What to Take From Your Sociology Class

At the end of your sociology class, what should you take with you? In this post Nathan Palmer suggest four key sociological questions that you can use over the course of the rest of your life.

As your sociology class draws closer to its conclusion, you are probably wondering, “what was the point of all of this?” As a professor I think about this question a little differently, I think, “what do I want my sociology students to leave my class with?” As you must know by now, sociology is great at questioning society, but not so great at finding definitive answers. There are no laws of sociology to leave you with like there are laws of physics.

Instead of answers, I hope my students leave with a short list of simple questions that they can use to see the sociology all around them for the rest of their lives. But how can an entire discipline be boiled down to just a few questions?

Sociologists disagree about almost everything, but they especially disagree about what sociology is and is not. So it’s pretty scary for me to boldly say, “these are the questions sociologists ask.” However, most sociologists would agree that to be a sociologist you have to develop what C. Wright Mills called a, “sociological imagination.” Most likely you learned about this at the start of the semester, but now that you have a much better understanding of sociology, let’s go back to where you started.

A sociological imagination allows us to connect an individual’s personal troubles to the public issues of our society. For example, to understand why you lost your factory job (a personal trouble) you have to understand how the U.S. economy is shifting away from a manufacturing jobs to high-tech information based jobs (a public issue). To Mills, a sociological imagination connects an individual’s biography to the social history they lived through. But this is an abstract concept and what you need are concrete questions to take with you.

Lucky for us, multiple sociologists have attempted to convert the sociological imagination into concrete questions (Berger 1963; Giddens 1983; Ruggiero 1996; Willis 2004). I used all of these sources (but none more than Willis 2004) to create four simple questions that are both easy to remember and applicable to a wide variety of situations.

Sociology’s Questions

  1. How is this situation affected by how society is structured?
  2. How is what’s happening today a result of what happened in the past?
  3. What categories of people dominate in society and how is this changing?
  4. How could things be different?

Read More


Einstein was a Qualitative Researcher

Can the richness of your life be boiled down into statistics? In this post, Nathan Palmer explores the challenges of using surveys and quantitative methods to understand the human experience.

“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

Albert Einstein

In this quote that is often attributed to him, Albert Einstein sounds like a qualitative researcher (a term I’ll explain in a second). The truth is, Einstein was a theoretical physicist and it looks like that quotation actually came from the sociologist William Bruce Cameron. Regardless of who gave us this turn of phrase, the reason it is so often quoted is that it hits at one of the fundamental questions that social scientists often disagree on; can the human experience be measured in numbers?

A Tale of Two Methodologies: Qualitative and Quantitative

All social science research can be broken up into two camps based on the type of scientific method they use to analyze the social world. Quantitative research studies use statistics to measure the human experience. Most often quantitative research collects their data through surveys (e.g. the Census) or they use data collected by institutions (e.g. police arrest records). Qualitative methods most commonly use in-depth interviews and prolonged observations to better understand the motivations and ways of thinking that govern human behavior. Think of it like this: quantitative methods primarily focus on the what, when, and where questions of human behavior, while qualitative methods focus on the how and the why.

To demonstrate the “everything that counts cannot be counted” dilemma, let’s try our hand at using quantitative methods to measure something.

Are You Happy in Your Love Life? Prove It.

Let’s say we are social scientists looking to research how happy people are with their romantic partners (i.e. their spouses, partners, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc.). How could we measure or observe this?…

Read More

| | |

What Your Fridge Says about Your Social Class?

What does the contents of your refrigerator say about your social class? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how the contents of a fridge might indicate something about one’s social class position. 

Scrolling through my Facebook feed the other day, I saw this image shared by a friend:

Fridges with and without food inside

The intent of the person who created this image is to reinforce the image of the working person as going without while the unemployed person is literally getting fat off the government (as if there are no valid reasons why a person might be unemployed and in need of asssitance). The focus of today’s post, is to disucss how this image illustrates the meaning of social class in America and enables to think about research methods.

If a person believes they are middle class and they really do have an empty fridge because they can not afford the food to fill it, they probably are not actually middle class. See, in America, everybody thinks they are middle class, though that perception is declining. No one should be blamed for their own misperception. I did a quick google image search for “middle class family on TV” and the families from The Middle, The Cosby Show, Modern Family, and Roseanne all showed up. I distinctly remember an episode of Roseanne where their power was cut after not paying their bill. I don’t ever recall money problems on The Cosby Show. Can a family that can’t pay their power bill and a family that can really be in the same social class grouping?…

Read More


FACT: Teens Who Smoke Pot Destroy Bee Colonies

You read that title right. U.S. teen pot smoking is correlated with the number of honey producing bee colonies. In this piece Nathan Palmer uses this strange statistical fact to help us better understand correlations and causal relationships.

