Introduction to Sociology: Skills for a Socially Engaged Life

“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both”
C. Wright Mills The Sociological Imagination Oxford, 2000 (1959): 3.

“The first wisdom of sociology is this: Things are not what they seem.”
Peter Berger Invitation to Sociology Doubleday, 1963: 34.

What does it take to become a sociologist?   The sociologist embraces curiosity, imagination, and critical inquiry.  Becoming a sociologist necessitates a willingness to be a lifelong student, making sense of the every day world, and connecting our every day world to global events that seem impossibly beyond our reach.  Becoming a sociologist leads us to an exploration of both the intricacies and the grand sweeps of social organization and social change.  Every one of us is a potential sociologist, when we have the right mindset, and the right tool kit.

Becoming a sociologist entails the investigation of the material world.  Why do people live as they do?  Why are there significant differences in prosperity among people living in the same community, within nations, and between nation states? Along the way to investigating such questions, you will also discover that every material human made object also has a history, and a social context for its production, exchange, and use.

Becoming a sociologist entails the willingness to explore the social construction of knowledge.  How does what we think become thinkable?  How does what we know become knowable?  Addressing these kinds of questions requires an investigation of the social world, including how meaning is ‘made up’ or constituted. What is the broader meaning of a seemingly small and personal experience of happiness, such as strolling along a city street on a warm spring day, listening to music, or sharing a kiss? This is the purview of philosophers as much as sociologists, and indeed, philosophy may seem to be a more appealing starting point when the scale tips more toward romance than to reason. Similarly, the spiritual domain of religion may hold greater appeal in times of hardship or despair (Why me? Why her? Why now?).  Sometimes the directions provided to us by other disciplines can provide us with answers that we need, and more quickly.  But they may not provide the answers that are possible.   One of the challenges of thinking sociologically is that we must refuse to take short cuts in order to account for social phenomenon (God will decide... Nature made us that way…  It is beyond our control…). This can be hard work.

Becoming a sociologist can be unsettling.  It often compels us to challenge our own taken for granted, and deeply held, beliefs. For the sociologist, all knowledge is partial, contingent, and subject to contestation.  Simply put, we don’t and cannot know everything that there is to know.  Innovations in thinking, exposure to new ideas, and making connections between seemingly dissimilar events continually open up new directions for analyses.    We must relinquish our ego investment in our claims of certainty and our hard won research, and welcome the knowledge that our work will be challenged and reformulated.  This is the inevitable course of sociological inquiry.

Becoming a sociologist entails a willingness to ‘travel’; to familiarize oneself with where we already are, and to go where we have not yet been.  This travel may literally require a passport, as we cross borders to explore other cultures, social geographies, and political landscapes.  It may also require no more than a library card and an internet connection.  Whatever roads you take to be a sociologist (and during your life, you will likely travel many), you will require the guidance of theory and the toolkit of methodology.

How can theorists and theories inspire us?  Often they appear to be abstract and far removed from the world that we know.  Moreover, sociological theorists appear to disagree with one another often, on major and minor issues. If sociologists were required to form a community based not only on their commonality of interests but their commonality of beliefs, they might spend a lot of time alone in their rooms!  But that said, theorists inspire, provoke, and challenge one another as an unavoidable component of their job descriptions, as they pursue their shared commitment to making the social world more visible, from the everyday activities that people engage in to analyses of historic events.

What is in our tool kit? Through this introduction to sociology, you will learn to interrogate your own practices of looking, listening, and thinking.   You will learn more about different approaches to knowledge, how to be critical in your consumption of information and to familiarize yourself with some strategies for undertaking analytic work.  You will find that your methodology is in some way linked to theory, because there are connections between what we choose to study, why we elect to study it, how we elect to study it, and the lens through which we study it.

As sociologists, we want you the student to find something surprising and enlightening in seemingly mundane everyday activities, such as browsing the internet, getting dressed in the morning, or going shopping.  Clearly, however, we don’t want you to dismiss, as unworthy of your attention, anything that does not impact upon your personal experience.  Sociologists are not navel gazers; we are always looking beyond our own lives and own experiences for clues about the organization of the social world.   In other words, we want you to connect your every day experiences to larger social, political and economic processes.   We want you to gain an appreciation of the uses of sociology for making sense of your everyday world, while encouraging you to develop the skills of abstract and critical thinking to take you beyond the bounds of your actual everyday lives.

Course Organization and Learning Objectives:

Introduction to Sociology: Skills for a Socially Engaged Life requires students to be active participants in their own learning process; capable of and willing to fully engage in university level thinking, research and writing.  You will take responsibility for your learning process and outcomes, and for your conduct.  You will engage in skills building and self-assessment, and commit to respectful and constructive peer interaction.

This is a course that requires your active participation. I aim to keep our meeting times interactive, and I organize lecture content into interconnected units in order to facilitate questions and discussions, small group and pair exercises, multi-media use such as video and audio clips, etc.  Where possible, we will learn about sociology by ‘doing’ sociology.  My objective is to keep you continually focused on and engaged with the day’s topic, to process the information provided, to develop good questions and plausible explanations, and to test your learning outcomes continually.  You will be introduced to sociological theories, research methods, core themes and topics, and core concepts, and you will learn how sociological thinking, research, and writing entails a continual engagement with all of these.

You can expect to be asked a lot of questions throughout the course. In sociology, finding good answers to those questions requires research. The course will assist you in developing your research skills so that you can identify existing literature on a given topic, compare perspectives on the topic, and present your findings clearly, both orally and in writing, and both individually and as a member of a group. You will find that sometimes the best answer to a question is another question.  However, you will learn the difference between asking information seeking questions and critical analytic questions.  By the end of the course, you should be well on your way to honing your ability to engage in good critical analytic thinking and formulating critical analytic questions.

Specific Course Learning Objectives:

  • Develop an understanding of key theoretical paradigms and concepts.
  • Think critically about processes of socialization, roles, norms and values.
  • Unpack social relationships and interactions in particular social groups.
  • Understand how individual actions are tied to social institutions, processes and structures.
  • Identify a few principle methodologies used within the field of sociology.
  • Apply a sociological imagination to contemporary events and social issues.
  • Understand the importance of historical research, and the social organization of knowledge.
  • Write, present, and share knowledge such that you meet some or all of these learning objectives within assignments, tutorials, and tests/exams.