June 10, 2009

How to Think Like a Sociologist

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Here’s a shortcut for those of you currently taking a sociology class (or will someday soon). If you can learn to think like a sociologist you can not only earn a higher grade but develop a much more nuanced view of the world around you. You can still be a student of sociology even if you never step foot in a sociology classroom, too.

Step #1: Never assume anythingclip_image002

Assumptions about the way life is might seem to be “common sense”, but if you rely only on this you are not thinking like a sociologist. Sure, even sociologists have our own assumptions, but we find out if they are verified by finding out what actual empirical evidence tells us. This means before we presume our assumptions are true, we test them  (or find results from other studies of the same phenomenon). When I first started graduate school, a professor reminded us that assumptions rely on a sample size of one, hardly sufficient to claim a consistent sociological pattern.

Step #2: Get ready to be wrong

clip_image004Now that you recognize that your assumptions are just your opinions, you might be surprised to learn that your assumptions are sometimes off, or in some cases, completely wrong! In fact all scientists are supposed to presume we are wrong to begin with, which is the logic behind the concept of the null hypothesis in statistics. When doing statistical tests, we need to disprove the null hypothesis (that there is no relationship between the two variables we are testing) first before drawing any conclusions about our own hypotheses.

It may seem, for instance, that crime keeps getting worse and worse, but as I blogged about a few weeks ago, it’s actually declined a great deal in the last fifteen years. And although women victims are frequently portrayed in the news and in crime dramas, men are most likely to be victims of violence, and elderly people are among the least likely age group to be victimized.

Sociologists think beyond simply right and wrong—we also ask why. For instance, why do we tend to think crime is on the rise? That women are uniquely vulnerable? We ask questions about how misperceptions like these sometimes benefit particular groups, institutions, and the overall balance of power in society. We might consider what purpose “common sense” notions of crime serve for those who have a vested interest in the status quo.

Step #3: Ask even more questions

If at this point you fear we are reading too much into things, you are not thinking like a sociologist. Some tip-offs that you have strayed off the sociological path include responses like:clip_image006

  • “It’s just human nature”
  • “It’s always been this way”
  • “That’s just the way it is”

I confess that in my student days I occasionally used these well-worn but un-sociological answers myself. Sociologists respond to conclusions like these with more questions:

  • “What makes us understand human interactions the way that we do?”
  • “How, then, does social change happen”
  • “Is this the way things should be?”

You might find yourself resisting these additional questions, as Sally Raskoff recently blogged about . This is completely normal, since it can feel unsettling to find out that many of the “answers” we thought we had about life were not as useful as we might have once thought.

Step #4: Make the everyday strange

Sociologists borrow some of our thinking strategies from anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, who encouraged what he called “thick description” of the cultures we observe. In order to do this, we have to be ready to think about everyday events and patterns critically. This can be very hard, particularly for people who are members of the cultures we study, because it is easy to take things for granted and not even notice them as sociological phenomena.

For some of us, this practice is not just intellectually stimulating, it’s also fun. For others, it may seem like a chore, especially if thinking critically implies that there is something wrong with what we are observing.

Take your favorite television show, for example. If you think like a sociologist, you might observe that the show presents a somewhat skewed impression of crime, or maybe only features whites, or women who are a size 0. If you’re not thinking like a sociologist, you might not even want to be aware of these aspects of your favorite show because you really like it and want to keep watching it.

Thinking like a sociologist, you might understand how this is an outcome of specific entertainment industry practices and want to learn more about how these decisions get made (as sociologists like William Bielby did). Sociologists can both understand something more deeply and still enjoy it.

If you’re not thinking like a sociologist, you might conclude that television just contains dramatic stories people want to watch, and thin women are just nicer to look at, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is everything from our daily lives contains sociological questions, and the answers to those questions help us clip_image008understand our society in greater depth.

Step #5: Embrace life’s complexities

Life isn’t simple, and neither are sociological findings. Sometimes they may seem contradictory, or you might have personally observed specific situations that appear to challenge a sociological concept. Sociological theories, research, and analysis are not meant as one-size-fits-all proclamations about the way the world works all the time. We might find, for instance, that some forms of crime have declined in one city but not another; that not all explanations for trends in divorce rates make sense in all situations; or that the economic downturn can cause both higher rates of unemployment and savings. The world can be complicated, and so can sociological explanations.

