In the editorial introduction to this current series of articles, we raised the pitfalls of using only common sense in explaining social phenomena. The editorial caught the attention of a number of undergraduate students who are curious to know more about common sense and how to think beyond the obvious. We are thus publishing the editor’s reply as an article, to make it easily accessible to Verstehen readers.
Common sense is everyday knowledge that is passed around and often accepted as fact. It is not necessarily wrong. The problem though, is that ‘common knowledge’ also includes prejudices, stereotypes, and assumptions about social life, and our common knowledge may not apply to people outside of our social groups – people who do not share our culture, subculture, norms, values, and beliefs.
For instance, if you ask people why they brush their teeth, they would most likely give you hygiene as a reason. After all, not brushing one’s teeth does indeed lead to tooth decay. That is common sense. But what if you found out that more than half of the population in rural China have never brushed their teeth? When this piece of news first came out, a lot of people were appalled. The rural Chinese were judged and told to start brushing their teeth or suffer the dental consequences. It is but common sense to practice this basic hygiene requirement.
Whose common sense are we talking about, however? These rural Chinese may have a different notion of dental hygiene. Many of them were found to be using green tea as a sort of mouthwash to clean their teeth. In the culture/subculture we subscribe to, we use a particular method that we tend to impose on others because it is believed to be the dominant mode, reinforced by capitalists who have a stake in people buying toothpastes and toothbrushes. We want others to brush their teeth in the way that we do. And we are grossed out if they have a stinky mouth, which might not be so bad for them.
Closer to home, when people think of the bad traffic situation in the country, they usually blame jeepney drivers, taxi drivers, bus drivers, tricycle drivers, and motorcyclists. These groups of drivers from the lower socio-economic strata of society are obviously the source of build-ups and blockages on the road (common sense). While that is true to some extent, we often take for granted why these kinds of people have become that way, simply putting the blame on the lack of education. No one looks at how their attitudes can be the result of a kind of culture of poverty present in society. A culture that grew out of systemic inequalities manifested in a highly unequal distribution of wealth and a large cultural and economic gap between the rich and the poor.
Inequality in the Philippines merits a long discussion, but suffice to say that it is in the best interest of the elites – those who control the resources – to keep the poor poor. And they do so in many ways, given their command of both the economy (the market) and the government. The ways these elites maintain power can also be linked to a mediocre system of governance that contributes to inadequate road and driving infrastructure, and also to the inability of many to access quality education, health care, housing, jobs, and the like.
There are a lot of implications to applying only common sense in what we see, read, or hear. So, while common sense may be useful in some ways – it helps us get around, it would perhaps do the world a lot of good if people started digging further; if we started looking for reasons to why things are happening in ways that do not come easy; if we started considering other perspectives and points of view that might not be easy to accept as well.
Things are not what they seem, said sociologist Peter Berger. Sociology and anthropology are disciplines that help us unearth what lies beneath the surface. In doing sociology and anthropology, we are able to understand how society impacts behavior; we are able to contextualize our personal problems within larger social forces (see C. Wright Mills’ article on the sociological imagination); and we are able to go beyond common sense in our interpretations of social issues and in our everyday interactions.
Featured image taken from this site.