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The blind men and the elephant

Different societies have varying perspectives on their realities based on their values and history.
Caligraphy work of blind men feeling different parts of an elephant.
© The University of Newcastle, Australia

Sociology is the systematic study of human relationships, power and society.

“Human thought, action and interaction shape and are shaped by society” (Germov & Poole, 2015).
  • Humans create society.

  • Humans also observe society.

  • Humans communicate what they see to other humans.

In other words, humans can be both shaped by this “feedback loop”; as well as participate in it. This is what the science of sociology is interested in examining.

That is, sociology means different things to different people. To try and illustrate the idea expressed above; society is big and complex and researching it becomes a bit like the story of the blind men and the elephant.

View this video, in which John Skrentny briefly explains the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant. The transcript is available here.

The blind men’s interactions could well make the elephant react in some way to their poking and prodding. That is the elephant could turn around, it could pick up one of the blind men with his trunk or he could move away completely and be replaced by a lion. Some have also made the point that revelation reveals the whole elephant, that is, someone who is not blind can reveal to the blind men ‘the truth’ of the elephant1.

So, it is the position of each observer and the response of society (the elephant) to the observation that dictates what is observed.

Each observers’ culture, context and history affect how they perceive their society.

Each observers’ culture, context and history also influence their society.

As you progress through this course, you will be provided with tools to help you look at society sociologically whilst keeping in mind that your perception is always constrained by your own position, where you stand: your world view, upbringing and politics, even if you are not aware of it.

Sociological thought encourages you to “make the normal look strange” and to be more sensitive of diversity, other points of view and to question “common sense”.

  1. If you would like to delve more into the philosophical underpinnings of this parable please view the wikipedia article

© The University of Newcastle, Australia
This article is from the free online

What Is Sociology? An Introduction

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