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.
- How is this situation affected by how society is structured?
- How is what’s happening today a result of what happened in the past?
- What categories of people dominate in society and how is this changing?
- How could things be different?
1. How is this situation affected by how society is structured?
Societies have structure. Individuals often do not behave randomly, but instead they behave in reaction to the structures that govern their day to day lives. The legal justice system, the education system, the economic system, and so on create rules and expectations that guide individual choices and behaviors.
To fully understand any individual person or situation, you have to consider how social structure affected the person/situation. When we don’t consider the social structure that surround others, we are prone to think they behave the way they do because they are irrational or crazy or evil. “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” To be a sociologist is to search for the reasons of others.
2. How is what’s happening today a result of what happened in the past?
Humans are both affected by yesterday’s history and the creators of tomorrow’s history (Giddens 1983). In many ways what we each of us does today is heavily influenced by what has happened in the past. To fully understand any individual person or situation, you have to consider what led either to this point. We have to understand their personal history, the history of their family, their community, their society, and even the history of the world. At the same time, we must remember that we are not at the mercy of history. Humans have the ability to make new choices, divert from the path, and decide to do something new today.
Here again, when we ignore the history surrounding an individual or situation, either can look irrational or like it came “out of nowhere.” In the search for the reasons of others, the answers are often found in the history that surrounds them.
3. What categories of people dominate in society and how is this changing?
Societies create categories of people. People are divided up into groups based on race, gender, class, sexual orientation, nationality, and so on. Often both the similarities of people within the category and the differences between people across categories is exaggerated.
All societies have some form of hierarchy (i.e. a system to decide who has power over whom). Social categories are often used to place people within a hierarchy and thus some categories are privileged and others are oppressed. Simply put, some categories of people dominate other categories of people. Life chances are not evenly distributed.
To fully understand any individual or situation, you have to understand how either is socially categorized and where this places them within social hierarchies. To be a sociologist is to ask, who has social power here?
4. How could things be different?
To fully understand any individual or situation, you have to understand how things could be different. It’s a lot easier to see how things got this way, when we consider how things could’ve been different. Furthermore, once the people of a society know how things got this way, they can make changes to improve their future.
To be a sociologist is to be critical of the way things are. Sociologists ask “why” and perhaps more importantly, they ask “why not?”
- I would like to invite you to scrutinize my four questions with your sociological imagination. How did social structure, history, and social power affect me as I constructed these questions? Could they be different? Just a little about me: I am a 34 year old white, middle-class, educated, heterosexual man who teaches sociology at Georgia Southern University.
- Pick any social issue. Describe how you could better understand your selection by considering, “how this situation was affected by how society is structured?” Explain your answer.
- Pick any social issue happening today. Describe how what we see happening today is the result of what has happened in the past?. Explain your answer.
- In your own words, what does it mean to have social power? What evidence could we look for to decide which categories of people are dominating a society?
- Berger, Peter. 1963. An Invitation to Sociology. New York, NY: Penguin.
- Giddens, Anthony. 1983. Sociology: A Brief but Critical Introduction. London: MacMillan.
- Ruggiero, Vincent R. 1996. A Guide to Sociological Thinking. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Willis, Evan. 2004. The Sociological Quest. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.