Researchers interested in social solidarity and how societies remain stable over time are likely to be interested in the variables that serve to bind societies together.

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WEEK 1 lesson:
Sociologists have no more important device to study the dynamic nature of society than the sociological imagination. Coined by C. Wright Mills, the sociological imagination is the ability to see one’s society in the context of history and culture, and to understand their roles in shaping the individual (Kendall, 2018). For Mills, one cannot separate history from culture, or from society. The world cannot be understood unless we understand how it came to be. It might seem difficult to try to understand our modern post-industrial world by looking back into our past, but consider not just what life and society were like in earlier years, but also what those people wanted the world to be like in the future. They may not have envisioned what we have and are today, but it was their vision and social events that laid the groundwork for our society.
Sociologist Peter Berger (1963) further elaborated on Mills’ sociological imagination. He said the sociological imagination had two parts.
The first part was seeing the general in the particular, or that “the first wisdom of sociology is this – things are not what they seem… Social reality turns out to have many layers of meaning. The discovery of each new layer changes the perception of the whole” (p. 23). This means being able to see general patterns from the behavior of an individual. This is related to inductive reasoning. Sociologists use their observations of individual behavior to generalize about group behavior. For example, throughout Chapter 1 of the textbook, Kendall explores the example of suicide as a “seemingly private act,” affected by its “larger social context” (p. 7).
Berger (1963), also emphasized that the sociological imagination amounts to seeing the “strange” in the familiar, or that “the familiar now seems not quite so familiar any more” (p. 22). This is the process of detaching oneself from “familiar” individualistic interpretations of human behavior, and the acceptance of the initially “strange” notion that behavior is a product of social forces. In many respects, this is a form of deductive reasoning. Again, suicide or any number of “seemingly private” (p. 7) problems can be seen to be potential products of social forces, from suicide to homelessness to any number of such problems, when viewed from the sociological imagination.
Girl looking sad staring off.
This way of reshaping our thinking allows us to look beyond and link together individual issues or problems to the larger picture. Many social ills that impact individuals, or that may even seem “private,” (Kendall, 2018, p. 7), such as suicide, unemployment, unwanted pregnancy, substance abuse, or domestic violence, have roots that can be traced to societal factors. In addition, the consequences from those individual ills have an impact on society at large, yet we often look to individuals as the cause and as victims of their own behavior, without considering the wider problems of those same behaviors on society as a whole. Certainly, individuals bear responsibility for their behavior, but the behavior itself can impact not only individuals but also families, businesses, the legal system, our political structure, and any of our social institutions. The causal factors of social problems come from a wide variety of influences, both social and physical.
Using a sociological imagination helps us to avoid the trap of applying simple answers to complex issues. It is not uncommon when we hear people offering opinions about some social, economic, or political problems; they will argue that to correct the situation “all you have to do is…” followed by a simplistic, one-size-fits-all solution. Their answers may sound good, and even make some sense, but upon closer analysis, it reveals a host of problems that generally will result in creating additional problems, even if the initial problem is resolved. Sociology attempts to encourage the kind of critical thinking that will open our minds to see the broader picture of our social world.
What is the study of sociology?
Sociology is the systematic and scientific study of society, social structure, and social change through the application of the scientific method.
Sociology as a Social Science
Sociology, along with other disciplines including but not limited to anthropology, economics, and political science, is a social science. All sciences use the same basic model, but there are some important differences. For example, as members of society we are both the observer and the observed, the reader of the book and the book itself. Thus, while sociologists can strive for objectivity, they cannot achieve it in the same way in which a scientist who studies microbes or heavenly bodies might be able to.
One advantage is that with the social sciences, the scientist has a unique perspective and insight that those who study the natural sciences cannot have. While sociologists do use computers and technology in their studies, it is not a necessity; the same way a microscope or telescope is with a biologist or an astronomer.
Sociologists do not need specially equipped laboratories, because the world is their laboratory. Social patterns can be observed as easily at the baseball game, airport terminal, or grocery store, as it can be in a behavioral laboratory. Much of what a sociologist studies is a matter of inference. Based on observations of behavioral patterns, we can infer causality, but we cannot actually see it at work until after the event occurs. Also, humans are actors who can change their behavior based on their perceptions of the situation in which they find themselves. In other words, humans are active participants in the social world.
One thing is constant: Sociologists make use of the scientific method, a systematic, organized series of steps that ensures maximum objectivity and consistency in researching a problem. There are many different versions of the scientific method. The number of steps range anywhere from 4 to over 15. In many versions, steps that are identified in one are assumed or combined with other steps in another. The scientific method cannot be attributed to one person; rather it is a result of over a thousand years of scientific thinking. The scientific method uses an organized set of procedures for developing sociological knowledge, just as do those involved in the physical sciences.
There are six basic steps that all researchers take, whether studying molecular biology or the causes of homelessness. Click on the plus signs (starting with Problem) to learn about each step.
All research is done according to a research design: a specific methodology for collecting the data to be analyzed. This is one of the important differences between the natural and the social sciences. Most physical sciences rely on experimental designs from which to draw data. Experiments are conducted under carefully controlled conditions, to avoid any influence of extraneous variables or contamination. After steps one through three of the scientific method have been completed, the natural scientists will set up the experimental design.
