Sociology employs a wide range of approaches to study social relationships and human behavior across our society and within many areas of our lives. Sociologists evaluate and examine subject matter such as crime, religion, family relationships, racial and gender identity, class divisions, communities, cultures, and social stability.
Understandably, there are many examples of sociology in everyday life. Sociology provides a unique and illuminating perspective on how we, as complex human beings, influence our society, our relationships, and our culture as a whole.
WHAT IS SOCIOLOGY?
Sociology serves as one of many branches under the social sciences umbrella that studies relationships among individuals within different societies. Sociology is the study of life in action — examining how individuals act and evolve within social groups while understanding the causes that influence behavior. Social interaction, or how individuals engage with and react to others, is a critical component of our collective society.
The premise that the person and society are intertwined is a crucial foundation of the sociological worldview. It isn’t easy to study one without also examining the other. This dual and comprehensive focus allows experts in this field — often referred to as sociologists — to study how individuals impact society and how society impacts individuals.
WHAT IS A SOCIOLOGIST?
A sociologist utilizes various research methods to study society to learn more about social interactions with groups and how individual and collective experiences shape our behavior. A sociologist may study behavior within small-scale groups, such as family and friend relationships, as well as international institutions, such as economics, government, global relations, and more.
Examples of sociology could include studying the relationship between culture and society, examining social movements, or researching how communication affects human behavior. Sociology can be divided into several subfields, including criminology, political science, social work, sociology of health and illness, gender studies, and race/ethnicity studies.
A sociologist believes that an individual’s personal decisions do not exist in a vacuum. We, as individuals, are influenced by cultural trends, beliefs, and values, which impact our behavior. Sociologists identify and evaluate these factors through sociological research, which includes studying the behavior of the larger collective group, comprised of individuals in the same area under the same societal influences.
Sociologists evaluate human behavior by examining individual encounters, group interactions, and social processes. Micro-level sociologists investigate individual encounters, or face-to-face interactions, in small groups. For example, a micro-level sociologist may look at the accepted rules of discourse among distinct groups, such as teens or business executives. Prior to the pandemic, such study may have focused on in-person interactions. Today, sociologists provide insight into understanding how virtual and hybrid environments impact behavior.
While micro-level sociologists focus on small groups, macro-level sociologists investigate patterns within and between larger groups and societies. A macro-level examination may investigate how language use has evolved over time or in social media channels. Additionally, a macro-level sociologist may study how large-scale historical events impact a society — in the past, in the present, and in the future.
Sociologists compile their learnings about society and social interactions to make connections. This process is called sociological imagination.
WHAT IS SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION?
Contemporary sociologist C. Wright Mill established the sociological imagination as a framework for connecting personal challenges and more significant social issues. Through the sociological imagination, sociologists develop a mindset to explain how these personal experiences, along with their challenges, impact the larger society in which we operate. Having a better understanding of the relationship between personal and public issues can help influence outcomes on every level.
When you begin to consider numerous situations or activities from views other than your own, you have entered into the domain of sociological imagination. For example, let’s look at homelessness. Some individuals believe homelessness is an individual problem — a person must have made poor choices and they became homeless. However, we know that’s not necessarily true — for many, homelessness may result from an unexpected illness, medical bills, or job loss. Through the sociological imagination, you’d understand homelessness as a consequence of many social factors that can impose burdens on individuals.
Sociology encompasses various subfields and areas of study that focus on understanding and analyzing different aspects of society. Here are some of the major types or branches of sociology:
- General Sociology: This is the broadest field of sociology that examines the overall structure and functioning of society, including social institutions, social inequality, social change, and social interactions.
- Social Stratification: This field focuses on the study of social class, social inequality, and the hierarchical division of society based on factors such as wealth, occupation, and social status.
- Sociology of Deviance: This branch explores behaviors and actions that deviate from societal norms and values, including the study of crime, social control, and the processes of labeling individuals as deviant.
- Sociology of Family: This field examines family structures, dynamics, and relationships, including topics such as marriage, parenting, gender roles, and the impact of family on individuals and society.
- Sociology of Education: This area of sociology explores the role of education in society, including educational institutions, access to education, socialization processes, and the impact of education on social mobility.
- Sociology of Religion: This branch focuses on the study of religious beliefs, practices, and institutions, as well as the role of religion in shaping social behavior, values, and social change.
- Sociology of Gender: This field examines the social construction of gender, gender roles, inequalities, and how gender intersects with other social categories such as race, class, and sexuality.
