Viewing the World through a Sociological Lens

Sociology offers a lens through which you can view the world

I’ll never forget the first day of my Intro to Sociology course. I had left Cincinnati, a city of just over 300 thousand, to move to Bushnell, Illinois, which has fewer than 300 residents. I’d purchased my books, grabbed a backpack, and was preparing to try and blend in with the other students, the majority of whom were at least ten years younger. As I brushed my hair that morning, I smiled to myself. I was proud to be back in college after a twelve year hiatus. What I really needed, to go with my new house, in my new town, was a new career! Had I been seeing the world through a sociological lens, that day, I would’ve been better prepared for what happened next.

From City Mouse to Country Mouse

Growing up in a city, I’d learned to use landmarks to navigate. I rarely, if ever, paid attention to street signs. Many years later, when GPS navigation first appeared in vehicles, I remember asking a sales person if I could have a landmark-focused one, preferably narrated by Antonio Banderas. Travelling from Bushnell to Macomb, where Western Illinois University was, required a different approach than the one I’d used previously. I tried to recreate the backroads shortcut I’d been chauffeured through, a few days earlier, which was an abysmal failure. When I ended up at a golf course, I knew something had gone awry.

Distinctions between life in urban and rural areas have been the subject of many sociological studies
Distinctions between life in urban and rural areas have been the subject of many sociological studies

Where had I gone wrong? Left at the cornfield, right at the bean field, turn when you see a cow [remember, this was pre-GPS]. I pulled out the directions that I’d jotted down, earlier, on a piece of paper. They instructed me to take N 1800th Rd, E 1700th St, and N 1650th Rd to E 1600th. Of course, at this point, I didn’t know where any of those streets were. Turning randomly, I headed toward what looked like larger towns. In each town I stopped to ask which way to go next. When I arrived on campus, found my parking lot, and walked to my class, I was a good 20-30 minutes late.

A [Less Than Ideal] Start

I peeked into the classroom. It was a large lecture hall with stadium style seating. Unfortunately, while only half of the seats were filled, it was the outside half. I would have to climb over quite a few people to reach the vacant section in the middle. I decided to quietly slip into the room and park myself on a step. I noticed a few students turning to watch me enter. It’s hard to say whether it was their movement, or mine, that drew her attention. Either way, the silence was abruptly shattered by the sound of books slamming onto a podium. I was crouching onto a step as I turned to see what caused the ruckus. The professor was looking, no… staring, sternly at me. She drew in a long breath and said, in an extremely harsh tone [add a New Jersey accent for accuracy], “Excuse me! Are you here for this class?” Unable to speak, I nodded “Yes”. She followed up with, “See me after!”

The rest of the class was fine, I think. Honestly, I was too worried about how much trouble I’d gotten myself into to pay attention. Looking back, although she was fierce, and could be intimidating, she is among the best professors I ever had the opportunity to work with. In case you’re wondering, she not only forgave me for my intrusion, I’ve used her as a reference for most, if not all of the positions I’ve held since graduation.

Using a Sociological Lens vs. Sociology as a Science

We’re all, to some degree, students of the social world. We’ve spent a lifetime, consciously and nonconsciously, attempting to uncover meaningful patterns, and extract insights, from our interactions with others.  We watch one another, puzzled at times by the behavior we observe. We continuously search for explanations that might reveal other people’s underlying motives. To some degree we’re hoping that our interpretations might allow us to predict what will happen during future exchanges. In other words, we’ve all used a sociological lens, from time to time.

Sociology is the scientific study of interactions and relations among human beings.  It is a broad perspective, encompassing the whole of human behavior, from media to crime to families. One sociologist might study health and healthcare systems, while another is looking at play and leisure activities.

Sociologists cover diverse topics, from incarceration rates to trends in where people go for vacation
Sociologists cover diverse topics, from incarceration rates to trends in where people go for vacation

The distinction between what many of us do, in those moments when we’re seeing the world through a sociological lens, and what sociologists are doing, as researchers, boils down to intention, precision, and methodology. Sociologists are social scientists, who [hopefully] are using rigorous scientific methods in their work.

