A Practical Sociology
A Practical Sociology

A Practical Sociology

Lead Author(s): Reba J. Parker

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This concise text, via application, and engagement, tells the sociological story compellingly while noting key concepts, terms, and theories.

Chapter One - Sociology Defined

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This chapter is an introduction to the field of sociology, not an in-depth, detailed analysis, but a brief, concise overview providing a canvas for more to come.  

Have you ever wondered if you were born in an entirely different town, or country how your life would differ?  What about if you were born to a different family, or with an opposite economic status? Sociology will be a window for exploration as it unveils how your personal story today, was impacted by your past, providing a social forecast as to what you can expect moving forward.  

Let us take a look at the discipline called sociology, and make a case for why this field of study is relevant in today's ever-changing and accelerating world. Sociology is scientific at its core and borders all of the fields of the social sciences. So adjacent to, yet has its own space. Understanding people, and how they feel, think, and respond to those around them is more important than ever before. 

Many disciplines are born out of sociology; demography, new fields in history, social ecology, and social psychology to name a few.  Sociology is the scientific study of society and human behavior. Whereas, society is the continuous interaction of people who share a common culture and geographical territory. Culture is the material and non-material objects within that society.  Hence, sociology looks at understanding human behavior by placing it within a broader more social context.  Let us take a look at the earlier roots of this discipline.  

Sociology Introduction

Based on this video, what aspects of sociology do you find most exciting or intriguing? How does this relate to your own life? Describe in one pervasive paragraph. (4-5 sentences)

Sociology is the scientific study of society and human behavior, whereas, social location is a way of classifying oneself on a social map, limiting one's choices, and determining what a person will learn or what is ultimately essential. This takes us back to how the factors of where you were born, during what era and to whom help in setting your life projection.  Marginalization is what operates outside the circles of power.  Power and equality are central to the message of sociology, as there are many stratifications to equality (economic, political, social, and cultural).  Sociology understands the interplay of such powers and how they play out in the broader context.   This discipline can help us to understand what creates safety and balance within a general framework, as well as in the more intimate settings that are a part of our daily life.  


Origins of Sociology 

Sociological thought predates the foundation of the discipline as social thinking had its origins in Western philosophy, going back to the time of Greek philosopher, Plato.   The word has its roots both in Latin and Greek, with socios coming from the Latin word, socius means "companion," and the Greek suffix logy meaning "study of."  

The first official Department of Sociology originated at the University of Chicago in 1892.  The first journal, the American Journal of Sociology was founded a few years later, in 1895. (1)  While Auguste Comte, a French philosopher,  coined the term "sociology" in 1843, around ideas of positivism,  the institutionalization of sociology as an academic discipline was started by Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). He saw sociology as the foundation for social research, as well as the science of institutions. (2)  The American sociological journey began around the time of the industrial revolution, where urbanization and industrializing began to change the way that society acted or responded to change.  The nature of family, religion, and even work is due to these rapid developments, and social theorists wanted to make sense of it all. While many sociologists made a significant contribution to sociology, we will highlight four Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and C. Wright Mills. 

Max Weber   

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Max Weber (pronounced Veber) was a German-born sociologist and philosopher who had a profound influence on social theory and research. Weber was a key proponent of social action with an emphasis on interpretive means, where values or subjective study was just as important as the empirical.  Economic factors are necessary, such as social class, but he saw ideas and values as having just as much of an impact on social behavior and change.  Weber is best known for his work around his ideas of the connections between religion and economics, elaborated in his book The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism.  It is there that he highlighted the power of religion (Calvinism) and protestant values as a significant influence on the rise of capitalism in America.

Emile Durkheim 

Much of Durkheim's work was concerned with how societies could maintain their values in a period of modernity, where social institutions were beginning to replace the role of religion and family.   Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist, believed that individuals make all decisions and that no one was to blame for their choices but themselves.  He believed that individuals had too many freedoms and that social norms, as well as capitalism, were undermining those norms.  Durkheim studied factors of modern economies and how they impose pressure on individuals to find belonging in spaces outside of the family and religious groups.  Religion, he believed was like social glue; binding people together as a social institution. 

