What is Sociology?
"The first wisdom of sociology is this: Things are not what they seem." (Peter Berger, 1963)
What makes us most distinctively human is not a particular set of physical characteristics, but rather that so much of what we do, say, think, and feel is powerfully shaped by the fact that we live in groups. The sounds we make, the movements of our bodies, the clothes we wear, and much more are almost all learned or acquired in interaction with other humans, and they are intended to convey meanings to them. We are always making a statement to others about who we are, what we intend to do, what we mean, and so on. Even the exact ways in which we perform such basic bodily functions as eating, sleeping, and having sex are not simply explained by our biology, but reflect the fact that we are a part of particular groups. To put it simply, who we do these things with, where we do them, when we do them, and how we do them are basically social rather than biological issues.
Sociology is the systematic scientific study of human life in groups-which is to say, virtually all of human life. We study everything from the small, transitory interactions of two strangers passing on the street to the incredibly complex and persistent patterns of interactions among individuals in large organizations and even entire societies. We study families, neighborhoods, work groups, sports teams, bureaucracies, religions, governments, and every other kind of group-large or small-that humans have ever created.
Most of science is about the study of patterns or regularities, whether we're looking at viruses or solar systems. Groups represent patterned ways in which humans deal with one another, so we're interested in how the patterns came about, persist, change, or decay. We are particularly sensitive to the inequalities that may result from particular patterns, which leads us to focus on class, gender, race/ethnicity, and other divisions that critically impact our lives, whether we are aware of the effects or not. We're very interested in the complex, persistent patterns we call "institutions", including the political and economic systems, health care, education, religion, the law, and recreation.
We want to learn how patterns change-sometimes through violent conflict, but more often in relatively quiet ways--but we also want to know why certain patterns seem almost impervious to change. We want to know why people sometimes break the rules of the groups in which they live, but we're just as interested in why they live within the rules so much of the time. We're interested in what people do in a catastrophe like a hurricane, but we're just as interested in mundane activities such as shopping in the mall.
Our point of view is often critical. We do not automatically accept what groups and societies say about themselves, any more than you would automatically believe people's description of themselves on Internet dating websites. We are always peeking behind the curtain in order to learn what is really going on. That doesn't endear us to those whose secrets are revealed, but our commitment is to the truth about life in human societies. We know that things are not what they seem.
Dr. Gerry Grzyb, Chair - Dept. of Sociology, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh