Conversation with a sociologist

The prominent sociologist, Sheila Greenfield, has an office a few doors down from me. From time to time we like to sit and chat; doctor and sociologist chewing the fat.

This week, we discussed the role of a unifying theory (grand narrative) in science. Relativity and quantum theory are unifying themes fulfilling this role in physics. It is difficult to understand chemistry without an appreciation of electron pairing and the covalent bond. Biology, of course, draws heavily on evolution and psychology too. I ventured that EO Wilson’s Sociobiology provided a useful way to think about social phenomena. Sheila reminded me of the enormous influence of Marxist theory concerning the role of power as the underpinning motivation behind human behaviour. Then we got on to Parson’s functionalist perspective and went on to talk about adaptation in the cult novel, The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedus – everything must change so that nothing needs to change.

More recently, we have come across the role of social networks and mathematical sociology. Just as Von Neumann showed that human behaviour sometimes followed a mathematical model under game theory, so now there are mathematical theories that describe group behaviour.1 Despite human beings having volition at the individual level, the sum of people’s individual decisions can be described epidemiologically with a mean, variance, etc. The role of committed minorities in generating a social consensus is a good example which we had come across recently. Apparently, when a committed minority reaches about 10 per cent, then the majority will fall in line with the new idea, whether good or bad.

We will be interested to hear from other bloggers about pervasive theories in sociology.


1. Kruger J, Dunning D. Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. J Pers Psychol.1999;77(6):1121-1134


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