Asking Sociological Questions
If you’ve been a long-time visitor to our site—welcome back and thanks—you’ve hopefully gained some sociological insights into several topics. But you may still wonder what sociologists do.
The main reason that I love sociology is that I think of us as debunkers. What do we debunk? Just about anything having to do with our social lives. Most of us think that our experiences are a full and true reflection of society overall, but sociologists fight against this assumption that our individual experiences are necessarily reflections of the larger society.
For a concrete example, take an issue like poverty. Regardless of your own social class, you probably have some ideas about who is poor in America. When I ask my students to describe the poor, they don’t hesitate to answer. Based on their answers, the following portrait of the poor emerges:
- Most of the poor are African American.
- Most African Americans are poor.
How does this match picture what you think or know about who is poor in America? And how do any of us know who is poor? You probably formed your opinion about poverty in America based on your own social class and what exposure that gives you to the poor in your everyday life. Media depictions—whether in news stories on television, or newspapers or stylized versions in movies—are another major way that we learn of the poor. For example, many of my students report that their portrait of poverty is based on what they see on television and in movies.
As a sociologist, I may recognize that my own ideas of poverty match those of my students, but my task is to find out whether my experiences and impressions match reality. How would I answer the same question using my sociologist’s cap?
Because I’m interested in information that describes a relatively large number of people—and all of them (that is the population of the poor), a good place to get this information would be from a section of the U.S. Census Bureau website and from its Statistical Abstract, both of which provide lots of information on this topic.
Based on this data, a very different picture from the one my students described emerges. We learn that the largest numbers of families in poverty are white, not African American. Looking at the same data, we also see that the racial/ethnic groups with the largest portion of people in poverty are African American—with Hispanics a close second. This means that the second idea from my students is also incorrect: The data shows that the largest portion of any racial/ethnic group in poverty is African American and Hispanic but in neither case is this most of the group. (How can both of these be true? The first piece of this puzzle has to do with raw numbers—the number of families in poverty—while the second deals with proportions.)
As a sociologist, one question to contemplate is where people get these mistaken ideas. You might even look for data on that question or conduct your own research to answer the question. You might conduct interviews to learn from people—in great detail—where they learn about social class and its relationship to race and ethnicity. Or you might decide to do a survey and ask people similar kinds of questions, but get data from a larger number of people than you would likely be able to interview. You could also conduct a content analysis. To do so you could define a period of time and appropriate news sources (Television? Newspaper? Film? Internet? Some combination of these?), examine them yourself, and assess how poverty is portrayed.
You might also think of fleshing out the picture of any or all racial/ethnic groups. You might decide to investigate the income of African Americans: We learned that 22 percent are in poverty, but what about the others? Going back to the Census Bureau makes sense as we seek demographic information that is collected on the entire U.S. population. From this source we see that about one-third (32.1 percent) of African Americans families earn $60,000 or more a year, for example.
This information might lead us to consider other questions about professional/managerial level African Americans. We might wonder: Why don’t we see more of this social class of African Americans in the media? Maybe if we looked at media systematically we could learn about the portrayals that do exist. What about gender? Are black men and black women somewhat equally represented among the professional class? Are there particular occupations in which African Americans tend to dominate? You might become interested in answering any or all of these questions for all racial/groups and could then compare groups.
Answers to these kinds of questions broaden our sociological understanding. Sometimes we think we know the answers to these questions, but a little sociological exploration may lead to a little debunking. Try it.