This is Sociology
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This is Sociology

A Short Introduction

Dan Woodman, Steven Threadgold

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eBook - ePub

This is Sociology

A Short Introduction

Dan Woodman, Steven Threadgold

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About This Book

This is Sociology is an engaging, concise introduction to the key concepts used for studying social life. It covers a diverse range of theorists from the rich history of sociology and shows how thinking sociologically can help us understand our lives, the groups we are part of, and the rapid social changes and inequalities that shape contemporary societies. Key features:

  • Uses compelling international examples and a range of theoretical perspectives from across the world, including theorists that have often been omitted from the established sociological canon.
  • Covers topics such as globalization, culture, gender, race, and class.
  • Introduces the latest approaches emerging from efforts to build an inclusive global sociology, one that moves beyond a Eurocentric perspective and is equipped for the challenges of the 21st Century.

The book is essential reading for anyone new to studying sociology and is supported by a wide range of podcasts, videos, and discussion questions.

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1 What is Sociology?

There are almost more ways to do sociology than there are things to make you angry on the internet. Yet across this diversity, sociologists share a particular way of looking at the world. Sociologists use different theories – sets of developed and organised ideas about how social life works – and methods – systematic ways of collecting data about our social lives such as surveys, interviews, focus groups and different kinds of observation – to see beyond taken-for-granted understandings of social life.
Sociologists bring to light hidden dimensions of our lives. Maybe you have a friend who also likes to point out what they see as the hidden dimensions shaping our lives, directing you to websites that ‘prove’ we are ruled by a powerful clandestine elite; they may even be an alien race of lizard people in human disguise. This is no joke. Based on surveys about belief in different conspiracy theories, it seems that at least several million Americans believe that the government is controlled by these lizards. We think this is bunk (sorry to any believers, or reptilian humanoids, who are reading). Sociology and the theories sociologists develop have a strong relationship with data, while lizard queens do not. However, sociology also gives us a way of understanding why conspiracy theories develop. Conspiracy thinking can help people who feel they are being overlooked or condescended to feel that they know something others do not. While there is a sense in which people are manipulated into believing in conspiracies, these ideas are also a source of fun for many adherents (we will cover some of the pleasures of being part of social groups in the coming chapters, as well as the negatives that can emerge from them). More than this, in crucial ways, the theory of reptilian overlords and similar conspiracies exploit, and push to a particular extreme, a tendency to think about the world in a way that is exceedingly common.
People tend to position the causes of patterns in our societies as resulting from the deliberate decisions, attitudes and personalities of individuals, or sometimes a small group of individuals working in cahoots. There must be someone (or some lizard person) to blame and, given the size and complexity of the system being manipulated, they must be extremely powerful. Sociologists provide an alternative way to understand the hidden dimensions that shape our social worlds. The most powerful insights of sociology show that we are all a part of creating the patterns that influence our lives and are constrained by them. This applies to queens and presidents, to sweatshop workers and the homeless, and to those in between (like most of the readers of this book). This does not let the powerful off the hook, it helps us better understand how power works.
When things happen, particularly things that seem good or bad, we tend to think that people have either brought negative consequences on themselves through their choices, or that people have used their power to bring about such consequences for others to benefit themselves (and of course they would want to hide this). This way of thinking particularly characterises individualistic cultures, but to some extent is common around the world. Yet we also recognise that things happen outside of our individual power. In every culture, demands are made of people to fit in and there is some sense that – through fate, luck, divinity, or biology – we are not fully in control of our lives. In some cultures, it is much more common to realise, and even demand, that the individual will is subordinated to the group.
These opposing views are called, on the one hand, voluntarism – where we make decisions and no one can really force us to do anything – and, on the other hand, determinism, where we have no choice and are totally puppets on strings. Sociology takes seriously the question: How free are we to act? And the answer almost every sociologist comes to is ‘not as much as many people think'. For example, in most cases only the very rich around the world can realistically send their children to the world's highest status universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, or Harvard and Yale. Even if you gained the entrance marks, the costs of tuition are beyond most people. Even with a tuition scholarship, the costs of living near these universities in the UK and USA are beyond the means of most people. Could you or your parents afford those high-status options, even if you gained the entrance marks?
Learning to think through a sociological gaze can help you see that we are not as free as we think we are, and this is particularly important in cultures that valorise the notion of freedom of choice. Yet recognising these limitations on us is not what is most valuable about developing what the sociologist C. Wright Mills called the sociological imagination. This is a mindset that uses observation and theory to systematically link what happens in our everyday lives to the changing social contexts in which we live. It is a way to methodically make connections between individual lives and larger social contexts. For Mills, the value of sociology is to see that what seems like personal troubles – the issues and challenges we all individually face – are linked to how we have organised the ways we live together. This helps us recognise that much of what seems like a personal trouble is really a public issue, requiring a collective and political solution. For example, the person waiting for surgery has a private trouble, but if they die on a waiting list for that surgery or because they cannot afford it, there are broader public issues, such as a lack of hospital beds or access to affordable health treatment generally.
Mills was particularly interested in the way we understand employment. Youth unemployment is high in many parts of the world. Sociologists show that it has become harder to find work if you are a young person and that certain regions have much higher rates of unemployment than others. In fact, even if you have not yourself, you probably know a friend or family member who has struggled to find work. Often governments and newspapers focus blame on the apparent failings of the unemployed person as the main reason they are out of work, but sociologists show that the number of jobs available and the expectations employers hold of applicants have changed. There always seems to be many more unemployed or underemployed people than job vacancies. Jobs that members of a previous generation could get without finishing high school often now require it, or even a university degree. These days it's relatively common to see a job advertised as ‘entry level', immediately followed by ‘must have three years’ experience'. This shows that unemployment is a public issue, with social explanations, as much as a personal trouble.
This sociological way of thinking can be difficult to learn because it is often counter to the way we have learned to think about how people act – it makes the normal seem strange – but it is worth the effort because it provides a way to think through seeming paradoxes or contradictions. This includes this division between our capacities to make choices and how our social environment shapes us in profound ways. Instead of voluntarism and determinism, sociologists use the terms agency and structure. We use agency to highlight how within the boundaries of our social context we can make decisions, and even act individually or collectively to change things. However, these actions happen under constraints of various kinds such as laws, traditions, religions, norms, morals and inequalities. More than this, however, it is also important not to think of our social contexts just as constraints. Our agency is also enabled by various elements of the situations we find ourselves in. A law to make killing other people in day-to-day life illegal is a constraint on murderers but allows the general population to live relatively more safely. Our world is often made of unintended consequences. Because the social world is complex and determined by a great many factors, our current actions shape our future action and the action of others in many ways we could not foresee and did not intend.
Understanding the way our lives are structured is central to the sociological enterprise. For sociologists, agency and structure are not opposed. We help perpetuate the norms and rules of the groups we are part of, and sometimes even create them. They constrain what we can do, but without norms and guidelines it is impossible to act.
For instance, think about a lecture theatre at a university. The organisation of space sets up specific ways of behaving that are reliant upon centuries of tradition. In most theatres there is a podium out in front for the lecturer to stand behind, symbolising authority and knowledge. There are almost always uncomfortably small chairs and flip tables, organised in rows for the students to act as audience. We both teach introductory sociology at our respective universities, and the university institution bestows a power on lecturers (which is very nice for us and makes teaching a class much easier). However, this power would not exist if you met us in a different context, such as on the sporting field or in a bar. Most of the time, our students sit and listen, or at least pretend to, and only raise their voices when we ask them a question. If someone does make a noise – their phone goes off or they come down to the front and interrupt – it breaks the social norms that everyone expects and requires an apology from the student or a joke from the lecturer to get the class back on track. In this one everyday situation, a sociological imagination uncovers an array of things – traditions, conventions, roles – that we take for granted, that we tend not to question, all of which could be very different under another set of social circumstance or norms.

