Professor Marshall

LESSON 1: What is Sociology?

Lesson 1

Target Competencies (Outcomes)

Define basic sociological terms and concepts

Document the benefits to using sociology in everyday life

You will demonstrate your competence by:

Completing the learning activities in this Learning Plan

Your performance will be successful when:

You are able to explain concepts central to sociological inquiry

You are able to express why it is worthwhile to study sociology

You are able to identify ways sociology is applied in the real world

Learning Activities

1. READ Chapter 1 of your text.

2. COMPLETE the lesson below.

Sociology and Critical Thinking

Sociology requires us to critically look at the world.

Sociology requires that we understand (Bruce 1999). Berger asserts that students of sociology should acquire a healthy skepticism regarding overly simplified (or commonly accepted) ideas about human affairs. Social problems are not easy to untangle—they are very complex, and often there is more than one answer to the question that's being asked. 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). Since 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.

Sociologists step on people's toes often—it's one of the hazards of the profession.

To paraphrase C. Wright Mills (1959), 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 of the study of society? It means that, as you work through the materials in this course, you should begin to understand that YOUR life is greatly influenced by SOCIETY, and that the control you have over decisions you make are often bounded by the opportunities that are presented to you by the structures of society. In contemporary America, the most prominent boundaries continue to be RACE, CLASS and GENDER.

In order to study society, we have to have a basic foundation in the discipline of sociology. Hopefully, you have already taken an Introductory Sociology course, so the information below, which covers some basic foundations of sociology as an academic discipline, should be a refresher.

Sociology Defined

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 asserts that "sociologists investigate the structure of groups, organizations, and societies, and how people interact within these contexts." In brief, sociology is defined as the scientific study of society and human behavior. When sociologists do their work, they use a rigorous methodology. While in everyday circumstances, we apply our own opinions and ideas to how we view the world (just like you do), from a sociologist's perspective, the scientific method allows a more moderated and neutral view of the world to emerge. This means that sociologists strive to see the world as it is, not as we want it to be. Allowing the world to be viewed in its own light allows us to see social problems which exist due to the way we interact with each other.

Developing a Sociological Imagination:

Personal Troubles and Public Issues

The sociological imagination refers to the ability to grasp the relationship between your life and large social forces that helps shape it.  In other words, you do not make decisions in a vacuum--your decisions are shaped by social, cultural and historical forces; thus, human behavior (your behavior) must be understood in a broader social context. For example, Americans have a long cultural heritage which encourages self-reliance and independence; this can lead us to seeing less-advantaged individuals as having some personal issue that has caused their downfall. Perhaps as a result of our culture we tend resort to "blaming the victim" to explain problems such as unemployment and inequality. but despite our "heritage of self-reliance" Americans are also bound by social structure and history. Daily common sense might suggest that a person who is poor should consider getting a job. It might also argue in favor of "pulling one's self up by her bootstraps." But, being able to see an individual's unemployment as part of the bigger social picture is what we, as students of sociology, should try to do--if we see that thousands (or tens of thousands) of Americans are unemployed, it makes it much more challenging to see the problem as an individual problem. Seeing the context of unemployment (a lack of available work, a slack economy, a lack of affordable housing located in the vicinity of good paying jobs, etc...) as it relates to the structures and institutions of society is an important tool to sociologists. The concept of the sociological imagination allows us to see social acts as related to the structures of society.

Watch this video which further explains the concepts of "Sociology" and the "Sociological Imagination:"

Micro and Macro Perspectives

and Durkheim on Suicide

One of the ways that sociologists compare and contrast the individual and the structure of society is by using the MICRO and MACRO perspectives. The micro perspective helps us to look at things from the point of view of the individual, and the macro perspective helps us to look at things from the point of view of social structure.

Watch this video which explains the connections between the micro and macro perspectives:


Having a basic understanding of the work of sociologists cannot be anything but beneficial to you. Even if you decide that sociology is not the right academic "path" for you, having a working knowledge of social behavior is important no matter the career field you choose to pursue.