Durkheim was also highly perplexed with the balance between freedom and solidarity. Later he began to question the causes of other societal phenomenons such as suicide.  His theoretical Study of Suicide (1897) showed that this type of deviant behavior was not as personal as once believed.  His research continued to reveal that societal factors such as lack of belonging and meaning, accompanied by the rise of social institutions and significant social difficulties had deep impacts on the causalities.  Watch the video below to gain a deeper understanding of his work. (3)

Durkheim - Suicide

Durkheim discovered a very strong link between society and suicide. Which of the following best categorizes his findings?


a purely personal act


feeling a loss of social isolation or belonging


a biological disease

Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-1883) a German social, economic, and political theorist developed ideas that would later become the basis for the sociological  Conflict Theory.  Marx believed that capitalism had to be reformed due to alienation, instability, and insecurity it created among its workers. He sought to explain the social forces arising from the Industrial Revolution, and how those changes could be, not only explained but resolved.  His radical ideas of a worker revolution were fueled by his notion that most change, came not from ideas or values but from economic inequalities or influences.  He saw the major conflict between the bourgeoisie (owners of means of production) and the proletariats  (workers) that would one day be resolved when society would no longer be divided between the rich and the poor.

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"All human history thus far is the history of class struggles"  Karl Marx

History of Sociologists

Research W.E. B. Debois, the first African American Sociologist. Take notes. Then do some research on another sociologist, not yet mentioned in the course? Compare and contrast the two. Two paragraphs. (at least 4-5 sentences per paragraph)

Sociological Imagination

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C. Wright Mills

C. Wright Mills (1959) was a sociology professor at Columbia University and framed his ideas using a "sociological lens." In 1964 his text, The Power Elite, was central to understanding who has the power in America, and how that advantage played out in society.  He wrote a book called the Sociological Imagination in 1959.  In 1998 this classic text was listed as the second most influential sociological book of the 19th century. (4)  Mills was curious about how people in America understood the world around them, grasping the connections between history and biography. According to Wright, using creative thought to the asking of sociological questions was the beginning of seeing one's path amid a social context.  He believed that there was an interplay between the two and that understanding these connections would lead to insight beyond what the eye could see.  

For example, history is the full stream of events located within a particular society (i.e., great depression, the Vietnam War, 9-11, ).  According to Mills, observing history juxtaposed with personal biography can highlight experiences within that specific social setting.   He believed that the average person could not see beyond their limited view of the world or their tiny orbit, hence they were not able to understand their private issues within a broader framework.   This ability to understand and overcome one's limited worldviews is called the sociological imagination.  Watch this short clip to get a better understanding of Mill's work.   

Sociological Imagination

How does critical thinking play into your understanding of the sociological imagination? Give a personal example?

Sociology is about observation. About seeing how others impact our personal decisions and behaviors. Watch this short clip on a simple social experiment in an elevator to see how the presence of others affects our own latent behavior.

Elevator Social Experiment

How does the presence of others affect an individual within a social context?


the presence of others is notable and does affect common behaviors


the presence of others does not usually have an impact on the common behaviors of others


the presence of others never has an impact on the common behaviors of others


When you think about the social sciences, your first thoughts may be that they are disciplines that use scientific evidence or raw data to make the case for why we do what we do?  But not all sciences measure or collect numbers to make their conclusions.  Let us look at sociology from a completely different angle, that of a qualitative measurement, wisdom.  Watch the video to answer the question below.  

