Sociology: challenging common sense

One simple way to view sociology is that it often challenges common sense understandings of the world:

We talk a lot about common sense; as if that’s a good thing. I remember my uncle describing a guy once by saying that he was smart as a whip but didn’t have a lick of common sense. So it has always been something held up as a good thing. The problem is that common sense is sometimes wrong too. In my sociology classes each semester, we take ten common sense statements and prove their error through research, rather than just assuming they’re correct because they sound right.

A few quick thoughts about common sense.

1. Common sense is often cultural. In other words, different cultures have different default or common understanding about how the world works.

2. Common sense is often learned through socialization. Sometimes this happens explicitly, such as when parents talk to a child, but other times it happens through observation. Kids have to learn about common sense and has to know how society “typically” works.

3. Sociology courses are a good place to discuss common sense because we tend to talk about topics that people haven’t thought through before. Why do people live where they do? Why do some occupations get paid more than others? What is behind going to college? Why do we attach certain ideas or statuses to particular objects, like a house or an Apple laptop? Sociology often “pulls the curtain back” on social life, exposing what is really influencing our actions and group behavior.

4. This is not to say common sense is necessarily wrong. But the issue is that many people do not have the time or take the effort to evaluate common sense. College is a good place to learn how to evaluable common sense through critical thinking, reading, and writing.

5. Challenging common sense is not an easy task. We like our typical explanations for how things work. Even when confronted with better evidence, we tend to stick with our accepted ways of thinking. You see this all the time in the political realm: the ideological commitments of each side can trump evaluating the facts.

6. Common sense is a typical foil for much academic work. Here is a typical academic argument: “the accepted wisdom is X but we have research that shows it actually is more like Y.” Or, “there is a typical explanation for this phenomena but we think the real world is more complex or is more nuanced.”

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