Due to the familiar and personal nature of social phenomena, any explanations and interpretations of them are susceptible to unexamined, commonsense assumptions; beliefs founded solely on majority consensus - Sociological Concepts introduction. However, the fact that a large percentage of the population believes something to be true is no guarantee of its validity. Thus sociologists employ a variety of tools and concepts based on critical thinking and standardized methodologies in order to determine which popular assumptions are correct and which are myths. A key assumption hindering a sociological understanding is that of Western societies tendency to conceptualize individuals as entities distinct from social context. This emphasis on autonomy and freedom of choice preclude recognition of the social forces that limit or constrain such choices. In order to view individual circumstance as a result of broader social patterns Wright Mills (1970:12) developed a perspective called the sociological imagination. This viewpoint encourages an awareness of the relationship between individuals and the wider society, arguing that society, not individual choices are responsible for social problems, thus transforming personal troubles into public issues.
A crucial element of the sociological imagination is the ability to ‘step outside’ ones own personal experience and cultural biases to view society from a more objective standpoint, devoid of influence from ones own assumptions (Van Krieken et al. 2010:2). In order to debunk commonsense assumptions about social life sociologist must collect knowledge of such social phenomena. Unless this is produced in a systematic way, any conclusions drawn may only amount to conjecture. Thus, sociologists use empirical evidence to substantiate explanations of social life. Empiricism in sociology means constructing conclusions based on evidence that is documented and gathered with as much objectivity as possible, drawn from observed patterns and information from cases and experiences (May, 2011:7-14) Both quantitative data (based on censuses, surveys, and statistics) and qualitative data (from in-depth interviews and participant observation, as well as from the researcher’s own impressions and reactions) are used in sociology (May, 2011:7-14).
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While Empirical evidence is integral to providing a description of social phenomena, some form of theoretical framework is necessary to interpret this otherwise meaningless data. Various social theories exist within the discipline of sociology, each with differing ideas about what constitutes the most valid methodologies. Positivism holds that society operates according to general laws like the physical world and relies almost exclusively on quantitative data; introspective and intuitive knowledge is rejected (Gartell, & Gartell, 1996; May, 2011:27-30; Van Krieken et al. 2010:443-52). Antipositivism claims that empiricism is insufficient in examining social phenomena and asserts that research should focus more on subjective understandings of cultural norms, values, and social processes and as such favors qualitative research methods (Gartell, & Gartell, 1996; May, 2011:27-30). Conflict theorists are more concerned with macro-level investigation; on analyzing power differentials within society and on contrasting prevailing ideologies (Van Krieken et al. 2010:18-20).
All members of a society are subject to the process of inheriting the norms, customs, and ideologies of the society in which they were raised. These unconsciously held beliefs influence the way an individual interprets the social world. To overcome such biases, sociologists use concepts and methodologies like the sociological imagination, the use of empirical data, and social theories to debunk commonsense assumptions and provide meaningful and valid explanations of social life.