Thinking Like a Sociologist: Beyond “That’s Just the Way it is”
Sometimes it’s easy to look around and figure that the way our society operates is inevitable. On the surface, it may seem that our friendship circles might seem to have evolved “naturally”—we’re friends with people we like and there’s nothing more to it. We also might think that the organization of our schools and other institutions can’t change because this is the way they have “always been.”
For those of you learning about the sociological perspective for the first time, it might be tempting to think about social life this way—that the way our lives are organized, how we spend our time and with whom we spend it—is the result of only our personal choices and little more.
Sociologists look at how broader patterns shape small scale personal interactions as well as large institutions. These patterns can be hard to see when we are immersed in them. Like the air we breathe, they can become invisible, but they are vital to understanding our social world.
If you have ever looked out the window while flying on an airplane, some of these patterns become more visible. I recently took these photos from a flight when we were at an altitude of about 35,000 feet. Notice the patterns of circles and squares that might be less obvious on the ground.
As you can see in the image above, the homes are clustered in one area, and the major roads lead to this small population center. The shapes reflect social interaction: land is sectioned off to delineate property lines so it is clear who owns which land. The way the roads are built shape where people go and how they get there.
How the land would be partitioned and where the roads and homes would go were the result of decisions made by groups and leaders. Often the location of natural resources shaped these decisions: human populations often cluster near water sources and tend to be away from more rugged terrain. The stories behind how boundaries are drawn between states reflect both natural barriers like rivers and mountains, but those boundaries are also shaped by politics, economics, and power. (Check out this video to learn more about How the States Got their Shapes.)
Yes, this might seem obvious, but it is a reminder that specific, deliberate decisions created the patterns that shape our daily lives. And new decisions can alter these patterns as well.
Take, for example, the major economic shift that occurs when what was once a major source of revenue for a town disappears. Many western communities sprang up to mine silver and gold during the nineteenth century. But when the mines were tapped out, people left and the areas became ghost towns. Some of these towns (like the one pictured below) became parks and new patterns of interaction emerge.
So how can these examples apply to everyday life and help us go beyond the notion that “that’s just the way it is”? Below are some questions that are helpful to ask when learning to think like a sociologist:
- What underlying factors might be relevant in shaping this pattern? For instance, you might consider your group of friends and think about what broader patterns made it more likely that you would meet and have something in common. Both friendships and romantic relationships tend to be between people with similar socio-economic backgrounds, largely because we are more likely to interact them more regularly than those significantly wealthier or poorer than we are.
- What specific decisions or policies helped create this pattern? So often we overlook the important role that policies play. Continuing with the example of friendship patterns, we can also consider how policies might have had an impact on race and friendships. Between 1934 and 1968, a federal policy called redlining shaped how banks made loans for home mortgages. Areas with African American residents were shaded in red and were considered too risky for loans underwritten by the government . This policy not only aided in the decline of these communities, but also helped foster both racial and economic segregation in American cities, patterns we still see today.
- What new decisions or policies can change this pattern? Just as underlying sociological factors and policies help to create patterns, new policies and practices can change patterns that might at first seem fixed and unchanging. For instance, as Janis Prince Inniss blogged about last year, the number of interracial couples has risen since 1980. There are many possible reasons for this, some of which might be the end of restrictive housing policies like those noted above with the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and of course the 1967 landmark Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia which made state bans on interracial marriage illegal. Change can be slow—as Prince Inniss’s post points out, interracial marriage rates remained flat for decades.
These are just a few examples of how to get beyond thinking “that’s just the way it is.” What other patterns that we often take for granted might have deeper sociological explanations?