Neil Smelser is a longtime professor of sociology at the Unviersity of California, Berkeley. Prof. Smelser has studied a great number of subjects, including economics and industry, collective behavior, terrorism, psychoanalysis, the family, and education. He is as qualified a source as anyone alive to speak on the nature of sociology and the relationship between sociology and society. The following quote is part of a longer interview, which can be found here.
Interviewer: What are the temperament and skills required for what a sociologist does and for what you do as a sociologist?
Prof. Smelser: I'd say the most important personal characteristic is the capacity to objectify. Practically all the subject matter of sociology is also the subject of ideology and strong personal feelings. Think about religion, think about family, think about work, even. These are subjects loaded with meaning and loaded with ideology, and practically everybody has their own theory about them, usually derived from our own experience. What you have to do as a sociologist is to move away from these biographical particularities of your own life and of other people's lives -- that's what I mean by objectification, to treat these experiences as objects for study rather than swimming through them in your own lifetime. So, I guess a simple answer to your question is the objectification of social reality.