Chat with us, powered by LiveChat What types of reactions or thoughts did the content stimulate? What were your first thoughts on the section titled Critical Rationalism?? 3)Were there any holes or gaps in the conten | Wridemy

What types of reactions or thoughts did the content stimulate? What were your first thoughts on the section titled Critical Rationalism?? 3)Were there any holes or gaps in the conten

Using the article attached answer each questions separately 

1) What types of reactions or thoughts did the content stimulate?

2)What were your first thoughts on the section titled “Critical Rationalism”?

3)Were there any holes or gaps in the content that were left unaddressed?

4)How does the content provided relate to what you already know or have learned in previous coursework?

5)What were your thoughts on the ideology of vocabulary, primarily in relation to etic and emic study?

6)Do you believe that educational programs in the field of sociology should incorporate study in social policy and vice versa?

7)What, if any, new knowledge or understanding of prior knowledge did you obtain from the reading that may influence your own sociological practice?

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Sociology 2016, Vol. 50(5) 993 –1001

© The Author(s) 2016 Reprints and permissions: DOI: 10.1177/0038038516649586

Ref lections on the Relation Between Sociology and Social Policy

Michael Banton Downe, UK

Abstract The study of social policy is sometimes separated from the study of sociology on grounds of convenience. The two disciplines can be differentiated on intellectual grounds if a distinction is drawn between practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge. The study of social policy centres upon the development and application of practical knowledge, in which ordinary language is employed. The study of sociology centres upon the pursuit of theoretical knowledge, and this requires the development of a technical language.

Keywords critical rationalism, emic/etic, explanation, ordinary language, social policy, sociology

In A History of Sociology in Britain (2004), AH Halsey declared that in 1967, after 25 years of unprecedented expansion, sociology faced the future in good heart. Tensions had emerged between theory and empirical research stemming from ‘the original struggle between two definitions of sociology – the scientific search for explanation and the liter- ary effort towards interpretation’ (Halsey, 2004: 186). Social policy had become ‘a dis- tinct discipline’ (Halsey, 2004: 196). No one had contributed more to these achievements than Halsey himself. Both disciplines are indebted to him.

On what grounds can the study of social policy be considered a discipline distinct from sociology? Fairly obviously, at least in Britain, there are grounds of convenience, in the organisation of university teaching and research administration. The Economic and Social Research Council (2016) distinguishes them in these terms:

Corresponding author: Michael Banton, Fairways, Luxted Road, Downe, Orpington BR6 7JT, UK. Email: [email protected]

649586 SOC0010.1177/0038038516649586SociologyBanton research-article2016

Reflexive Essay

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Sociology involves groups of people, rather than individuals, and attempts to understand the way people relate to each other and function as a society or social sub-groups.

Social Policy is an interdisciplinary and applied subject concerned with the analysis of societies’ responses to social need, focusing on aspects of society, economy and policy that are necessary to human existence, and how these can be provided.

The overlap between the two disciplines is recognised. For example, when describing its work in 2006, the British Sociological Association’s Social and Public Policy study group listed first:

How we might understand, using sociological theories and perspectives, the processes by, and contexts within which, social/public policy is generated, implemented and ‘received’. (British Sociological Association, 2006)

The British Academy, representing and promoting the interests of the humanities and social sciences in the UK and internationally, convenes six social science section com- mittees. Social policy is not separately recognised.

The reflections that follow outline an intellectual case, not one of convenience, for recognising sociology and social policy as distinct disciplines. They are inspired by a particular philosophy of science.

Critical Rationalism

In the 1940s, Karl Popper (1966: ii, 231) developed a perspective that he named critical rationalism. In the social sciences, this philosophy sees the growth of scientific knowl- edge as starting from attempts to solve intellectual problems. Its focus is on the ways by which problems are explained. The lessons learned are added to existing knowledge in a process of cumulation that in turn generates new problems. Popper did not explore the ways in which improved explanation may depend upon the elaboration of a specialised language. Nor have critical rationalist studies paid sufficient attention to the sources of the hypotheses that are selected for testing. Any appreciation of how knowledge grows has to start with problem selection.

