Introduction to Sociology/Introduction

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Everything – and I mean everything – would be lost if the cops saw me.  I was sitting at a table by myself in the back of a heavy metal bar I had visited off and on for the past year and a half.  About a third of the faces in the crowd were now familiar to me, and I nodded affirmatively to acknowledge the presence of acquaintances.   The place was packed, dark, and sweaty.  Long-haired leather-clad men and women broke sweat moving feverishly to the deafening wall of sound produced by the live band on stage.  

However, my sense of calm and comfort suddenly turned to mortification when I noticed the faces of two uniformed police officers in the dim light of the long bar off to my left.  They had just arrived to case the joint, and I had a lot at stake in staying out of sight.  For the next forty minutes I hid under tables, crouched on the dance floor, and in bathroom stalls as the officers methodically scoped out every inch of that club.  More than once, those I knew figured out something was up and assisted me by standing in between myself and the panoptical gaze of the officers.  When they finally left, others smiled at me knowingly as I breathed a sigh of relief.  Not only had I dodged the officers, but my actions had increased my street-cred among the regulars.

I was in the club that night because, as a sociologist, I was conducting a long-term participant observation study of the heavy metal scene.  Of all the nights in all the bars in a city exceeding one million people, my then-brother-in-law and his partner, both beat cops, decided to unknowingly case the very place in which I was making some observations.  I had already been approached at least a half dozen times that evening by regulars asking if I wanted to buy drugs of various sorts.  I rejected their offers, but I knew that exchanging pleasantries with an officer of the law would have immediately pegged me as a narc (undercover narcotics officer).  Not only would have this destroyed my credibility in that particular bar but the entire city scene, which would have prematurely ended my research project.  I was indeed fortunate to have avoided contact with the police.

Sociology is the study of human social life. Sociology has many sub-sections of study, ranging from the analysis of conversations to the development of theories to try to understand how the entire world works. This chapter will introduce you to sociology and explain why it is important, how it can change your perspective of the world around you, and give a brief history of the discipline.

What is Sociology?[edit]

Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of Sociology.

Sociology is a branch of the social sciences that uses systematic methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop and refine a body of knowledge about human social structure and activity, sometimes with the goal of applying such knowledge to the pursuit of government policies designed to benefit the general social welfare. Its subject matter ranges from the micro level to the macro level. Micro-sociology involves the study of people in face-to-face interactions. Macro-sociology involves the study of widespread social processes.

Sociology is a broad discipline in terms of both methodology and subject matter. Its traditional focuses have included social relations, social stratification, social interaction, culture and deviance, and its approaches have included both qualitative and quantitative research techniques. As much of what humans do fits under the category of social structure or social activity, sociology has gradually expanded its focus to such far-flung subjects as the study of economic activity, health disparities, and even the role of social activity in the creation of scientific knowledge.[1] The range of social scientific methods has also been broadly expanded. The "cultural turn" of the 1970s and 1980s brought more humanistic interpretive approaches to the study of culture in sociology. Conversely, the same decades saw the rise of new mathematically rigorous approaches, such as social network analysis.

The social world is changing. Some argue it is growing; others say it is shrinking.[2] The important point to grasp is: society does not remain unchanged over time. As will be discussed in more detail below, sociology has its roots in significant societal changes (e.g., the industrial revolution, the creation of empires, and the age of enlightenment of scientific reasoning). Early practitioners developed the discipline as an attempt to understand societal changes.

Some early sociological theorists (e.g., Marx, Weber, and Durkheim) were disturbed by the social processes they believed to be driving the change, such as the quest for solidarity, the attainment of social goals, and the rise and fall of classes, to name a few examples. The founders of sociology were some of the earliest individuals to employ what C. Wright Mills (a prominent mid-20th century American sociologist) labeled the sociological imagination: the ability to situate personal troubles within an informed framework of social issues.[3] Mills proposed that:

"What people need... is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves. The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals."[3]

As Mills saw it, the sociological imagination could help individuals cope with the social world by helping them to step outside of their personal, self-centric view of the world. In employing the sociological imagination, people are able to see the events and social structures that influence behavior, attitudes, and culture.

