Skip to main content
K12 LibreTexts

1.1: Examining Social Life

  • Page ID
    3413
  • Objectives

    • Describe how sociology is and explain what it means to have a sociological imagination
    • Explain how sociology is similar to and different from other social sciences.
    • Describe how the field of sociology developed.
    • Explain how the three main theoretical perspectives in sociology differ in their focus.

    Universal Generalizations

    • Sociology is a science because it uses scientific data to make and draw conclusions.
    • Sociology has its place among other Social Sciences, Anthropology, Psychology, Social Psychology, Economics, Political Science, and History.

    Guiding Questions

    • What is sociology and why should it be studied?
    • What are the main theories and theorists that make up the field of sociology?
    • What is the sociological perspective?
    • What does it mean to have a sociological imagination?

    Introduction to Sociology

    People walking around a crowded subway station are shown here
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Sociologists learn about society as a whole while studying one-to-one and group interactions. (Photo courtesy of Robert S. Donovan/flickr)

    A dictionary defines sociology as the systematic study of society and social interaction. The word “sociology” is derived from the Latin word socius (companion) and the Greek word logos (study of), meaning “the study of companionship.” While this is a starting point for the discipline, sociology is actually much more complex. It uses many different methods to study a wide range of subject matter and to apply these studies to the real world.

    Sociologists study all aspects and levels of society. A society is a group of people whose members interact, reside in a definable area, and share a culture. A culture includes the group’s shared practices, values, and beliefs. One sociologist might analyze video of people from different societies as they carry on everyday conversations to study the rules of polite conversation from different world cultures. Another sociologist might interview a representative sample of people to see how texting has changed the way they communicate. Yet another sociologist might study how migration determined the way in which language spread and changed over time. A fourth sociologist might be part of a team developing signs to warn people living thousands of years in the future, and speaking many different languages, to stay away from still-dangerous nuclear waste.

    Sociology is a relatively new discipline in comparison to chemistry, math, biology, philosophy and other disciplines that trace back thousands of years. Sociology began as an intellectual/philosophical effort by a French man named Auguste Comte (born 1798 and died 1857). He is considered the founder of sociology and coined "Sociology."

    The field of sociology focuses on human social behavior from a group perspective. Students learn about the development of sociology and the three major theoretical perspectives that form the basis of the field today.

    Why did thinkers of the day find a need for a new science of sociology? Societies had change in unprecedented ways and had formed a new collection of social complexities that the world had never witnessed before. Western Europe was transformed by the Industrial Revolution, a technological development of knowledge and manufacturing that began in the late 1600s and continued until the early 1900s. The Industrial Revolution transformed society at every level. Look at Figure 1.1.2 below to see pre and post-Industrial Revolution social patterns and how different they were.

    Figure 1.1.2 Pre-Industrial and Post-Industrial Revolution Social Patterns
    Pre-Industrial Revolution Post-Industrial Revolution
    Farm/ Cottage Factories
    Family Work Breadwinners/Homemakers
    Small Towns Large Cities
    Large Families Small Families
    Homogamous Towns Heterogamous Cities
    Lower Standards of Living Higher Standards of Living
    People Died Young People Died Older

    Prior to the Industrial Revolution, families lived on smaller farms and every able member of the family did work to support and sustain the family economy. Towns were small and very similar (homogamy) and families were large (more children=more workers). There was a lower standard of living and because of poor sanitation people died earlier.

    After the Industrial Revolution, farm work was replaced by factory work. Men left their homes and became breadwinners earning money to buy many of the goods that used to be made by hand at home (or bartered for by trading one's own homemade goods with another's). Women became the supervisors of homework. Much was still done by families to develop their own home goods while many women and children also went to the factories to work. Cities became larger and more diverse (heterogamy). Families became smaller (less farm work required fewer children). Eventually, standards of living increased and death rates declined.

    These pre and post-industrial changes impacted all of Western civilization because the Industrial Revolution hit all of these countries about the same way: Western Europe, United States, Canada, and later Japan and Australia. The Industrial Revolution brought some rather severe social conditions which included: deplorable city living conditions; crowding; crime; extensive poverty; inadequate water and sewage; early death, frequent accidents, and high illness rates. The new social problems required a new science that was unique from any scientific disciplines of the day. Comte wanted a strong scientific basis for sociology, but because of various distractions he never quite established it. After the Industrial Revolution, farm work was replaced by factory work. Men left their homes and became breadwinners earning money to buy many of the goods that used to be made by hand at home (or bartered for by trading one's own homemade goods with another's). Women became the supervisors of homework. Much was still done by families to develop their own home goods while many women and children also went to the factories to work. Cities became larger and more diverse (heterogamy). Families became smaller (less farm work required fewer children). Eventually, standards of living increased and death rates declined.

    http://freesociologybooks.com/Introduction_To_Sociology/01_History_and_Introduction.php

    What Are Society and Culture?

    Sociologists study all aspects and levels of society. A society is a group of people whose members interact, reside in a definable area, and share a culture. A culture includes the group’s shared practices, values, and beliefs. One sociologist might analyze video of people from different societies as they carry on everyday conversations to study the rules of polite conversation from different world cultures. Another sociologist might interview a representative sample of people to see how texting has changed the way they communicate. Yet another sociologist might study how migration determined the way in which language spread and changed over time. A fourth sociologist might be part of a team developing signs to warn people living thousands of years in the future, and speaking many different languages, to stay away from still-dangerous nuclear waste.

