Sociology For Dummies
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If you don’t understand your society, you can’t truly understand yourself. That's one reason it's worthwhile to study sociology.

You are part of your society, and your actions and beliefs are part of what defines that society. Your actions, in a thousand small ways, help shape your society, and your beliefs both influence and are influenced by your society’s norms and values.

clusters of people in a society © maximmmmum /

Aggregate facts

When they talk about societies, sociologists like to talk about “aggregate facts.” In sociology, an aggregate fact is an overall description of what a large number of people are doing. An aggregate trend describes how an aggregate fact is changing over time.

The following aggregate facts are true of many societies in the world today. And they may be true of yours:

  • Marriages: About half of all marriages end in divorce.
  • Jobs: People typically hold several different jobs over the course of their working lives.
  • Musical Tastes: Most people don’t listen to classical music.
Knowing these facts about your society, however, tells me nothing about you as an individual. It doesn’t tell me about your personal history or the choices you personally will make in life. Those social facts don’t describe your life — but they do affect it! For better and for worse, those aggregate facts about your society heavily influence your own life, and make it different from what it would be if you lived in a different society.

How society shapes your views

To understand how facts about society in general can affect your own personal life, think about these points:
  • Marriage: When you decide to marry someone, you do that with the understanding that, in your society, marriage is very often impermanent. That doesn’t mean you, as an individual, take marriage lightly. But it does mean that if the going gets rough and you or your partner decide to bail, you will be in the company of many friends and colleagues who have also experienced divorce. Consciously or unconsciously, that fact will affect the decisions you and your spouse make as your relationship progresses.
  • Job: Similarly, when you take a job, you can’t — and shouldn’t — expect that it will be permanent. It may be, but that would not be the norm. You can expect to have other job opportunities in the future, which would be very unusual for you to never take. This means that you probably won’t look for a job that will last a lifetime — you’ll look for a job that will serve you well over the next few years.
  • Music: You can listen to whatever music you want, but if you choose to listen to Beethoven or Mozart, you won’t be able to chat about it with most of the people around you — unless you happen to be a member of an orchestra. Everywhere from TV shows to dentists’ offices to nightclubs, you’re much more likely to hear pop, rock, or R&B than classical music. If you often listen to classical music, you are unusual, and that fact may cause people to make certain assumptions about your background and personality. For this reason, you may choose not to listen to classical music or to listen to it only in private. On the other hand, you may very deliberately and openly listen to classical music. Whether you’re blasting Beethoven or bumping trap music, you probably have a good understanding of how that will be perceived by people around you.

Structural norms, cultural norms

Some of the societal pressures we all face are clear and rigid; these fall under the heading of what sociologists call “structure." Other pressures are looser and murkier; these fall into the category of "culture." All along that continuum from structure to culture, there are norms and values that shape your life—the rules that people in your society play by.

At the structure end of the continuum, the rules are hard and fast, relating to your economic system and the laws of the land. Laws are social norms that are seen as being so important that they’re written down and made formal; if you break the law, you can be punished—with punishments ranging from a small fine to a death sentence. For example, you can’t just:

  • Make up your own currency and expect it to buy you anything at the store.
  • Give yourself a job or expect anyone else to give you one if they don’t have one to give.
  • Break an enforceable law without risk of punishment.
At the culture end of the continuum are norms and values that are probably not written into law, but that are nonetheless real. For example:
  • Current fashions and styles, such as whether it’s acceptable to wear socks with sandals
  • Religious principles and rituals, such as bat mitzvahs and baptisms
  • Social traditions, such as freely giving candy to trick-or-treaters on Halloween in the United States
You don’t have to follow any of these social norms. But if you don’t, people around you may find your behavior confusing or even rude. You won't go to jail, but there may be other consequences.

No one person makes or breaks a norm

Whether they are structural or cultural, these limits may seem unfair — you didn’t make any of these rules. In fact, no single person did. Economic realities are beyond the control of even the largest companies; laws may be proposed by specific legislators but normally must meet with broad approval to be passed; and fashion trends may be started by popular people, but even celebrities with millions of Instagram followers can’t easily change the styles of clothes people buy.

No individual person makes social norms, but every single person helps perpetuate and enforce them. How? Simply by following them and by noticing when other people don’t. You can try to buck the trend, but you’ll almost certainly face resistance. Who you are, in part, is determined by the norms of the society you live in.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Jay Gabler, PhD is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis. He has authored or coauthored several books and sociological research studies, including Reconstructing the University. He works as a digital producer at The Current (a service of Minnesota Public Radio) and holds three graduate degrees from Harvard University.

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