Understanding the Sociological Perspective

How Sociologists See the World

Dominos lined up on a map symbolize what we see in the world when we use the sociological perspective.
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Sociology can be defined simply as the study of society, but the practice of sociology is much more than a field of study -- it is a way of seeing the world. The sociological perspective involves recognizing and evaluating the effects of social relationships and social structures and forces, considering the present day in historical context and takes for granted that society is socially constructed and thus changeable. It is a perspective that fosters critical thinking, the posing of critical questions, and the pursuit of solutions.

Understanding the sociological perspective is crucial to understanding the field itself, social theory, and why and how sociologists conduct the research they do.

Examining Social Relationships

When sociologists look at the world and try to understand why things are the way they are, they look for relationships, and not just those between people. They look for relationships between individuals and the social groups they might identify with or be identified with, like those of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality, among others; connections between individuals and the communities they live in or are affiliated with; and, relationships between individuals and institutions, like media, religion, family, and law enforcement. Within sociology, this is known as looking at the connections between the "micro" and the "macro", or the individual aspects of social life, and the large-scale groups, relationships, and trends that compose society.

Considering the Effects of Social Structures and Forces

Sociologists look for relationships because they want to understand the causes of trends and problems in society so that they can make recommendations on how to address them. At the heart of sociology is the recognition that social structures and forces, like those described above and others too, shape a person’s worldview, beliefs, values, expectations, sense of what is normal, and right and wrong. In doing so, social structures and forces shape our experiences, how we interact with other people, and ultimately, the trajectories and outcomes of our lives.

Most social structures and forces are not immediately visible to us, but we can find them when we look beneath the surface of everyday life. Introducing students to the field, Peter Berger wrote, “It can be said that the first wisdom of sociology is this—things are not what they seem.” The sociological perspective urges us to ask the unasked questions about the things we consider normal, natural, and inevitable, in order to illuminate the underlying social structures and forces that produce them.

How to Ask Sociological Questions

Sociologists seek complex answers to what many would consider simple questions. Berger suggested that there are four key questions at the heart of sociology that allow us to see the connections between everyday life and social structure and forces. They are:

  1. What are people doing with each other here?
  2. What are their relationships to each other?
  3. How are these relationships organized in institutions?
  4. What are the collective ideas that move men [sic] and institutions?

Berger suggested that asking these questions transforms the familiar into something otherwise unseen, and leads to “a transformation of consciousness.”

C. Wright Mills called this transformation of consciousness “the sociological imagination.” When we examine the world through this lens, we see how our current moment and personal biographies sit within the trajectory of history. Using the sociological imagination to examine our own lives, we might question how social structures, forces, and relationships have given us certain privileges, like access to wealth and prestigious schools; or, how social forces like racism might make us disadvantaged as compared with others.

The Importance of Historical Context

The sociological perspective always includes historical context in its view of society, because if we want to understand why things are the way they are, we have to understand how they got that way. So, sociologists often take the long view, by, for example, looking at the shifting nature of the class structure over time, how the relationship between the economy and culture has evolved over centuries, or, how limited access to rights and resources in the past continues to impact historically marginalized people today.

The Empowering Nature of the Sociological Perspective

Mills believed that the sociological imagination could empower people to make change in their lives and in society because it allows us to see that what we often perceive as “personal troubles,” like not making enough money to support ourselves or our families, are actually “public issues”—problems that course through society and are a product of flaws in the social structure, like inadequate minimum wage levels.

The empowering nature of the sociological imagination points to another fundamentally important aspect of the sociological perspective: that society and all that happens within it is made by people. Society is a social product, and as such, its structures, its institutions, norms, ways of life, and problems are changeable. Just as social structures and forces act on us and shape our lives, we act on them with our choices and actions. Throughout our daily lives, in mundane and sometimes momentous ways, our behavior either validates and reproduces society as it is, or it challenges it and remakes it into something else.

The sociological perspective allows us to see how both outcomes are possible.