Introduction to Sociology
eBook - ePub

Introduction to Sociology

Frank van Tubergen

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  1. 512 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Introduction to Sociology

Frank van Tubergen

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About This Book

Comprehensive and engaging, this textbook introduces students not only to foundational sociological work, but also to insights from contemporary sociological theory and research. This combined approach ensures that students become familiar with the core of sociology: key concepts, theories, perspectives, methods, and findings. Students will acquire the ability to think like a sociologist, investigate and understand complex social phenomena.

This text presents a complete sociological toolkit, guiding students in the art of asking good sociological questions, devising a sophisticated theory and developing methodologies to observe social phenomena. The chapters of this book build cumulatively to equip students with the tools to quickly understand any new sociological topic or contemporary social problem.

The textbook also applies the sociological toolkit to selected key sociological issues, showing how specific sociological topics can be easily investigated and understood using this approach. Taking a global and comparative perspective, the book covers a rich diversity of sociological topics and social problems, such as crime, immigration, race and ethnicity, media, education, family, organizations, gender, poverty, modernization and religion.

The book presents a range of helpful pedagogical features throughout, such as:

  • Chapter overview and learning goals summaries at the start of every chapter;

  • Thinking like a sociologist boxes, encouraging students to reflect critically on learning points;

  • Principle boxes, summarizing key sociological principles;

  • Theory schema boxes, presenting sociological theories in a clear, understandable manner;

  • Stylized facts highlighting key empirical findings and patterns;

  • Key concepts and summary sections at the end of every chapter; and

  • Companion website providing additional material for every chapter for both instructors and students, including PowerPoint lecture notes, discussion questions and answers, multiple-choice questions, further reading and a full glossary of terms.

This clear and accessible text is essential reading for students taking introductory courses in sociology. It will also be useful for undergraduate and graduate courses in other social science disciplines, such as psychology, economics, human geography, demography, communication studies, education sciences, political science and criminology.

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Part 1

Thinking like a sociologist

Chapter 1


Chapter overview
Science starts with curiosity, with raising questions about what’s happening and why. Questions are at the very beginning of any research, and the kind of questions scientists ask more or less defines their discipline. There are many different scientific disciplines, however, such as physics, biology, psychology, anthropology and sociology. So what sort of questions, then, do sociologists ask? This chapter is about sociological questions: what they are, what makes good questions and how they differ from questions in other disciplines. As we will see, underlying sociological questions is a certain perspective, which is called the “sociological perspective” and the “sociological imagination”. I explain how the sociological view differs from an individual perspective on human behavior (1.1). Then I discuss how sociological questions are related to social problems, which are often the main starting point for sociological research (1.2). After this, I introduce the three aims of sociology, namely to accurately describe social phenomena, to understand underlying processes and to apply sociological insights (1.3), and we will see that these three aims concur with three types of sociological questions—descriptive, theoretical and application questions (1.4). I then review the art of asking good sociological questions (1.5). Subsequently, I bring in the idea that all human beings are “private sociologists” themselves, as they participate in social life continuously and wonder every day about what’s happening and why. At the same time, however, this does not mean that sociological questions and insights are common sense. I discuss why people sometimes mistakenly think so and what this means for “academic sociology,” i.e., the scientific study of social life (1.6). I end with a discussion of sociology as a cumulative science, i.e., theories and observations of earlier studies are incorporated in the work of successive sociological studies (1.7).

Learning goals

After reading this chapter, check if you are able to:
  • Describe the difference between sociological and individual perspectives on human behavior.
  • Explain what is meant by proximate and ultimate causes of human behavior.
  • Describe the difference between micro, meso and macro level.
  • Describe the similarities and differences between a social problem and a social phenomenon.
  • Describe the three aims of sociology.
  • Differentiate between normative and scientific questions.
  • Formulate descriptive, theoretical and application questions.
  • Reformulate ill-defined questions into more precise questions.
  • Describe the meaning of societal and scientific relevance.
  • Describe how private sociologists differ from academic sociology.
  • Describe how cumulative sociological science works.