Max Weber’s methodological work can be seen as pioneering the same perspective. He maintained that while ‘it is the investigator and the prevailing ideas of the time that determine what becomes the object of investigation’ (2004: 383), once that decision has been taken, the investigator’s priority must be the ‘need for conceptually ordering empir- ical reality in such a manner as to lay claim to validity as experiential truth’ (2004: 365). This need is for a form of proof that would be acceptable to a Chinese. This was Weber’s way of declaring that sociological conclusions must be formulated in a manner free from cultural assumptions, whether of geographical or historical origin. The individual soci- ologist was responsible for eliminating such forms of bias.

Teaching in the social sciences sometimes reflects the first part of Weber’s doctrine, in that a teacher may discuss the research findings that he or she considers most relevant to the political priorities of the day. With respect to the second part, a teacher may con- centrate upon the findings of the research that, in his or her view, contributes most to the

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student’s education as a social scientist. Some students learn lessons about research in their undergraduate years that they carry with them into subsequent careers as research- ers and teachers. Their view of their discipline influences their selection of problems to investigate.

The Two Disciplines

Sociology and social policy address different kinds of problem and they seek different kinds of knowledge. Sociology aims to account for observations about social practices and relations; because it seeks new knowledge in the form of better explanations, it often has to find improved or new concepts.1 Work in social policy seeks practical knowledge useful to the improvement of existing practice. The distinction between the two fields is not invalidated by the recognition that some researchers have worked on both sides of the dividing line.2

In the study of social policy, research reports for the most part employ ordinary lan- guage, whereas sociology, if it is to account for observations of high generality, has to discover and employ culture-free concepts. The distinction between the two disciplines is therefore in significant part a conceptual distinction, not one that can justify claims to intellectual territory. As is generally recognised, research reports may develop sociologi- cal theory in the course of explaining observations that have practical significance. For example, when Durkheim set out to explain variations in the suicide rate, he gave his book the subtitle A Study in Sociology (1962) because he was presenting a case for soci- ology as a distinct discipline; he had to introduce some new concepts (like anomie) to account for the regularities he had uncovered. At the same time, his book demonstrated that the new theory had valuable applications.

Studies in social policy address circumstances in particular countries. They focus on state institutions and the possibilities of improving their operation. If they are compara- tive, the comparison is employed to draw conclusions that could be applied in particular states. Studies in social policy seek to build practical knowledge and aim to present it in terms that will be understood by those who might learn from them.

It is relatively easy to find a research problem in the field of public policy. The mass media highlight such problems every day. Necessarily, they describe them in ordinary language. Words such as anti-Semitism, ethnicity, homophobia, Islamophobia, multicul- turalism and racism are currently essential to political discussion in the English lan- guage. In ordinary language, the meanings of words are decided by their daily use in many different kinds of situation and in changing circumstances. The words used may therefore have many different shades of meaning. To discover which usage is considered correct or appropriate to the circumstances, the inquirer consults a dictionary.

Teaching and research in social policy has to rely on ordinary language conceptualisa- tions because its product is addressed to those who might vote in favour of its recom- mendations or have to implement them. The case studies in the book The Blunders of our Governments, by two political scientists (King and Crewe, 2013), provide striking exam- ples of the deficiencies in the knowledge of politicians and administrators about the problems that were created as a result of the policy changes they introduced, and the obstacles to better utilisation of public knowledge.

996 Sociology 50(5)

Problem-finding in Sociology

The hold that ordinary language conceptions have upon thought is one of the reasons why it is usually more difficult to find a good research problem in sociology. The formu- lation of such a problem may demand fundamental criticism of ordinary language words and their replacement by words that have places in a technical vocabulary. In a technical language, the meanings of words are also decided by their use, but that use is strictly controlled. In experimental research, the attempt to check someone else’s findings depends upon replicating a procedure previously used, and upon employing standard definitions. The best definition of a concept is the one that proves to have the greatest explanatory power. Language in the world of theory, whether experimental or not, strives to be context-free, to be addressed to whom it may concern.

