Section 1.1: What is Sociology?

Fundamentals of Sociology - Adam McKee and Scott Bransford

Welcome to the fascinating world of sociology! As you embark on this intellectual journey, you will discover the underlying patterns and forces that shape our social lives. We will endeavor to guide you through this exciting discipline with a vibrant writing style, making it more accessible and enjoyable for students like you. So, let’s dive into the captivating realm of sociology.

Sociology is the study of society. It looks at how people behave, interact, and build relationships in groups and societies. Sociologists discover patterns and structures in our daily lives by studying different parts of society. Understanding these can help us see the world differently, grow our empathy, and bring social change.

At the core of sociology is the idea of the sociological imagination, introduced by C. Wright Mills. This concept helps us see how personal experiences are linked to wider social forces. For example, unemployment might seem like a personal issue, but the sociological imagination shows us it’s also affected by economic policies, technology, and global competition.

Sociology Topics

Sociology covers many topics, from family life to broader areas like education, religion, and politics. In this textbook, you’ll learn about different theories and research methods sociologists use. Here are some key ideas:

  • Culture: This includes shared beliefs, values, and customs that unite people in a society. Culture influences how we behave and see ourselves.
  • Social Structure: This refers to how society is organized, including social classes, gender roles, and power relationships.
  • Socialization: This is how people learn their society’s norms and values. It starts in childhood and shapes our identity and social skills.
  • Social Stratification: This deals with how people are ranked in society based on wealth, power, and status. It shows how resources and opportunities are unevenly distributed.
  • Theoretical Perspectives: Sociologists use different approaches to study society. Some main ones are functionalism (society as a system of connected parts), conflict theory (focusing on power struggles), and symbolic interactionism (how people interact and use symbols).
  • Research Methods: Sociologists use various methods, like surveys, interviews, and observation, to gather detailed information on human behavior and social interactions.
  • Social Change: This looks at how societies transform over time, covering topics like modernization, globalization, and social movements.

This textbook will introduce you to key sociologists and their work, helping you understand society’s complexities.

As you start this journey, stay open-minded and curious. Engage with the material and think about your experiences. This will help you develop a deeper understanding of the social forces around us.

This textbook aims to give you a clear and exciting introduction to sociology. By exploring social life, we hope to spark your curiosity and encourage you to see the world through a sociological lens. Let’s dive into the richness of human experience and work towards a fairer and more inclusive society.

The Search for Patterns

Sociologists explore how individual experiences are shaped by interactions with social groups and society. They understand that personal decisions are not made in isolation. Often, cultural patterns and social forces guide people to choose one option over another. By studying the behavior of large groups facing similar societal pressures, sociologists aim to identify common patterns.

Changes in Family Structures

One intriguing pattern for sociologists is the shift in family structures in the United States. Today’s “typical” families look very different from those in the past, where most families had married parents living with their unmarried children. According to Census data, there’s an increase in unmarried couples, same-sex couples, single-parent and single-adult households. There’s also a rise in extended households, where relatives like grandparents or adult children live together.

Evolving Gender Roles

These changing family structures also show changes in traditional gender roles. While mothers are still the majority of single parents, millions of fathers are raising children alone. Over 1 million of these single fathers have never married. Additionally, many single men and women, as well as cohabitating couples, are choosing to raise children outside of marriage through surrogacy or adoption.

Sociologists’ Role in Understanding Changes

As sociologists study these shifts in family structures and gender roles, they seek to understand the social forces and cultural patterns behind these changes. By looking at the societal context, they gain insights into how individual experiences are influenced by broader social dynamics. This helps them identify general trends in contemporary society.

The Interplay of Personal Choices and Social Pressures

Sociologists recognize the importance of considering both individual experiences and societal influences in their studies. They aim to develop a comprehensive understanding of the complex relationship between personal choices and social pressures. This helps them better understand the diverse experiences of individuals in today’s changing world.

Social Structures

The sociological perspective highlights the inseparable bond between individuals and society, a key idea in sociology. This perspective suggests that studying individuals without their social context, or societies without considering individuals, is ineffective. Norbert Elias, a prominent German sociologist, described analyzing individual behavior and the society influencing it as “figuration” (Elias, 1978).

Figuration in Religion

To better understand figuration, consider religion. Although religion is deeply personal, it exists within a wider social context. A person’s religious practice is shaped by factors like government rules, religious leaders, worship places, rituals, and social norms. These influences show the strong link between individual religious experiences and societal forces.

Examining Religion Through Figuration

Using figuration, sociologists study how social context and individual experiences intersect in religion. They explore how people navigate their religious beliefs within societal constraints and expectations. For example, some follow a faith due to family values or cultural traditions, while others are influenced by religious institutions or political ties.

The Role of Religious Leaders and Institutions

The influence of religious leaders and institutions is key, as they often shape religious experiences by providing guidance and setting moral standards. Sociologists analyze the power dynamics between leaders, institutions, and followers, and how these relationships impact religious practices and beliefs.