A sociologist, and a few friends at a pub, may consider the same question, but their approach is dramatically different.

Sociology is the study of social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human behavior. Sociologists investigate the structure of groups, organizations, and societies and how people interact within these contexts. Since all human behavior is social, the subject matter of sociology ranges from the intimate family to the hostile mob; from organized crime to religious traditions; from the divisions of race, gender and social class to the shared beliefs of a common culture.

What is Sociology?
21st Century Careers with an Undergraduate Degree in Sociology
American Sociological Association [ASA]

Natural vs. Social Sciences

The sciences are generally divided into two broad categories, natural science and social science. This socially constructed distinction, among other things, allows people to select from two different educational paths. But the division is not as cut and dry as it may seem. There are grey areas, overlaps, and gaps between the two categories.

The natural sciences are concerned with categorizing, comprehending, explaining, identifying, and predicting events in nature.  Astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, physics, and physical anthropology are all natural sciences.

Social sciences are concerned with categorizing, comprehending, explaining, identifying, and predicting events in the social world. Social scientists examine the various aspects of society. 

Each Field Uses a Unique Approach

A sociologist may specialize in family interactions, higher education, health care systems, religious traditions, social media, or organizational culture. Sociology textbooks cover race, gender, age, and socioeconomic status. But those topics aren’t unique to the discipline. Anthropology and psychology, sociology’s sister sciences, look at the same collection of topics. If we take the topics individually, there is additional overlap. Historians examine the roots of inequality alongside sociologists. Economists, like sociologists, study systems of stratification. Criminal justice and sociology students may sit beside one another in a cross-listed corporate crime course.

Although all social scientists examine aspects of society, each has a distinctive perspective.  Sometimes they’ll diverge in the subject being studied. More frequently, they differ in how the subject is approached. Sociology overlaps, to some extent, with all of the other social sciences. From time to time, the research “crosses paths” in the ways mentioned above, and in other areas. Sociologists incorporate information from other fields, when doing so allows for a fuller understanding of the subject matter under consideration. 

Breaking It Down

The term sociology is derived from the Latin socius, meaning partner, comrade, ally, friend, companion, companionship, or being with others. The root can be found in other words, such as: society, social, socialism, socioeconomic, socio-psychological, socio-political, sociopath, and socialization [the process of passing culture from one generation to the next]. Socius is combined with ology, meaning the scientific study of. 

Sociological studies are concerned, first and foremost, with collective behavior
Sociological studies are concerned, first and foremost, with collective behavior

The Scientific Method in Sociological Research

A science encompasses both intellectual and practical activities which surround the systematic study of “insert topic here”. Science is a collaborative practice, with many people contributing to the larger “body of knowledge”.

Science is one of a few methods of acquiring knowledge about the world. Like the other methods, it has strengths and also limitations. The use of the scientific method requires empirical evidence can be acquired on a topic, that the senses can be used to collect information. Because there is no way to investigate the existence of a supernatural higher power, scientists can neither prove, nor disprove, one’s existence. Scientists can, on the other hand, investigate the impact of belief in a higher power.

Additionally, it’s necessary for variance to be present in order to use the scientific method. In other words, scientists study variables, those factors that either come in multiple forms, or can change from one form to another. More precisely, science identifies, and documents, relationships between variables.

Core Elements in Sociology

Sociology, primarily, focuses on:

  • External, rather than internal, influences that affect behavior
  • Groups, rather than individuals
  • Trends, averages, and aggregates
  • People who are typical, representative of patterns, rather than being statistical outliers
  • Public issues, rather than personal troubles

Using the Sociological Imagination, Being Sociologically Mindful

C. Wright Mills summed up the perspective, the lens that focusing on the aforementioned elements brings, when he defined what he referred to as the sociological imagination. He said that:

The sociological imagination allows us to grasp the connection between history [personal experience] and biography [social context]

C. Wright Mills

If sociology had a motto, it would definitely be, “context matters”

An Introduction, Invitation, to the Sociological Perspective

Students could take, perhaps even excel in, Introduction to Sociology without ever fully grasping the sociological perspective. They learn that sociology is a scientific discipline, along with the three main paradigms, founding figures, and many of the key concepts. But, they often miss that it’s more than that. In addition to being a collection of methods, people, and terms, sociology provides a unique perspective. In other words, using the sociological imagination, being sociologically mindful, entails a particular way of seeing, processing, and making sense of the social world.