The Sociological Imagination

The sociological imagination is a way of thinking that links our lives to the broader contexts in which they occur, connecting our personal experience to the settings and networks of others in which it occurs, through to the most impersonal and seemingly remote changes in the global economy. Developing Mills’ ideas, contemporary sociologists have suggested that a developed sociological imagination asks four types of questions:
  • The Historical: Typical historical questions include: how has the past influenced the present? What can we learn from history about events or trends taking place today? How have events in the past influenced the contemporary way of thinking or acting? What historical experiences cause people to act the way they do?
  • The Cultural: Typical cultural questions include: how does our culture impact on our lives? What influence does cultural tradition have on our social behaviour and interactions? What influence do shared cultural values have on the way people act and think? What effects do particular cultural belief systems have on social trends? How and why do different cultures have different conceptions of what is ‘normal'?
  • The Structural: Typical structural questions include: what role does social organisation play? How do various forms of social organisation and social institutions affect our lives? How does the state of the economy shape our life choices? How does class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, and disability shape our life experiences and opportunities? How do these vary over time and between countries and regions?
  • The Critical: Typical critical questions are: why is it this way? How could things be otherwise? Who benefits from the way things are now? Is there a legacy of injustice visible in how contemporary society is organised? What ‘alternative futures’ are possible? What kinds of knowledge can provide a starting point for social change? What kinds of ‘other voices’ need to be heard in relevant debates about reform?
Let us use the sociological imagination to think about what we call the environment. Today there are severe problems facing humanity across the globe relating to mass extinctions and depleted fisheries, potentially dwindling oil supplies and climate change, soil degradation and food supply, and problems of dealing with waste and pollution. From a historical perspective we could ask: what has led to this situation? What developments and changes have been most responsible for creating these effects? From a cultural perspective we could ask: why have Western societies seen themselves as separate from nature and perceived it as a ‘resource'? Why do some cultures understand themselves as part of the environment and why d...

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