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John Thompson, Professor Emeritus, Sociology

Language and Meaning

What is the importance of language in Sociology?

Why, as a Sociologist, I was so insistent on writing is: the meanings are in the language, and they're embedded in it. If students can pay attention to the language, they can begin to reflect on and examine their cultural assumptions, because they're in the language. My own discipline is a little nuts in the way that we have a very highly technical, abstract vocabulary. One of the less abstract words that actually is in the language, English, is 'socialization.' It's still a pretty abstract term. We have a lot of these, and they often have large Latin roots, so what I try to do is start taking that apart in front of them to say, "Now, we're using this word 'externalization' that Marx...that represents Marx's ideas. Where does that come from? What does it mean to externalize?" And, you start breaking it down, because, at the end of the day, I want them to be able to have that word, but I want them to have that word actively, so that when they use the word 'externalization', which is very abstract, they know exactly what they're pointing to.