What Is Sociology?

Social Sciences
Sociologists learn about society as a whole while studying one-to-one and group interactions. (Photo courtesy of Robert S. Donovan/flickr)

A dictionary defines sociology as the systematic study of society and social interaction. The word “sociology” is derived from the Latin word socius (companion) and the Greek word logos (study of), meaning “the study of companionship.” While this is a starting point for the discipline, sociology is actually much more complex. It uses many different methods to study a wide range of subject matter and to apply these studies to the real world.

What Are Society and Culture?

Sociologists study all aspects and levels of society. A society is a group of people whose members interact, reside in a definable area, and share a culture. A culture includes the group’s shared practices, values, and beliefs. One sociologist might analyze video of people from different societies as they carry on everyday conversations to study the rules of polite conversation from different world cultures. Another sociologist might interview a representative sample of people to see how texting has changed the way they communicate. Yet another sociologist might study how migration determined the way in which language spread and changed over time. A fourth sociologist might be part of a team developing signs to warn people living thousands of years in the future, and speaking many different languages, to stay away from still-dangerous nuclear waste.

The Sociological Imagination

Although these studies and the methods of carrying them out are different, the sociologists involved in them all have something in common. Each of them looks at society using what pioneer sociologist C. Wright Mills called the sociological imagination, sometimes also referred to as the sociological lens or sociological perspective. Mills defined sociological imagination as how individuals understand their own and others’ pasts in relation to history and social structure (1959).

By looking at individuals and societies and how they interact through this lens, sociologists are able to examine what influences behavior, attitudes, and culture. By applying systematic and scientific methods to this process, they try to do so without letting their own biases and pre-conceived ideas influence their conclusions.

Studying Patterns: How Sociologists View Society

All sociologists are interested in the experiences of individuals and how those experiences are shaped by interactions with social groups and society as a whole. To a sociologist, the personal decisions an individual makes do not exist in a vacuum. Cultural patterns and social forces put pressure on people to select one choice over another. Sociologists try to identify these general patterns by examining the behavior of large groups of people living in the same society and experiencing the same societal pressures.

The recent turmoil in the U.S. housing market and the high rate of foreclosures offer an example of how a sociologist might explore social patterns. Owning a home has long been considered an essential part of the American Dream. People often work for years to save for a down payment on what will be the largest investment they ever make. The monthly mortgage is often a person’s largest budget item. Missing one or more mortgage payments can result in serious consequences. The lender may foreclose on the mortgage and repossess the property. People may lose their homes and may not be able to borrow money in the future. Walking away from the responsibility to pay debts is not a choice most people make easily.

About three million homes were repossessed in the United States between 2006 and 2011. Experts predict the number could double by 2013 (Levy and Gop 2011). This is a much higher rate than the historical average. What social factors are contributing to this situation, and where might sociologists find patterns? Do Americans view debt, including mortgages, differently than in the past? What role do unemployment rates play? Might a shift in class structure be an influential factor? What about the way major economic players operate?

To answer these questions, sociologists will look beyond individual foreclosures at national trends. They will see that in recent years unemployment has been at record highs. They will observe that many lenders approved subprime mortgages with adjustable rates that started low and ballooned. They may look into whether unemployment and lending practices were different for members of different social classes, races, or genders. By analyzing the impact of these external conditions on individuals’ choices, sociologists can better explain why people make the decisions they do.

Risky bank loans, falling housing prices, and high unemployment can result in higher foreclosure rates. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Turner/flickr)

Another example of how society influences individual decisions can be seen in people’s opinions about and use of food stamps (also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP benefits). Some people believe that those who receive food stamps are lazy and unmotivated. Statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture show a complex picture.

Food Stamp Use by StateSociologists examine social conditions in different states to explain differences in the number of people receiving food stamps. (Table courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture)
Percent Eligible by Reason for Eligibility
Living in Waiver Area Have Not Exceeded Time Limitsa In E & T Program Received Exemption Total Percent Eligible for the FSPa
Alabama 29 62 / 72 0 1 73 / 80
Alaska 100 62 / 72 0 0 100
California 6 62 / 72 0 0 64 / 74
District of Columbia 100 62 / 72 0 0 100
Florida 48 62 / 72 0 0 80 / 85
Mississippi 39 62 / 72 0 3 100
Wyoming 7 62 / 72 0 0 64 / 74

The percentage of the population receiving food stamps is much higher in certain states than in others. Does this mean, if the stereotype above were applied, that people in some states are lazier and less motivated than those in other states? Sociologists study the economies in each state—comparing unemployment rates, food, energy costs, and other factors—to explain differences in social issues like this.

