Chapter 1 The Sociological Imagination:
Section 1: What is sociology
Hello, and welcome to Mr. Andoscia’s Sociology class. You have all signed up to learn sociology, or you searched the web and clicked on this link. Now you need to know why. What the heck is sociology? What makes sociology different from, say, psychology or history. This Chapter and Section is set up to answer those questions.
Sociology is a challenging discipline because it requires us to take a long hard look at some of our most cherished beliefs about the world we live in, about our society, our culture and about ourselves and subject them to scientific scrutiny. Often, the student of sociology is confronted with the conflict involved in learning social facts that contradict his or her most heartfelt beliefs. The student must then decide whether to accept the data, which may require realigning her beliefs, or stick to her beliefs, which means rejecting the data. The sociologist embraces the data. Consequently, sociology is not for the weak willed.
So what is sociology? One of my professors suggested that sociology seeks to find the Amazing in the Mundane and the Mundane in the Amazing. Think about something as simple as your classroom. Pretty mundane, right. Especially if you had my high school geometry teacher, Mr. Murphy. Then you know for mundane! But is it as mundane as you might think. Think about it. You are sitting in a classroom learning sociology in much the same way that millions of other students are sitting in classrooms, learning their particular fields. You are also learning other things, like self discipline, like the acceptance of authority, like how to shape your behaviors to conform to social expectations when what you would rather do is walk out of the room, head down to the beach and soak some rays with some friends. But no, you’re here, with your teacher, learning sociology. And ultimately, your experiences in class are actually shaping you as a scholar, a citizen and a human being able to interact with millions of other human beings with more or less ease. You, in turn, may use these skills to contribute to and to advance the discipline of sociology or whatever discipline you choose, and your contribution will, in turn, be incorporated into a classroom for the next group of future sociologists. Pretty amazing when you really look at it.
Or take something truly Amazing, like an Astronaut. How can you make something like going into space mundane? Don’t worry. Sociologists can do that. The sociologist may look at an astronaut as a worker doing a job in very much the same way as anyone else will go to work every day. Indeed, going into space is often a small part of an astronaut’s actual job description. Most astronauts actually hold other jobs, like scientist or engineer which take up most of their time, then they apply for positions in which they use their skills in space. Astronaut Charlie Camarda states, “It is not all glory, games, fun and adventure. When you are first selected, you get to tour the country and visit all the NASA sites and get to bond as a class and future team. You are in the limelight and are treated like royalty for a brief period of time — and then the real world kicks in and you start training. Training, training, training: survival (water, land, winter, you name it), shuttle systems, space station systems, Russian segment systems, expedition, rendezvous and docking, extra-vehicular activity (spacewalk), robotic arm, etc.” Being an astronaut can be examined in exactly the same way that one might examine being an accountant?
So what is sociology? Sociology is the systematic study of human interaction within a social context. Sounds simple enough!
At this point, you may say, “so what?” You may think you already know who you are. You may think you decide what you want to do, where you want to go and, ultimately, who you want to be. Certainly, other people, let alone society in general has nothing to do with who you are and the decisions you make.
That’s where you are wrong, and that is where an understanding of sociology can inform you and help you to develop a more full and meaningful understanding of yourself, the people who are important to you and the larger world. Everything you do, everything you are is something that takes place within society, what I call a social matrix. Everything from what it means to be an adult, a man or woman, successful or not successful. Everything that you have ever learned has been taught through some kind of social mechanism: family, peers, schools, work. Your hopes and dreams for your future depend on the stability and freedom accorded by your society to make those hopes and dreams come true. So understanding society from the perspective of sociology is an attempt to understand yourself, from your predecessors, to your earliest experiences, to your status as it is today, and your prospects for the future. It’s all sociology.
The great American Sociologist C. Wright Mills, in his book The Sociological Imagination once said that “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.”
Take a look at your classroom again. Look around at all of the faces. If you are in a typical high school or college classroom you should see a bunch of young men and women representing a plethora of different ethnicities, races, maybe from different social backgrounds. Many college classes will include people of different ages.
Yet just a few generations ago, your classrooms would have looked very different. Your high school classes would have been more homogenous. Maybe boys and girls would be sitting together, but they would almost certainly be either all white, or all black. Often of similar social backgrounds. College classrooms would have been predominantly young white men?
What happened? Did minorities and women just become smarter in the last few years?
Of course not. Social opportunities expanded making greater diversity possible, opening doors to more and more members of society. This wasn’t an accident. This involved thousands of people questioning what their society had established as right for people of color and for women and challenging their societies to change. When they won, society had to implement rules and norms to handle new realities. And the work is not yet complete.
Look around again and try to expand your minds even further. Are the people sitting in your class right now representative of the larger community? Are about half of your classmates young women? If not, then there is something going on. What? Is the composition of your classroom the result of greater opportunity, or restrictions on opportunity? Are they the result of different expectations for young men and young women? How do we know? How do we examine these things in such a way that we can optimize human potential for everyone?
So, yeah, sociology is kinda important.
When you really stop and think about it…when you really take an amazing topic like sociology and try to see the mundane, you realize that everyone is, to a certain extent, a sociologist. We all must navigate our society successfully. This becomes apparent when we find ourselves in new social arrangements. Are you a high school or college freshman? Then your sociological imagination is piqued. You are busy examining and analyzing your surroundings acutely in order to learn the rules of engagement, how to interact, how to dress, where to sit, how to speak. Everything. And your observations and experiences will shape who you are and how you fit into this new world. It won’t be long before you become an expert in this new world and you are able to get through your everyday life without even thinking about it. People who haven’t seen you in awhile will comment on how much you’ve changed, how you’ve “grown up” but you’ll see yourself as much the same as you’ve always been.