    The Sociological Imagination

    Sociology differs from other social sciences in the way it examines all aspects of the social world, from relationships between individuals, to groups, organizations, and large institutions like the family, religion, the economy, nation states, education, science, sports, the arts, and all other aspects of social life. In doing this, it seeks to promote what C. Wright Mills called “the sociological imagination.” http://www.asanet.org/introtosociolo...MForUnitI.html

    Although these studies and the methods of carrying them out are different, the sociologists involved in them all have something in common. Each of them looks at society using what pioneer sociologist C. Wright Mills called the sociological imagination, sometimes also referred to as the sociological lens or sociological perspective. Mills defined sociological imagination as how individuals understand their own and others’ pasts in relation to history and social structure (1959).

    By looking at individuals and societies and how they interact through this lens, sociologists are able to examine what influences behavior, attitudes, and culture. By applying systematic and scientific methods to this process, they try to do so without letting their own biases and pre-conceived ideas influence their conclusions.

    cnx.org/contents/afe4332a-c97f-4fc4-...84a32d8@7.21:3/What-Is-Sociology

    Most Americans probably agree that we enjoy a great amount of freedom. And yet perhaps we have less freedom than we think, because many of our choices are influenced by our society in ways we do not even realize. Perhaps we are not as distinctively individualistic as we believe we are.

    Yes, Americans have freedom, but our freedom to think and act is constrained at least to some degree by society’s standards and expectations and by the many aspects of our social backgrounds. This is true for the kinds of important beliefs and behaviors just discussed, and it is also true for less important examples. For instance, think back to the last class you attended. How many of the women wore evening gowns? How many of the men wore skirts? Students are “allowed” to dress any way they want in most colleges and universities, but notice how few students, if any, dress in the way just mentioned. They do not dress that way because of the strange looks and even negative reactions they would receive.

    Think back to the last time you rode in an elevator. Why did you not face the back? Why did you not sit on the floor? Why did you not start singing? Children can do these things and “get away with it,” because they look cute doing so, but adults risk looking odd. Because of that, even though we are “allowed” to act strangely in an elevator, we do not.

    The basic point is that society shapes our attitudes and behavior even if it does not determine them altogether. We still have freedom, but that freedom is limited by society’s expectations. Moreover, our views and behavior depend to some degree on our social location in society—our gender, race, social class, religion, and so forth. Thus society as a whole and our own social backgrounds affect our attitudes and behaviors. Our social backgrounds also affect one other important part of our lives, and that is our life chances—our chances (whether we have a good chance or little chance) of being healthy, wealthy, and well educated and, more generally, of living a good, happy life.

    The influence of our social environment in all of these respects is the fundamental understanding that sociology—the scientific study of social behavior and social institutions—aims to present. At the heart of sociology is the sociological perspective, the view that our social backgrounds influence our attitudes, behavior, and life chances. In this regard, we are not just individuals but rather social beings deeply enmeshed in society. Although we all differ from one another in many respects, we share with many other people basic aspects of our social backgrounds, perhaps especially gender, race and ethnicity, and social class. These shared qualities make us more similar to each other than we would otherwise be.

    Does society totally determine our beliefs, behavior, and life chances? No. Individual differences still matter, and disciplines such as psychology are certainly needed for the most complete understanding of human action and beliefs. But if individual differences matter, so do society and the social backgrounds from which we come. Even the most individual attitudes and behaviors, such as the voting decisions discussed earlier, are influenced to some degree by our social backgrounds and, more generally, by the society to which we belong.

    http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/sociology-comprehensive-edition/s04-01-the-sociological-perspective.html

    Studying Patterns: How Sociologists View Society

    All sociologists are interested in the experiences of individuals and how those experiences are shaped by interactions with social groups and society as a whole. To a sociologist, the personal decisions an individual makes do not exist in a vacuum. Cultural patterns and social forces put pressure on people to select one choice over another. Sociologists try to identify these general patterns by examining the behavior of large groups of people living in the same society and experiencing the same societal pressures.

    The recent turmoil in the U.S. housing market and the high rate of foreclosures offer an example of how a sociologist might explore social patterns. Owning a home has long been considered an essential part of the American Dream. People often work for years to save for a down payment on what will be the largest investment they ever make. The monthly mortgage is often a person’s largest budget item. Missing one or more mortgage payments can result in serious consequences. The lender may foreclose on the mortgage and repossess the property. People may lose their homes and may not be able to borrow money in the future. Walking away from the responsibility to pay debts is not a choice most people make easily.

    About three million homes were repossessed in the United States between 2006 and 2011. Experts predict the number could double by 2013 (Levy and Gop 2011). This is a much higher rate than the historical average. What social factors are contributing to this situation, and where might sociologists find patterns? Do Americans view debt, including mortgages, differently than in the past? What role do unemployment rates play? Might a shift in class structure be an influential factor? What about the way major economic players operate?

    To answer these questions, sociologists will look beyond individual foreclosures at national trends. They will see that in recent years unemployment has been at record highs. They will observe that many lenders approved subprime mortgages with adjustable rates that started low and ballooned. They may look into whether unemployment and lending practices were different for members of different social classes, races, or genders. By analyzing the impact of these external conditions on individuals’ choices, sociologists can better explain why people make the decisions they do.

    A house with a foreclosure sign in front of it.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Risky bank loans, falling housing prices, and high unemployment can result in higher foreclosure rates. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Turner/flickr)

    Section Summary

    Sociology is a social science that looks at human society. Viewing the world from a sociological perspective enables sociologists to see beyond commonly held beliefs to the hidden meanings behind human actions. Social upheaval in Europe during the late 1700s and 1800s encouraged scholars to closely study society. Their work led to the development of the academic discipline of sociology. Sociology employs three major theoretical perspectives—functionalism, which focuses on order and stability; conflict, which focuses on power relations; and interactionism, which focuses on how individuals interact with one another in everyday life. Sociologists use several approaches to conduct research. Regardless of the approaches they use, all sociologists follow a seven-step process.

    http://study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-sociology-definition-themes-careers-in-sociology.html