What use is sociology?

As he moves into his nineties, the work of Zygmunt Bauman remains as prescient as ever. Bauman’s long view on societal shifts in late (or, as he prefers, liquid) modernity has always merited close attention. The succession of slim volumes of edited interviews and conversations with Bauman – such as the recent ‘What Use is Sociology?’ – offer a valuable look over what social scientists should be doing and how they could be doing it. There is much, therefore, that can be taken from Bauman’s writing with regards to our current study of schools in the digital age:



#1. Digital education as human experience

One of the central themes of What Use Is Sociology? is approaching sociology as ‘a conversation with human experience’ (p.8). This certainly makes a good credo for our investigations of schools and technology. It can be easy to lose sight of the fact that digital technology is something that is as human as it is technical. When we talk about digital technology we are often referring to the activities and practices that people do in tandem with technology. We are, therefore, often talking about people’s feelings and emotions, their (dis)pleasures and (in)sensitivities. People are not simply neutral variables in any instance of digital technology use. Instead, digital technology is clearly something experienced within distinct human contexts and with distinct human consequences.


Any investigation of the digital school is therefore an investigation of the human experience of digital technology use – people’s practices and perceptions. The ‘public issues’ of digital education (e.g. technology’s links to digital capitalism, new managerialism or neo-liberal reform of public services) must be exposed and explored at the same time as individually experienced ‘private troubles’. As Bauman puts it, this necessitates:

“close observation of human conduct, empathy with actors’ experience, scrutiny of the options their situation allows or does not allow them to take, collating and juxtaposing their perception of the situation as manifested in their choices with what is known of the circumstance determining (or more correctly enhancing or diminishing the probability of) their choices” (p.69).



#2. Remain mindful of sociological hermeneutics

As this mention of ‘situation’ and ‘circumstance’ implies, sociological inquiry is concerned implicitly with the social structures that shape and constrain human experience. This has been the case from Karl Marx’s description of “men making their own history, but not making it as they please” through to Anthony Giddens’ discussions of structuration and reflexivity. Bauman frames such issues in terms of ‘sociological hermeneutics’ – i.e. “the interpretation of human choices as manifestations of strategies constructed in response to the challenges of the socially shaped situation and where one has been placed in it” (p.50-51). This moves any investigation beyond simply documenting the human thoughts and actions that coalesce around digital technology within a school. Instead, it compels us to also consider questions of how these thoughts and actions came to be. As Bauman puts it, this involves investigation of “the socially shaped conditions of people whose thoughts or actions we intend to understand/explain” (p.52).


As such, making full sense of individuals’ responses to digital technologies requires a good understanding of social context. So what are the social contexts of technology use in contemporary schools? One obvious set of contextual influences relates to the organizational structures of the individual schools in our research – from the timetabling and scheduling to the enactment of various policies such as the national curriculum. Other broader contexts relate to social class, race, ethnicity and gender; the subtle ways that neighborhoods bump up against schools; the religious ethos or other philosophies that schools adopt (e.g. as ‘sports school’ or a ‘caring community’). As Bill Gates should have put it, ‘Context Is King’ when it comes to making sense of digital technology.


Bauman reminds us that all these conditions will have a strong bearing on “set[ting] apart moves that are feasible from those that are not, and the more probable from the less probable. But it never eliminates choice altogether” (p.51). As this last sentence implies, we should not see these structured social processes wholly in restrictive, punitive and dominating terms. Instead, we need “to grasp social processes in their dialectics and dynamics (instead of representing them as a concatenation of the power pressures currently in the limelight)” (p.19).



#3. Make the familiar strange … and the strange familiar

What Use Is Sociology? also includes useful reminders of the classic fieldwork mantra to “make the familiar strange”. This is clearly appropriate advice for anyone conducting ethnography in schools – settings that most researchers will have spent many of their formative years within. Bauman therefore reiterates the need to defamiliarize what might appear to be familiar aspects of the school research site – “debunking its alleged self-evidence” (p.98).


This said, social researchers will often need to also strive for the opposite effect – i.e. to make the strange familiar. This is certainly the case when encountering exotic technologies and digital practice. During the course of our research it is likely that we will run up against teachers who are running augmented reality apps in their classrooms, or students who are engaged furiously in the latest social media sensation (such as YikYak). Our responses here should not be to either presume these to be gimmicky or superficial activities, or else to be in awe of the ‘coolness’ of it all. Instead, we need to quickly come to terms with unfamiliar ‘new’ technologies and learn to live with them as the people we are observing have done. Bauman frames this as ‘familiarizing the unfamiliar” – i.e. “taming, domesticating, making manageable” (p.98) what would otherwise be well outside of our own experiences. Moving past the ‘shock of the new’ will be a regular feature of our time in schools.



#4. Don’t look for definitive answers … but do try to think otherwise.

For Bauman, sociological inquiry seeks to produce detailed, deep, thick and rich description that addresses the central question: “how has this world come about?” (p.122). Sociological inquiry therefore tasks itself with pointing to the complexity of things rather than reaching over-simplified ‘answers’ and ‘solutions’. The sociologist is keenly aware that there is no one definitive explanation, only different perspectives and truths. This is intended to be an exercise in polytheism (truths) as opposed to monotheism (truth).


That said, sociological study is usually driven by an unease and dis-satisfaction with how things are. Bauman reminds us that sociology should be “a critical activity” (p.26), seeking to problematize what is taken for granted and to expose power differentials, injustices and inequalities. This is not an exercise in defeatism. Underpinning any critical account, Bauman reasons, should be a “yearning for further improvement” (p.26). Our own investigations therefore need to be directed towards the need for (and hope of) change. It makes sense to follow up the basic question of “how has this world come about?” with the supplementary question “… and what could this world become?”. Given the state of flux many aspects of contemporary society are in, the need for critical research to involve itself in the question of ‘where do we go from here?’ is essential. There is little value in only pointing out that things are clearly not as good as they should be. As Bauman concludes:

“We find ourselves at present in a time of ‘interregnum’: a state in which the old ways of doing things no longer work and the old learned and inherited modes of life are no longer suitable to the present-day conditio humana, but the new ways of tackling the challenges and the new modes of life more suitable for the new conditions have not as yet been invented, put into place and set in motion. We don’t know yet which of the extant forms and settings will need to be ‘liquidized’ and replaced, though none seems to be immune to criticism and every one or almost every one has been earmarked for replacement at one time or another” (p.89).




Bauman, Z. (2014)   What use is sociology? [interviews with: Jacobsen, M. and Tester, K.] Cambridge, Polity