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Published On: Mon, Sep 7th, 2020

Is sociology all about history telling?

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By Sulaiman Ayuba

In my academic journey as an undergraduate student, the above statement was uttered by a highly recognized Ph.D. holder in my University; though, he’s from a different department and not Sociology. In 2015, while we were about to round up year two studies, we sat for Sociology departmental exam in which the title of the course for that day was “History of Social Thought”. On that day, amongst the invigilators was a lecturer from Economics Department who made a very mistaken statement, that: “Sociology is all about History telling”. Also, the same person said that Sociology has no basis, and if you’re good at telling stories, you’ll survive in the Department of Sociology. However, his statements have proven that he’s ignorant of Sociology. He knew nothing in the discipline and his arrogant manner wouldn’t let him learn from the custodians of the field.
Sociology isn’t history and can never be history. History can be Sociology, but Sociology can’t be history. The basic concern of Sociology that has been camouflaged in the eyes of those that doesn’t have the adequate knowledge about the field was that; Sociology apply history in its theories and methodologies, so it’s history. Not knowing that, Sociology adopts history to understand three themes: Methodology, Orientation, and Theoretical Ideas. Theory and society are the working tools in Sociology; the discipline attempted to understand everything in those dimensions.
Firstly, in methodology. The history of the methodology to be applied in the study of a particular society is very important. Every school of thought and scholars in Sociology adopt different methodologies to understand society and human behavior in a group and in a holistic form. For example, Comte and Durkheim appreciated the use of Scientific methodology as used by the natural scientists in studying human society. Here, the students of Sociology will be guided in tracing the origin of such Methodology and how it started and strayed across boundaries and disciplines in order to have a better understanding of how to apply it in their studies.
Same with Weber and most of his followers that appreciated the application of the non-scientific methodology in studying human societies. In this, the major concern of Sociologists isn’t about the historical narratives of whether Weber, Comte, and Durkheim were rich or poor, or they were interested in a particular kind of food in their lifetimes or not. Or as if they liked this and disdained that. Nor, the focus of Sociologists is how did such Methodological trend became realized in Sociology–in what pattern and via what means. For instance, in the application of positivism by Comte, we understand that he was a natural scientist. But with the existence of so many social problems in France, he switched to give much attention to social problems and urged for a better methodology known as Positivism in Sociology. And that, if students of Sociology should learn about this narrative, they should put in mind that the history of Comte’s existence isn’t the core issue to be considered there. Rather, the main themes are the methodology and how it got derived by such a founder.
Again, when Sociology talked about the interpretative methodology of Weber, one should put in mind as a student that the concern is not to know whether Weber was rich or poor, addicted to something or not. But, one should read his history to know how he got the idea of the interpretative Sociology.
Secondly, the orientation. Sociologists adopt historical studies to know where a particular idea got its origin and how a scholar became influenced to develop such an idea. For example, whenever Sociologists are to talk about Karl Marx, they will trace his history orientation of been influenced by Hegel, plus the nature of the capitalist society he found himself. In this regard, we can trace the history to know that Marx was influenced by his immediate environment (which was a capitalist one) and the Hegelian school–as such, Marx reactions to capitalist can easily be understood by the students of Sociology when they read deeply about his historical orientation.
Weber, who has written tremendously about Religion, Bureaucracy, and Power. His father was a bureaucrat, and his mother was like a “Sister” in church. In this regard, in order to know his works very well, the students will be asked to read his Historical orientation and influences.
Correspondingly, Durkheim was the son of Rabbis. His work on Religion is always appreciated by the students of Sociology. Then, history will be a medium to know the influence of a particular scholar towards developing a work.
Thirdly, the theoretical ideas. The knowledge Sociologists obtained from a collective proposition can be learned via historical thoughts. Scholars in Sociology need to know the original version of a particular idea that’s adopted in the discipline. For instance, it was said in the Muqaddimah written by Ibn Khaldun that so many historians have written a lot about empires, dynasties, and kingdoms. But most of their narratives were to recognize the existence of such Kings, Queens, and Emperors that existed before. By writing deeply about their victories; chanting them as heroes and conquerors of empires. The then writers talked primarily about the descents and kinships of such existing kingdoms.
On the contrary, Ibn Khaldun thought was different. He changed the narratives and urged historians that the success and kinship of such rulers aren’t the only things to be told in the societies. To him, Historians should talk about the historical changes that occurred in epochs and centuries of existence. That’s to say, they should tell about the changes in the lifetimes of the people, the solidarity among them, and the rise and fall of their empires as he diluted in his book “Muqaddimah” (Introduction to History). However, with this, if students of Sociology are to learn about the cyclical theory, they may be asked to read about the rise and fall of civilizations and the idea of solidarity in the then existing empires. The concern isn’t to encourage them towards listening to histories and tales; rather, to clear their views on the pure nature of human history that’s continuously existing in cycle.
In relations to the theoretical knowledge obtained. It’s important to teach the students of Sociology about the history of the most prominent Sociological schools such as Chicago school, Frankfurt and the like. With this, the students will know that every theory that emanated from this schools has its ancestral home. And when American Sociologists deeply talked about human interactions and are continuously developing middle range theories, we should know that their ideas sprang from the works of Max Weber. In this, only history will help us understand that most of the American Sociologists were deeply influenced by Weber. So also, theories and methodologies such as Phenomenology of Alfred Schutz and Ethnomethodology of Harold Garfinkel were all from the interpretative Sociology championed by Weber.
When we are to know about the work of Talcott Parson and the likes of the Functionalists, we can clearly understand their theories by reading how they got the knowledge of such theories.
To sum it all, Sociology used history to have a clear insight on the ideas, methodologies, and influences of a particular scholars towards human societies. Sociology isn’t history, and history is Sociology.

Sulaiman Ayuba is a graduate of Bachelor of Science from prestigious Gombe State University, Nigeria and currently a student of Master of Art in Sociology in Mahav University, India.

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