What is Sociology?
July 16, 2017
In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go non-linier.
~~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.
- Sociologists can study very small social relationships involving only a few people (such as the family). They can also explore relationships in much larger social collectivities such as organizations and institutions.
- Sociology may be concerned with issues revolving around social class, poverty, gender, race and ethnicity, or religion as well as social mobility and education. Other topics may include culture, socialization, conflict, power, and deviance.
- Very large social relationships such as those between nation states are also the domain of sociology as are the characteristics of the economy and political system. In fact, the whole topic of globalization is relevant to sociologists.
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 ones 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
The Teaching Exchange: Fostering Critical Thinking
This article was originally published in the Fall 1999 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.
The Teaching Exchange is a forum for teachers at Vanderbilt to share their pedagogical strategies, experiments, and discoveries. Every issue will highlight innovations in teaching across the campus. This ‘exchange’ offers strategies from several different instructors for fostering critical thinking among students.
George Becker, Associate Professor of Sociology
There are two general approaches that I find helpful in producing a classroom setting conductive to critical inquiry. These involve 1) the establishment of an environment in which both parties, student and teacher, function as partners in inquiry, and 2) the employment of a set of questioning strategies specifically geared to the acquisition of higher-order thinking and reasoning skills.
Central to making students feel they are partners in a community of learners is the creation of a climate of trust, so that students feel safe in offering their own ideas. I try to foster a sense of “we-feeling” by asking, for example, “How can we explain this development? What does it mean to us?” Using plural pronouns creates a dialogue that has less of an adversarial tone and underscores the idea of students and teachers as partners in inquiry. I have also found that learning student names as quickly as possible is essential for developing trust. At the beginning of each semester, I ask everyone to bring me a small snapshot (photocopied student IDs work well), and I can review the photos prior to each class. Student compliance is, of course, voluntary.
I give students a rationale for the value of an interactive classroom. I assure them that interaction is not designed to embarrass them, but rather to facilitate learning and make the subject matter more interesting. This lets students know they have some control over class proceedings and that their insights and contributions will be validated in our mutual quest for understanding.
One particularly effective strategy, adopted from my colleague Larry Griffin, is to provide students with the option to “pass” on a particular question. Interestingly, I find that while students welcome this option, they rarely invoke it. It does serve as a motivator as well as an opportunity to exercise reasonable decision making. Another key ingredient is the element of humor. Laughter causes the release of certain chemicals in the brain that help build long-term memory. I try to let humor evolve naturally from content-related dialogue and present it in a good-natured fashion.
The practice of questioning is also central to the development of critical thinking. There are two relatively simple strategies, dealing with aspects of the question-and-answer sequence, that I have found work well: 1) careful design of the questions, and 2) providing sufficient response time.
Preparing for a class, I construct several pivotal questions that address the key facts and concepts of the lesson. These are designed to help students apply their knowledge and understanding of the course content at the levels of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Questions seeking to engage students in analysis usually contain such words as interpret, discover, compare, and contrast. Questions designed to facilitate synthesis usually contain such words as imagine, formulate, generalize, of hypothesize. Questions directed toward evaluative thought generally contain terms such as judge, assess, revise, and criticize.
To maximize the value of questioning, the issue of response time is critical. From the teacher’s point of view, it is considered “wait” time, while for the student, it is “think” time, the time it takes to formulate a response. I make it a practice to build in two specific blocks of wait/think time for each questioning episode. Once I ask a pivotal question, I try to remain silent for three to five seconds to allow students to formulate their answers. When a student responds, I pause for a second time, again without comment of reaction. This prompts further thought and comment on the part of the student and provides an opportunity for others in the class to continue thinking of additional responses.
Leonard Folgarait, Professor and Chair of Fine Arts
The following is excerpted from a presentation on “Effective Learning Strategies” offered as part of the Junior Faculty Teaching Series, sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Vanderbilt Alumni Fund. The focus session was co-facilitated by Prof. Folgarait as invited senior faculty.
Even a lecture can be an opportunity to encourage critical thinking among students, as long as the teacher takes the time to be very intentional in planning the content, organization, and presentation on such a way as to promote an interactive experience.
Regarding content, I keep two things in mind: students need objective information, such as historical dates, but they also need a larger, conceptual framework to tie the facts together and produce meaning. This easier in the humanities, but it is possible in any discipline. Our concern should be that the objective information tell us something about the human condition: Why are science and math, for example, important to us?
I try to organize along a theme for the course as a whole and for every lecture, so that each class is self-contained and cohesive, and so that the lectures relate to each other in terms of overall theme, remembering that these are generalizations and need specific, concrete examples.
I try to involve students and create an interactive environment before asking questions that elicit both simple and complex responses. For example, a question seeking a simple answer would be, “What political system was overthrown by the French Revolution of 1789?” A more complex response would be generated by asking, “How do we, today, experience the results of that revolution?” I try to do this often, so that students are given a voice and feel empowered enough to risk thinking critically during a dynamic lecture experience.
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