1.1 The sociological perspective

When you look around, at your friends, family and other people you know, it might sometimes strike you how much people differ from each other in what they possess, how they think and the things they do. You might know some people, I guess, who are wealthy and have a high social status and you might also know others who are less affluent. You might also know people who uphold norms and values that you don’t share, and people who do not go to university like you, or who spend more (or less) time with friends and family than you normally do. You might also have noticed how similar people are sometimes. People who share the same religion and lifestyle, for example, or who have the same political preferences.
How could we understand the fact that sometimes people differ in their behavior? And why do some people resemble each other? In short: how can we explain human behavior? In answering these questions, sociologists take a specific perspective. To illustrate what this perspective entails, let’s take an example of a phenomenon they study: obesity. Why are some persons obese and others not? Before answering this question, we need to be clear what we mean by “obesity.” The World Health Organization (WHO) defines obesity as “abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health” (WHO, 2015) and it uses the Body Mass Index (BMI), which is a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of that person’s height in meters, to classify overweight (BMI ≄ 25) and obesity (BMI ≄ 30). According to ­statistics of the WHO 39% of adults aged 18 years and over across the world were ­overweight in 2014 and 13% were obese.
Thinking Like a Sociologist 1.1
How would you explain that some people are obese and others are not? What would be the reason do you think?
Let’s make things simple and say we know one obese person. Let’s call him John. Then assume we know another person who is not obese: Kaito. We can ask ourselves: why is John obese and not Kaito?
One explanation could be that John eats too much and that he is having too little physical exercise. Maybe Kaito takes more care about his food intake than John and he goes to work by bike instead of by car as John does. One could argue that a lack of “self-control” is the cause of John’s obesity, which means that John is eating impulsively too often and cannot control his short-term desires for food intake—unlike Kaito. Or, maybe, it is that John has a negative self-concept and feels some relief from his “mental pain” by eating, whereas Kaito does not suffer from this. Another explanation for why John is obese could be that brain or body dysfunctions play a role; genetically inherited dispositions that make John more vulnerable to being overweight than Kaito.
Suppose that one day, John becomes dissatisfied with his extreme overweight and wants to lose weight. What could he do? We identify several possible explanations for his obesity and the first step to be taken is to discover the exact cause in the case of John. Is it indeed a lack of self-control from which John suffers? Does he have a negative self-concept or is something else the cause of his obesity? Maybe it appears that not just one but a combination of factors causes his excessive overweight. Having identified the causes, John could then take action and try to reduce his body weight. One solution to do something about the excessive overweight could be that John uses a self-help book and follows its suggested treatment program. In fact, such self-help books (“lose weight in eight weeks!”) are popular nowadays and used by many as an attempt to control their eating behavior. Another way for John to combat his obesity is to ask for the help of a dietitian regarding the right food intake. Or he could start psychological therapy to increase his self-control and gain a more positive self-concept.
This example gives you an idea of how one could explain human behavior. And it gives clues about possible remedies and treatments as well. All the explanations for obesity seem plausible and its corresponding solutions and treatment programs might indeed work. It is, however, important to realize that the explanations for obesity and its corresponding “solutions” take a specific perspective. What they have in common is that they frame John’s ­overweight as an individual problem. This means that the causes of John’s extreme overweight are to be found in his individual characteristics, like his personal eating pattern, his own lack of self-control, his negative self-concept and/or his biological disposition. And, given these individual causes, the solutions and treatments should be targeted towards the individual and therefore can differ from person to person. This, in short, is called an individual ­perspective on the causes and treatments of obesity, and indeed one could use such an individual perspective to explain any kind of human behavior.
individual perspective type of explanation of human behavior which focuses on individual causes.
Sociologists, by contrast, adopt a different perspective on human behavior. They do not deny that there are individual causes of obesity and they are aware of the merits of individual treatments. That said, they would come up with different explanations and solutions. The unique perspective taken by sociologists is to understand the behavior of persons by considering their social context. Classic sociologists such as Durkheim, Weber, Simmel, Marx and Engels emphasized this particular way of looking at human behavior. The American sociologist C. W. Mills famously coined the term sociological imagination to signal that the task for sociologists is to identify social causes of human behavior (Mills, 2000 [1959]). Thus, the sociological perspective seeks to explain human behavior by the social contexts individuals share. In short, it identifies social causes as opposed to individual causes.
sociological imagination (also sociological perspective) type of explanation of human behavior which focuses on social causes.
social context social environment in which people are embedded.
What might this “social context” be? One particular context which sociologists frequently study is the country in which people live. If the country, as a social context, plays a role in understanding obesity, then we should expect to see that countries differ in how many people are obese. Is this indeed the case? To answer this question we can again consult data provided by the WHO, but now differentiated by country (WHO, 2016b). Table 1.1 presents the ...

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