A Sociological Puzzle

Baptiste Coulmont has a sociological puzzle that needs solving. Can anyone help him?

Here it is: sociology does not tackle great fictions – such as "secularization", "individualism" or bourgeoisie" – directly to describe and explain society (here’s another one right there). However, the sociologist relies on indicators. For instance, one can use the number of baptisms compared the total number of births in a year, the size of families, etc.

It is even one of the basic function of sociology to go look for such indicators. This is no different than what Durkheim did with Suicide . He took the rates of suicides and their variation in order to understand (i.e. as indicators of) "integration" or "regulation", and ultimately, society.

Here is the puzzle: has this way of doing things ever been thought out or discussed? Are there any sociologists who, refusing to rely on direct indicators or their proxies, tackle these very fictions? Are there any sociologists interested in epistemology who have studied indicators?

My answer (and leave yours in comments): first, why call these indeed encompassing concepts "fictions". If one can find indicators for a phenomenon, doesn’t reveal the phenomenon in question to be real? And yes, it is one of the very first lessons in sociological method: how to operationalize concepts through indicators of the concept.

I would argue that even important contemporary theorists such as Ulrich Beck or Manuel Castells or Zygmunt Bauman or Saskia Sassen or Richard Sennett do tackle the big concepts more or less directly but they do so through a variety of indicators. To think of indicators as strictly in the narrow sense in which they were used in Suicide limits one’s perspective.

Indeed, it was one of the early critique of Suicide that attacked the very category. Jack Douglas’s Social Meaning of Suicide is often cited to illustrate that commonsense concepts and categories (such as "suicide") are actually socially constructed and therefore, the end product of social processes of categorization that include factors such as social class or status. To take "suicide" for granted is to miss all this historical and social work of social construction. So, there is a large body of research focusing on such social processes that construct the categories that are used in commonsense discourse and embody all this work of construction.

Which gets to another critique: can sociologists substitute their categories (or indicators) to those used by social actors? Isn’t that another form of symbolic violence that deny social actors agency and understanding of their social worlds? After all, isn’t the work of sociologists itself a social construction (like any science milieu, see Bruno Latour). The ethnomethodological school studied just that: how social actors "do" social life (or any other more specific action) using socially embedded competences and skills? See also the work of Erving Goffman on all the minutiae of interaction that make social life possible and constitute the thick and multi-threaded fabric of society.

Anyone take it from here?

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