Roodt’s presentation to FAST addressed the decades-long argument about whether sociology – and in fact any of the social sciences – can be considered to fall into the category of science is no longer really a matter of debate. Science has long since ceased to be defined only by observable, physical phenomena. Today science is much more broadly defined as a ‘systematically organised body of knowledge on a particular subject’.
Roodt did not try to convince FAST of his conviction that sociology is in fact a science. Rather, he spoke about the role of sociology in the world today and its overlaps with other disciplines, like psychology, biology and genetics. Sociologists have taken a step back from the nurture/nature argument, taking a much humbler approach and acknowledging that human beings are a complex mix of genetics, biology and socialisation and that race, sex, gender, class, economics, upbringing, culture, education and a range of other factors all play a role in making us who we are.
Modern-day sociologists have also firmly put to bed many of the pseudoscientific theories of human development and socialisation, for example those which assign different brain capacities to different race groups. It is commonly accepted today that the social aspects of human life – culture, sex, gender, class, education, religion – may have a far greater impact on human development, either promoting or undermining it, than racial grouping in itself. A child raised in rural Transkei, for instance, has access to a radically different nutritional and educational base than, say, a child growing up in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg.
By the same token, as societies’ views on race have changed, and as societies themselves have changed, so the borders between anthropology and sociology have blurred or all but disappeared. Roodt is of the opinion that there is no longer any essential difference between the work of sociologists and anthropologists and that many other universities sociology and anthropology have merged, but at Rhodes, they are offered as separate disciplines.
Areas of study like rural development (Roodt’s field of specialisation), human geography, political science, gender studies, the family, religion, social and/ or cultural anthropology, etcetera, all fall within the ambit of sociology. It is what you emphasise in your own field of study that makes it unique and defines it, rather than being defined by a set of external criteria artificially imposed on academic or empirical lines.
“Empirical science is pretty routine,” says Roodt, “but with human beings it is rather different. Human beings are thinking, creative beings, capable of changing their behaviour. So you will never make sociology scientific in the same way as other sciences.”
But what is science? Roodt offered the following guide: it is universal (for example the theory of gravity); it is communal, in the sense that scientists share information; but above all, it is a search for the truth. These form the basis for all sciences.
Whether academics and scientists agree on whether sociology is a science, there is no doubt that the study of sociology is central and vital to our understanding of how societies function. It works at the stope face of human development, constantly examining and redefining our responses to the extraordinary complexity of human communities that make up the world’s endlessly diverse social groupings. – ShirleyMarais
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