Honey Bee on Flower

Did you know that the rate of divorce Maine correlates nearly perfectly with margarine consumption in the U. S.? It’s true. Furthermore, the more teens arrested for marijuana possession every year in the U.S., the fewer honey producing bee colonies we have. That’s a fact! Most important to us here at SociologyInFocus, research indicates that the rate of sociology PhD’s awarded each year is correlated with the number of rocket ships we send into space each year (but only the noncommercial ones, I mean why would rocket launches designed for commercial purposes have any affect on sociology, ammirite?).[1]

Wait, none of this makes any sense. Fake butter has nothing to do with divorce, pot smoking teens aren’t killing honey bees, and sociology departments aren’t waiting for a space shuttle launch to award a PhD. I can explain everything, but first we need to talk about correlation and causation.

Read More


A Sociologist Drives: Research Methods Addition

Sometimes  a sociologist’s mind wanders and she starts thinking about research methods. Here, Bridget Welch discusses a case in which that happened to her and helps you understand some fundamental research methods concepts.

Driving through the beautiful Appalachian mountains in Kentucky, I hit the Bermuda Triangle of radio reception. For miles, all I can get are stations playing gospel — not really up my alley. Then, a dead zone. It’s all static until I finally catch some kicky beats. I nod my head to the tunes for approximate 1.73 seconds, the length of time it takes me to realize — it’s Blurred Lines. A song I boycott for OH SO MANY REASONS. I give up. The radio flips off. Stormageddon (that’s my nickname for my son) has paused in his attempt at world domination and has fallen asleep in his car seat. I got nothing to entertain me and over 500 miles to go. What to do?

I go through the usual. Think about work. Plan things that need to be done. Start calculating how many miles I’ll travel in the next hour, half hour, 20 minutes. [Please tell me I’m not the only one that does that.] When that’s all done I do something we usually try to avoid, pay attention to driving itself. Speeding up and slowing down occurs a lot in the mountains (particularly when you drive an old mom van) and I shortly notice something odd. I’m using my GPS to determine the route. The GPS estimates my speed giving me two sources — the GPS and the classic speedometer. And what I notice is that my van estimates my speed at 4 miles/hour slower than the GPS. I speed up, I slow down… 4 miles off. And I think to myself, “Huh. One — or both — of these is a reliable but not valid measurement of speed.” Really. I really thought almost exactly that. Getting a PhD does things to you….

Read More

| | |

Becoming Empathetic through Sociology

Learning sociology helps us to further develop our ability to empathize. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how learning about gangs beyond statistics can help us to develop our own sense of empathy.

One skill that students of sociology should develop and refine through their training is the ability to empathize.

What is empathy? There are two types of empathy: affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy most closely aligns with the sociological imagination. Cognitive empathy “refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions.” The sociological imaganation tasks us with understanding the perspective of other people. Doing this can enable us to understand why people make choices very different from our own.

I assign the book Gang Leader for a Day in my Sociology of Deviant Behavior course. I have three main reasons for assigning this particular book, which I won’t bore you with, but the reason pertinent to this posting has to do with empathy.

Most of my students pick up the book with a strong negative reaction to gangs. They can’t imagine why anyone would choose to join a gang. For most of my students, joining a gang was never an option. There was no gang in their community. They have never met a gang member. To be sure, this does not mean no gang presence existed in their communities, it means they were isolated from gang life. Moreover, while they have lived in communities with limited opportunities, opportunities still exist. For them, joining a gang was never a decision they had to make.

By the time they finish reading the book, they tend to still have negative reactions towards gangs, but most students are also much more empathetic to the reasons why people join gangs. They begin the semester with the attitude that people just have to be strong and refuse to cave to the pressures of joining a gang. That if a person just works hard enough and stays out of trouble, he or she can escape a gang-controlled community. After reading the book, they still may harbor some of this sentiment but they also understand that exercising one’s agency to resist gang involvement is a lot more complicated. Further, some of their assumptions about why people join gangs (e.g., lack of education) are challenged when they learn that some gang members do hold bachelor’s degrees….

Read More


Is Facebook Experimenting On You?

Facebook is messing with your emotions! Let me explain, last week Facebook published the results of a study where they tried to manipulate peoples’ Facebook Wall in an attempt to provoke either a negative or positive emotional response. In this article, Nathan Palmer discusses this study, questions its ethical standing, and explores the fundamentals of research ethics.

