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4.3 Is It Sociological?

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify and describe the three key insights that make sociology unique.
  2. Define social location.
  3. Understand the difference between sociological research questions and those of other, similar disciplines.

What is sociology? If you can’t answer that question, then it will be very difficult for you to conduct a sociological research project. It will also be very difficult to impress your friends with your sociology degree or to convince your parents or your partner that the sacrifices that helped put you through college were worthwhile. Even more, it could be quite a challenge to explain yourself and your qualifications to prospective employers if you cannot tell them simply and succinctly what it is you spent your college career studying. So let’s take a moment to consider what sociology is exactly. First, we will attempt to define sociology, and then we will consider how sociology is similar to and different from other disciplines. This exercise should help as we begin to turn our empirical interests into sociological research questions.

What Is Sociology?

As noted in Chapter 1 "Introduction", sociology is the scientific study of humans in groups. But let’s go a little further and think about what makes sociology a unique discipline. There are several key insights that make sociology unique, and keeping these in mind will help you frame your research interest in a way that is sociological. First, sociologists recognize that who a person is and what he or she thinks and does is affected by the groups of which that person is a member. Second, sociologists accept that interaction takes place in a way that is patterned. Finally, sociologists acknowledge that while patterns are important, inconsistencies in patterns are equally important. By considering each of these key insights in a little more detail, we can begin to get a better grasp of what makes sociology unique and what makes the topics that sociologists study sociological.

As noted, sociologists recognize that who a person is and what he or she thinks and does is affected by the groups of which that person is a member. In particular, sociologists pay attention to how people’s experiences may differ depending on aspects of their identities. To help yourself think sociologically, look around you as you are out and about. Do you see people of different racial or ethnic identities from you? Different genders? Different class statuses? How might their experiences differ from yours? How might the very experience you are having at that moment differ for you if you were different somehow? What if you weighed twice as much as you do right now? What if you had green hair instead of brown? Sociologists study what such identities and characteristics mean, how and by whom they are given meaning, how they work together with other meanings, and what the consequences are of those meanings. In other words, sociologists study how people’s social locationsA person’s place in society, generally determined by a combination of aspects of a person’s identity such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and social class status. shape their experiences and their place in society.

Figure 4.4

Next time you find yourself waiting in line, take a look around you. How might the social locations of the people in line with you vary? And how might those locations shape their experiences?

Sociologists also accept that social interaction is patterned. In fact, patterns exist even though the people involved in creating them may not have any conception of their contribution. Because sociologists are interested in aggregates, the individuals who collectively create patterns may be separated by many years or miles. As sociologists, however, we are trained to look for consistencies in social patterns across time and space. For example, societies all over the world have for many years created rules, socialized their members, and produced and distributed goods. It is the consistencies across such processes that sociologists aim to understand.

Of course, inconsistencies are just as important as patterns. When, for example, women began to enter the paid labor force in increasing numbers, sociologists became interested in what forces drove this change and what consequences individuals, families, employers, and societies might see as a result (Wolfbein & Jaffe, 1946).Interestingly, one of the earliest pieces from the American Sociological Review investigating such demographic changes in labor force participation was published in 1946 following the unprecedented influx of women into the labor force during World War II. Questions about how gender and work are intertwined are now so common in sociology that many campuses today offer gender and work courses, and the scholarly journal Gender, Work, & Organization was established in 1994 to distribute research on this topic alone.You can read more about this journal at its website: http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/journal.asp?ref=0968-6673&site=1. Similarly, when mating and dating patterns shifted to include online match services, sociologists did not ignore this new way that humans had found to partner. Instead, they took note of it and considered how it worked, who utilized this new method of matching, and its impact on dating patterns more generally. In fact, according to Sociological AbstractsA database that indexes all major sociological research publications., a database that indexes published sociological research (and which you’ll read more about later on in this chapter), 31 peer-reviewed articles on online dating had been published as of August 2010. As recently as 2004, however, there were no sociological articles on online dating indexed by this database. The increase in publications focusing on online dating very likely had something to do with the changing social landscape. In this case, societal changes, or inconsistencies, drove the sociological research.Want to learn more about the sociological perspective on online dating? Google the name “Pepper Schwartz.” Professor Schwartz is a sexologist and sociologist at the University of Washington whose sociological insights and observations have been featured in numerous magazines and newspapers including Glamour and the New York Times and on television shows such as Oprah. She is also the chief relationship expert for PerfectMatch.com, an online dating site.

