What is Sociology?
Sociology is the scientific study of society (social structures and social change) and its impact on human behavior. Its scope ranges from micro-level studies of small groups to macro-level studies of organizations, communities, social institutions (such as families, mass media, and educational systems), and cross-national or cross-cultural social systems. Its main theoretical orientations range from structural functionalism (a relatively conservative systems approach) to conflict to critical to interpretive (such as symbolic interaction and ethnomethodology). While certain orientations are more conductive to certain types of studies, all theories find application at micro-and macro- sociological levels. The methods sociologists use to observe, describe, explain and predict human social behavior range from highly quantitative to highly qualitative and include surveys, interviews, experiments, secondary data analysis, and various forms of field observation. In sum, whatever your preferred theoretical and methodological perspective, if you enjoy learning about people interacting with other people and social groups, then you'll find something of interest in Sociology.
Sociology also helps us look at things in new ways. It makes us think about things we haven't really thought about. Here's one example to consider:
Let's line up students around the perimeter of the room by hair length. We may end up with a line with the "short hairs" on one end and the "long hairs" on the other end. While there are always a few exceptions, in general the women have longer hair than the men.
Let's think about this. Why is it that way? (Different people will have different answers.) And what does it mean? (Different people have different explanations.) What judgments do you personally make about men with short hair? Women with long hair? Men with long hair? Women with short hair? Why do you make those judgments? Where did those ideas come from?
This example leads into a discussion of norms (expected behavior) and deviance from norms, of socialization (brainwashing we agree with), of gender roles, and of the degree to which strong social pressures affect our behaviors and beliefs, whether we're aware of it or not!
The difference, you see, is that Sociology looks at all these things scientifically and asks questions that allow us to delve beneath the superficial reality we live most of our lives in (and are most comfortable in!). That means, also, that sociologists focus on describing what is and explaining why it is that way, not on what somebody thinks ought to be. If all you're interested in is using science to validate or promote your own political or religious or economic or some other type of predetermined set of values or beliefs, STAY AWAY FROM SOCIOLOGY! No one expressed this better than the sociologist Peter Berger in his 1963 book, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective.
People who like to avoid shocking discoveries, who prefer to believe that society is just what they were taught at home, who like the safety of the rules and the maxims of... the "world-taken-for-granted," should stay away from sociology. People who have no curiosity about human beings and are content to admire scenery without wondering about the people who live in those houses on the other side of that river, should probably also stay away from sociology. They will find it unpleasant or, at any rate, unrewarding. People who are interested in human beings only if they can change, convert or reform them should also be warned, for they will find sociology much less useful than they hoped.... Sociology will be satisfying, in the long run, only to those who can think of nothing more entrancing than... to understand things human.
So the cool thing about Sociology is that it isn't interested in changing any of your beliefs. Sociology knows that only you have the power to change your beliefs. No one will pressure you to abandon your values. But Sociology will help you understand exactly what values and beliefs are, and let you assess your values and beliefs by comparing them, not to political rhetoric or talk-show sensationalism, but to information that's been subjected to -- and survived -- the test of scientific validation. Sociology doesn't threaten you but -- we guarantee it will challenge you.
Are you up to the challenge?
Department of Sociology
Appalachian State University
ASU Box 32115
209 Chapell Wilson Hall
480 Howard Street
Boone, NC 28608