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What is Sociology?      

If you’ve ever wondered what it means to be a real “man” or “woman” or why is it that crack cocaine is considered a worse offense than powder cocaine or why it is you even have to come to college to get a job, you’ve got a sociological imagination.

Sociology systematically thinks about, studies, and understands society, human identities and behavior. It’s interesting how most of us think we have a pretty accurate view of what’s happening, but the truth is we often use our very limited experiences to make sense of the world. For example, we think it’s natural for women to be more emotional than men. However, men are very emotional – that’s what anger is after all -- but because we don’t want to think of men as emotional, our biases prevents us from seeing men in all their emotional glory.

Biases aren’t necessarily bad, but they do prevent us from making accurate assessments of how things work. Sociologists believe the best way to cut down on biases, then, is to stop pretending we don’t have any. Instead, we believe that systematic study and observation is imperative for understanding the world.

Sociology is different in two key ways from other social-scientific approaches to understanding human behavior. First, it places emphasis on the influences of social groups and the larger society. So we’re a bit different from psychology, which primarily studies the individual rather than societal factors in human behavior. For example, a psychologist might be interested in diagnosing a child with ADD or ADHD. A sociologist might wonder why it is ADD has increased over the last 30 years and whether factors like country, gender, race and class affect who is diagnosed with it. In fact, some research shows that schools that require stillness and obedience have a lot to do with the increase diagnosis of ADD in the United States as opposed to European countries.

Second, sociology as a discipline does not focus on certain specific areas of human behavior (for example, like political science and economics), but rather seeks to explain the broad range of human behavior as its influenced by society and social groups. Let’s take the ADD example above, sociologists can ask about the economic implications of diagnosing ADD. Are people getting rich with the increased diagnoses? We can ask the social psychological question of how relationships are harmed or helped by the diagnosis. We can even look at ADD in popular culture to see how the diagnosis has shifted in the media.

What’s important is that when we understand the larger social forces that influence our own behavior and that of others, we can understand the viewpoints of those who are different from us. The reason that’s important is that everyone IS different from us! So we can’t really be just, fair, rational and all the rest unless we fully embrace that not everyone shares the same reality we do!

Through systematically gathering information from different groups, sociology can be a powerful tool for the betterment of communities and organizations. Social activists, policy makers, politicians and other important people are not going to do their jobs well without trying to reduce their bias and they can’t reduce bias without the help of systematic data gathering.

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