Advances in knowledge about such matters often depend upon new uses of existing words, and sometimes upon the invention of new words. Innovations of this kind have met resistance. Thus, the second edition of Modern English Usage (Gowers, 1965: 569– 570) introduced a new entry on Sociologese. This contended that:

Sociology is a new science concerning itself not with esoteric matters outside the comprehension of the layman, as the older sciences do, but with the ordinary affairs of ordinary people. This seems to engender in those who write about it a feeling that the lack of any abstruseness demands a compensatory abstruseness in their language.

It quoted passages from sociological writing about industrial relations, class differ- ences in speech, and family life. The editor of the revised third edition considers that Gowers’ examples are ‘worth preserving’. He might have noted that much of what earlier was described as sociologese has since passed into ordinary language usage. It has been remarked that ‘a considerable part of Sociology consists of clean- ing up the language in which common people talk of social and moral problems’ (Hughes and Hughes, 1952: 131), but it goes further than that. New words may be needed to introduce new knowledge, and those words may not remain novel. Words and expressions such as electoral swing, inflation, moral panic, presentation of self, role model, socio-economic status, etc., are now part of ordinary language in the English-speaking world.3

Halsey’s History of Sociology in Britain focused on institutional expansion. From the perspective of critical rationalism, this approach needs to be complemented by study of the ways in which institutions cultivate the growth of knowledge and how successful they are in doing so. Academic life is organised to reward researchers for original contri- butions, such that, after the researcher’s findings have been made known, the stock of knowledge is greater; in some perhaps tiny but maybe important measure, it is greater than it was before. Universities also reward students for demonstrating an understanding of how knowledge can be won. Sociologists may remember the observation of one of their founding figures, that ‘If there is such a science as sociology, it can only be the study of a world hitherto unknown’ (Durkheim, 1962: 310), but they also know that the focus on publication responds to career structures as well as to academic vocations, and that new knowledge is not always appreciated.

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Future authors could well examine particular fields within sociology. They could inquire into what was known at an earlier time, such as at the first meeting of the Sociological Society in 1904, or at the foundation of the BSA in 1951. What was then known about, for example, the organisation of industry, deviant behaviour, the social significance of the biological differences that were then identified as those of race and sex? The list continues: social stratification, the practice of religion, of education, mass communication, sport, and many more specialisms. Studies of their intellectual history could identify ways in which good problems have been found. Only rarely are these properly presented in textbooks.

The criticism of sociologese started with a complaint about use of the expression ‘relatively unstructured conversational interaction’ in the study of industrial relations. A review of the growth of knowledge in this field might well highlight the advance that was embodied in Roethlisberger and Dickson’s Management and the Worker of 1939. It showed how a distinction between formal and informal organisation helped explain a lot about conversational interaction in industrial settings. It did not consider how the formal organisation was affected by technological innovation and the resulting change in the market for the products in question.

The next step depended on the exercise of sociological imagination. Tom Burns has described his puzzlement when, interviewing managers in the new electronics industry, he found a discrepancy between their conceptions of their jobs and the evidence about how they actually spent their time. Generalising about this, he concluded that ‘sociology seems at any one time to be pursuing not so much the right kind of knowledge as the right kinds of question … questions do not suggest themselves … They arise from doubt’ (Burns, 1995: 167–170). In this case, they arose from his doubt about whether what the managers regarded as an abnormal departure from the pattern of activities as they should be, was not in fact a predictable response to new conditions.

Burns’ recognition of a discrepancy between the prevailing model of formal organisa- tion and the results from his examination of actual practice reminded him of Durkheim’s distinction between the mechanical and the organic division of labour. Reporting on The Management of Innovation, he and his colleague described mechanistic and organic styles of management as associated with two kinds of production, an old style adapted to a stable market and a new one that had to respond to continuous technological change. His experience illustrated the way that analogy with existing explanations can stimulate the discovery of new explanations.

