Humans are social creatures and live every moment under the influence of our society. How we think, how we act, what we say, what we wear – everything – is determined by our interactions with others. We live our lives as a part of a group, and we assimilate ourselves based on the norms of the group. These groups can be anything from as big as American society to as small as a family.
The American Sociological Association defines sociology as “an overarching unification of all studies of humankind, including history, psychology, and economics.” Studying sociology gives you the opportunity to study how almost anything affects society or groups. Because everything we do is determined by and affects a group, anything can be studied through the sociological lens.
Major Fields of Study
As indicated above, the sociological perspective can be used to investigate literally any and all groups, societies, or individuals. There are, however, a few major fields of study that have been traditional focuses of the discipline and can be used as broader classifications. Some of these include:
- Social stratification and mobility
Why is Sociology Important Today?
As a whole, the aim of sociology is to understand society in order to better social welfare. For a concrete example of how sociological knowledge has been important for American society, we can look at the study of social deviance and how it has influenced advancements in our prisons and social programs.
Social deviance is studied by identifying a “counter-culture,” and studying why they are different from the norm and how deviating from the norm affects them and the society at large. This information is vitally important if the society is interested in correcting the behavior that is considered deviant.
For example, understanding why and how violent street gangs form is essential to preventing them from growing or even starting. Sociology has taught us that kids in unstable family situations or in dangerous neighborhoods turn to gangs in order to be a part of a “family” that can protect them. This has lead to the formation of institutions like The Boys and Girls Club and the construction of athletic spaces in at-risk areas where kids can find solid foundations and relationships without having to turn to gangs.
In prisons, programs are often offered to teach inmates a skill or allow them to get an education. This comes from the knowledge that many inmates are in prison because a lack of skills or education leads them to commit crimes in order to make a living. If we give a drug dealer a high school education and a marketable skill to take into the work force, he will be less likely to offend again. Instead of simply punishing an offender, we can use sociology to take constructive steps to prevent crime in the future. Understanding the “how” and “why” of any part of society can offer similar benefits. Using the information from sociological studies can help us make informed decisions about our actions as a society.
Sociology is also used in almost every political debate or campaign in the country. In the recent health care debates, both sides used information from studies and polls to bolster their claims. If you read any news article, or watched any program on TV discussing the 2008 presidential debate, you saw sociology at work. There was poll after poll about public opinion, studies about health care costs and how those costs affect families and hospitals. Researchers and pollsters used sociology to get this information, and our lawmakers and reporters used it to support their point of view.
Additionally, sociological studies can be used to begin conversation about policy. In 2010, a study was released by the journal Pediatrics that indicated children of lesbian parents were better adjusted socially than their heterosexual parented peers. In a time when the rights of homosexuals are debated, studies such as these are very important to refute claims that children with homosexual parents somehow suffer psychologically. If more studies such as these are conducted, the results can have a huge impact on the public’s perception of homosexuals, which will ultimately lead to changes in laws and policy concerning them.
Careers in Sociology
Sociologists interested in a career in conducting research become professional social scientists. In order to get funds to pay for their research and living expenses, they can earn grants from the government, universities, special interest groups, or philanthropies.
Aside from conducting research on their own, studying sociology can also prepare you for careers in:
- Human resources
- Social work
- Family therapy
- Public relations
- Market research
A case study: The Process of a Professional Sociologist
As discussed earlier in on this webpage, studies of deviance have shed light on some of the best ways to handle inmates so they do not reoffend. But how do sociologists go about getting this information? Here’s a quick overview of how you, as a sociologist, might conduct a study and get your findings published.
Start with a theory
All scientific research starts with a theory. In this case, it might be “Inmates who leave prison with a marketable skill will be less likely to reoffend.”
Outline research techniques
How are you going to gather your information? For this research, case studies may be most appropriate. Case studies are in-depth interviews and observations that take place over long periods of time. Using this technique, you will get the most detailed picture of an individual’s life over time.
There are several ways to get funding for your research. You may receive grants from the government, a university, or a special interest group. For all grants, you will need to present a grant proposal, which, among other information, will need to include your theory and research techniques.
You need to find individuals in prison who are willing to be interviewed over time for your research. You will put your subjects into two groups: one control group that will not receive work training, and one group who will. This will allow you to observe how those with training do outside prison in comparison to those who do not receive training. You can then interview them in prison and once they have left.
Some questions you may want to ask are:
- Why did you join a gang, start selling drugs etc..
- Would you be willing to find legal employment if given the tools to do so?
- Why did you go back to selling drugs, joining the gang after your release?
- Analyze information
Once you have your information from interviews, you can use it to support or debunk your hypothesis. For example, if the subjects with work training had reoffended at a lower rate than those who didn’t have work training, you have supported your theory. Additionally, the interviews you conducted may give more insight into why they did or did not reoffend.
Publish your findings
There are a number of ways to publish your findings; one way is in a sociological journal. Once you have analyzed your data and written an in-depth article you can submit your research to a journal. If they use it, your research will be read by the sociologists who subscribe to the journal and anyone interested in the topic who looks through a library or online. Your findings could also be picked up by news organizations or given to politicians to influence reform.
If you are interested in becoming a sociologist or social scientist, request information from schools offering degree programs in psychology or sociology.