Lecture: What is Sociology

Sociology is the systematic study of social behavior and human groups. But what does that really mean???

A. Systematic Study:
1. Here systematic = scientific
Science refers to two elements:
a) The application of systematic methods to obtain knowledge and
b) The knowledge obtained by those methods
Hence, there is both a specific process (the scientific method) and a body of knowledge that results from the use of that process.

2. As social scientists, we are pushed to become "critical thinkers". We hear this term frequently as a goal of learning, but what exactly does it mean???
Critical thinking is
a) The willingness to ask absolutely ANY question (no matter how difficult or uncomfortable);
b) To be open to any answer that is supported by empirical evidence;
c) To confront our own biases when they get in the way or disagree with the empirical evidence.

3. There are two types of sciences: the Natural Sciences (or "hard" sciences) and the Social Sciences (or "soft" sciences).
a) Natural sciences attempt to comprehend, explain, and predict events in our natural environment.
b) Social sciences attempt to objectively understand the social world, and include the following
1) Political Science: focuses on politics or government
2) Economics: analyzes the production, distribution, and allocation of material goods and services of a society
3) Anthropology: focuses on understanding culture
4) Psychology: concentrates on processes that occur within the individual
5) Sociology: examines all social institutions, focuses on industrialized societies, and looks at external factors that influence people.
and 6) History - sometimes considered a social science and sometimes not.

c) Sociology is involved in the study of the social forces that lie behind the profound changes taking place today. The central task is to figure out how the social world is organized and maintained in order to understand how people create and change their social world.

4. Sociology vs. Common Sense
We all have experiences with social behavior and we all have some knowledge about social groups. We must however, differentiate between "common sense" understandings of our social world and a "sociological" perspective. Common sense is grounded in our personal experience, yet it may not be reliable or accurate when thinking about whole groups or a population. A sociological perspective, in contrast, reflects a systematic analysis of facts.

Common sense (for some people) suggests that women on welfare have large numbers of children, many more than the "normal" women who don?eceive welfare.
Fact: Welfare recipients actually have a lower birthrate than women in the general population.

In general, sociology differs from common sense because we must hold our opinions and assumptions up to the test of empirical evidence.

B. Social Behavior
We understand now why it is important to distinguish sociology as a scientific study, but why does the textbook definition put an emphasis on "social behavior"?
Describing and explaining the causes of social behavior is the job of sociologists. Sociologists ask descriptive and causal questions at two different levels of analysis, or two different levels of social reality. They are:
1. Macro level - focuses on large-scale phenomena at the societal level.
2. Micro level - focuses on small groups and/or individual interactions.

C. Human Groups
Why not end the definition of sociology with the scientific study of social behavior? Why do go on to include "human groups"?
This to illustrate the fact that when we look within a particular society, such as the United States, it is NOT homogeneous. Instead, it is made up of many groups that have different levels of power, wealth and influence that result in varied patterns of behavior. When we compare the U.S. to other countries around the world, we also see that there are differences. Therefore, this last part of the definition hints at the three main questions that motivate sociological research.
1. Diversity: How can we understand those that are "different" from us? In what ways do people differ from each other and why?
2. Globalization: Are we moving towards unity or separation?
3. Inequality: Who gets what and why?

D. Now that we know what sociology is, what is the purpose of our learning anything about it in this class?
The purpose of this class is for you to develop a sociological perspective, what academics call the "sociological imagination." This term was developed by a famous sociologist named C. Wright Mills. It refers to the intellectual ability to see how structural forces affect our individual lives and behavior. Specifically, it is the capacity to see things from perspectives that go beyond our personal experience. We want to learn to see: 1) how social forces influence our individual experiences, and 2) how our experiences fit into the larger pattern of social action.

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