What? I’m me! I haven’t changed a bit…
But you’re wrong, and they are right. You have changed yourself to meet new social demands based on your sociological observations.
So to a certain extent, we all have a sociological imagination, as Mills defines it. What we don’t typically do is subject society to a systematic analysis. We’re just trying to get through class without embarrassing ourselves too much. The sociologist, however, is tasked with taking the everyday lived experience and breaking it down to its bare components, subjecting them to analysis and drawing scientifically valid and reliable conclusions. That’s a little deeper than just trying to figure out the best way to ask Melissa Findley out for pizza.
Just ask! What do you have to lose?
There are also an awful lot of people out there who offer their own analyses of society as social commentary based on their experiences, observations and common sense notions. This is not to be confused with sociology unless they’ve subjected their experiences and observations to sociological analysis. In other words, if they are not grounding what they observe in sociological theory and support their observations with valid and reliable data, they are not doing sociology.
For instance, many people have observed that video games are more graphic and violent than ever before. It seems common sense that if kids are exposed to this kind of violence that there is a danger that they will become more violent in their real lives. So there is a real fear that young people are becoming more violent. It’s easy to confirm this by looking at the evening news and seeing examples of violent teens and shootings. Yet this observation and analysis is not supported by the data. If the observation were true, then I should be able to predict that violent crime rates among young people has increased as video games became more readily available. Yet this is not what we see. In fact, we see the opposite. Violent crime rates among young people has decreased. You may not like violent video games. You may believe they are unhealthy. You may even be right. But this particular analysis is clearly not valid.
It is incumbent upon the sociologist to make sure that he or she is not just accepting what appears on the surface to be a common sense notion, or in other words a notion that everyone accepts as true without question. This often leads us to false assumptions. When the sociologist is looking at a particular phenomenon, we are asking some key questions intent on leading us to a greater understanding of how this particular thing of interest, say violence, is influenced by larger social structures. This distinguishes us from psychologists, who focus on the mental variables involved. A psychologist might ask how violent video games shape one’s psychological stability. But the sociologist might point out that psychological stability is often defined in how one interacts with others…a sociological variable. Psychological states that may be adaptive in one setting may be maladaptive to another setting. The anthropologist might examine the cultural elements of gaming as it relates to violent video games, but again, the sociologist would point out the institutional structures that are required for gaming. A biologist or neurologist might be interested in how violent video games stimulate parts of the brain, but brain processes matter most when they are translated into social actions.
This doesn’t disqualify what psychologists, anthropologists and neurologists have to say. Indeed, their contributions are very important and sociologists should not hesitate to take conclusions from other fields and incorporate them into our analyses.
When a sociologist looks at a particular phenomenon, we are asking certain questions distinct from what may be asked in other disciplines. Sociologist Nathan Palmer summarizes sociology by elaborating the basic questions asked by sociologists.
First, Palmer asks, how is the phenomenon affected by how society is structured? In other words, what are the rules, and what are the rules intended to do? So when we look at violent video games, who plays? Why? What social structures must be in place to play? How are things like status determined? How do we know a good video game from a bad one? How is this influenced by capitalism? Militarism? Individualism? Or any other ism?
The next question is, how is what is happening today a result of or a response to what happened in the past? In other words, where did the rules come from and why? There is a clear historical component to sociology. Mills identifies sociology as the intersection between biography and history. Whereas the historian wants to know about historical connections and processes, the sociologist is interested in the historical components of the lived experience. After all, real people built the pyramids, fought the wars, raised the food. So how did these processes shape our lived experiences today?
The sociologist is also very interested in what categories of people dominate in society? In other words, who makes the rules and who must obey? How are these rules enforced and to what end? I would also add that many sociologists are interested in how these rules are challenged and resisted. Who are the dissenters, the dissidents, the deviants and the criminals and what do they reveal about the larger society?
Finally Palmer asks, how could things be different? In other words, how are the rules changing and how can they be changed? By emphasizing change, Palmer is adding a layer of complexity to the analysis, one that could be problematic to the sociologist. For if things can be different, that means they could be better…or they could be worse. So then one might have to ask, what is the role of the sociologist in this process? Should the sociologist be nothing more than an objective observer, gathering information for others to contend with? Or should the sociologist be an active participant in helping things get better? There are arguments to be made on both sides, but we’ll get into that later.
There is, however, another question that sociologists ask that could be added to Palmer’s list. The key question the sociologist must ask is, how do we know? In other words, what are the rules for understanding the rules?
How do I know that my analysis is Valid? In other words, how do I know that what I’m describing is a reflection of reality, rather than a reflection on my own common sense notions? Is there good data, or social facts, to support my analysis? And how do I know that my observations are reliable? In other words, do other observers see the same thing that I see.? Validity and reliability are components of scientific questioning.
Throughout this course, we will be asking ourselves the questions above and examining different phenomena using established sociological methods. The insights we get will be revealing. Let’s give the final words to our friend C. Wright Mills. “The first fruit of this imagination is the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period, that he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances. In many ways, it is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one.”