Sociological inquiry need not be tied to traditional institutions. One field within social policy took its orientation from the criminal justice system. Its focus was displayed in the title of the British Journal of Delinquency, published from 1950. In 1960, it became the British Journal of Criminology. When, later, a new generation took up the study of devi- ance, comprehending all forms of deviance and not just those defined as criminal, they created a new body of sociological knowledge.4

In its day, the best of sociology textbooks was Kingsley Davis’ Human Society. In it, he criticised the assumption that the differences in the behaviour ascribed to men and women sprang from biological differences (Davis, 1948: 99). He went no further. Sociological knowledge about the nature of these differences was transformed once they

998 Sociology 50(5)

were represented as differences of gender. Another new body of distinctively sociologi- cal knowledge was established.

The study of social stratification came alive in a new way when Davis, together with Moore, maintained that it was an unconsciously evolved device by which societies insure that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons. The political implications of such a thesis brought it intense critical attention. An intel- lectual history of the subsequent growth in empirical knowledge about stratification in industrial societies might document how differences of socio-economic status and social mobility came to be identified, measured, related to other social institutions, publicised, and later passed into public knowledge. Similarly, in some of the other specialised fields mentioned, historical studies might throw new light upon the ways in which sociologists have discovered theoretically rewarding research problems.

Practical and Theoretical Vocabulary

Knowledge can cumulate more effectively when it can draw upon a specialised vocabu- lary. Some authors have discussed the difference between the two kinds of language, or vocabulary, as a contrast between folk and analytical concepts. A simpler distinction is that drawn by American anthropologists between emic and etic constructs. An everyday example of the difference is that when a patient goes to a doctor for treatment, he or she reports his or her symptoms in ordinary language using emic constructs. The doctor makes a diagnosis, drawing upon technical knowledge expressed in etic constructs. In one formulation, emic constructs are accounts expressed in categories meaningful to members of the community under study, whereas etic constructs are accounts expressed in categories meaningful to the community of scientific observers (Lett, 1996). The con- structs in the technical language may be called concepts, recognising the distinction in logic between denotation and connotation. Ordinary language constructs denote things listed in the dictionary; in addition, many of them have further associations for individu- als, varying from one person to another. This makes them multi-vocal. It can be useful to distinguish concepts from ordinary language constructs because concepts have connota- tions for specialists that are lacking in ordinary language usage. They provide founda- tions for theories.

The difference between constructs and concepts arises because they serve different ends. Ordinary language facilitates the business of everyday life and the accumulation of practical knowledge expressed in emic constructs. Technical language makes possible the accumulation of theoretical knowledge expressed in propositions using etic con- structs, or concepts. This parallels the distinction between applied science and pure sci- ence. It is a reformulation of Popper’s (1957: 26–34) distinction between essentialism and nominalism. The constructs of ordinary language have to be multi-vocal, but improved explanation demands use of univocal constructs, corresponding to methodo- logical nominalism. The multi-vocal character of ordinary language words means that any definition is likely to search for something essential to all the meanings. In everyday usage this does not matter, but any attempt to formulate a theoretical proposition that does not isolate a singular meaning will generate confusion.5

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The proposed distinction between sociology and social policy is the more useful because it recognises that, in seeking to cumulate knowledge, sociology has continuously to restrict its vision, concentrating on improved explanation. The distinction therefore embodies an intel- lectual criterion for assessing work and trends within sociology as a discipline. Knowledge about social policy has to be more diverse and cumulation is not so high a priority.

From the standpoint of critical rationalism, if sociological teaching starts from the discussion of concepts it is back-to-front. Knowledge grows more rapidly if the sociolo- gist first identifies a puzzling observation and then seeks the best explanation. This entails a differentiation of the explanandum, the things to be explained, and the explan- ans, that which explains the explanandum. To start with a discussion of the concept is to stay within ordinary language and its explanans, instead of starting from the explanan- dum and assessing the value of alternative explanations.

If one explanation is alternative to another, it should be possible to express each alter- native as series of propositions, so as to bring out the assumptions on which each rests and the precise nature of the differences between them. One merit of a legal education is that it obliges students to learn the arguments for and against particular propositions so that they can speak for either side in a dispute. This encourages a focus on reasoning and on alternative modes of utilising evidence. Students of social policy may be taught along these lines because they may, one day, have to propose a particular measure and will need to be aware of the contrary arguments with which they will have to contend. Students of sociology seem not to be taught in this way. Instead, much attention is paid to the thought of particular theorists.