To identify social trends, sociologists also study how people use food stamps and how people react to their use. Research has found that for many people from all classes, there is a strong stigma attached to the use of food stamps. This stigma can prevent people who qualify for this type of assistance from using food stamps. According to Hanson and Gundersen (2002), how strongly this stigma is felt is linked to the general economic climate. This illustrates how sociologists observe a pattern in society.

Sociologists identify and study patterns related to all kinds of contemporary social issues. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the emergence of the Tea Party as a political faction, how Twitter has influenced everyday communication—these are all examples of topics that sociologists might explore.

Studying Part and Whole: How Sociologists View Social Structures

A key basis of the sociological perspective is the concept that the individual and society are inseparable. It is impossible to study one without the other. German sociologist Norbert Elias called the process of simultaneously analyzing the behavior of individuals and the society that shapes that behavior figuration. He described it through a metaphor of dancing. There can be no dance without the dancers, but there can be no dancers without the dance. Without the dancers, a dance is just an idea about motions in a choreographer’s head. Without a dance, there is just a group of people moving around a floor. Similarly, there is no society without the individuals that make it up, and there are also no individuals who are not affected by the society in which they live (Elias 1978).

An application that makes this concept understandable is the practice of religion. While people experience their religion in a distinctly individual manner, religion exists in a larger social context. For instance, an individual’s religious practice may be influenced by what government dictates, holidays, teachers, places of worship, rituals, and so on. These influences underscore the important relationship between individual practices of religion and social pressures that influence that religious experience.


Sociology is the systematic study of society and social interaction. In order to carry out their studies, sociologists identify cultural patterns and social forces and determine how they affect individuals and groups. They also develop ways to apply their findings to the real world.

Section Quiz

Which of the following best describes sociology as a subject?

  1. The study of individual behavior
  2. The study of cultures
  3. The study of society and social interaction
  4. The study of economics

C. Wright Mills once said that sociologists need to develop a sociological __________ to study how society affects individuals.

  1. culture
  2. imagination
  3. method
  4. tool

A sociologist defines society as a group of people who reside in a defined area, share a culture, and who:

  1. interact
  2. work in the same industry
  3. speak different languages
  4. practice a recognized religion

Seeing patterns means that a sociologist needs to be able to:

  1. compare the behavior of individuals from different societies
  2. compare one society to another
  3. identify similarities in how social groups respond to social pressure
  4. compare individuals to groups

Short Answer

What do you think C. Wright Mills meant when he said that to be a sociologist, one had to develop a sociological imagination?

Describe a situation in which a choice you made was influenced by societal pressures.

Further Research

Sociology is a broad discipline. Different kinds of sociologists employ various methods for exploring the relationship between individuals and society. Check out more about sociology at http://www.sociologyguide.com/questions/sociological-approach.php.


Elias, Norbert. 1978. What Is Sociology? New York: Columbia University Press.

Hanson, Kenneth and Craig Gundersen. 2002. “How Unemployment Affects the Food Stamp Program.” Food Assistance and Nutrition Research Report Number 26-7. USDA. Retrieved January 19, 2012 (http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/fanrr26/fanrr26-7/fanrr26-7.pdf).

Kierns, Nathan. 2010. Ashley’s Alliance, unpublished presentation. Ohio State University.

Levy, Dan and Prashan Gop. 2011. “Foreclosure Filings in U.S. May Jump 20% From Record 2010 as Crisis Peaks.” Bloomberg News, January 13. Retrieved January 19, 2012 (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-01-13/u-s-foreclosure-filings-may-jump-20-this-year-as-crisis-peaks.html).

Mills, C. Wright. 2000 [1959]. The Sociological Imagination. 40th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.