- Urban Sociology: This area of sociology analyzes the social structure, processes, and problems of urban areas, including urbanization, urban development, social interactions in cities, and the impact of urban living on individuals and communities.
These are just a few examples of the diverse areas within sociology. It is worth noting that many of these branches overlap and intersect, and sociologists often draw on multiple perspectives and theories to understand the complexities of social life.
5 EXAMPLES OF SOCIOLOGY IN EVERYDAY LIFE
Sociology is not an abstract concept. In everyday life and in our interactions, we see many examples that sociologists study. Here are five for you to consider:
1. Conflict Theory: Class or Social Inequalities
Among experts, much discussion and evaluation is occurring regarding social classes: how they are created, what fuels them, and what inequalities arise as a result. Social inequality is linked to an imbalance in the distribution of wealth and resources that can impact social standing, social class, and social life.
For example, sociologists study how race and gender contribute to social inequalities within and across our societies. Sociologists research the contributing elements that create gender wage-gaps, as well as how racial bias contributes to disproportionate police brutality against minority groups.
Sociologists evaluate social inequality in two primary categories:
- Inequality of conditions: the imbalanced and unequal distribution of wealth and income. For example, in the United States, 69.8 percent of the country’s net worth was held by the top 10 percent of the richest individuals, with the top one percent holding 32.1 percent in 2021.
- Inequality of opportunities: the unequal availability of life opportunities, such as education, criminal justice, jobs, and health care. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that black women are more likely to experience a stillborn birth. A sociologist would study contributing factors that disproportionately impact black mothers, along with social inequalities, to draw conclusions and advocate for reform.
2. Symbolic Interactionism
Symbolic interactionism, another major sociological framework, aims to explain human behavior by evaluating the symbolic meanings individuals develop and build upon throughout their lives. In society, different objects, gestures, behaviors, and events may mean different things.
Let’s look at an example — emojis. Now a standard in mobile communication, emojis can be interpreted differently to different groups. A smiling emoji could simply communicate being happy, but, it may also seem passive-aggressive.
Rainbows are another example of symbolism. Technically, a rainbow is a simple meteorological phenomenon. However, a rainbow may be used to express positive emotions, hope, and happiness. A rainbow is also a symbol for the LGBTQ+community as well, representing togetherness, unity, and pride.
3. Social Roles
“You are not acting your age.” “That was unprofessional behavior.” These are examples of assigning social roles throughout our interactions in different areas. Through the lens of socially-constructed gender roles, a sociologist may study why society expects women to behave in particular ways and how this contributes to larger issues, such as the wage gap.
The concept of roles focuses on predictable behavior — as human beings, predictability maintains stasis and prevents risk. Society “defines” these roles by creating predictable expectations of behavior — a person’s behavior should correspond to their social role.
If a cashier tells a political joke to a customer, it may be perceived as offensive and inappropriate — it does not fit into the established societal rules for this role and this type of social interaction. However, if this cashier tells the same political joke to a friend, it may not be perceived in a potentially offensive or inappropriate manner with the customer, as this is a different social setting.
4. Emotional Expectations
Emotional expression is highly complex. It’s not simply a physiological response to stimuli; gender roles established in our society may influence how we express our emotions. For example, there’s an unwritten rule in our society that men don’t, or shouldn’t, cry — it’s not “masculine behavior.” On the other hand, women shouldn’t display aggression — it’s not “feminine behavior.” Through these expectations of behavior, individuals express emotions differently based on society’s gender norms. However, this contributes to a larger societal challenge – gender inequality.
5. Environmental Sociology
Today, climate change and environmental protection remain a high priority in our society. Our choices individually, nationally, and globally directly impact our world — environmental sociology aims to understand our interactions with our natural and created environments.
For example, environmental-social movements advocate against companies that display a lack of environmental consciousness, either through animal testing, carbon footprint size, or destruction of protected lands and groups. An environmental sociologist may seek to understand why an organization may make these decisions, rather than consider alternate environmentally-sustainable methods instead. On a smaller scale, an environmental sociologist may study the relationship between energy and the environment. For example, electricity-fueled cars versus gas-fueled cars. An environmental sociologist may ask, “Are electric cars utilized among a particular set of individuals in a society?” “Are there factors that influence the affordability or availability of electric cars in relation to gas vehicles?” “Do cultural or societal constructs influence behavior or increased adoption of electric cars?”
Overall, many examples of sociology appear in our everyday life. Sociology encompasses a broad study of social interactions, with many interesting career options. Additionally, sociology and psychology share both similarities and distinct differences that you may be interested in exploring. If you’re wondering whether to major in sociology or psychology, we can help.