How to Think Like a Sociologist
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.
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
Now 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
- “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 understand 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.