Is Sociology like journalism?

People often ask me what a sociologist is and over the years I have tried out all sorts of different responses. I have said it is like psychology but instead of focusing on individuals we recognise everyone is always part of a society or group. I have also said sociology is like history, but of the present day – we learn about how people live now. I’ve tried using Tim Ingold’s phrase that goes something like ‘sociology/anthropology is philosophy with the people in’. But that doesn’t work so well for me. But, recently, when I told someone I was doing research on expats living in Penang (because, believe me, that is easier than saying ‘lifestyle migrants in Penang’, especially when you are standing up on a crowded bus having this conversation), she asked me if I was a journalist and I gave a reply that I now think makes quite a bit of sense. I said, no, I am a sociologist. We are like journalists, I guess, but we take more time and go into more depth. We are concerned with getting a broad picture that is likely to be too complex to write up in a short article but that will be more faithful to the complexity of the world we live in than a journalist’s ‘bit of news’. We are also not constrained by the demands of newspapers or publishers; we do not need to be newsworthy or sell our stories (although those things are beginning to change, aren’t they, with certain pressures). I said we are concerned with being objective and somewhat scientific in what we do (without wishing to going into that hoary old debate on a bus!). When I had finished waffling, the woman smiled and replied ‘I am a journalist’. It’s okay, we ended up laughing together as we both got off the bus to make our way up Penang Hill.

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