As an academic discipline, sociology is concerned with the problem of order. Its 19th century founders looked out of their study windows at the rapidly changing world around them and asked how humans could survive this chaos. Modern industry and science were being created. There was massive migration from the countryside to the city, and from one nation to another. Old political, religious and cultural certainties were disintegrating. Sociology was their way to understand what was happening. Social change has not come to a stop and sociology still makes an important contribution to analysing its consequences.
What does this mean in practical terms? Sociologists use a variety of methods to study how humans organize their relationships with each other, and with the natural and material world. These relationships do not exist until people work to create them. ‘Organization’ happens at all levels – from interactions between nations in a global society to interactions between individuals in conversations. The result is at least a temporary sense of stability, predictability and certainty that allows us to live our everyday lives.
Most of my career has been spent in research, which has taken me into many different settings – in medicine, law and science. However, these projects rest on a common foundation in questions about how people in those different contexts work together to produce a sense of order through their interactions with each other. These studies have helped to inform choices about whether the order that results from these interactions is a desirable one.
Like many sociologists of my generation, my original training emphasised critical approaches to social theory, inspired by Frankfurt Marxism and other European traditions. However, my research experiences made me uncomfortable with the idea that theorists had a privileged understanding of reality. Today, I am more inspired by the Scottish Enlightenment than the French version. For me, theory is a generalization from observation and experience rather than something that embodies a prior set of values. This places me closer to what is sometimes described as a ‘spontaneous order’ position, which focuses on understanding how social organization is made possible and is cautious about its authority to criticize this. Sociology is a way to inform everyone’s political, moral and ethical decisions rather than to declare that some are right and others are wrong.
(P.M. Strong and R. Dingwall) ‘Romantics and Stoics’. Pp. 49‑69 in Silverman, D. and Gubrium, J., eds., The Politics of Field Research, Sage, London, 1989.
‘Risk Society: the cult of theory and the millennium’, Social Policy and Administration 1999, 33; 4: 474‑91.
‘Language, Law and Power: ethnomethodology, conversation analysis and the politics of law and society studies’, Law and Social Inquiry 2000, 25; 3: 885‑911.