Part 1

What is Sociology?

Sociology is defined as the scientific study of human society and human interaction. Sociologists are interested in many different aspects of society such as culture, socialization, criminology, social inequality, social groups, organizations, social change, and social institutions (and the list could go on and on). In order for you to understand more about human society, you should first become acquainted with the discipline of sociology.

Sociology is an academic discipline that is part of the social sciences. This includes such disciplines as: psychology, anthropology, economics and political science. Each discipline has a unique focus on certain aspects of human behavior. What makes sociology unique is its focus on patterns of behavior in society. Rather than looking at the individual human psyche or the economic or political system, we focus on how humans create these structures in society in the first place. We also focus on the patterns of behaviors that occur within these structures. Some of the work of sociology overlaps with many of these disciplines and we make use of theories and research from all of these disciplines.

The Sociological Perspective

Many students assume that they already know a lot about society. We make casual observations about our social environments quite often and notice patterns of behavior from certain groups of people. However, our observations are not always correct. In fact, many students who take a sociology course for the first time are surprised at the number of myths they had learned about society. Our personal observations are not always as accurate as we might have once thought them to be. Just from watching the news on television, for instance, one might assume that crime in the United States is going upworse today than it has ever been. However, a more careful examination reveals a somewhat different picture. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the violent crime is lower today than it was in the mid-1990’s and the property crime rate is lower than it has been since the 1970’s.

Table 1 and 2: Crime Rates in United States

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics:
http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/glance/house2.htm 

We see the world through a cultural lens that colors our view of society. We have had values and beliefs passed down to us from our parents and other sources such as religion, education, peers and television. Theses experiences actually keep us from seeing and understanding society because they have clouded our view. For instance, our society stresses the importance of individual achievement. We often assume that everyone born in the United States has the same opportunities or chances to succeed. But the truth is we all have different experiences. We experience education differently, live in different neighborhoods, believe in different religions, and have different economic opportunities available to us at various stages throughout our lives.

How could it be then, that we all have the same chance to succeed? Where did this idea come from in the first place and how is it continually impressed upon usreinforced? Perhaps we hear the rags to riches story on television time and again. This is one experience that we have that tells us that if that person could do it, then anyone canThese stories reinforce the idea that anyone can make it in America and if they don’t it is probably because of their own shortcomings. . Yet, if this were the case, then why are there so few members of the upper class? Why are we all not in the same income bracket? This is just one question that sociology tries to answer. Later in the semester we will cover an entire section on social stratification, so I will not go into this subject in depth at this point. What I am trying to show is that our experiences in society often keep us from understanding society.

With this in mind, we must use the tools of sociology to measure patterns of behavior in society. These Patterns usually reveal that there is an underlying social force at work. If we look at divorce rates over the last 80 years, for instance, if we see that the divorce rate began pattern began to emerge in the 1970’s where the divorce rate increased dramatically. What social events were taking place at this time in American history that might have influenced these changes? Can you think of social events which might have contributed to a higher divorce rate to increase dramatically in the 1970’s, then we can conclude that there was some social event or events that occurred at that time that most likely influenced this pattern.

Table 3: Divorce Rate in United States

There are always exceptions to every pattern of behavior and students are always eager to point them out. The rags to riches stories are certainly exceptions when it comes to looking at patterns of social mobility. Most of the wealth in our society is inherited but we often think of pioneers such as Bill Gates who moved outside of his middle class background to become the richest man in the world.

If we want to understand the underlying causes ofdivorce in modern societies, it is not going to help us as much to understand why exceptions occur. Instead, we must look at the patterns and gather evidence and observations of how and why these events occurred. There are many ways of doing this and we will cover research methods more in-depth later in this unit.

Sociology and Abstract Concepts

Sociologists use abstract concepts to help us understand more objectively how society works. As mentioned earlier, one of the goals of this course is to help you develop a “sociological imagination.” This is the ability to see how social forces or social structures in society impact our lives. Social structures are patterns of behavior that are repeated over and over until they become an established part of society. They are created through our repeated interactions with one another and we often take them for granted. One example of a social structure is social class. How do we know through our interactions what a person’s social class is? Are there certain patterns of behavior that signal to us what socioeconomic background he or she belongs to? It is very unlikely that someone will tell you what class they are from when you meet them, so how do you know? Without a doubt, social class has an impact on how we as individuals encounter the world. It influences the way we interact with one another, what church we go to, what school we attend and what neighborhood we live in. Thus, social class, as well as other social structures, guides our behaviors and interactions. It also makes life more predictable, which and predictability is something we humans need in order to have a stable, functioning society.

Sociologists are also interested in how social structures help to create stability in society. Social Institutions are considered “superstructures” in society which are highly patterned behaviors that are organized to meet basic human needs. Society would not exist if social institutions were not present. The social institutions we are most interested are: the Family, Religion, Education, Media, Economy, Politics, and Health Care. These institutions are highly patterned to meet our needs and without them, society itself would be unstable.

C. Wright Mills,
1916-1962. 

Sociological Imagination

One of the goals of this course is for you to develop a sociological imagination. According to C. Wright Mills, the sociological imagination allows us to see how society affects us. As mentioned earlier, this is not an easy task. In order for us to see behind the façade of our socially constructed realities, we need to achieve critical distance. Using the tools of sociology allows us to step outside of our social world and view society from an outsider’s point of view. One good way to do this is through comparative analysis. When we look at the differences between socialization in the United States and Japan, for instance, we are able to uncover patterns that are unique to each culture. Socialization is a social force that has affected all of our lives and as you will see in Unit 2, it has a profound impact on how we act and react towards others.

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