Practice these five steps; challenge your own assumptions, ask questions instead of looking for simple answers, and you just might start thinking like a sociologist.

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Comments

"Step #1: Never assume anything"

That seems impossible--you are presupposing that you can 'never assume anything.' You're advocating naive empiricism.

Perhaps it would be more academically honest to be explicit about our starting presuppositions.

Hey this is a good list! As a graduating sociologist I can attest for them. Often I find myself inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin's stories, which often narrate the stories of "Observers" sent to distant worlds to study cultures and people. If anything, her books are imaginative and wonderful "thick descriptions" of these worlds. In a way, it's what we have to do: become observers of our own world and people, and notice things that are just under the surface. It may lead us down surprisingly interesting paths...

In the linked post you mentioned, you said, "The Bureau of Justice Statistics has conducted the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) each year since 1973, asking a random sample of Americans twelve and older about their experiences with crime during the past year.

This survey is important because many crimes, especially minor crimes like theft, never get reported to police. So if we relied solely on law enforcement agency data, we might never get a good picture of the prevalence of crime."

There's absolutely no way a hooker in Baltimore has ever seen a 'survey' after rape, rob & pillage..

Insufficient data I assure you.

How about internet crimes? Stalking, mental abuse, spamming, group terrorism, intentional reputation slaughter, etc..These are very much illegal & we many people havent a clue where to report an incidence much less realize it is an option. A handful of school aged kids and a few others who answered questions in a survey (honestly or not) do not equal anything near fact.

hi!
found it worth.
just joined sociology in post graduation.need to talk & discuss...

What's a socioautobiography?????????????

Your thoughts on race? And why?

A very decent post! I agree about all the five points, and I agree that we often prefer consciously to ignore things, not to be aware of them because of our habitual concepts and engraved set of values. About asking questions - I agree with it too, it's only that you need to know which questions to ask! Detecting and posting the right question bring you half the way to the answer. I'm not a sociologist, I attend B.A in Economics, but the subject interests me a lot both in personal and professional overtones. And I just love this blog :)))

Hey everybody. I really enjoyed reading this blog and it really makes me think. While I am a nursing major I did not just take this course because I have to, but because I love to watch people and I often ask myself similar questions as to why people act the way they do. However I think that at times it can be very hard for us to try and just ask questions as oppesed to trying to find the most reasonable answer. This is what we have been taught to do throughout most of our school careers. We are given a question and are expected to find the answer so we do not like asking more questions after we think we have found the solution.
As for the women on t.v. wearing only size 0s'; while I agree that yes this is true I do think that we arre coming around to see the beauty of bigger "thicker" women so to say. Now there are more commericals showing plus size women talking about what they like and need. Also after having whi is my now ex-boyfriend cheat on me with a "thicker" girl I think that what we often think what we do to seem more appealing to other people is not always true.

Good article...however, as human beings we're often emotional...and we may assume things based on our experience, bias, education...
check out www.scriboz.com and http://scriboz.com/szblog

I like this blog, just found it. I have a question though about step 1, I would like to think that sometimes our assumptions guides us to have an inquiring mind for matters and to reach answers, so when you say never assume, how else then is one going to be motivated to scrutinize the speculation?.

I like this article because it mentions how a sociologists analyze society by not only using commonsense, but to collect evidence or empirical statistical data to see sociological phenomena in society.
Not only sociologists or social theorists use empirical evidence, they can use observation skills to watch what is in their surrounds and to be able to put themselves in others shoes. This research method is called sympathetic introspection that Charles Horton Cooley used when discussing the Looking-Self Glass.