The sociological imagination goes beyond armchair sociology or common sense. Many people believe they understand the world and the events taking place within it, even though they have not actually engaged in a systematic attempt to understanding the social world, as sociologists do. Humans like to attribute causes to events and attempt to understand what is taking place around them.[4] This is why individuals have been using religious ceremonies for centuries to invoke the will of the gods - because they believed the gods controlled certain elements of the natural world (e.g., the weather). Just as sacrificing two goats to ensure the safe operation of a Boeing 757 (and propitiate Akash Bhairab, the Hindu sky god) is an attempt to influence the natural world without first trying to understand how it works,[5] armchair sociology is an attempt to understand how the social world works without employing scientific methods.

It would be inaccurate to say sociologists never sit around (even sometimes in comfy armchairs) trying to figure out how the world works. But induction is just a first step in understanding the social world. In order to test their theories, sociologists get up from their armchairs and enter the social world. They gather data and evaluate their theories in light of the data they collect (a.k.a. deduction). Sociologists do not just propose theories about how the social world works. Sociologists test their theories about how the world works using the scientific method.

Sociologists, like all humans, have values, beliefs, and even pre-conceived notions of what they might find in doing their research. But, as Peter Berger, a well-known sociologist, has argued, what distinguishes the sociologist from non-scientific researchers is that "[the] sociologist tries to see what is there. He may have hopes or fears concerning what he may find. But he will try to see, regardless of his hopes or fears. It is thus an act of pure perception..."[6]

Sociology, then, is an attempt to understand the social world by situating social events in their corresponding environment (i.e., social structure, culture, history) and trying to understand social phenomena by collecting and analyzing empirical data.

Sociology and Other Social Sciences[edit]

The social sciences comprise the application of scientific methods to the study of the human aspects of the world. Psychology studies the human mind and micro-level (or individual) behavior; sociology examines human society; political science studies the governing of groups and countries; communication studies the flow of discourse via various media; economics concerns itself with the production and allocation of wealth in society; and social work is the application of social scientific knowledge in society. Social sciences diverge from the humanities in that many in the social sciences emphasize the scientific method or other rigorous standards of evidence in the study of humanity.

= The Development of Social Science[edit]

In ancient philosophy, there was no difference between the liberal arts of mathematics and the study of history, poetry or politics. Only with the development of mathematical proof did there gradually arise a perceived difference between scientific disciplines and the humanities or liberal arts. Thus, Aristotle studied planetary motion and poetry with the same methods; Plato mixed geometrical proofs with his demonstration on the state of intrinsic knowledge.

This unity of science as descriptive remained, for example, in the time of Thomas Hobbes, who argued that deductive reasoning from axioms created a scientific framework. His book, Leviathan, was a scientific description of a political commonwealth. Within decades of Hobbes' work a revolution took place in what constituted science, particularly with the work of Isaac Newton in physics. Newton, by revolutionizing what was then called natural philosophy, changed the basic framework by which individuals understood what was scientific.

While Newton was merely the archetype of an accelerating trend, the important distinction is that for Newton the mathematical flowed from a presumed reality independent of the observer and it worked by its own rules. For philosophers of the same period, mathematical expression of philosophical ideals were taken to be symbolic of natural human relationships as well: the same laws moved physical and spiritual reality. For examples see Blaise Pascal, Gottfried Leibniz and Johannes Kepler, each of whom took mathematical examples as models for human behavior directly. In Pascal's case, the famous wager; for Leibniz, the invention of binary computation; and for Kepler, the intervention of angels to guide the planets.

In the realm of other disciplines, this created a pressure to express ideas in the form of mathematical relationships. Such relationships, called Laws after the usage of the time (see philosophy of science) became the model that other disciplines would emulate. In the late 19th century, attempts to apply equations to statements about human behavior became increasingly common. Among the first were the Laws of philology, which attempted to map the change overtime of sounds in a language. In the early 20th century, a wave of change came to science. Statistics and probability theory were sufficiently developed to be considered "scientific", resulting in the widespread use of statistics in the social sciences (they are also widely used in most other sciences as well, including biology).