Although its the heart of the discipline and is something that runs through, cuts across, the plethora of specializations within the field, the sociological imagination can be elusive, difficult to pin down, at first. In part, because it’s an abstract concept that, for some, represents a radical shift in reasoning.

Sociological mindfulness is the practice of tuning-in to how the social world works. We are all tuned-in to some extent, of course, just by being members of society. But to be truly mindful of the social world we must learn to see it as it is […] We see, for example, how the social world is created by people; how infants become functional human beings; how we are interdependent with others; how people’s behavior is a response to the conditions under which they live; how social life consists of patterns within patterns; how contingencies shape our fate; how appearances are strategically crafted; how power is exercised; how inequalities are created and maintained; and how we create valid and reliable knowledge about the social world.

Michael Schwalbe
The Sociologically Examined Life: Pieces of the Conversation

Sociological Insights: the Big [and Little] Picture

When one is using a sociological perspective, they’re thinking about a topic broadly, historically, and holistically. When using it, we notice what we know, and also what we don’t know. We question our assumptions and those things we’ve been taking for granted, knowing that what we assume or take for granted is largely invisible to us.

We are always participating in something larger than ourselves, and if we want to understand social life and what happens to people in it, we have to understand what it is that we’re participating in and how we participate in it. In other words, the key to understanding social life is neither just the forest nor just the trees. It’s the forest and the trees and how they’re related to one another.

Allen G. Johnson
The Forest and the Trees: Sociology as Life, Practice, and Promise

Culture Shock Minus Geographical Displacement

Those who look at the world through a sociological lens see that although individuals have free will, there are forces, some stronger than others, nudging us in specific directions. They understand that, among other things, the groups we belong to and the positions we hold within those groups, affect our thoughts and behaviors. They influence the way we approach, and interpret, the world around us. A millennial who was the final child born of three siblings will be different, in predictable ways, than a first born baby boomer.

Our statuses, positions in society, shape our thoughts and behavior
Our statuses, positions in society, shape our thoughts and behaviorOur statuses, positions in society, shape our thoughts and behavior

Anthropologists use the term “culture shock” to describe the impact of a totally new culture
upon a newcomer […] The experience of sociological discovery could be described as
“culture shock” minus geographical displacement.

Peter L. Berger
Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective

Why is Sociology So Shocking?

What causes this “culture shock” at home is the realization that our view of the social world is very limited, and often distorted. We, like others, live in bubbles. Sometimes, we’re alone in our bubbles, at other times we share one with our family, friends, or others. Inside our bubbles, we may start to believe everyone’s bubble is the same, or at least more similar than they actually are. More significantly, we might start to believe that the social facts of our bubbles are natural, and unchangeable, in the same way facts about the physical world are.

And this is what I tell my students: step outside of your tiny, little world. Step inside of the tiny, little world of somebody else. And then do it again and do it again and do it again. And suddenly, all these tiny, little worlds, they come together in this complex web. And they build a big, complex world. And suddenly, without realizing it, you’re seeing the world differently.  

Sam Richards

Life, Between the Bubbles

Inside our bubbles, we can forget that we, collectively, created our social worlds. Once we’ve internalized this misconception, we forget two very important things.

First, that we created our social world, and we perpetuate it through our actions and exchanges. Therefore, if we choose to, we could redesign it. There are, minimally, as many options as there are people willing to conceptualize alternatives.

Second, that other people, in different cultures [or groups] may have designed their social world in ways that are opposite or even in opposition to our own. Like us, they are prone to seeing their designs as natural and normal. Much of the conflict between, and within, societies boils down to beliefs about how the social world is, or should be, structured.

If we were to stop, step back, and view these conflicts through a sociological lens, it might not change our perspective of morality, or what we perceive as the best course of action. But, it would likely allow us to see why the “other side” may be thinking and behaving the way they are. It may shed light on some of the reasons they’re interpreting, and interacting with, the world so differently.