Religious Rituals and Social Cohesion

Sociologists also examine how religious rituals and ceremonies reinforce social unity and maintain cultural traditions. Rituals like weddings and religious holidays create shared experiences, fostering a sense of community identity. They also help pass down religious and cultural values, preserving a group’s collective identity.

Religion and Social Change

The relationship between religion and social change is another focus area. Religious beliefs can support or challenge social structures. For instance, religion has been used to justify social inequalities but has also inspired movements for equality and justice, like the civil rights movement in the United States and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

Understanding Religion Through Figuration

By applying figuration, sociologists acknowledge the complex interaction between individual religious experiences and societal forces. This approach helps them better understand how religion influences individual lives and its broader societal implications.

Who Care?

Sociology has captivated scholars since its inception, driven by the desire to enhance knowledge and improve society. Historically, it has contributed to significant social reforms, including desegregation, equal workplace opportunities for women, improved treatment for individuals with disabilities, and reforms in the prison system (Giddens, Duneier, Appelbaum, & Carr, 2017).

Defining a Sociologist: Peter L. Berger’s View

In “Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective” (1963), sociologist Peter L. Berger describes a sociologist as someone devoted to understanding society in a disciplined manner. He highlights sociologists’ interest in pivotal moments and everyday intricacies. He speaks of the transformative “aha” moment when sociological theories profoundly shift one’s understanding and assumptions about familiar scenarios.

Sociology as a Tool for Self and Social Understanding

Sociology enables individuals to recognize their place in society and understand how they are perceived by others. By adopting a sociological perspective, people can see their connections to various groups and understand how classifications like economic status, education, ethnicity, and sexual orientation influence their perception of the social world.

Challenging Simplistic Explanations

Ordinarily, people gravitate toward simple explanations for social phenomena. Sociology encourages a more organized approach to thinking, prompting individuals to formulate deeper questions and answers (Berger, 1963). It cultivates an awareness of diverse perspectives and fosters an ability to understand the world from different viewpoints.

Preparing for a Diverse and Interconnected World

Engaging with sociology enhances the readiness to live and work in a diverse and interconnected global society. It prepares individuals to appreciate and navigate the complexities of the modern social world.


This textbook is an engaging and accessible introduction to the fascinating world of sociology, designed to foster curiosity and encourage students to view the world through the lens of the sociological imagination. By exploring the richness and diversity of human experience, we aim to contribute to the creation of a more equitable and inclusive society.

Sociology, the scientific study of society, offers an in-depth look at human behavior, social interactions, and the intricate relationships among individuals, groups, and societies. Throughout the textbook, readers are introduced to fundamental concepts and theories in sociology, including culture, social structure, socialization, social stratification, theoretical perspectives, research methods, and social change. The book also sheds light on the groundbreaking work of influential sociologists who have significantly shaped the discipline and deepened our understanding of the social world.

By engaging with the material and reflecting on personal experiences, readers will cultivate their sociological imagination, developing a more profound understanding of the social forces shaping our lives. Sociologists strive to comprehend the complex interplay between personal choices and social pressures, analyzing how individuals navigate their beliefs and practices within the constraints and expectations set by their societies. This comprehensive approach enables sociologists to understand better the diverse experiences of individuals living in today’s ever-changing world.

Sociology has played a pivotal role in significant social reforms, influencing areas such as desegregation, equal opportunities for women in the workplace, improved treatment for individuals with mental or learning disabilities, increased accessibility for people with physical handicaps, the rights of native populations to preserve their land and culture, and reforms in the prison system. Engaging with sociology not only fosters an increased willingness and ability to understand the world from different viewpoints but also prepares individuals to live and work in an increasingly diverse and interconnected global society.

Word Count:  1889

Key Terms

Collective Identity, Conflict theory, Culture, Desegregation, Ethnography, Figuration, Functionalism, Globalization, Interviews, Modernization, Participant Observation, Qualitative Research, Quantitative Research, Social Change, Social Cohesion, Social Context, Social movements, Social Phenomenon, Social Reforms, Social Structure, Social Stratification, Socialization, Sociological imagination, Sociology, Statistical Analysis, Surveys, Symbolic Interactionism, Self-classification

References and Further Reading 

  • Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Anchor Books.
  • Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. University of California Press.
  • Bryman, A. (2012). Social Research Methods. Oxford University Press.
  • Elias, N. (1978). What is sociology? New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books.
  • Giddens, A. (1984). The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. University of California Press.
  • Marx, K. (1867). Capital, Volume 1. Penguin Classics.
  • Mills, C. W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press.
  • Parsons, T. (1951). The Social System. The Free Press.
  • Weber, M. (1922). Economy and Society. University of California Press.
  • Berger, P. L. (1963). Invitation to sociology: A humanistic perspective. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  • Giddens, A., Duneier, M., Appelbaum, R. P., & Carr, D. S. (2017). Introduction to sociology. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

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File Created:  05/07/2023

Last Modified:  10/27/2023

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