This post is excerpted from Michael's Sociology 287 course at Athabasca University. To find out more, visit the course home page.
So here you are, a student with a sociology textbook in one hand and this “primer” in the other, ready to study sociology.
It’s a big step you are taking, making the plunge to study sociology. It’s a grand journey that you seek to undertake. You see, this study of sociology is no ordinary voyage. The truth is, you are embarking on a journey that takes you into the depth and heart of the world that surrounds you not merely as an observer and not merely as a participant, but as a creator. You see, sociology is basically the study of the world that we (and be “we” I mean human beings) create. Sociology takes a look at the world as we (as you) have created it.
Now I know what you’re thinking (or at least I like to think I do). You are thinking, “Well that’s all very fine and good for you sociologists, but ‘I’ didn’t create this world that I live in. I was born into it! It was there “as is it” when I came into existence. Other people structured this world,” you are saying, “and I didn’t have a lot of choice or power over it at all.” If you are thinking these thoughts you are, of course, correct. The world “as it is” was there when you were born and nobody asked whether you liked it or not. You were plopped into this world’s institutions and ways of existing and nobody asked your opinion about it. Indeed, as soon as you were born you were inserted in the world, into the system, according to some other person’s preferences. Nobody asked you what you wanted. As soon as you were born you were assigned a gender (if you have a penis the nurse assigned you to the male gender by putting a blue blanket on you to identify you as male, and vice versa) . Once your gender was assigned, you were handed you off to your parents for socialization. Then, in the years that followed, you learned from your parents, teachers, friends, television, and maybe even the police all about “the rules” of the social order. It was a gradual process, and you may only be becoming aware of the social order now, but even so, and contrary to what I say in the opening, you were in fact inserted into a family, culture, and society that you did not choose, assigned a gender that you did not agree to, and trained in rules, values, norms, and culture before your brain was big enough to know, care, choose, or even resist what was going on. Clearly you did not create the world that you live in.
Just because you were merely plopped into a world that was pre-made, and taught (I would say forced) to live and learn pre-existing rules, norms, routines, and so on, does not mean you don’t create the world around you, because you do. It may not be obvious to you at the start, but it is a fact. As soon as you start “following the rules” and “playing the game” you begin to participate in the creation and re-creation of the social world around you. And it doesn’t take that long to become part of the process. By the time you are four you have already begun to provide supports for “the system.” You have learned the gender rules, for example, and are by that time a “willing participant” (some might say “puppet”) in the adoption and enforcement of gender norms, values, and rules. You play with blue toys if you are a girl and pink toys if you are a boy, and you begin to think and act as such. You thus recreate the system by your tacit and unconscious acceptance of the rules. Of course, who can blame you. At the shiny new age of four you hardly have the intellectual capacity to know what is going on, but that is not the point. The point is that by your acceptance of the rules and your actions and behaviours, you create and recreate the system . And it is not that you are just a system creator, you are also a System Enforcer. Even at the age of four you police the boundaries! When others around you violate the pre-established rules of gender, i.e. if a boy acts to effeminate or a girl wants to play with trucks and cars, you enforce the rules. You yank the truck away from the tomboy or laugh at the girly man boy. You point fingers and whisper, and you sometimes get violent and aggressive. Whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, you are creating, recreating, and actively enforcing the system. You are not a passive receptacle of the system; you are an active creator of this world!
And it is not just gender you enforce. By the time you are grown up, your enforcement of the rules and re-creation of the social order extends to every aspect of life and to every institution that you participate in. You act like a student, you act like an employee, you act like a member of the “faithful” (maybe you go to Church), and you act like a good citizen of a functioning liberal democracy. You follow all the rules, you do all the right things, and if somebody else steps out of line, you step in to save the day. This is the society we live in and you are the captain of its direction. This is how the social order is maintained and preserved. This is how society goes on from decade to decade. Each generation is assigned and selected, fit in and taught, and each generation steps in and accepts and creates the social order anew. Of course, as a teenager you might rebel. As a teenager you might look at the world and say “WHAT?” As a teenager you might see it is all messed up and you might want to pull out, reject, or even try and change things. But the system is powerful and by the time you are thirty you have generally settled down, picked your place, and become part of the world as it is.
