This special issue poses the question: what is the empirical? More specifically, it raises this question for the discipline of Sociology. This question, we believe, is a vital one to pose in our current juncture which witnesses two seemingly paradoxical movements in regard to the place, status and significance of the empirical within Sociology. On the one hand, the discipline faces what has been termed a ‘coming crisis’ of empirical Sociology, an impending crisis created by the expansion of the production of data relating to the social world by researchers (and technologies) outside the university. This expansion puts in question the sociologist’s claim to have a monopoly of expertise in the techniques of the generation of social data and the analysis of social life. The crisis threatens the status of the academic sociologist and raises questions about the role of Sociology as an academic discipline in contemporary society. On the other hand, and after a period of scepticism regarding the value of the empirical for the sociological enterprise – especially any claim to be able to know the empirical world, we are now witnessing what has been termed a ‘return to the empirical’. Such a return, it is posited, is significant for the discipline in as much as, since its very inception, Sociology has declared itself as having a particular relationship to the empirical world.