The first step of this is to conduct a pretest of the material being analyzed to determine its properties. The second step is to divide the sample into two groups, one being the experimental group and the other a control group. The experimental sample is then subjected to independent variable, or the conditions thought to bring about some change, while the control sample is carefully left alone. Once the experiment is finished, both samples are again tested in the same manner as in the pretest to reveal any changes in the experimental sample. Since the whole process has been carefully controlled, any change in the experimental sample can be attributed to the conditions to which it was subjected. From there, steps 5 and 6 of the scientific method can be completed.
The experimental design has limited use in social science research. The variables involved are too unpredictable. Society and culture are not fixed, and research outcomes will reflect factors that cannot be controlled as they could be in an experimental laboratory. Rather, there are three other general research designs used by sociologists: surveys; existing sources, also known as secondary analysis; and participant observation, also known as ethnography or field research. The two most commonly used designs are surveys and secondary analysis.
SurveysSecondary AnalysisParticipant Observation
The forms we are asked to fill out at shopping center, the pollster inquiring about our political preferences, and the end of course evaluation we are asked to complete, are all types of surveys. Surveys fall into two basic categories:
Questionnaires
The questionnaire is typically a closed or limited response set of questions, filled out by hand, online, or via telephone. Questionnaires frequently use a Likert Scale (on a scale of one to ten, with one being the least and ten being the most).
Interviews
Interviews are typically where a researcher asks the subject questions that are longer and more open-ended than questionnaires, with the longest form being case studies.
The purpose of surveys is to gather as much data on some subject as possible from as many people as possible. This is what is known as quantitative research. Researchers need large amounts of information in order to produce results that can be generalized to apply to a wide audience. For example, suppose I want to know how college students felt about changing the grading standards from the traditional A, B, C, D, and F to a simple Pass/Fail. If I were to conduct a survey of a single class of 100 or so students, I would get a pretty good picture of what those students felt about the idea. However, I could not make a general statement about how college students across the country felt about the idea; I just do not have enough information. If I were to enlist the aid of several hundred colleges and universities scattered across the country and get data from 60,000-70,000 students, the situation would be different. I would then have a large enough sample to be able to make some reasonably reliable conclusions. The trick is to collect a sample that is representative of college students, that is random, (in that every college student in the school surveyed has an equal chance of being surveyed), and that is large enough to capture a reasonably reliable picture of the majority of college students in the United States.
Research Terminology
Perhaps it is a good idea at this point to explain what is meant by some of the terms we have been using.
Empirical data refers to information that we can verify with our senses and it is subject to observation, measurement, and replication.
Variables, as the word suggests, refer to conditions that are subject to change (vary) in response to the presence of other variables.
The first of the two main variables we use is the dependent variable; it is called that because it depends upon the action of the independent variable. The dependent variable is also known as the effect.
The second type of variable we use is the independent variable, which is the variable(s) that we manipulate in order to see if that manipulation will bring about a change in the dependent variable. The independent variable is also known as the cause.
There are other kinds of variables, but these are the basic ones with which we are most concerned.
Sketch image of computer keyboard with the words “Collecting Data” highlighted
What we are looking for is the degree to which the dependent variable changes under the influence of one or more independent variables. A simple example would be if we used exam scores as a dependent variable, and wanted to see what, if any, effect increased study time had. In this case, we would use increased study time as the independent variable. We would collect data by looking at the different lengths of study time and then at the exam scores for students in each study time bracket. What we would see is that with each increase in study time there is a corresponding increase in exam scores. We can calculate statistically how much change and come up with a statement regarding the relationship. Naturally, there are other independent variables that influence exam scores as well, (type of exam, illness, noise outside the classroom, and many more). We could also apply special programs designed to do multivariate analysis and get an even clearer picture, but the process is still the same—the cause-and-effect relationship between independent and dependent variables.
A significant amount of many professional sociologists’ careers is devoted to completing research. The ability to apply both the sociological imagination and sound science to analyze and report on what is found is a critical aspect of the job that they do.
Sociological Theories
Man with telescope standing on a stack of books
Theory is a term that many people have difficulty with. It is generally interpreted as “just someone’s opinion,” or “that’s just theory—not fact.” The reality is that theory is an integral part of all science, social science included. Theories are built through the use of the scientific method. Theory can be thought of as sets of interrelated statements about some aspect of reality that can be observed, measured, tested with the scientific method, and which generally involve some cause-and-effect relationship. Sociological theories help researchers maintain focus and develop the analytical framework needed in order to ultimately draw conclusions from the data collected. Sociologists differ in approaches and use a specific theoretical perspective depending upon their particular approach as foundations upon which to build understanding.
Researchers who see society as a dynamic process that generates social change are likely to focus on those variables that involve competition and inequality among groups. Researchers interested in social solidarity and how societies remain stable over time are likely to be interested in the variables that serve to bind societies together. Finally, researchers who are interested in how everyday social interactions and the use of symbols create the society in which we live tend to look at the social processes among people as they move through their social world.
In general, most sociological theoretical perspectives fall into three broad sociological theories.

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