Professor Marshall

LESSON 1: What is Sociology?

Sociology and Critical Thinking

In order to really understand sociological theory, you have to have a foundation in the basics of sociology as an academic descipline. This first lesson will give you the foundation you need to better understand the major sociological theories.

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:

Understanding the Role of Social Theory

Now that we understand the interplay between the micro and macro perspectives, we need to understand the role of theory in sociological research.

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.

More deeply, theories contain specific elements:

‣Subject Matter

"Subject Matter" refers to whether or not the theory deals with MACRO or MICRO perspectives.


All social theories contain specific assumptions about the structure and the individual and how these two things fit together.


Theories also allow a researcher to translate her ideas into a practical research project which uses the scientific method. Theories are used at the beginning stages of a research project (ASK QUESTIONS, DO BACKGROUND RESEARCH):

Scientific Process

Research can progress along different paths for sociologists: INDUCTIVE, DEDUCTIVE, and SPIRALING. Each of these methods relies on the researcher's ability to theorize about a particular social issue, and then to create a research project which will explain why the issue exists.

While there are many theories in use in various research projects, there are three/four major theories in sociology from which other theories get their roots. These major perspectives are the points from which other theories formed--either as a response to a weakness, or as a new school of thought. We'll also be covering several CONTEMPORARY theories in this course. Below you'll find an explanation of the foundational major theories and some ideas about how these theories can help us to study society:

Max Weber's Influence on Sociology

So, by now, you have probably figured out which theory--or lens--you use in your life every day. Do you see the world as generally FUNCTIONing 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:

The Relationship between People and Structure

Within the 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."

You can think about the structure of society such that it is an invisible force, much like gravity. Where gravity makes us "stick" to the earth, social structures make us "stick" to the rules. It is often invisible, and sometimes very obviously visible. It presses in on us to cause us to conform (or not) to the pressures of society around us:

Not only does social structure press down on us to cause us to conform to or contradict it, we also help to shape the bigger picture:


There are many facets to the study of society, but the one that allows us to think about why things are the way they are is THEORY. It is the foundation by which social scientists do their work, and it is the foundation from which you, as a member of society, can understand the actions and beliefs of others from not only your own perspective, but also the perspective of others. Think about a child who is always asking "why?..." This is how the mind of a theorist works--social theorists always want to know WHY something is the way it is, and they are always devising new ways to describe why we feel, think and act the way we do.