Understanding Sociology: A Beginner’s Guide

Hi. I know we’ve just met, but I already like you. I want to give you a piece of info that will make learning sociology a snap. All you need to do is invest five minutes in learning a few key sociology vocabulary words. Words like disproportionately, dichotomy, continuum, and empirical are thrown around left and right in a sociology class, so do yourself a favor and learn them real quick. In this piece, Nathan Palmer will hook you up with a few key vocabulary words that will make it easier to understand any sociology teacher or text.

“… and that’s why some people are poor and others are rich,” I said finishing a nearly 10 minute explanation of how social inequality works in the United States. My four year old daughter had asked, “why are some people poor?” on the way to school and then sat there intently as I delved into the nitty gritty of economic inequality. I kept checking her facial expressions in the rearview mirror and she seemed interested, so I laid it all out. Sitting in her car seat with a furrowed brow she looked perplexed as she asked, “Dad?” Her long pause prompted me, “yeah sweetie?” “What does inequality mean?”

While my students aren’t four year olds, my daughter did remind me that no one can learn sociology if they don’t understand some basic vocabulary. Some grouchy professors would argue that you should, “Look it up yourself!” But I’ll hook you up with a few of the basics here.


Sociology as a discipline is preoccupied with inequality. It’s our niche, so it’s no surprise that sociologists are always talking about how something is disproportionately affecting this group or that one. When something is disproportional it means that it does not reflect the proportions seen elsewhere in society. Here’s an example: A disproportionate number of men are in politics. We can safely say this because while men represent about 49% of the population, in 2011 men held 88% of the nation’s governor positions and 83% of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Another word similar to disproportionate that sociologists use all the time is over-represented and it’s partner under-represented.


A dichotomy is set of two things that are thought to be complete opposites. Examples of dichotomies include hot/cold, yes/no, on/off, light/dark, night/day, etc. As a society we love dichotomies. It’s a quick way to separate things. You are either a boy or a girl. You are either Black or you’re white[1]. For whatever reason, all of us seem to be inclined to see the world (or want to see the world) in neat and separate groups.

However, in reality life isn’t like this. For example, gender can not be split into two opposite groups. We are socialized to believe that boys are naturally masculine and that girls are naturally feminine, but this isn’t true for multiple reasons. First, all boys have feminine characteristics and all girls have masculine. Second, if gender were purely natural, then we would expect humans since the dawn of time to express these natural instincts the same. But we know this isn’t true. Just think of how your mother and father expressed their gender, did you do it exactly the same? Probably not and who is more biologically similar to you than your parents?

Sociologists also like to use the word binary as a synonym for dichotomy. As in, “today many Americans believe in a gender binary.” Binary and dichotomy in this sense mean the same thing.


Imagine a long line with arrows at each end. At the end of each arrow are two different concepts. In between the two poles (i.e. the end of the line) are all the possible values between them. As you move up and down the line you slowly become more of the pole you are moving toward and less of the thing you are moving away from.

Gender actually fits nicely along a continuum. On one end is a purely masculine expression of gender and on the other a purely feminine expression. No one falls on the ends, but some people are more or less feminine/masculine than others. That is, all of us fall somewhere along the continuum from masculine to feminine.[2] Also, on any given day you may express yourself as either more or less masculine or feminine; meaning you can move up and down the continuum.


“If you don’t believe me try it for yourself”. That’s the idea behind the term empirical. When you say something is true (as researchers do when they report their findings) it must be verifiable for it to be empirical.

Empiricism is the central rule of the scientific method. Sociologists are scientists and not philosophers. If you can’t back up your research with verifiable evidence, no one will publish or take seriously your work.

You’re All Set

While these four words aren’t the only vocabulary you’ll need to ace your sociology class, it’s a good start. The best advice I can give you, as a teacher of sociology, is this: if you don’t understand something ask your teacher. Remember that your teacher lives in sociology all day and we can easily forget what it’s like to be a beginning learner. We are here to help. Best of luck with your class.

Dig Deeper

  1. Look in the chapter you are assigned to read this week and find three words you don’t understand. Find their definition and write it down. When you get to class, compare your list with your classmates to expand your vocabulary even more.
  2. Think of 2 other types of dichotomies that are sociological (e.g. Boy/girl). Please choose two that were not discussed in this article.
  3. Where else do we see disproportionalities in society? Think of two examples of something that disproportionally affects a group of people.
  4. Why is it important that sociological research is empirical. What is the risk of just trusting a researcher to be honest?

  1. When discussing race and ethnicity in the United States people disproportionally (see what I did there) think of race as a Black/white thing. However, this is inaccurate and it leaves out Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and completely ignores people who are multi-racial.  ↩

  2. Gender scholars would argue the idea that masculinity and femininity are polar opposites on the continuum is a social construction and really a remnant of the gender dichotomy we talked about above. That said, a gender continuum is far more inclusive and reflective of reality than a gender dichotomy.  ↩