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What is Sociology?

July 16, 2017
by Russ Long


In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go non-linier.
That's why physics is easy and sociology is hard.

~~Neil deGrasse Tyson

I.     What Is Sociology?

The American Sociological Association (2006) describes “sociology as the study of social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human behavior.  The ASA contends that “sociologists investigate the structure of groups, organizations, and societies, and how people interact within these contexts.” Sociology is the scientific study of society and human behavior.   This means, when sociologists apply their trade, they use a rigorous methodology.

The influence of society is the central question asked by sociologists when they attempt to explain human behavior.  People are social beings more than they are individuals. Our thinking and motivation are largely shaped by our life experiences as we interact with one another.  According to Barkan (1997:4), "society profoundly shapes their behavior and attitudes." We exist within social structure, which refers to patterns of social interaction and social relationships. Social structure, in turn, has great influence on who we are as individuals. It influences our behavior, our attitudes, and our life chances. Social structure is complex and often contradictory.

A.     Topics of Study

Subject areas in Sociology are as varied as society itself. 

B.     The Relationship between People and Structure

Within the vast field of sociology, the common denominator is people.   Sociology explores the “forces that influence people and help shape their lives … Society shapes what we do, how we do it, and how we understand what others do“ (Univ. of Limerick 2007).  Options in life are determined in the past and are molded by currently existing structures that provide well-established guidelines for how individuals conduct their lives.   To quote Macionis and Plummer, “In the game of life, we may decide how to play our cards, but it is society that deals us the hand” (Univ. of Limerick 2007).

C.     Critical Thinking

Sociology requires one to look at the world critically.  Peter Berger argues that students of sociology should acquire a healthy skepticism regarding overly simplified (or commonly accepted) conceptions of human affairs.  Critical thinking is a willingness to ask any question, no matter how difficult; to be open to any answer that is supported by reason and evidence; and to confront one’s own biases and prejudices openly when they get in the way (Appelbaum and Chambliss, 1997:5).

Given that Sociology explores problems of pressing interest; its topics are often objects of major controversy and conflict in society itself (see Giddens, 1987:2). Rarely do sociologists "preach" revolt, but they do call attention to the fundamental social questions of our day. Sociology helps bring contentious issues into sharper focus. In doing so, however, feelings may get hurt and individuals may become insulted. I will probably step on everyone's toes at least once. In advance, I apologize.   It's important in a class like this one that we agree to disagree.  I hope that we can be as polite as possible.  The general point of this class is to understand that alternate points of view exist.  It is not designed to support one view over another.

Stepping on toes, after all, is nothing new for sociology. Sometimes sociologists step on toes on high ranking officials to the point where national governments advocate a policy of limiting the number of sociologists.

D.     Multiple Perspectives

“Sociology provides many distinctive perspectives on the world, generating new ideas and critiquing the old” (ASA 2006).  Sociology, as a matter of course, utilizes multiple perspectives when critiquing social phenomena.   It, likewise, employs a wide range of methodological techniques to answer questions that have social relevance. 

We should come to realize that there are a variety of points of view on any given subject. These points of view are perspectives. Perspectives are limited. Social facts, therefore, are understood in the context of many perspectives which are often complex and contradictory. Sociology is a method of organizing your thoughts about society and your place in society.

Those who danced were thought to be quite insane
by those who could not hear the music"      
                                                                       -- A. Monet

II.     Debunking and Being Skeptical

A.     Debunking

According to Berger, it's the job of sociology to debunk commonly accepted notions about society.  Debunking is a process of questioning actions and ideas that are usually taken for granted.  It refers to looking behind the facade of everyday life.  It refers to looking at the behind-the-scenes patterns and processes that shape the behavior observed in the social world (Andersen & Taylor, 2001:6).

B.     Being Skeptical

Barkan (1997:5) contends that sociology, given the emphasis on the structural basis for individual behavior, often challenges conventional wisdom. He cites Max Weber in arguing that one of sociology's most important goals is to uncover what Weber called "inconvenient facts."  Peter Berger (in Barkan, 1997:6) contends "sociology refuses to accept official interpretations of society." Often official interpretations are filled with propaganda. According to Berger, it's the job of sociology to debunk this motif. With this in mind, students of sociology should acquire a healthy skepticism regarding overly simplified (or commonly accepted) conceptions of human affairs. It is tempting to look for simple answers or what Ross Perot (1992) calls "sound bites" to explain complex social phenomena.