This is the bible for Sociologists. The steps help a person not only to interpret like a Sociologist but also it puts a person in a Sociologist's shoes. I strongly agree about the empirical method because it is very important to observe, experiment in order to support one's interpretation or information. Yes, it is true that Sociologist can interpret an information without evidence or being experimented on but people will be alleviated more if they see the evidences. Ok, I took Statistics and am familiar with the null hypothesis. Most of the time, it works. However, it is based on samples not the whole population but it helps at the end. On step 3, I highly agree about asking questions because that is how a sociologist or anybody can find more answers than they could expect. On step four, I'm confused about seeing deeply a television show because I cannot see anything deeply in a show because these days, there is nothing to observe deeply. Lastly, yes, life is complicated. Even though, sociologist theory or statements are sometimes complex and bewildering, most of the sociology theories and statements actually changed the society's perspective over period of time.

I agree with Lungisa about how our assumptions can motivate us to speculate for more information based on our assumptions. However, sometimes assumptions can also turn into a bias minded and can lead to informations that is only based on one's assumptions. Rather, it is for the best for one to be open minded, kind of like "keep your eyes open" situation in order to observe the society and its people that way one can find variety of answers, some answers will be more clearer than other answers.

This just taught me a lot. Everyday I make assumptions about others and i always ask the questuons that have an easy answer to them. I never look deeper into the situation and ask what does this really mean or is this really possible. I always see it as thats the way it is. Nothing more.I never thoguht thats it was ok to think any deeper into something that you should. this blog just gave me the ok to think like a Sociologist.

This blog has proven that I have in no way been thinking like a Sociologist. I tell myself daily that things are "just they way they are", and that people are "always like that". I see that it is perfectly okay to ask questons rather than just assume that it "is what it is". I am in a Sociology class this semester and I think this blog will help me to understand the material so much better!

Very interesting topics which was also
incorporated into class on Monday!

I am a person that ask a lot of questions to be positive in topic .To think like Sociologyst you have to study human behavior, not let thme know that you are studying because if you know that somebody is studying you. You will reaction would be different. So to think like Sociology you have to Act like Sociologyst.

to think like a sociologists mean to attack the generalizations then prove them either right or wrong through study or experience.

i think tha in some ways i always tink like a sociologist and then on the other hand i hate to be wrong... which i think is just because i am a strong willed woman. but sociology has always been something that has intrigued me, wondering why people do what they do and why they act like they act.

I really enjoyed the blog. Many of us use sociology every day and do not realize it. Making assumptions about something, or someone everyone should stop and anaylsis the situation first in more than just one way. My major is Criminial Justice in this field you see a lot of different kinds of behavior among other things. Sometimes I wonder why people act the way they do.Sometimes I can tell if a person is telling the truth or lying because of the gestures and body movement that they make, but sometimes I can be wrong.

Step #1: Never assume anything

This theory is about not assuming that anything is true or false. But instead test the assumption to see if it is true or false.

For Example: Instead of assuming that one weatherman is correct in his forecast. I check the other TV channels to see if they say the same thing.

So does this mean that if you question everything you are not being cautious, you are thinking like a sociologist?

I really enjoyed reading this article and Step 1. Never assume anything. In a way I can relate that you need to test out the results before we think any of our opinions are true. I just started my sociology class and hopefully practicing these steps can be an eye opener for me and to step out of the box!

basically in a nut shell sociologists dont just accept things for what they are. a sociologist has to always ask the question "why?" basically saying a random person might say " a chicken cant fly" but a sociologist is going to ask "why cant the chicken fly. If you were to honestly put a sociologist in a room full of answers they would still anaylize any and everything to the extream because they know that life is a about more that just believing anything people tell you

I am Anne Denise P. Panopio, a third year Mass Communication student from Far Eastern University in the Philippines. I am currently doing an investigative report on uncommon phobias for my journalism class.

May I get your expert opinion on uncommon phobias. I believe that your expert view on the matter will make my investigative report complete.

Here are my questions:

1. How does a person with a phobia affected in playing his role in the society?

2. How does the society view people with phobias?

3. How can the society help on people with phobias?

4. How does a person with phobia affected in terms of attending to social gatherings and events?

5. How does a person with phobia affected in terms of personal growth?

6. What are the disadvantages that a person with phobia encounters?

I am expecting immediate and positive response regarding this matter. Thank you.

Respectfully,

Anne Denise P. Panopi

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