Every Discipline is a Perspective and a Story

“Binoculars” by Victor Dumesny CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


I’ve given a rap in my intro sociology classes that goes something like this: “Unlike other disciplines, sociology is a perspective rather than a specific content area.  It’s a way of looking at, seeing, and understanding the world.  And that perspective can be applied to any aspect of social life. That’s why sociologists study almost everything.  There’s the sociology of family, sociology of sports, sociology of deviance, economic sociology, sociology of science, even the sociology of sociology.  The heart of sociology is the perspective–not the topic to which it is applied.”

I was reminded this week that this conceit of uniqueness is unsupported.  Every academic discipline is, at its heart, a perspective.

One reminder (h/t @twoodwar) came from a mathematics professor, Rafael Espericueta, at
Bakersfield College who points out that:

As you come to master a branch of mathematics, it’s as though you’ve grown a new abstract organ of perception through which you may then view the world. You’ve grown a new “mind’s eye” that can perceive realities literally inconceivable without this new organ of perception.

That sounds remarkably like what we sociologists refer to as  the sociological imagination.

The other reminder (h/t @GardnerCampbell) comes in the form of an observation by Seth Godin:

The plumber, the roofer and the electrician sell us a cure. They come to our house, fix the problem, and leave.

The consultant, the doctor (often) and the politician sell us the narrative. They don’t always change things, but they give us a story, a way to think about what’s happening. Often, that story helps us fix our problems on our own.

The best parents, of course, are in the story business. Teachers and bosses, too.

Similarly, discipline-based education is not primarily about learning content; it is about learning to use the tools of a discipline to tell a story about the world. (This is a large part of what distinguishes it from job training.)

Between these two we have the essence of academic disciplines: unique ways of seeing the world and then telling a story about what’s happening in it; a story grounded in the empirical evidence appropriate to each field.