The sociological approach.

Sociology. Texts of lectures.

Sociology (from Latin: socius, "companion"; and the suffix -ology, "the study of", from Greek λόγος, lógos, "knowledge") is the scientific or systematic study of society, including patterns of social relationships, social interaction, and culture.

Sociology is the systematic and objective study of human society and social interaction. The discipline of sociology enables us to look beyond our limited view of the world to society as a whole – the values and ideas shared by its members, the groups and institutions that compose it, and the forces that change it.

There are many ways of studying society and social interaction. Perhaps the best way to introduce the discipline of sociology, then, is to look first at its approach – its special way of dealing with its subject matter.

The sociological approach.

In its approach to the study of society and social interaction, sociology strives to be scientific. This means that sociologists do not rely on insight, belief, or hearsay. Astute observers throughout history have commented on the relationship between people and their societies. The plays of Shakespeare, the essays of Voltaire, the novels of Dickens all contain brilliant insights into human relationships and social systems. And folk proverbs such as ″Love your neighbor, but don’t pull down the hedge″ and ″The innkeeper loves the drunkard, but not for a son-in-law″ contain much social wisdom. But sociologists, however much they may enjoy or want to believe such insights, cannot accept them as firm bases for understanding or explanation. They rely instead on scientific evidence obtained by the systematic study of human social life.

Whenever it is possible and valid, sociologists use research techniques similar to those of the natural sciences, such as biology and physics. They often conduct research using the scientific method. That is, they establish testable hypotheses and decide ahead of time which results will lead them to accept or reject the hypotheses.

Like other scientists, sociologists strive to reach conclusions and present findings that are objective – not biased by emotionor preferences. It is this commitment to scientific methods that makes sociology different from the nonscientific disciplines of the humanities, such as literature, religion, and philosophy. Sociology’s ultimate aim is to develop a refined body of scientific knowledge that can explain and, in some cases, predict social events.

But it is not easy to be entirely unbiased when studying other human beings and the use of the scientific within sociology has many problems. Human beings, unlike stones, stars, or molecules of gas, are sensitive and have feelings, thoughts, and personal interests. The fact that sociologists, like their subject matter, are sensitive and moral beings places strict limits on what and how they can study. Sociologists cannot, for example, deprive children of love or human contact in order to test theories about human development. Nor can they start a war and engineer its conditions to see how people respond or how much they can ″tolerate.″ Because people are so different from the kinds of things studied by natural scientists, many sociologists modify and add to the methods of natural sciences.

The discovery of sociological truth also depends heavily, sociologists argue, on the personal understanding of the investigator. This position was made popular by the German sociologist Max Weber, who suggested that the best way to understand human behavior is by a direct ″sympathetic understanding″ of what is going on in the minds of those under study.

Most sociologists have come to believe that the methods of the ″hard″ (or natural) sciences alone are not enough to produce a full understanding of the human experience. Much sociological work shows the stamp of the humanities, especially philosophy. This interplay of approaches, a blend of science and the humanities, makes sociology the exciting and fascinating field that is today.

Sociology: the science of the obvious. It is sometimes charged by nonsociologists that sociology is a science of the obvious. Sociologists, it is said, spend a lot of money to ″discover″ what everyone already knows. This misconception exists because sociology deals with the familiar world of people and society. Indeed, everyone is, to some degree, an amateur sociologist, with a pet theory to explain what makes the world work and people tick. By contrast, the subject matter of the natural sciences is often outside the realm of common experience. Answers to problems in the natural sciences are most often cast in language and symbols that the average person can barely understand. But because the subject matter of sociology is familiar, one must be extremely careful in working with sociological materials. Statements that sound like common sense, and the reasons given to support them, may not be – and often are not true.

Take, for example, the problem of suicide, which has become the second leading cause of death (after accidents) among young people in the US. Which of the following statements about suicide and its causes would you say, on the basis of common sense, are true?

1. Because they are the dependent, even oppressed, sex, more women than men commit suicide.

2. More young people than old people commit suicide. When one is young, the stresses and uncertainties of life are greatest.

3. Due to years of inequality and discrimination, blacks have a higher suicide rate then whites.

4. More people commit suicide around the major holidays because it is during these times that people feel the loneliest and most depressed.

5. People are more likely to commit suicide after extensive media coverage of other suicides.

Sociological data and research have shown that each of these statements is false. As table 1.1 shows, the suicide rate is consistently higher among men than women (although women do attempt suicide more often then men do). The elderly commit suicide at a higher rate then the young, partly because of ill health. The suicide rate among blacks is relatively low compared to that among whites. Recent research has not supported the popular assumption that holidays are a risk factor in suicide (Philips and Wills). Other studies have shown that people who are not already at risk of suicide are not more likely to take their own lives after exposure to extensive media coverage of suicides, although those individuals who are already at risk of suicide may be affected. (Weiss)


Table 1.1.Suicide rates per 100,000 population, by sex, race, and age group

Male Female
Age Total (other races not shown separately) White Black White Black
All ages (other age groups not shown separately)   12,8   22,3   11,1   5,9   2,3
10-14 years old 1,5 2,4 1,5 0,7 0,4
15-19 years old 10,2 18,2 7,1 4,1 2,1
20-24 years old 15,8 28,4 16,0 5,3 2,4
25-34 years old 15,7 26,4 21,3 6,2 3,8
35-44 years old 15,2 23,9 17,5 8,3 2,8
45-54 years old 16,4 26,3 12,8 9,6 3,2
55-64 years old 17,0 28,7 9,9 9,0 4,2
65 years & over 21,5 45,6 16,2 7,5 2,4
65-74 years old 19,7 37,6 16,1 7,7 2,8
75-84 years old 25,2 58,9 16,0 8,0 2,6
85 years & over 20,8 66,3 17,9 5,0 -
Source: US Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States (Washington, D.C.: US Government. Print. Office)


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