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What is Sociology?

By Dr. Mike Sosteric
Associate Professor
Athabasca University

So here you are, a student with a sociology textbook in one hand and this “primer” in the other, ready to study sociology, and asking the question what is 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. That is, 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’re 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 if you liked it or not. You were plopped into this world’s institutions and ways of existing and nobody asked your opinion about it. As soon as you were born, the nurse put a blue blanket on you if you had a penis or a pink blanket on you if you had a vagina and handed you off to your parents for “socialization.”[1] 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 and that you were subsequently expected, perhaps even forced to adopt.

[ad#article]However, just because you were merely plopped into a world that was pre-made with preexisting rules and norms and pre-established routines 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’s 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 either to become part of the process. By the time you are four, you have already began to provide supports for “the system.” You have learned the gender rules; for example, and are by that time a “willing participant” in the enforcement of gender normal values and rules. When others around you violate the rules, “mechanisms of enforcement” are brought into play. Girls and boys titter and point, question and comment. Laughter is directed at a boy that is effeminate. Derision and exclusion for the tomboy who doesn’t wear an appropriate girl dress.

It’s the way it is for most of us right?

When you give a hockey stick to a boy because “that is what boys do” and when you give a doll to a girl because “that’s what girls like,” you are helping to create (or rather re-create) the world and its institutions. 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. The line of development is simple. Learn the rules, act the rules, and enforce the rules. This is how the social order and institutions of our society go on from decade to decade. Each generation creates the social order anew.

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. As a sociologist, I’m just pointing out the fact that you do create the world. It’s imposed on you at first, but eventually, you become an active participant in creating the social order.

We all do.

Whenever we follow the rules or act according to institutional parameters, we re-create the institutions of our social order. It’s what we do. It’s what we’ve always done. From as far back as our hunter/gatherer ancestors, we human beings have created and re-created societies and the institutions that make up our society. As I noted above, this is what sociology is interested in. Sociology is interested in the world that you have created.

Now, I don’t know about you, but for me, that makes sociology pretty special. (In fact, according to August Comte, sociology was the “king” of academic disciplines). The fact that sociology takes as its starting point what we have created (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 took an extended jaunt into psychology, but was never really excited by the materials as I was with sociology.

[ad#article]Now, I can’t remember my engineering or psychology classes, but I still remember my first year sociology course taught by John Conway at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan. Now here, I thought, was a discipline that explained things. In my first year, I learned 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 (i.e., 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 which still exist today). 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 facts and theories. From the very first day, I was hooked. This is what I wanted to know about! I wanted to know about the world I had been plopped into and sociology provided that. Using the tools and methods provided by sociologists, I came to understand the world we live in and how each individual creates it in our day-to-day acts of reinforcement.

Of course, this did not make me a very happy camper because as I learned that the world we live in is a very messed up place. We live in a world of ghastly contrasts. Hollywood stars and corporate moguls jetting around in private planes while 16,000 children a day starve to death. Women who, no matter how hard they try, often end up poor and alone while the husbands take home the pay check, pension, and a younger woman. The working classes who struggle to feed their family while the corporate executives grow fat on six figure salaries.

Power for some, hunger for others.

Privilege for a few, wage slavery (or literal slavery in the sweatshops and forced sex shops of the world) for the rest.


As sociologists revealed, it truly was a world of ghastly contrasts and the more I descended into the bowels of the discipline of sociology, the more I realized just how ghastly it all was. By the time I was done with my degree, I saw there was very little that was pretty about our world. I was like the “Grim Traveler” 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 travelers in dawn skies
See the beauty — makes you cry inside
Makes you angry and you don’t know why
Grim travelers in dawn skies
Bruce Cockburn

Now, I realize that I may not be making a good case for the study of sociology. Who wants to study a discipline that’s going to make you depressed? 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’s still our world and we created it. We create it with our actions (or in-actions); thus, WE CAN CHANGE the world and for me, that’s the power of sociology. That’s what redeems us from the pit of despair that sociology puts us in. Sociology is the only discipline that can give 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 catalogs 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.

Now, to those of you who are sitting there cynically observing the horrid state of the world and wondering how I could make such a claim, patience please. The truth is that sociology has already made a difference. As you progress though your study of sociology, 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 one hundred years ago, you will see that what I say is true. Sociologists and their students have often been at the forefront of social change. The works of Karl Marx; for example, spawned a century of social change and social revolution. I’m not thinking about the failed Russian socialist experiment here, but about the thousands of other little revolutions which Marxist theory has spawned around the world, from socialist revolution in Latin and Central America, to labor movements and unions back home. Marxism has had an incredible impact (though often unacknowledged in Western Capitalist nations) in our world. And it’s not only the work of Marx, but other sociologists, social scientists, and their students are included at the front of social change.

Now of course, sociology and the work that sociologists do is not always revolutionary. There are conservative sociologists and these ones tend to weigh in in support of the status quo and that is fine. The point here 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 brief little intro, I want 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, it’s not easy. We look at the social world “as it is” and we can see that there is still a lot of work to be done. As many people will say, plus ca change. The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. Despite labor advances, equality for women, etc., 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?

Well, sociology has an answer for that to! As you move through your sociology degree, you will learn why the social world seems to be resistant to change and why change is struggled for, often for decades. You will learn about power in society and how some people have lots of it and others have little. You will come to understand a bit about how those with power use that power to resist the drive for progressive social change that often arises as a result of the study of sociology. You will learn about media concentration and population programming; for example, how the very rich use the media to control our perceptions of the world. You will learn that inequality, whether it is gender inequality, class inequality, or racial inequality, benefits some people (mostly the people 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 our 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, at the end of your studies, 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. The sad truth is, we are not -despite the propaganda- created equal. The bottom line is that 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 as they wish it to appear.

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’s a big step and a big journey and it’s not easy, no doubt about that. But, this is the challenge of sociology. This is the gift that sociologists give to you; knowledge about the world, knowledge about how it works, and knowledge about how, if you choose, to change it. 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.

Using your Sociological Imagination

If you are a student of sociology, here is an assignment you can use to get your SOC on. As I’ve said, sociology is about the study of the world that you create through your actions, interactions, and “complicit” agreement with the “rules” of the world. In this assignment, I would like you to begin thinking like a sociologist. That is, take a sociological perspective on the world you live in and create. Specifically, take a close look at the two institutions that are closest to your current life experience. Take a look at your family and previous (or current) school as “institutions” with structures, boundaries, and rules. Reflect on these boundaries, structures, and rules. Start by identifying the rules of these institutions and don’t focus just on the generic rules (like raise your hand before going to the bathroom). Focus on the specific and implicit rules. Are all the rules applied equally? Do some people follow different rules? If so, why? What functions do the rules perform? If it’s an educational institution, then the rule of showing up on time allows the institution to carry out its function of educating you (or brainwashing as some might say). If it’s a family, then the rule of helping out after supper creates equity and togetherness.

Once you’ve identified the rules, pay particular attention to the way you participate, reinforce, and re-create the world. Or, if you are a rebel at heart, pay attention to how you find yourself butting or resisting against the operation of the rules. If you have questions or if you see things that you don’t understand, write these questions down. Make a little personal journal of your work if you like. You do not have to worry about sounding scientific or super intelligent. You also don’t have to worry about getting the “wrong” answer. This assignment is merely about reflecting on the institutions in your life and as such, you will be graded on the quality and depth of your reflective comments. When you have completed this assignment, submit it to the online forums for assessment and grading.


[1] 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.

Excerpted from Introduction to Sociology 287 at Athabasca University.

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