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 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


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