes of patterned social behaviour – when we reject antinomies and synthesise competing traditions.

In this approach, sociology is the empirical investigation of patterned social behaviour, including deviations from such patterns, which tries to provide powerful explanations of the underlying causes of these patterns (and variations in them spatially and temporally). It is unproductive logic and labour to think of the object of sociological inquiry as either individual behaviour or society. Rather society is a relational construction – it is patterns and structures reproduced and transformed through human interaction – and the object of our empirical inquiry is precisely these relationships (not individuals or society).

It follows, logically, that sociology requires both an effective social psychology – to understand the motives behind individual behaviour – and an effective statistical method to explore how patterns of, for example, inequality come into being, are reproduced and occasionally transformed (Mennell 1980). Therefore, the method of sociology is both qualitative and quantitative, science and art, given its empirical study of the underlying causes of patterned behaviour. The discipline requires a mixed methodology. It makes no sense, moreover, to dichotomise the natural and social sciences, despite their varied objects of inquiry, for natural science is a social enterprise as fallible as any social science (Kettley 2012, p. 77). Nor does the natural world exist somehow independent of human relations to it.

Finally, not only is sociology an enterprise based on synthesising various intellectual traditions, but it also has utility. Sociology is a progressive discipline, it possesses a metamorphic capacity, for once the patterns of social relationships have been established and their underlying causes discovered it is possible to advocate social interventions and policies to change them. For example, much of my own research examines gender and social class inequalities in educational attainment and in access to higher education, and seeks to improve the educational experiences and outcomes of disadvantaged groups through curriculum innovation and changed education policy (Kettley 2007). A sociology based on the synthesis of intellectual traditions has utility for changing social life for the better. In an age of austerity and, for example, growing income inequality this is no joke and, unlike Berger (1963), I would invite or, perhaps, re-invite you to sociology not as a form of consciousness raising, but as a progressive intellectual and social force seeking to promote social justice (Dorling 2012). 
If, like me, you are interested in competing methodological and theoretical traditions in sociology and the study of social differences and inequalities, the Institute offers a range of courses from non-accredited, open access programmes to full Master of Studies (MSt) degrees. In addition, the Institute is now offering an accredited Undergraduate Certificate in Social Sciences which provides a disciplinary-based introduction to Sociology, Politics and Psychology. The Institute also provides a Master of Studies in Advanced Subject Teaching which allows English and History teachers to update their subject-specialist knowledge, undertake classroom research and complete a dissertation. You are cordially invited.

Dr Nigel Kettley, University Senior Lecturer and ICE Academic Director in Education and Social Science


Berger, P L (1963) Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective. New York: Doubleday.

Dorling, D (2012) Fair Pay. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Holmwood, J and Stewart, A (1991) Explanation and Social Theory. London: Macmillan.

Kettley, N (2007) Educational Attainment and Society. London: Continuum.

Kettley, N (2012) Theory Building in Educational Research. London: Continuum.

Meighan, R (1981) A Sociology of Educating. London: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Mennell, S (1980) Sociological Theory: Uses and Unities (2nd edn). Walton-on-Thames: Nelson.

Stewart, A, Prandy, K and Blackburn, R M (1980) Social Stratification and Occupations. London: Macmillam.

Uncyclopedia (2013) Sociology. (accessed 03.04.14)

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