Figure 4.5

The increasing popularity of online dating led sociologists to begin to examine this new pattern in mating and dating rituals.

What Is Not Sociology?

In addition to considering what sociology actually is as a way to help identify a sociological research topic, it is worth considering what sociology is not. While the differences between sociology and chemical engineering may be pretty clear, there are other disciplinesA particular course of study; one division of several academic categories. with which sociology shares interests and the lines between these disciplines may get blurred at times. Thinking about sociology’s similarities to and differences from other disciplines can help us frame a research question that is indeed sociological.

For example, many students pursue double majors in sociology and psychology. While the two disciplines are complementary, they are not the same. Consider the topic of gang membership. While a psychologist may be interested in identifying what traumatic personal experiences or emotional state might drive a person to join a gang, a sociologist is more likely to examine whether there are patterns in terms of who joins gangs. Are members of some social classes more likely than others to join gangs? Does a person’s geographical location appear to play a role in determining the likelihood that he or she will join a gang? In other words, psychologists and sociologists share an interest in human behavior, but psychologists tend to focus on individuals while sociologists consider individuals within the context of the social groups to which they belong.

Philosophers and sociologists also share some common interests, including a desire to understand beliefs about the nature of good and bad. But while a philosopher might consider what general or logical principles make up a good or a bad society, a sociologist is more likely to study how specific social realities, such as the presence of gangs in a community, impact perceptions of that community as either good or bad. Other disciplines that share some overlapping interests with sociology include political science, economics, and history. The differences in approaches toward the study of gang membership between sociology and other similar disciplines are summarized in Table 4.1 "Sociology Compared to Similar Disciplines: The Study of Gangs"

Table 4.1 Sociology Compared to Similar Disciplines: The Study of Gangs

Sociology comparison Psychology Philosophy Political science Economics History
Are members of some social classes more likely than others to join gangs? What traumatic personal experiences or emotional states drive a person to join a gang?
Focus: Individuals within the context of groups Focus: Individuals
How does the presence of gangs in a community affect perceptions of that community as good or bad? What logical principles make up a good or a bad society?
Focus: Empirical questions Focus: Ethical questions
How do laws focused on gangs impact different social groups? How have laws focused on gangs developed?
Focus: Relationships between law and other institutions/groups Focus: Political processes in their own right
How does the presence of gangs influence the well-being of families and children in a community? How does the presence of gangs influence a community’s financial well-being?
Focus: Relationships between economy and other institutions or groups Focus: Economy in its own right
How have structural changes in society shaped the ways that gang-related incidents occur and are handled? How can we explain the origins and consequences of one specific gang-related incident?
Focus: Shifts in the patterns of social life Focus: Specific historical events

Key Takeaways

  • Sociology is unique in its focus on the combination of social context, patterns, and social change.
  • Though similar to several other disciplines, there are distinct features that separate sociology from each discipline with which it shares some similarities.

Exercises

  1. Take a look around you the next time you are heading across campus or waiting in line at the grocery store or your favorite coffee shop. Think about how the very experience you are having in that moment may be different for those around you who are not like you. How might the amount of social space you take up differ if you were a different gender? How would a change in your physical capabilities alter your path across campus? Would you interpret the stares from the child sitting in her parents’ cart at the grocery store differently if you were a different race? What do your answers to these questions tell you about your social location?
  2. Think about all the classes you have taken over the course of your college career. What disciplines have you learned about? How are those disciplines similar to sociology? How do those disciplines differ from sociology? Now consider a topic that you might be interested in conducting research on. How would a sociologist think about your topic? How would a person studying another discipline approach your topic?