If one explanation is confronted with another, it may be possible to show that one of them is wrong. This can be instructive. Indeed, Popper (1969: ix) contended that ‘all our knowledge grows only through the correcting of our mistakes’. The formal expression of an argument (which in some fields is improved by expression in mathematical terms) promotes clarity in the evaluation of argument.

Confrontation of alternative explanations can take the form of a debate. In this event, there may be a sequence starting from a motion, or proposition, advanced by its propo- nent, the challenge of a contrary argument, and a general discussion ending in a vote. What passes as ‘debate’ in current sociology is often the rehearsal of competing opinions between persons who do not engage with one another’s reasoning or use of evidence.6


Discussion of the differences, in research and teaching, between sociology and social policy as distinct disciplines, draws attention to the distinction between the search for new knowledge and the better utilisation of existing knowledge. Studies in intellectual history can uncover the processes by which new knowledge has been won.

Arguments about social policy have to be capable of expression in ordinary language. If sociology is seen as a search for new knowledge, this accounts for the centrality of the search for concepts of greater explanatory power. The acceptance of such a conclusion offers a basis for the criticism of sociological practice.

1000 Sociology 50(5)


This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.


1. Sociologists would not accept the ESRC’s characterisation that it ‘involves groups of people, rather than individuals’, though it is much concerned with what causes individuals to form, or to leave, groups.

2. My 1964 book The Policeman in the Community could be accounted a contribution to sociol- ogy, and my 1973 book Police-Community Relations a contribution to social policy. The first was conceived as a contribution to the sociology of occupations; the second was a training manual for police officers that drew on a sociological perspective. The books I have written about racial discrimination, national and international, belong with the study of social policy. What I have written about the observance of social distance, seeking to explain one form of discrimination, belongs with pure sociology.

3. In ordinary language, the original value of a technical expression may soon be lost. For exam- ple, BBC natural history TV programmes have several times referred to particular species of birds as possessing charisma.

4 The sociology of education has been tied to educational institutions but some of it can be distinguished as the sociology of socialisation.

5. For example, sociological knowledge has been built up by using the willingness of indi- viduals to identify themselves with one of the ‘ethnic group’ categories constructed for the purposes of the decennial census, and by collecting data on what respondents regard as their ‘ethnic origin’ (the expression employed in anti-discrimination law). However, any attempt to use ‘ethnicity’ in a theoretical statement is likely to reify an imagined attribute.

6. A challenge may pass unanswered (e.g. Banton, 2005).


Banton M (2005) Three current issues in ethnic and racial studies. British Journal of Sociology 56(4): 621–633.

British Sociological Association (2006) The Joint BSA/SPA Study Group for ‘The Sociology of Social and Public Policy’. Available at: policy.aspx.

Burns T (1995) Description, Explanation and Understanding: Selected Writings, 1944–1980. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Davis K (1948) Human Society. New York: Macmillan. Durkheim E (1962) Suicide. A Study in Sociology. Edited by G Simpson. London: Routledge &

Kegan Paul. Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (2016) Social Science Disciplines. Available at: Gowers E (1965) Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler, 2nd edn. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Halsey AH (2004) A History of Sociology in Britain: Science, Literature and Society. Oxford:

Oxford University Press. Hughes EC and Hughes HM (1952) Where Peoples Meet: Racial and Ethnic Frontiers. Glencoe:

Free Press. King A and Crewe I (2013) The Blunders of our Governments. London: Oneworld.

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Lett JW (1996) Emic/etic distinctions. In: Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, Vol 2. New York: Holt, 382–383.

Popper KR (1957) The Poverty of Historicism. London: Routledge. Popper KR (1966) The Open Society and its Enemies, 5th edn. London: Routledge. Popper KR (1969) Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, 3rd edn.

London: Routledge. Roethlisberger FJ and Dickson WJ (1939) Management and the Worker. Cambridge, MA: Harvard

University Press. Weber M (2004) The ‘objectivity’ of knowl

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