Example: Hitler blamed Germany's post-World War One problems on the Jews.

Example: Few realize the benefits associated with undocumented immigration.

Example: Are drugs bad? Many don't consider that the United States exports dangerous drugs (e.g., tobacco).

III.     The Myth of Objectivity

Many often claim to strive for objectivity. Objectivity is sought both in the subject under study and as a strategy for teaching students. At some level, however, the concept of objectivity is a myth. What appears objective may simply be a political event. The positions defined and accepted as objective may, in fact, represent the positions of people, organizations, or governments who happen to hold power.

While objectivity in the strictest sense is a myth, it is at least possible, and desirable, to strive for a common understanding. Often, social concepts and even vocabulary is vague. For example, many may state a desire to reduce levels of inequality in the U.S. What, exactly, does 'reducing inequality' mean? Do we mean 'equal opportunity' as inferred by affirmative action? Do we mean reducing the income-gap or wealth-gap between the wealthiest and poorest in our society? Or, do we mean 'radical leveling' as practiced by the Khmer Rouge in the Killing Fields of Cambodia? How can we recognize whether we have achieved our goal? Arguably, Cambodia had greater 'equality' between citizens in 1978 than the United States now has. I doubt, however, that many would consider their means or ends desirable.

  A. What is an Operational Definition?

In order to explore important social issues a common ground and a common language is necessary. An operational definition is a precise way used to measure variables (Henslin 2008:20-21).  

For example:   Regarding inequality, we might devise a poverty threshold. Poverty rates are something most people understand. Poverty rates are by no means perfect, but at least when we talk about a 'poverty rate' we all tend to understand what we mean when we discuss poverty.

B. Should Sociologists be Value-Free or Activists?

How much should a sociologist get involved in the subject under investigation?   Some, like Max Weber, argue that, in order to truly understand a social phenomenon, the researcher should be value-free or neutral.  Personal values should have no influence on research.  The proponents of this view argue that once a researcher becomes personally involved he or she loses their perspective.  They become biased.  Those biases influence their study of society.

Others would argue that it is useless to study something like social problems unless one intends to fix those problems.  The point, according to Marx, is to change things.  The goals of the sociologist should be to empower people so that they can change their lives.

Which point of view is correct?  Currently, this issued remains unresolved.

C. The Debate between C. Wright Mills and Talcott Parsons.

Henslin (2004:1) offers a synopsis of this debate.

Essentially, Parsons was an abstract theoretician who created abstract models on how society functioned as a harmonious unit. He might argue that sociologists should focus on analyzing some aspect of society and then publish those findings in journals. Parsons did nothing for social activism.

Mills, on the other hand, sought to direct the efforts of sociologists back toward social reform and activism. The goal of people like C. Wright Mills would be to transform society according to some ideological prerequisite. Mills provided some of the theoretical foundations for the 1960s student rebellion.

D. Social Darwinism

Henslin (2004:4-5) describes Social Darwinism as distinctly non-reformist. Spencer, the father of Social Darwinism, argued that societies evolve from lower to higher forms. As generations pass, the most capable survives while the least fit dies out.

Spencer argued that if one helps the lower classes, it interferes with the natural process.  Programs designed to help the poor will ultimately weaken the social order, according to Social Darwinism. He argued that society would advance if "do-gooders’ did not help the unfit survive.

IV.     A Sociological Imagination:
Personal Troubles and Public Issues

The sociological imagination refers to the ability to grasp the relationship between our lives as individuals and the large social forces that help shape them.  Human behavior must be understood in a broader social context.  Americans have a long cultural-heritage which encourages self-reliance and independence. Perhaps as a result of our culture we tend resort to "blaming the victim" to explain problems such as unemployment and inequality. Despite our "heritage of self-reliance" Americans are also bound by social structure and history. Daily common sense might suggest that one who is poor should consider getting a job. It might also argue in favor of "pulling one's self up by their bootstraps."

Perhaps, as is often the case, the solutions to problems experienced by individuals do not have simple solutions. According to Marx (1978:595):

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.

To paraphrase C. Wright Mills (1959):

People do not usually define their personal problems in terms of historical change and institutional contradictions. People do not usually think of the connection between the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history. People live out biographies in the context of world events that are in turn determined by historically specified conditions. Both the lives of individuals and the course of world history are understood simultaneously.

