Introduction to Sociological Thinking

You are here

Introduction to Sociological Thinking

This is not an attempt to give an account of sociological theories, but a more generalized attempt at outlining how sociologists approach their area of study.

The study of human behaviour is not unique to sociology. So, what makes sociology distinctive is not what is studied but how it is studied. Most of us will be familiar with 'common sense' answers to social questions and may rely on a number of non-sociological ways of thinking.

For Example:

Biological arguments - gender

Psychological arguments - suicide

Moralistic arguments - poverty

These viewpoints derive from:

Individualistic assumptions that don't recognise the importance of wider social forces. Naturalistic assumptions that don't recognise that behaviour is primarily social (learned) not biological (innate).


Naturalistic explanation: It is only natural that a man and woman should live together for life because they fall in love and want to raise children.

Sociological explanation: Monogamy (one woman and one man) is only one form of mating. Mating patterns depend on a variety of economic and social factors. Marriage is a human institution.


The domestic role of women

Naturalistic explanation: Women raise children because this satisfies maternal instincts, and the children's need for a mother.

Sociological explanation: Ideals concerning domesticity and femininity confine women to the home.


Individualistic explanation: People are poor because they are lazy or stupid and can't handle money, or have no skills.

Sociological explanation: Suicide is socially patterned. Suicide is governed primarily by social factors such as religion, family and marriage patterns, and not by individual factors.


Individualistic explanation: The most individual of all acts, committed by a person who is unhappy or mentally ill.

Sociological explanation: Suicide is socially patterned. Suicide is governed primarily by social factors such as religion, family and marriage patterns, and not by individual factors.

When starting to think sociologically, it is important to try and start by asking the right questions. To do this, we need to employ what Mills called 'the Sociological Imagination'.

If one person is unemployed, Mills argued that this was a personal problem, and for that person, a trouble. As long as there are jobs available, we look to character or training for an explanation. But, when a large proportion of a nation's labour force is unemployed, it is impossible to explain this in terms of individuals. We instead look at the groups they belong to and their organization, the way society is organised, for an explanation. It becomes a public issue. Another example given by Mills is of marriage. If one marriage fails, this is a personal trouble. When, as in contemporary western society, divorce assumes epidemic proportions, then although it appears as a personal problem to each couple, we are justified in seeking an explanation outside of individuals. The same point could be made as regards other sociological concerns, for example: child abuse, domestic violence and poverty.

Stokely Carmichael makes a similar point to Mills but substitutes the terms individual and institutional for public and personal:

'When unidentified white terrorists bomb a black church and kill five black children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the world, but when in that same city, Birmingham, Alabama, five hundred black babies die each year because of lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed or maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community, that is a function of institutionalised racism.'

Carmichael 1968

Source: Approaching Sociology, Coulson and Riddell, RKP, 1970.

In the reading below what it is important to grasp is that even when we believe we are acting freely and making individual choices, we are following rules that are prior to our existence and which exist outside of ourselves. We have learned them, they are accepted as 'natural', they become 'common sense'. And, in as much as we allow ourselves to be guided by these rules, our behaviour is determined by them. This reading is a good example of how, through socialisation, we are taught to police our own behaviour.

'Our lives are not only dominated by the inanities of our contemporaries, but also by those of men (and women) who have been dead for generations. This is important to stress because it shows us that even in the areas where society apparently allows us some choice the powerful hand of the past narrows down this choice even further.'

'Let us take, for example, a scene in which a pair of lovers is sitting in the moonlight. Let us further imagine that this moonlight session turns out to be the decisive one, in which a proposal of marriage is made and accepted. They who are dead have long ago written the script for almost every move that is made. The notion that sexual attraction can be translated into romantic love... the idea that a man should fixate his sexual drive permanently and exclusively on a single woman, with whom he is to share bed, bathroom and the boredom of a thousand bleary-eyed breakfasts...And, the assumption that the initiative in the establishment of this wondrous arrangement should be in the hands of the male, with the female graciously succumbing to the impetuous onslaught of his wooing.


Just as all these hoary ancients have decided, the basic framework within which the passions of our couple will develop, so each step in their courtship has been predefined, prefabricated - if you like, fixed. It is not only that they are supposed to fall in love and enter into a monogamous marriage in which she gives up her name and he his solvency, but this love must be manufactured at all cost or the marriage will seem insincere to all concerned.

Each step in their courtship is laid down in social ritual, and, although there is always some leeway for improvisation, too much adlibbing is likely to risk the success of the whole operation. In this way, our couple progress predictably from movie dates, to church dates, to meeting-the-family dates, from holding hands to tentative explorations of what they originally planned to save for afterwards, from planning their evening to planning their suburban ranch-house...Neither of them has invented this game or any part of it. They have only decided that it is with each other, rather than with other possible partners, that they will play it. Family, friends, clergy, salesmen of jewellery and of life insurance, florists and interior decorators, ensure that the remainder of the game will also be played by the established rules. Nor, indeed, do all these guardians of tradition have to exert much pressure on the principal players, since the expectations of their social world have long ago been built into their own projections of the future - they want precisely that which society expects of them.'

Source: Invitation to Sociology, Peter Berger, Pelican, 1966.

Unlike the previous reading, the one below is an attempt to correct the balance as regards our ability to choose how we behave. Unlike those who see human behaviour as 'programmed' behaviour, some sociologists emphasise the creative, purposive aspects of human action. That is, that humans think about what it is they want to achieve, and how best to achieve it.

The situation: Preedy, a vacationing Englishman, makes his first appearance on the beach of his summer hotel in Spain.

'...he took care to avoid catching anyone's eye. First of all, he had to make clear to those potential companions of his holiday that they were of no concern to him whatsoever. He stared through them, round them, over them - eyes lost in space. The beach might have been empty. If by chance a ball was thrown his way, he looked surprised; then let a smile of amusement lighten his face (kindly Preedy), looked round dazed to see that there were people on the beach, tossed it back with a smile to himself and not a smile at the people, and then resumed carelessly his nonchalant survey of space.


But it was time to institute a little parade, the parade of the Ideal Preedy. By devious handling he gave any who wanted to look a chance to see the title of his book - a Spanish translation of Homer, classic thus, but not daring, cosmopolitan too - and then gathered together his beach-wrap and bag into a neat and sand-resistant pile (methodical and sensible Preedy), rose slowly to stretch at ease his huge frame (big cat Preedy), and tossed aside his sandals (carefree Preedy, after all).

The marriage of Preedy and the sea! There were alternative rituals. The first involved the stroll that turns into a run and a dive straight into the water, thereafter smoothing into a strong splashless crawl towards the horizon. But of course, not really to the horizon. Quite suddenly, he would turn onto his back and thrash great white splashes with his legs, somehow thus showing that he could have swum further had he wanted to, and then would stand up a quarter out of the water for all to see who it was.

The alternative course was simpler, it avoided the cold-water shock and it avoided the risk of appearing too high-spirited. The point was to appear to be so used to the sea (the Mediterranean) and this particular beach, that one might as well be in the sea as out of it. It involved a slow stroll down and into the edge of the water - not even noticing his toes were wet, land and water all the same to him! With his eyes up at the sky gravely surveying portents (invisible to others) of the weather (local fisherman Preedy).'

Source: A Contest of Ladies, William Sansom, Hogarth, !956. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, E. Goffman, Penquin, 1959.