Sociology For Dummies book cover

Sociology For Dummies

By: Jay Gabler Published: 03-03-2021

Understand how society works—and how to make it better

It’s impossible to exist in the contemporary world without being aware that powerful social forces, ideas, and movements—#MeToo, climate change, and Black Lives Matter to name just a few—are having far-reaching impacts on how we think and live. But why are they happening? And what are their likely effects? The new edition of Sociology For Dummies gives you the tools to step back from your personal experience and study these questions objectively, testing the observable phenomena of the human world against established theories and making usable sense of the results.

In a friendly, jargon-free style, sociologist and broadcaster Jay Gabler introduces you to sociology’s history and basic methods, and—once you have your sociological lens adjusted—makes it clear how to survey the big questions of culture, gender, ethnicity, religion, politics, and crime with new eyes. You’ll find everything you need to succeed in an introductory sociology class, as well as to apply sociological ideas to give you extra insight into your personal and professional life.

  • Get a working knowledge of Sociology 101
  • Understand how human communities work
  • Engage more deeply with debates on social justice, healthcare, and more
  • Interpret and use sociological methods and research

Whether you’re studying sociology at school or just want to gain deeper insight into our collective life, Sociology For Dummies gives you the tools to understand the mechanisms of the human world—and the knowledge to influence how they work for the better.     

Articles From Sociology For Dummies

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2 results
What Your Society Says About You

Article / Updated 06-09-2021

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. 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.

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BIPOC—Complexities of Life in Color

Article / Updated 06-09-2021

The acronym BIPOC has come into common use recently; it stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. The term became widely adopted amid the discussions sparked by the death of George Floyd in 2020, as people confronted the reality that different groups have different experiences. It’s an evolving effort. “The whole point is that we want to take up space,” writer Sylvia Obell, who doesn’t care for the acronym, told the New York Times (Sandra E. Garcia, “Where Did BIPOC Come From?”, 2020). “Take the time to say black, Latinx and Asian. Say our names. Take the time to learn. Show me that you know the difference.” This is a rich and important vein of sociological research; here are just two ways in which people’s lived realities involve variables that go well beyond anything you could check on a census form. Intersectionality Have you sent a mouth swab in for genetic testing, or do you know someone who has? People are often surprised by just how varied their genetic makeup is, testament to how the human family tree has always crossed branches. In a world that sorts people into racial and ethnic boxes, though, people at the intersections of different groups are forced to navigate challenging landscapes. Many multiracial people have stories of being baldly asked, “What are you?” Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman and Edlin Veras (Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 2019) point out that nearly a quarter of Hispanics in America identify as Afro-Latinx, tracing heritage to both Africa and to Latin America. Talking to people in this group, the sociologists found widespread reports of what they called ethnoracial dissonance. In other words, many Afro-Latinx Americans simply don’t feel like they fit into the racial and ethnic groups recognized by the people around them. In some cases, that even included their own families; one woman said that her relatives coached her to downplay her Black features by straightening her hair. “To be Afro-Latine in America,” said one research subject, “is to feel like you don’t fit in anywhere. You’re not Black enough, you’re not Puerto Rican enough. To be Afro-Latine is to be salsa and hip-hop, bachata and reggae, rice and beans and collard greens, papito and homeboy. Afro-Latine is important because we exist.” The term intersectionality, in reference to overlapping aspects of social identity that can lead to distinct experiences of oppression (such as African, Latinx, and female), was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a Black feminist scholar. Colorism Discrimination based on skin color, referred to as colorism, is experienced by people around the world. Angela R. Dixon and Edward E. Telles (writing in the Annual Review of Sociology, 2017) identify colorism as “a globalized preference for whiteness and/or lightness.” That can lead to discrimination against darker-skinned individuals by people both outside and within what any given society defines as a “race.” That there’s even a distinction between colorism and racism is another example of the degree to which race is a social construct. In the United States, a biased preference for lighter-skinned individuals within, say, the Black community is called “colorism.” Meanwhile, “racism” means discrimination against the entire Black community. In Latin America, on the other hand, concepts of “race” are less prevalent, and what someone from the United States might call colorism is experienced as racism. Sociologists and historians have extensively studied colorism in the United States, which in Black American communities stretches back to the time of slavery, when lighter-skinned slaves (their fathers often being slave owners who committed rape) were given preferential treatment. Civil rights activists have fought colorism, concerned for its potential to divide communities that need to unite against white supremacy. A persistent disadvantage Despite some progress, colorism remains widespread; across races, researchers have found that lighter-skinned individuals fare better in areas including income, education, and occupational status. Irene V. Blair, Charles M. Judd, and Kristine M. Chapleau (Psychological Science, 2004) found that for crimes committed in Florida between 1998 and 2002, both Black and white convicts received harsher sentences when their facial features were more Afrocentric. The sale of products designed to lighten the skin, and cosmetic surgery to change racial features, is a multi-billion-dollar industry that spans continents from Asia to Africa to America. As the world becomes increasingly multi-racial, sociologists expect that intersectionality and colorism will become increasingly important as lenses through which to understand discrimination, inequality, and identity.

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