One of the challenges of sociology is to break away from the idea that western modes of life are somehow superior and therefore sets standards for those cultures found elsewhere. "Such a belief is encouraged by the very spread of western capitalism itself, which has set in motion a train of events that has corroded or destroyed most other cultures with which it has come into contact" (Giddens, 1987:19).

If social evolution is seen as the capacity of a culture to master its environment, then western style capitalism seems to have done this. Undeniably, it has "unleashed material productivity vastly greater than that of any other societies which have preceded it in history" (Giddens, 1987:19).

Evolutionary schemes, however, express an ethnocentrism that takes the position that one's own culture is somehow to be used as a measure to judge other societies. The "conviction of superiority has been in some part an expression, and a justification, of the greedy engulfing other modes of life by industrial capitalism" (Giddens, 1987:19-20).

A.  What is meant by the term diversity
and why is diversity desirable?

Diversity refers to the social relations and interaction of many different kinds of people (Appelbaum and Chambliss, 1997:6). 

Why is diversity desirable and important for a society?

  • Diversity enriches an individual's experiences as well as the society.
  • Diversity helps us to be more accepting of other people.
  • Diversity provides greater perspectives in problem solving.

V.     Why Study Sociology?

A.     Careers in Sociology

1.     Within Academia

Most employment specifically in sociology occurs in the context of academia.  Colleges and universities often hire sociologists where they teach or engage in social research.

2. Outside Academia - Applied Sociology

Henslin (2006:8) contends that applied sociology lies between the two positions articulated by C. Wright Mills and Talcott Parsons.  Applied sociology is one area when sociologists might find employment outside academia. These efforts do not fall in the realm of social reform.  Applied sociology does not, for example, advocate rebuilding society.  Rather, it tackles specific problems.

Example:  An applied sociologist might be employed at a computer company developing user-centered software.

Outside the university, applied sociologists use sociology to solve specific social problems.  Applied sociologists may focus on problems in the work place or “virtually any aspect of social life such as street crime and delinquency, corporate downsizing, how people express emotions, social welfare, education reform, how families differ and flourish, or problems of peace and war” (ASA 2006).   Many sociologists find employment in governmental agencies, such as the Census Bureau, that are concerned with the distribution of people.

B.     Beyond Sociology: Benefits of Studying Sociology

There are numerous reasons why one might want to study sociology even if they do not work in sociology directly.  World Wide Learn (2007) points out that a background in sociology:

       assists one in recognizing trends and patterns in society.

       allows the development of critical thinking skills.

       encourages good research skills in data collection

       instructs in creating concise reports and essays.

       develops planning and organizational skills.

       augments oral presentation skills and interpersonal communications.

       enhances management skills and grant writing ability.

Sociology is useful in “social and marketing research, sport development, psychology, law, human resources management, information science, journalism, and corporate communications, geography and environmental management, and development studies” (University of Johannesburg 2007).


American Sociological Association (ASA)

2006  "What is Sociology?"  http://www.asanet.org/cs/root/topnav/sociologists/what_is_sociology

Andersen, Margaret L. and Howard F. Taylor

2001 Sociology: The Essentials.  Wadsworth Publishing.

Barkan, Steven E.

1997, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Giddens, Anthony

1987 Sociology: A Brief but Critical Introduction. (2nd ed.) San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Henslin, James E.

2004  Essentials of Sociology:  A Down-To-Earth Approach.  (5th Ed.)  Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

2006  Essentials of Sociology:  A Down-To-Earth Approach.  (6th Ed.)  Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Marx, Karl

1978 "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte." Pp. 594-617 in Robert Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader, New York: W. W. Norton.

Mills, C. Wright

1959 The Sociological Imagination. London: Oxford University Press.

University of Johannesburg

2007  "What is Sociology,"  University of Johannesburg, http://general.rau.ac.za/sociology/what_is_sociology.htm

University of Limerick

2007  "What is Sociology?"   Sociology at Limerick,  http://www.ul.ie/sociology/whatis.html   September 28, 2007

World Wide Learn

2007     "The World's Premier Online Directory of Education,"  World Wide Learn

http://www.worldwidelearn.com/online-education-guide/social-science/sociology-major.htm   November 8, 2007