Now please understand that I’m not making a judgment here about whether your actions in re-creating the social order are right or wrong. That is something that you can decide for yourself. As a sociologist, I’m just pointing out that despite the fact that you weren’t asked and you didn’t know, nevertheless you come to accept and then recreate the world around you. It is imposed on you at first, but eventually you become an active participant in creating the social order.
We all do.
We all “grow up” and learn to fit in. We all learn to follow the rules, act according to institutional parameters, and in so doing we re-create the institutions of our social order. It’s what we do. It’s what we’ve always done. Since as far back as our hunter-gatherer ancestors, human beings have created and re-created their societies. And that is what sociology is! That is what sociology is interested in. Sociology is interested in the world that you have created. If we were to define sociology I would say that sociology is the scientific study of the world that we create.
Sociology is the scientific study of the world that we create
Now, I don’t know about you, but for me, that makes sociology pretty special. The fact that sociology takes as its starting point the society that we create (i.e., the social order) is what attracted me to sociology in the first place. Before I got into sociology, I had tried several disciplines. I tried engineering, chemistry, and I took an extended jaunt into psychology; but, I was never really excited by the materials in those other disciplines as I was with sociology. Indeed, I cannot remember my engineering or psychology classes, but I do remember my first-year sociology course, taught by John Conway at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan. Here, I thought, was a discipline that explained things. Here is a discipline that knew what was going on! In my first year, I learned about the leaders of sociology and the different “types” of sociology. I also learned many different explanations for things that I had always wondered about. I learned, for example, why I had such a bad experience in school as a child and why we (my single-parent mom, my brother, and I) were always so poor. It was because of structured inequalities and social biases against single women (biases that still exist). I also learned about social classes, racism, classism, capitalism, and communism. I learned about gender and socialization, social control, and a plethora of other fascinating sociological concepts, facts and theories. From the very first day, I was hooked. This was what I wanted to know about! I wanted to know about the world that I had been dropped into and that I was now a part of, and sociology provided that knowledge. Using the tools and methods provided by sociologists, I came to understand the world we live in and how each of us creates it in our day-to-day acts of reinforcement.
Of course, this did not make me very happy because as I had suspected as a young adolescent and teenager, and as I learned in full detail when I took a few sociology courses, the world we live in is a very messed-up place. Just how messed up, and why, is outlined my little essay Rocket Scientists’ Guide to Money and the Economy (swipe to bottom of page to download for free). We live in a world of ghastly contrasts. Hollywood stars and corporate moguls jet around in private planes while 16,000 children starve to death every day. Women who often end up poor and alone while ex-husbands live carefree lives. The working class people who struggle to feed their families while corporate executives grow fat on six- or seven-figure salaries.
Power for some, hunger for others. Privilege for a few, wage slavery (or literal slavery in the sweatshops and sex shops of the world) for the rest. Don’t believe me? That phone you are carrying was probably put together by child slaves! As Chriss Street of Breitbart news notes:
Apple has been a serial offender of outsourcing production to companies that treat workers like slaves. In a 2012 audit by Fair Labor Association, its vendor Foxconn Technology Group was found to have engaged in over 50 “serious and pressing” violations of Chinese labor laws after a large number of suicides by workers. The audit documented that over 1.2 million of Foxconn’s employees were routinely cheated out of overtime pay and the contractor regularly violated China’s health and safety laws (Street, 2014).
As sociologists revealed, it truly was a world of ghastly contrasts, and the more I descended into the depths of the discipline of sociology, the more I realized just how ghastly it all was. By the time I was done my degree, I saw that there was very little that was pretty about our world. I was like the Grim Travellers from Bruce Cockburn’s song of the same name, looking at the world and weeping at the suffering and the pain.
Ministers meet—work on the movement of goods
Also work on the movement of capital
Also work on the movement of human beings
As if we were so many cattle
Grim travellers in dawn skies
See the beauty—makes you cry inside
Makes you angry and you don’t know why
Grim travellers in dawn skies
Now, I realize that I may not be making a good case for the study of sociology. Who wants to study a depressing discipline? However, I later realized that no matter how bad the world is, how unfair or unwelcome it seems, or how dysfunctional the “structures and functions” are, it is still our world and we created it. We create it with our actions (or inactions) thus we can change the world! For me, that is the power of sociology. That is what redeems us from the harsh sentence that sociology imposes. Sociology gives us the tools we need to change society. No other discipline can do that. Medicine allows us to manage our sophisticated bodies, engineering allows us to build things, psychiatry provides us a way to be happy within the confines of the world we live in, and history catalogues the past abuses of power and privilege, but only sociology (and derivative disciplines like feminism, political science, etc.) can give us the tools to change the world.