The Wisdom of Sociology

The speaker gave an example of how all people with personal pain are interconnected with others with that same pain. His example used what personal pain?




chronic illness




death of loved one

Sociological Theories

A  paradigm helps us to frame something.  A person needs the assumptions that paradigms provide because predicting rare data without a context is almost impossible.  All scientific disciplines use theories or methods to predict data through scientific processes.  In sociology, major dominant theories are looking at social issues through either a macro or micro-lens.  Macrosociology is looking at society from a big lens, or through a symbolic telescope, for example using the U.S. census to measure population growth. Microsociology looks at the small interactions that make up our everyday lives.  For example, how does that increase in population in a small town affect the local mom and pop store, and the family needs of those owners? These two lenses are always connected, each impacting the other, like a two-sided coin.  Let us take a look at three dominant theories of sociology:

Conflict Theory - society is seen as being composed of different groups that struggle or fight over scarce resources. These resources could be food, money, power, land, or even social status. Change is fundamental to a society driven by these conflicts.    Conflict theory tends to operate at the macro-level.

Structural Functionalism Theory - society is like an organism with interrelated parts or connections, a complex system whose parts work together to promote stability and social order. These parts are called social institutions, which could be a family, religion, economic system, education, etc.   Manifest functions are the actions that have intended consequences. For example, the manifest function of education is to teach students using materials and a curriculum.  Latent functions are actions with unintended consequences. A latent function of education is that it offers a platform where bullying can take root and flourish.   Social dysfunction is where a function disrupts society (crime, deviant behavior, etc. ). Structuralists like order, controlled environments, and boundaries that provide social control.  This theory tends to operate at the macro-level.

Symbolic Interactionism Theory - understands and sees society as a product of everyday social interactions. This theory provides shared reactions through one's reality.  Symbols and language are vital players in the field of symbolic interactionism.  Truth is what a society assigns to that reality or meaning, hence relative to each particular group.    Symbolic Interactionism tends to operate at the micro-level.

3 Sociological Theories

After watching the video on Sociological Theories, Durkheim would be a part of which theory or paradigm?




Symbolic Interactionsim


Conflict Theory

How Do You Study People?

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Sociology:  A Social Science

With sociology being a social science it relies on scientific inquiry to form logical conclusions.  Social sciences look at the human in a scientific manner within their own unique lens (sociology, history, anthropology political science, philosophy, economics,  psychology).  Sociology uses the scientific method, which is the same procedures you probably learned in a  primary school science class:   1) define the problem  2) review the literature  3) formulate a hypothesis  4) select research & design  5) carry out research  6) interpret results 7) report findings.

Because sociology is a social science it typically falls under the category of soft science, whereas, chemistry would be considered a hard science. Basically, some areas of study use qualitative over quantitative evidence to make a case for understanding.  For example, if you wanted to see the effects of depression on middle-aged women living in suburbia, you could look at brain scans or measure indicators of physical health to read a more quantitative story or you could have consistent interviews with the clients (qualitative) to measure patterns of sadness. The science of studying people can be quite complex, but for now, let's break it down into four digestible components. 

The Four Ways to Study People

There are many ways to study people, but listed below are the center methods used by sociologists.  Go back and watch the video above and take notes for each of these categories, providing notable examples.  

1) Observation (Participant)

2) Interviews/Surveys

3) Secondary Analysis of Outside Resources

4) Social Experiments

Qualitative Vs. Quantitative

Sociological research usually either falls under the analytic guise of quantitative methods or the more subjective qualitative approach.   Quantitative research draws on statistical and objective data.  Many times the focus is on documenting trends, exploring correlations, or analyzing subgroups. Qualitative research methods draw on personal and/or collective interviews, surveys, accounts, or observations of a subjective situation or person.  Sociologists may adhere to one of these methods or use a combination to further their inquiry.  These types of research are the two-sided coin to sociological study.  Both offer invaluable insight into the world of human systems.  

