Forms of Life

The Method and Meaning of Sociology

by Collins

ISBN: 9780262536646 | Copyright 2019

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A concise, accessible, and engaging guide for students and practitioners of sociology.

In Forms of Life, Harry Collins offers an introduction to social science methodology, drawing on his forty-plus years of conducting high-profile sociological research. In this concise, accessible, and engaging book, Collins explains not only how to do sociology (the method) but also how to think about sociology (the meaning). For example, he describes the three activities that are the foundations of sociological method (immersing oneself in a society; estranging oneself from that society; and explaining what has been discovered to those who have not been immersed) and goes on to consider broader questions of the meaning of science in relation to social science and the scientific authority of “subjective” methods. He explains that sociology is the study of social collectivities (often overlapping, subdividable, and embedded), and cites Wittgenstein's notion of “forms of life” in his definition of collectivity.

Collins covers such methodological topics as participant comprehension; interview-based fieldwork (“expect plans to fail”); interactional expertise; alternation and methodological relativism; tangible and inferential experiments; tribalism and emotional loyalty; and how to communicate your findings. Finally, he offers recommendations for “saving the science of sociology,” considering, among other things, sociology's identity as a discipline and the perils of both “groupism” and being too afraid of it. Appendixes offer a code of conduct for interviews; a list of his relevant publications; and an account, in Q&A form, of a disastrous day in the life of a sociologist doing fieldwork.

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Contents (pg. v)
1 Introduction (pg. 1)
A Simple Approach (pg. 1)
Scientific Sociology (pg. 3)
Investigating Collectivities (pg. 5)
The Fractal Model (pg. 8)
Aside: Against Certain Academic Trends (pg. 13)
Estrangement and Reflection (pg. 16)
Explaining, Describing, and Convincing Others (pg. 19)
Methods Involving Numbers in a More Essential Way (pg. 24)
The Study of Science as the Source of Examples (pg. 25)
2 Participant Comprehension (pg. 29)
How Deeply to Immerse Oneself? (pg. 29)
When Prophecy Fails (pg. 30)
Investigating Spoon Bending (pg. 31)
Positivism, Interpretivism, and Participant Comprehension (pg. 35)
Fieldwork Is Compromise (pg. 38)
3 Feeling Your Way in Interview-Based Fieldwork (pg. 41)
The TEA Laser and Tacit Knowledge (pg. 41)
An Interviewing Road Trip (pg. 43)
Some Technical Points (pg. 46)
Parapsychology and Gravitational Waves (pg. 49)
The Big Mistake (pg. 51)
Interviewing as Participant Comprehension (pg. 54)
4 The Road to Interactional Expertise (pg. 57)
Small Science to Big Science (pg. 57)
Methodological Consequence of the Notion of Interactional Expertise (pg. 61)
5 Comprehension, Relativism, Alternation, and Lies (pg. 65)
Alternation and Relativism (pg. 65)
Alternating Can Be Hard: The Problem of Learning a New Language (pg. 67)
Three Questions Set by a Mathematician (pg. 70)
The Meaning of Lies and the Antiforensic Principle (pg. 73)
6 More on the Nature of Sociology (pg. 79)
Actors’ and Analysts’ Categories (pg. 79)
Socialness and Sociology (pg. 83)
Applied Metasociology and the Study of Artificial Intelligence: Methodological Alternation (pg. 84)
The Study of Expertise and Relativism (pg. 87)
7 The Stranger, Estrangement, and Estrangement Techniques (pg. 89)
The Stranger’s Perspective and Estrangement (pg. 89)
Breaching Experiments (pg. 91)
The Proxy Stranger (pg. 91)
The Controversy Study (pg. 92)
Imitation Games (pg. 93)
Using the Imitation Game to Test Participatory Understanding (pg. 95)
Investigating without Understanding (pg. 97)
8 Bringing the Story Back Home (pg. 99)
Writing Up (pg. 99)
Use of Quotations (pg. 101)
Transcription (pg. 102)
The Meaning of Speech and Text (pg. 103)
Word Embedding (pg. 105)
Making a Historical Record (pg. 106)
Science and Art in the Use of Interviews (pg. 107)
9 Tangible versus Inferential Experiments and Probes versus Surveys (pg. 109)
Academic Tribes (pg. 109)
Science (pg. 111)
The Replication Crisis (pg. 112)
Uniformity, Probes, and Surveys (pg. 122)
10 Against Tribalism: Alternation and More (pg. 133)
Alternation and Social Tension (pg. 133)
Some Regular Sociology (pg. 139)
11 Saving the Science of Sociology (pg. 143)
Groupism and the Meaning of Sociology (pg. 143)
It Feels Like a Science (pg. 146)
Afterword (pg. 149)
Appendix 1: Code of Practice for Interviews (circa 1997) (pg. 151)
Unattributed Quotations (pg. 151)
Attributed Quotations (pg. 151)
Confidentiality (pg. 151)
Responsibility of Respondents (pg. 152)
Experience So Far (pg. 152)
Appendix 2: Works by the Author Making Substantive Contributions to the Chapters (pg. 153)
Bonus Extra: When Interviews Don’t Go According to Plan— A Quiz (pg. 157)
Scenario 1 (pg. 157)
Scenario 2 (pg. 158)
Scenario 3 (pg. 158)
Scenario 4 (pg. 159)
Scenario 5 (pg. 159)
Scenario 6 (pg. 159)
Scenario 7 (pg. 160)
Scenario 8 (pg. 160)
Acknowledgments (pg. 161)
Notes (pg. 163)
Chapter 1 (pg. 163)
Chapter 2 (pg. 165)
Chapter 3 (pg. 166)
Chapter 4 (pg. 167)
Chapter 5 (pg. 167)
Chapter 6 (pg. 168)
Chapter 7 (pg. 169)
Chapter 8 (pg. 169)
Chapter 9 (pg. 170)
Chapter 10 (pg. 171)
Chapter 11 (pg. 172)
References (pg. 173)
Index (pg. 181)

Harry Collins

Harry Collins is Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise, and Science at Cardiff University. A Fellow of the British Academy, he is the author of Gravity's Shadow; Gravity's Ghost; Gravity's Ghost and Big Dog; Gravity's Kiss: The Detection of Gravitational Waves (MIT Press); and many other books.

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