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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    .

An application that makes this concept understandable is the practice of religion. While people experience their religions 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 (Elias 1978).

Individual-society connections

When sociologist Nathan Kierns spoke to his friend Ashley (a pseudonym) about the move she and her partner had made from an urban center to a small Midwestern town, he was curious about how the social pressures placed on a lesbian couple differed from one community to the other. Ashley said that in the city they had been accustomed to getting looks and hearing comments when she and her partner walked hand in hand. Otherwise, she felt that they were at least being tolerated. There had been little to no outright discrimination.

Things changed when they moved to the small town for her partner’s job. For the first time, Ashley found herself experiencing direct discrimination because of her sexual orientation. Some of it was particularly hurtful. Landlords would not rent to them. Ashley, who is a highly trained professional, had a great deal of difficulty finding a new job.

When Nathan asked Ashley if she and her partner became discouraged or bitter about this new situation, Ashley said that rather than letting it get to them, they decided to do something about it. Ashley approached groups at a local college and several churches in the area. Together they decided to form the town's first gay-straight alliance.

The alliance has worked successfully to educate their community about same-sex couples. It also worked to raise awareness about the kinds of discrimination that Ashley and her partner experienced in the town and how those could be eliminated. The alliance has become a strong advocacy group, and it is working to attain equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LBGT individuals.

Kierns observed that this is an excellent example of how negative social forces can result in a positive response from individuals to bring about social change (Kierns 2011).

Summary

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.

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?

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

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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 (External Link) .

References

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 ( (External Link) ).

Ludden, Jennifer. 2012. "Single Dads By Choice: More Men Going It Alone." npr. Retrieved December 30, 2014 (http://www.npr.org/2012/06/19/154860588/single-dads-by-choice-more-men-going-it-alone).

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

Sahn, Richard. 2013. “The Dangers of Reification.” The Contrary Perspective . Retrieved October 14, 2014 (http://contraryperspective.com/2013/06/06/the-dangers-of-reification/).

U.S. Census Bureau. 2013. "America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012." Retrieved December 30, 2014 (http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p20-570.pdf).

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Source:  OpenStax, Introduction to sociology 2e. OpenStax CNX. Jan 20, 2016 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11762/1.6
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