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Qualitative vs. Quantitative

Which of the following does not apply to macro-sociology?


social institutions


social structures


whole societies


local book club

Applied Sociology - Pure Sociology - Public Sociology

To become a sociologist, one would probably focus on a particular style of sociology (basic, applied, or public). For decades, a continuing tension has run through North American sociological groups as to which perspective is more beneficial, or which is a true sociological approach.  For example, C. Wright Mills had many critics as the majority of sociologists around the world, during the 60s did not follow in his path. They did not see sociology's role as a compass for political issues and morality in the world but as a platform for understanding societal issues via a more pedagogical model. Today, the struggle continues as academics question the role sociology should play in the solving of social and global problems?   Let us take a look at how these different styles play out

Basic (Pure) Sociology  -  sociological research is to discover or find patterns around issues of life in human groups.  The desired outcome is knowledge, i.e, academic courses, literature, lectures.

Applied (Clinical) Sociology  - the purpose of quantitative and qualitative sociological research is to solve problems.  These problems may be more at the micro-level (family or community issues) or as broad as global macro-level issues relating to world poverty.  The desired outcome is social change, ie., studying ways to eradicate or minimize AIDS, poverty, pollution, rape.

Public Sociology  -  is emphasizing a middle ground between pure and applied sociology; the purpose of this style is to apply sociology to the public good, which is quite helpful to politicians, policymakers, and change agents.  The desired outcome is recommendations, i.e., using the scientific data to write policy, author laws, utilize in court proceedings. (5)

These boundaries between styles of sociology are not always firm and may have crossed over when implemented.  Nevertheless, sociology continues to study human beings at their best and worse as we continue to live in an everchanging complex world.

Why Study Sociology? 

  •  allows the student to understand behavior and how that particular society influences actions
  •  allows the student to see different perspectives from around the world and how their social   environments impact their cultures (different dialects, different terminology)
  •  balance  personal desires  to the social environment (is a tattoo socially acceptable where you live?)
  •  students will find their place to become more of their authentic selves (maybe another city or state would fit your personal needs better)

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Sociological thinking is relevant to everyday life, from falling in love, to where you live and how you will see the world moving forward.  Not only will you be able to see the world from many perspectives, but you will also be equipped to understand and support policies or actions that lead to creative and much needed social change. In other words, healthy societies depend on citizens that are aware of vital community needs and who are actively engaged.  Ignorance can bring fear and worry, whereas knowledge and understanding set the path for well-being.   

How effective are you in group settings?  Are you a person that influences others? Maybe, in group settings, you need direction or motivation?  Sociology can provide abilities to become self-aware, or self-enlightened if you will.  The more you know about your own behaviors and ways of thinking, and how that impacts your domain the better chance you will have to influence your own futures and those of your culture. Sociology understands that all personal decisions and freedoms are inherently impacted and affected by external factors.  What do you think? 

Concluding Thoughts

Regarding your prospective career, how do you see the field of sociology as being beneficial? What about relationships? Describe in one paragraph.

 For a review of a detailed description of what was learned in Chapter 1, click here for slide-show.  

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 Image courtesy of UggboyUggirl  under  CC By 2.0   (crowd)

 Image courtesy of Arturo Espinsosa under  CC By 2.0   (Weber)

 Image courtesy of  fhwrdh under  CC By 2.0   (Marx)

Image courtesy of  Institute for Policy Studies under  CC By 2.0   (Mills) 

 Image courtesy of  See-Ming Lee under  CC By SA 2.0    (Computer)

 Image courtesy of  author Reba Parker (Qual Vs Quan)  

 Image courtesy of  tobakhopper under  CC BY-ND 2.0  (love - hearts)

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1)  Dibble, V. (1975). "The Legacy of Albion Small." Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

2)  Durkheim, É. (1895).  "The Rules of Sociological Method" 8th edition, trans. Sarah A. Solovay and John M. Mueller, ed. George E. G. Catlin, (1938, 1964 edition), p. 45.

3) Crossman, A. (2019, January 14). The Study of Suicide by Emile Durkheim. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/study-of-suicide-by-emile-durkheim-3026758

 4)  "ISA - International Sociological Association: Books of the Century". International Sociological Association. 1998. Retrieved 2012-07-25.  

5) Henslin, J. (2019). Essentials of Sociology. Boston: Pearson Publishing, p.12.