What is Sociology?

Sociology is the science of society. As a field of inquiry, sociology is concerned with understanding the relationships, processes, and forces shaping social structure or the organization of society. Sociologists look at forces outside the individual that shape behavior and thought. They take a systematic approach to inquiry to establish patterns at a variety of scales in order to gain insight on social cohesion and breakdown, cooperation and conflict.

Key to sociological inquiry is the dynamic between individual agency and social structure. Agency refers to our ability to act as individuals within the constraints imposed by social structures. As individuals, we come to know the rules of social conduct through sanctions. Sanctions may serve as positive reinforcement for “good” behaviors or as a negative disciplinary mechanism to let someone know they have deviated from what is considered socially acceptable. Social structures are best illustrated by example. Time is a social structure because our days are organized around the norm of a 9-5 job, standard business hours (which vary from banks that adhere to the 9-5 schedule to grocery stores whose hours extend into the evening), and the patterned consumption of meals three times a day. Our life course is socially structured in a pattern that tends to be organized in a sequence of early life education, followed by university, establishing a career, and then marriage and childrearing. As a social structure, time influences how we think about our day to day life and our whole life course.

Sociologists call the ability to tack between the individual and society or biography and history the sociological imagination. The sociological imagination is a lens or frame through which sociologists scientifically view the world by systematizing data to make sense of the world. The term sociological imagination was developed by C. Wright Mills. Mills writes “The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That is its task and that is its promise.” We must look beyond our personal interests and take a step back to reflect on how those personal interests are connected to other people like us and the interests of social groups whose interests conflict, contradict, and complement out own. In this way, sociologists identify complex dynamics that pattern social behavior while accounting for the diverse ways in which such patterns are expressed in society.

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