Facebook Logo

Facebook is manipulating your emotions. That was the gist of the news stories that broke this week after Facebook published a study on emotional contagion. As Dr. Jenny Davis said in her excellent summary of the study,

  • The data scientists at Facebook set out to learn if text-based, nonverbal/non-face-to-face interactions had similar effects. They asked: Do emotions remain contagious within digitally mediated settings? They worked to answer this question experimentally by manipulating the emotional tenor of users’ News Feeds, and recording the results.

The Wall Street Journal reports that in fact, Facebook has conducted hundreds of experiments on it’s 1.3 billion users with almost no limitations.

For a study about emotions, it sure has created firestorm of emotions itself. The fiercest outrage is coming from those who believe that the study was unethical. Let’s take a second and explore the claims that this study was unethical. To do that we will first need to review how ethical research is conducted and what the basic rules are for ethical research[1].

Read More

| |

Where Research & Drugs Collide

You have to learn how to get high off drugs, that was the big idea in sociologist Howard Becker’s research we talked about last week. If you read that post, I bet you thought we had tapped out all of our collective knowledge about the connections between drugs and sociology, but you would be oh so wrong there my friend. In this piece Nathan Palmer revisits Becker’s work on the social construction of drugs and uses it to illustrate the fundamentals of research questions.

As we briefly discussed last week, Howard Becker argues that drug users often define potentially negative aspects of drug use as either no big deal or as a positive. For instance, drinking alcohol makes it hard to stay balanced, speak clearly, and think. However, we call that getting drunk and we often define these potentially negative drug effects as “fun!” By redefining potential negatives as positive, drug users make drug use seem more attractive. They also make their continued use of the drug seem rational. How about an example?

“The harder you cough, the higher you get.” This idea is not uncommon among the users of marijuana (if you don’t believe me google it yourself). However, if you stop and think about it, does this make any sense? What if someone told you, “the harder you swallow, the drunker you get.” Would you believe them? Probably not. That’s because the mechanical functions of our bodies (i.e. coughing/swallowing) do not produce the high of drug use. THC (which is the narcotic in marijuana) and alcohol in your bloodstream is what alters your physiological chemistry (aka gets you high). But let’s test this idea using the basics of the scientific method.

First we need a research question. Our question could be something like, does coughing increase your high? Inside our research question there are two variables that we want to evaluate. Our first variable is coughing and our second is the sensation of being high. Coughing here is what we call an independent variable (IV) and the high is the dependent variable (DV). A dependent variable is “dependent” so to speak because it depends on the presence of the independent variable to change.

Read More

| | |

Operationalizing Homicide

Are all homicides the same? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains why it is important to understand how variables are operationalized in order to understand how not all homicides are the same when it comes to reporting them. 

Homicide Scene

One step in the research process is operationalizing your variables. Operationalization means defining what your variables actual mean and what they are actually measuring.

While operationalization is critical to a research project, a consumer of research also needs to understand its importance. How variables are defined limits how research results can be interpreted.

Let’s look a bit closer at homicide rates. Some cities are reporting an increase in homicide rates, while other cities are reporting a decline in the 2013 homicide rate for their city.

Alex Tabarrock reports that there is a 25% difference between the lowest and highest reported homicide rates for 2010. He points out that the statistics come from three different reporting agencies (FBI, Bureau of Justice Statistics, and CDC) and that each of these agencies defines (i.e., operationalizes) homicide differently.

While Tabarrock gives a brief explanation of the difference in definitions, I was curious as to how exactly homicide is defined by each agency.

I began my quest by going to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website and typing in the word “homicide” into the search bar. I decided the results “FASTSTATS” would be the best place to start. As I scrolled down the page, there it was, the link I needed: “Injury Definitions and Methods.” But alas, there still was not a clear explanation of how homicide is operationalized by the CDC. The best I can gather is that for the CDC, homicide exists within the category of death from injuries. Death from injuries includes “accidents (unintentional injuries), intentional self-harm (suicide), and assault (homicide)” (here, p. 166)….

Read More

| |

Due to the Lapse in Gov. Funding, This Post Can Not be Written

Last week the federal government failed to fund itself due to a dispute over funding the Affordable Healthcare Act. Federally funded agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control were shut down (with a essential services remaining operational). In additional national parks, monuments, museums, etc. were all shuttered. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains some of the ways the federal government shutdown impacts professional sociologists.

There are many careers sociologists hold once they earn their degrees. I hold a tenured teaching position at a community college where I get to teach sociology among other duties. Many sociologists do not teach or work in higher education at all. Many sociologists work for the federal government.

Sociologists work for the Center for Disease Control, National Institute of Health, the U.S. Census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among other federally funded government agencies.

Whether we work for one of these organizations or not, many of us rely on the data produced by these organizations on a regular basis. One of the posts I was preparing for Sociology in Focus relied on U.S. Census data. I went to their website and saw this:…

Read More