The first thinkers to attempt to combine scientific inquiry with the exploration of human relationships were Emile Durkheim in France and William James in the United States. Durkheim's sociological theories and James' work on experimental psychology had an enormous impact on those who followed.

One of the most persuasive advocates for the view of scientific treatment of philosophy is John Dewey (1859-1952). He began, as Marx did, in an attempt to weld Hegelian idealism and logic to experimental science, for example in his Psychology of 1887. However, it is when he abandoned Hegelian constructs and joined the movement in America called Pragmatism that he began to formulate his basic doctrine on the three phases of the process of inquiry:

  1. problematic situation, where the typical response is inadequate
  2. isolation of data or subject matter
  3. reflective, which is tested empirically

With the rise of the idea of quantitative measurement in the physical sciences (see, for example Lord Rutherford's famous maxim that any knowledge that one cannot measure numerically "is a poor sort of knowledge"), the stage was set for the division of the study of humanity into the humanities and the social sciences. Alongside these developments, Pragmatism facilitated the emergence of qualitative social science via the ethnographic and community-based endeavors of the Chicago School in the 1920's and 1930's. The combination of these quantitative and qualitative advancements thus established social science as an empirical endeavor distinct from the humanities.

Sociology in Today's world[edit]

Although sociology emerged from Auguste Comte's vision of a discipline that would subsume all other areas of scientific inquiry, that was not to be the future of sociology. Far from replacing the other sciences, sociology has taken its place as a particular perspective for investigating human social life. Sociology has been a multi-disciplinary subject since its existence.....

In the past, sociological research focused on the organization of complex, industrial societies and their influence on individuals. Today, sociologists study a broad range of topics. For instance, some sociologists research macro-structures that organize society, such as race or ethnicity, social class, gender, and institutions such as the family. Other sociologists study social processes that represent the breakdown of macro-structures, including deviance, crime, and divorce. Additionally, some sociologists study micro-processes such as interpersonal interactions and the socialization of individuals. It should also be noted that recent sociologists, taking cues from anthropologists, have realized the Western emphasis of the discipline. In response, many sociology departments around the world are now encouraging multi-cultural research.

The next two chapters in this book will introduce the reader to more extensive discussions of the methods and theory employed in sociology. The remaining chapters are examinations of current areas of research in the discipline.

Additional Reading[edit]

Mills, C. Wright.The Sociological Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959).

Berger, Peter. Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (1963).

Berger, Peter L (1966). The Social Construction of Reality: a Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, New York: Anchor.

Ballentine and Roberts 2013. Our Social World: Introduction to Sociology, 4th Edition, Sage.

Mead, George Herbert. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society. Ed. by Charles W. Morris. University of Chicago Press.

House, James S. 1977. “The Three Faces of Social Psychology.” Sociometry 2: 161-177.

American Sociological Association

Discussion Questions[edit]

  • If "sociology is the study of human social life," what are some strange, interesting, or mysterious things that humans do together that sociology might help you understand?
  • In what ways might the insights and methods of sociology help you in your future career?
  • In what ways might the insights and methods of sociology help you in life?


  1. Moore, Kelly. 2008. Disrupting Science: Social Movements, American Scientists, and the Politics of the Military, 1945-1975. Princeton University Press.
  2. Putnam, Robert D. 2001. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. 1st ed. Simon & Schuster.
  3. a b Mills, C. Wright. 2000. The Sociological Imagination. 40th ed. Oxford University Press, USA.
  4. Boyer, Pascal. 2002. Religion Explained. Basic Books.
  5. Tierney, John. 2008. “Appeasing the Gods, With Insurance.” The International Herald Tribune, May 7 (Accessed August 17, 2008).
  6. Berger, Peter L. 1963. Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective. 1st ed. Anchor. ISBN 0385065299

External links[edit]

Sociological Methods