The Importance of “Studying People”

Image: Emily Mills (CC-NC-ND)

Wednesday 19th October, 2016

Lambros Fatsis

Eavesdropping on conversations may be a little too nosy, rude even, yet without it this article would have never been written, and what I do for a living would be infinitely more boring. Here is why. I was recently eating out with a dear friend, and although I thoroughly enjoyed the meal, I couldn’t help but overhear snatches of conversation from a neighbouring table, especially when the topic of the day revolved around the “study of people” or uselessness thereof. “Studying people”, our fellow diner scoffed, “what for?”, and soon gave a harsh, derisive laugh that was meant as a cocksure dismissal of “social science, cultural and media studies” at the drop of a hat.

Normally, the residual duellist in me would approach the gentleman in question in order to settle a point of honour in dialogue but, alas my friend’s train was due to depart, and the confrontation I had hoped for never materialised, much to my dismay. Given that I am in the business of “studying people” however, I am lucky enough to be able to deliver my punishing salvos here in the hope that a bitter feud that never was, might signal the start of a beautiful friendship with a buzzing hub of ideas otherwise known as social science.

Having to defend what one does against flippant criticisms may look like having to deal with a huge bombshell that was dropped at an inopportune moment, yet there is much value in marshalling our powers of persuasion in order to investigate, discuss, and refute opinions that we may find problematic, irksome, or even utterly distasteful. What follows is an attempt at demonstrating why “studying people” is important, as well as trying to illustrate why it is even more important to do so under the auspices of social science.

Why studying people matters

To assess whether something matters may prove to be a rather tricky matter, especially as it very much depends on what we think about that something. In our case, studying people may or may not matter depending on whether we think people, and their societies matter as something to be reflected upon, or be curious about rather than be taken for granted as something that “simply exists”.  To think that studying people may be a waste of our precious time might also mean that we don’t think that we are worth studying.

That is a valid enough point, philosophically speaking, but we would need to demonstrate what is actually worth studying that is not contaminated by or filtered through human contact. To deny this, is to deny that we feel our way through the world without relying on the relativity of our existence; where we stand, where we stand in relation to what we study, and what we stand for. Given that virtually all our mental faculties are relative to the time, space, location, and speed of ourselves and the phenomena we observe, even if we wanted to study something that has nothing to do with us, we would soon give up our quest as there exists no view from nowhere, and no reality that is not colour-toned by the nuances of our experience as human beings.  

Who does it matter to? 

On a much less metaphysical level, studying people matters to those who are curious to find out how that ‘dome of many-coloured glass’ we call society is assembled together, who does the assembling, in what capacity, in whose name, serving what interests, and with what aim or purpose in mind. People who are in other words interested in finding out ‘how society is possible’, how it is held together, what makes it tick, and what happens when ‘things fall apart’, and the centre cannot hold’

We may accept it as axiomatic that people are interested in people because they themselves are people; sociable human beings who are curious about the rich tapestry of social life, and want to participate in, and contribute to it rather than remain private, alone, undisturbed by, or unaccountable to others. Or, conversely studying people may not matter to people who think of people as little more than ‘vile polluted lumps of earth’, or a mere collection of (in)dividuals to be ‘classified like insects’ according to traits, status, and function that make up a clockwork mechanism which is entirely devoid of proximity, intimacy, and (human) exchange. 

Is social science the only way to study people?

It most certainly isn’t, but it is the only way to study people that way; as people rather than as a compact mass of organisms which perform genetically programmed functions with no agency or power of their own. It is also unique, not as a trademarked good, but as an activity or a ‘quality of mind’ whose importance lies not in its protected designation of origin, but as an intellectual habit, an attitude even, that enables us to think playfully, imaginatively, and critically about the world around us. We can give it many names, and splinter it into a myriad of disciplines. What matters the most however is not its name, but its quality as a craft of the mind with which to render knowledge ‘imaginatively, and with an element of personality’ too. All this may sound like mere lyrical outbursts in defence of one’s vocation, yet it is much more than that. Studying people with the aid of, and through the lens of social science amounts to more than a set of ‘useless frills’.

Rather, as Martha Nussbaum beautifully demonstrates in a recent gem of a book, the study of people furnishes us with ‘skills that are needed to keep democracies alive’, namely ‘the ability to think critically’, ‘the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a “citizen of the world”, and ‘the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person’. Add to that the ability to make the familiar strange, resist platitudes, destroy myths, or disobey even our own inflamed prejudices, and I need not draw on further arguments to rest my case, although I so wish that my article could be issued to the “sociosceptic” gentleman who inspired it as a nourishing take-home message.

Lambros Fatsis is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Southampton. He tweets at @lfatsis


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