For those of you who are cynically observing the state of the world and wondering how I could make such a claim, please be patient. In truth, sociology has already made a difference. As you read the text, you will learn about past and present sociologists and their research. As you read, and as you begin to reflect on the world as it is now and as it was a hundred years ago, you will see the truth in that claim. Sociologists and their students have often been at the forefront of social change. For example, the works of Karl Marx spawned a century of social change and social revolution. I’m not thinking about the failed Russian socialist experiment but about the thousand other little revolutions that Marxist theory spawned around the world, from socialist revolutions in Latin and Central America to labour movements and unions in the Western world. Marxism has had an incredible impact (though often unacknowledged in Western Capitalist nations) in our world. And it is not only the ideas of Marx, but those of other sociologists, social scientists, and their students that are at the front of social change.
Of course, sociology and the work that sociologists do is not always revolutionary. There are conservative sociologists who tend to support the status quo, and that is fine. The point is not to fire a salvo or engage in criticism. the point is simply to highlight the fact that sociology gives us, at least potentially, the ability to transform the world. This makes sociology a powerful and exciting scientific discipline.
In closing this short essay I would like to draw your attention to the world “as it is” right now. While I can say that sociology has given courageous souls the ability, knowledge, and skills needed to change society, social change it is not easy. When we look at the social world “as it is” we can see that there is still a lot of work to be done; plus ça change (the more things change, the more they stay the same). Despite labour advances, equality for women, and so on, we still live in a world of rank inequality and power differentials. A fair question might be: If sociology is so powerful, why haven’t we seen more or faster change?
As it happens, sociology has an answer for that too! As you move through your sociology studies you will learn why the social world seems to resist change and why people must struggle for change, often for decades. You will learn about the nature of money and the economy and how it is the root of our social ills, about power in society, and about why some people have lots of it (i.e. money and power) and others have so little. You will come to understand a bit about how those with power use that power to resist the drive for progressive social change. You will learn about media concentration and population programming—how the very rich use the media to control our perceptions of the world, for example. You will learn that inequality—whether it is gender inequality, class inequality, or racial inequality—benefits some people (usually those with power), and you’ll learn that the people who benefit from inequality actively resist change. You will even learn how our socialization practices and institutions actually support systems of inequality and, in the case of our school systems, actively go about teaching us to accept and function in, the pre-existing social order. Ultimately, you will see the world as a contested place where some with power use it as a mechanism to gain advantage and control over others, while these others suffer it out. As you will learn we are not, despite the propaganda, created equal. Some of us (corporate leaders, government law makers, rich power brokers, the monarchs of foreign lands) have more power and use their power to create the world they wish and the rest of us suffer it out.
In the end though, sociology gives us a choice. We can accept the world “as it is” or we can courageously step onto the path of “co-creation.” If we accept responsibility for our world, we can start to change the world for the better at whatever level we can reclaim power. It is a big step and a big journey and it is not easy, no doubt about that; but that is the challenge of sociology. This is the gift that sociologists give to you, knowledge about the world. Sociology gives you knowledge about how the world works and it gives you knowledge about how to change it if you choose. As we will see, you create the social world through your beliefs and actions and you can change that creation. It may not be easy, but it can be done.
 The term “socialization” is used by sociologists to denote the training that you, as a new member of society, undergo in order to learn the rules and ropes, fit in, and find a productive niche in society. Socialization is undertaken by “agents of socialization” like the hospital nurse who decides, based on genitals, what color you should wear and is continued by your parents, schools, churches, media, and so on. We go into more detail on the concept of socialization in section four of this guide.
 Bruce Cockburn, “Grim Travellers,” Humans (CD): ESD bruce1; Columbia 48748 (1980).
Cite This Article
Michael Sharp (2015). What is Sociology?. The Socjourn. [http://www.sociology.org/what-is-sociology/]
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