Professor Marshall

LESSON 2: How Can I Use Sociology?

How Can I Use Sociology?

Critical Thinking

Remember from lesson one that sociology requires us to critically look at the world; it requires that we understand (Bruce 1999). Read HERE for another excellent explanation of what sociology is and how we can use it to look at the world around us.

Recall also that C. Wright Mills (1959) asserted that 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--but we should! People live out their lives 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 need to be understood simultaneously.

What does this mean for you, as a student taking a course in APPLIED SOCIOLOGY? Even if you don't plan to BE a practicing sociologist, understanding sociology and being able to apply it in your chosen career will be beneficial to you.

Objective and Subjective Reality

One things that the authors of our text stress is that we should always strive to be OBJECTIVE. What does this mean? Using objectivity allows us, as social science researchers, to remain as neutral as possible when researching social concerns.

To be objective means that we are using unbiased statements to describe social reality. We can, as groups of people, generally agree that this objective reality is valid, and as scientists, we use the scientific method to observe and report "facts" about the problem. We should strive to be as objective as possible when we are trying to make rational decisions about society. We should also use this kind of thinking when we are reading news articles, information on the internet, and research presented in texts.

To be subjective means that we are using our own personal opinions and prejudices to describe a social situation. Our own points of view may or may not "line up" with the "facts" of the situation, and our own points of view are seldom verified using concrete facts of figures. When there is NOTHING tangible at stake, we can afford to be subjective. For example, when we're reading a book for leisure, or when we are viewing art, we can make subjective statements ("I LOVE that book!" or "I HATE those shoes!"). This is where you can use your opinion in a subjective way. Remember that your subjective opinion on a matter is NO MORE valid or REAL than anyone else's, so even when your opinion is different that the opinion of the person standing next to you--both of you have a right to your subjective points of view.

When discussing social conditions, we strive to be objective--the statements you make to describe social conditions should be verifiable "facts" which come from credible, reliable sources. We have no reason to listen to you if the statements you make are not credible! Further, if you use subjective opinions to tell me about a social problem AND I know that what you're saying is not objective, you lose your credibility! I have no reason to believe what you're saying if you don't use OBJECTIVITY to back up your statements.

Understanding the Role of Social Theory

As Steele and Price point out (3), there are two general divisions in the field of sociology (and in science in general):

Basic and Applied Sociology

It is the applied sociology side of the house that we are going to concern ourselves with this semester. Being able to apply sociology to a wide range of situations will be helpful to you as you move through your career regardless of what career path you choose. One big hurdle for any student of sociology (whether applied or basic) is understanding sociological theory. Most students tend to see theory as something that is boring and difficult to understand. However, for sociologists and for those who are using sociology as an application in their professions, sociological theory can serve important functions:

  • a foundation for understanding why is situation is occurring with clients, employees, or others in a workplace setting
  • a framework by which to understand how to evaluate workplace situations
  • a tool by which to analyze behaviors among colleagues, superiors, or employees
  • a guide which can help to identify strengths and weaknesses within an organization

Again, even if you don't plan to become a sociologist, a basic understanding of sociological theory is something that can help you in your career. Take a few minutes to make sure you understand the major sociological perspectives now:

Steele and Price (5) also point out that an understanding of how to develop your own theories might be useful. In this light, understanding the differences between inductive and deductive reasoning is important:

We also need to understand the role of theory applying sociology in everyday life.

For sociologists who practice and specialize in applied sociology, theory is no less important than it is for sociologists who specialize in other areas. In the general study of society, theory is used as a foundation to research. It allows us to explain what is happening and it also allows us to predict what the consequences of actions might be. You can think of theory as the engine that drives research--without a theory (an IDEA) about how society is working, research wouldn't make sense.

So, theory is the idea that a researcher has about something in society--it is the "WHY" question that we ask when we are observing others. We do this when we're walking about, observing others and their behaviors. We ask, "Hmmm, I wonder why she's doing that?" Or, "Why would he make that choice?" These WHY questions form the foundation of theory--they help us to form ideas about the structure of society and the individual's place in it. Just like a child is always questioning what's going on around her, so does a sociologist question what's going on in the social world.

Max Weber's Influence on Sociology

So, by now, you have probably figured out which sociological theory--or lens--you use in your life every day. Do you see the world as generally FUNCTIONing for most people, most of the time? Or do you see the world in a constant state of CONFLICT? Perhaps you view the world via the INTERACTIONs you have with it and others. Is the lens you use to view the world always colored by gender? If so, then you have a FEMINIST point of view.

Or, maybe you see the benefits of viewing the world from all of these points of view.

Bruce asserts that it is not enough to simply understand what has happened – that is to say, what a group of people may or may not have done when presented with the boundaries or forces of society. He says, drawing on the work of Max Weber, that we must also understand what drives the behavior (1999). Weber, a famous German sociologist, called the idea of understanding what drives people's behaviors "verstehen" (the German word for insight). Max Weber, a German sociologist from the late 1800s, gives us his insight by explaining the concept of VERSTEHEN:

Fitting Basic Sociology and Applied Sociology Together

As a recap, applied sociology is the use of sociological tools (such as theory and methods) to address specific social problems or issues that particular groups of people have to try to come up with solutions to ease those problems. Basic sociology is sociology which focuses on the development and testing of theory. From the Sociology at Work Organization (from Australia) listen as the work of Applied Sociologists is explained:

Applying sociology and using a sociological perspective in our work regardless of whether or not we plan to be sociologists can help us to improve human interaction in a variety of situations and it can also help us to define situations and better understand how individuals perceive and understand situations from their own perspective. Being able to apply a sociological perspective comes with practice – remaining neutral, being an objective observer, and applying scientific tools and techniques to social and workplace situations is a skill set which will serve you throughout your entire career.

The tips, tools, and techniques that you learn throughout this course will help to lay a foundation which you can take with you into your career – I often refer to this as the "workplace toolkit." Over the past several years, I have been encouraged by many students who have emailed me to tell me how they have applied many of the sociological concepts and principles they have learned in my courses to their jobs, and further, how impressed their employers have been with some of the skills they have brought to their jobs which they've learned through the study of sociology. I hope that you are able to do the same and that this semester is a rewarding and productive one for you not only in your academic pursuits, but also as you move toward your career goals.


Steele, Stephen F., Jammie Price. Applied Sociology. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008. Print.