Sociology For Dummies
Sociology is the scientific study of society — of people interacting in groups, from small social circles to global society. Sociologists gather information about the social world and systematically analyze that information to understand social phenomena including class, race, gender, culture, social networks, and historical change. Many sociologists are academics — trying to understand society simply for the sake of understanding — but many work in corporations, government organizations, and nonprofits trying to understand (and help to solve) specific social problems.
The Power Trio of Sociology
Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber are the three most important figures in sociology. Their ideas about society are still discussed today, and you’re apt to hear their names in all branches of sociology. It’s important to know what they thought and said.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a German philosopher who believed that material goods are at the root of the social world. According to Marx, social life is fundamentally about conflict over food, land, money, and other material goods. Marx believed that the ideal government would be a communist state where resources are equally shared.
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a French sociologist who helped establish sociology by arguing that society had to be studied on its own terms — that understanding individual psychology was insufficient. Durkheim believed that societies are held together by shared values, which change over time as societies become bigger and more complex.
Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German sociologist who agreed with Marx that people often fight to protect their own interests, but he agreed with Durkheim that what people consider their interests often are determined by socialization and shared values. He believed society is becoming more rationalized and bureaucratic over time.
Types of Sociological Analysis
There is no one correct way to look at society; to understand how society works, sociologists use a range of different approaches and techniques. These are five common approaches, and they are often used in combination with one another.
Quantitative analysis is the study of society using numbers and statistics: for example, considering people’s income (a number of dollars, say) in light of their education (a grade level, or a number of years).
Qualitative analysis is to study society by getting to know people and situations in detail, then describing them using words: for example, interviewing people about their experiences in the workplace and the labor market.
Macrosociological analysis is looking at the big picture that includes historical change over dozens or hundreds of years, the rise and fall of political systems or class hierarchies.
Microsociological analysis involves looking at the one-to-one interactions between individuals: for example, how people negotiate social situations like job interviews or personal confrontations.
Network analysis means examining the patterns of social ties among people in a group, and what those patterns mean for the group as a whole.
Means of Social Inequality
All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others, say the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. One of the central topics studied by sociologists is social inequality, and they think very carefully about the many ways that people in societies are divided. These are the most important means of social inequality, and they all interact with each other to determine each individual’s place in society.
Income and wealth: Some people have more money than others.
Occupation: People work at different kinds of jobs.
Innate ability: People are born with innate differences, from appearance to brainpower.
Motivation: For various reasons, some people try harder at certain tasks than others do.
Connections: People have different — and differently sized — social circles.
Credentials: Official credentials like academic degrees and professional certifications are possessed by some people and not others.
Specialized knowledge: Each individual has a particular set of skills and experiences, which differ from others.
Race/sex/caste discrimination: In all societies, there is widespread discrimination against certain groups of people based on their physical characteristics or the families they were born into.
Age discrimination: In all societies, people are, to some extent, treated differently based on how old they are.
Three Aspects of Social Organization
Sociologist Richard B. Scott, an expert in the study of social organization, has described a useful way of understanding how social organizations work. Every social organization behaves, to some extent, in each of these three ways.
As a rational system: as a machine designed to accomplish a specific task.
As a natural system: as a group made up of real human beings who relate to one another in complicated ways.
As an open system: interacting with its environment, from which it takes both resources and social norms.
Common Misconceptions about Society
Many people are absolutely convinced of the truth of some things about society that are not entirely true. Here are a few of the most common misconceptions about society, proven false by sociology.
Social inequality is deserved. Although it’s true that people with many resources in society (saved wealth, good jobs, happy families) have worked hard to earn those resources, it’s not necessarily true that people who lack such resources are lacking them because it’s somehow their fault.
Social disadvantages generally compound one another, meaning that when you’re in a disadvantaged position in society — for whatever reason — it’s much more difficult to climb out of that position than people in advantaged positions may realize.
Race and gender don’t matter any more. Physical characteristics have always affected the way people regard one another in society, and they always will. Although many societies have seen a welcome decline in the most destructive forms of racism and sexism, it’s flatly false to say that physical characteristics — skin color, sex, height, weight, you name it — no longer matter.
Society prevents us from being our true selves. From a sociological perspective, humans are fundamentally social beings. From the moment you were born, the people around you have been at the heart of your life and your idea of who you are. This is one of the most important reasons to study sociology: If you don’t understand your society, you can’t truly understand yourself.