The Basic Basics
In this part . . .
What is sociology? It’s not a term that usually comes up during dinner-table conversation, and most people have only a vague idea of what it’s all about. By the end of this part, you’ll know what sociology is, where it comes from, what sociologists do, why they do it, and how they do it.
Sociology: Getting Your Head around It
In This Chapter
Seeing the world as a sociologist Understanding differences among people and groups Looking at social organisation Appreciating your own sociological insights
You may be holding this book because you’re enrolled on a sociology course for your A-Levels or at university, or are thinking about studying sociology. You may be wondering if sociology can help you in your job; you may just be curious about different ways of looking at society; or you may be wondering about sociology for a different reason. Whatever the reason, you’re reading this book because you want to know more about this thing called ‘sociology.’
In this book, we explain the basics of sociology: what it is, how it’s done, and what it’s good for. Along the way, we do mention a lot of specific findings that sociologists have made, but our main goal is to tell you about sociology, not about society. After you understand the basics of sociology, you can roll up your sleeves and get online or into the library to see what sociologists have learned about any given place or time.
This chapter provides a road map to the rest of the book. In this chapter, we summarise the book and explain the basic ideas that this book will cover. We’ve organised the book to proceed from basic concepts to more specific topics, but the chapters are designed to stand alone, so you may not want to start right at the beginning.
Whatever path you take through this book – and through sociology generally – we hope you’ll enjoy it and find the topic of sociology as fascinating as we do.
In Part I of Sociology for Dummies, we explain the fundamentals of sociology: what it is, how it came to be, and how it’s done.
In a nutshell, sociology is the scientific study of society. Sociologists use the tools and methods of science to understand how and why humans behave the way they do when they interact together in groups. Though social groups – or societies – are made up of individual people, sociology is the study of the group rather than of the individual. When it comes to understanding how the individual human mind works, sociologists largely leave that up to psychologists.
Most people who call themselves ‘sociologists’ work in universities and colleges, where they teach sociology and conduct sociological research. They ask a variety of questions about society, sometimes wanting answers just for the sake of curiosity; however, many times their findings are used to inform decisions by policymakers, executives, and other individuals. Many people who study sociology go on to conduct sociological research outside of academia, working for government agencies, think tanks, or private bodies. Accurate, systematic study of society is in one way or another useful to just about everyone.
The history of sociology
Sociology is considered one of the social sciences – along with economics, psychology, anthropology, geography, and political science (among others). The social sciences were born in the 18th and 19th centuries, as people began applying the scientific method to human life and behaviour. The world was changing dramatically and quickly as industrial production replaced agriculture, as democratic republics replaced monarchies, and as city life replaced country life. Realising how many great insights science had lent regarding the natural world, people decided to try to use the same method to understand the social world.
Among the social sciences, sociology has always been unique in its ambition to understand the entire social world – considering all its aspects in combination rather than in isolation. It’s a daunting task, and one that sociologists are still struggling with today.
The most important early sociologists had clear ideas about how to study and understand society; these ideas still form the basis for much sociological investigation and discussion today. Karl Marx emphasised the importance of physical resources and the material world; he believed that conflict over resources is at the heart of social life. Emile Durkheim emphasised cooperation rather than conflict: He was interested in the shared norms and values that make cooperative social life possible. Max Weber took ideas from both Marx and Durkheim and argued that both conflict and cooperation, both material resources and cultural values are essential to social life. (See Chapter 3 for more on Marx, Durkheim, and Weber.)
Over the past century, sociologists have continued to debate the early sociologists’ ideas and have applied them to specific societies all over the world. Thanks in large part to the influence of ‘the Chicago School’ of sociologists in the early 20th century (see Chapter 3 for more on them), sociologists today pay close attention to small groups and person-to-person interaction as well as to the grand sweep of social history. Today, sociologists appreciate that the big questions and the little questions regarding society are interlinked, and that you can’t understand the macro (the big) without also understanding the micro (the little).
From a scientific perspective, society is a very difficult subject to study: It’s huge, complex, and always changing. A perennial challenge for sociologists is to develop ways to accurately observe society, and to test hypotheses about the way it works.
Fundamentally, sociological research proceeds along the same lines as scientific research in any discipline: You decide what you’re interested in, see what other researchers have learned about that subject, ask a specific question, and find data to answer it; then you analyse those data and interpret your results. The next researcher to be curious about the topic takes your results into consideration when they conduct their own study.
Seeing the World as a Sociologist
To help make sense of the very complicated social world, sociologists have develope...