Many sociologists are academics — trying to understand society simply for the sake of understanding — but many work in corporations, government departments, and nonprofit organizations trying to understand (and help to solve) specific social problems.
The power trio of sociology
Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber were the three most influential figures in the history of 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)
Karl Marx 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 each person is given what they need, while contributing what they can.
Émile Durkheim (1858-1917)
Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist who helped establish sociology as a discipline 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)
Max Weber 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 to sociological analysis, and in practice they often overlap:
- 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 the study of society by getting to know people and situations in detail, and then describing them using words. As part of a qualitative analysis, sociologists might interview people about their experiences in the workplace and the labor market.
- Macrosociological analysis is looking at the “big picture” of historical change over dozens or hundreds of years, such as the rise and fall of political systems or class hierarchies.
- Microsociological analysis involves looking at the one-to-one interactions between individuals, such as 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 assessing 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. Social inequality is a core topic for sociologists, who 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 individuals’ places 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.
- Education: The process of education bestows a wide range of advantages but can cost a great deal of money.
- Specialized knowledge: Individuals each have a particular set of skills and experiences, which differ from others.
- Bias and discrimination: In all societies — though in varying ways — individuals face discrimination based on the color of their skin, their gender, their families of origin, and their age.
The complexity of identity
Sociologists are crucially concerned with class, race, and sex, and they understand that none of those are simple concepts. Some aspects of your identity are imposed on you by others, and others are self-identified.
- Class: Your class is not observed exclusively by how much money you make. It also depends on how much you have in the bank, as well as factors like human capital (skills you develop) and cultural capital (your fluency with different types of culture).
- Race: Sociologists distinguish between race (a category imposed upon you by society, based on your appearance or origin) and ethnicity (your own understanding of background, culture, and interests shared with fellow members of a group).
- Sex: For sociologists, sex (physical characteristics) is not the same as gender (an individual’s identity and expression). Gender is a spectrum. Even in societies throughout history, gender hasn’t been purely a female-male binary.
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, useful connections) have typically 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 — a position you may be born into — it’s much more difficult to climb out of that position than people in advantaged positions may realize.
- Race doesn’t matter anymore. To say that race matters is not to say there hasn’t been progress in civil rights, and it’s not to say that progress isn’t happening now. The simple reality is that race remains very much a factor in how people are seen, how they are judged, and how they are treated. People who say they “don’t see race” are really not being truthful, even if their intentions are good.
- 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.