January 25, 2011

Thinking Like a Sociologist: Beyond “That’s Just the Way it is”

KS_2010aBy Karen Sternheimer

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:

  1. 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.
  2. What specific decisions or policies helped create this pattern? So often we overlook the important role that policies play. Continuing with the example File:Home Owners' Loan Corporation Philadelphia redlining map.jpgof 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.
  3. 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?


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I think this article has great facts. I believe its true the facts it has about who we associate with and our friendship patterns. I think that roads and towns are built because of the natural resources or the need of them. Most towns are near water sources. I believe this is a great article of different patterns in society.

Jan.23- This article is mainly about the way our society is, they way our lives are organized and how we spend our time. It showed a pic that a girl took a pic off a plane and showed patterns that become more visible. The homes were clustered in one area. The shapes reflect social interaction. How the land would be pairtioned and where roads and homes would go where the result decisions made by groups and leaders.

I find it very interesting and wrong that interracial marriage was illegal was in the 60's. I think some people stay in the pattern because they think it will change on it's own. They could be to afraid to try to make a change in the pattern and they just go with it. Their are patterns that shape are live but we need create our on patterns to run our lives the way we want too. The friends we have are because they have something in common and we can have better conversations with them.

these article is really interested. simply because how we associate with all of us and our friendship. there a very good fact and point why are roads built we need them, and the way that they know how and where to biult them. these is a great article because it talks about how roads r built and where to built them.

I believe there is a reason that we are friends with the people that we are friends with. I don't think that all of this happened just by random chance or because "that's just the way it is". We hold friendships and romantic relationships because we can relate to one other. We have similar interests, similar backgrounds, and can maintain conversation with each other. The patterns in the picture taken above was simply a metaphor on how we need to look at the big picture to see why things happen the way we do. Looking at the big picture will help us think more like a sociologist.

This is a very interesting article that dives deep into how our everyday lives are shaped. We don't realize it, but we don't have a day to day schedule just because "that's the way things are". The decisions and actions of high ranking officials and people from the past and today shape our lives. Like this article said, just looking at the land from 35.000 feet lets you know just how shaped something can be. This is a concept that is not easy for many people to understand.

It is true that most people find themselves looking at society as the smaller whole they are part of. Many don't look outside of their community, towns, or personal lives. To fully understand sociology we need to look with wider point of view. Like Karen said, it needs to be studied at a higher level to account for all variables. How things work depends on the location, environment, and what happens in that area.

Being raised in a small town and moving to "the big city", one observes how the environment shpes how people behave and who they make friends with. In a small town, one frequently encontered people on all socio-economic levels - everyone when to the same small school - shopped at the single grocery store - went to the same dentist and doctor - went to the same park .... As a result, I am perfectly comfortable with approaching and starting friendships with people at all socio-economic levels compared to people who only lived in "the big city".

there is always a pattern and always a reason for the things humans do. and it is usualy shaped by the actions of other groups of humans like goverments in europe. I see the pattern of groups influencing eachother. the europens influenced america over the years and the japanese have influenced as well with their anime even though they were in turn slightly influenced by us and the europens and greatly by the chinese

This article points out complex our everyday thinking is compared to what it seems like. Growing up in the country and then going into a big city seeing all the people, roads, and buildings still blows my mind to this very day. It brings a feeling of enjoyment everytime I go to a populated area.

This article was very interesting to me and made even clearer some of the points we have been going over in class. In this article Sternheimer uses geography as a basis of comparison to our social relationships. This made me think of Santa Barbara itself. There are certain areas of Santa Barbara where the housing is obviously much nicer and more expensive than others. For example when you look in the hills you can often see large mansions and estates that you wouldn't see down by the 101 with all the small apartment complexes. When you take this into consideration and think of the people living in each of these two different living situations, it is highly unlikely that these people are going to be interacting with one another on any kind of consistent basis. People with different socioeconomic backgrounds are not going to be “buddy-buddy”. Your not going to see a mansion next to an apartment complex, and this is true for a number of reasons. This is why certain schools are nicer than others, this is why crime is lower in certain areas, this is why when we make friends you don’t find yourself walking into a home that is extremely different than your own.
When this concept is looked at in a different light, we can see the reasons we have a class system in the United States. We are all inevitably going to have different incomes. But as I said before your not going to see the CEO in the mansion living in the same neighborhood as his gardener. When people live around others with the same socioeconomic background, other groups are formed such as country clubs, PTO counsels and such. We isolate ourselves from others whom are different, we ourselves create America’s class system.

Karen Sternheimer Hello there. I am just curious Karen... Have you experienced prejudice as a female? Sociology is I believe more a of a women's field. I may be wrong! But, I have had I want to say about 10 classes and only 2 professors have been men. Including the one I have now is a male. I have my associates in social sciences, I am a gay male. I believe that women possess more empathy than men. I also believe as a gay male, that some gay men, such as myself, are minorities that have experienced prejudice. I believe SOCIOLOGY IS A WOMEN"S AND GAY MAN"S FIELD! I am just saying, PS Beautifully written, I must say that I already knew it all. Thank you for having this blog. You take care, and I'll continue towards my degree to be a drug and alcohol counselor. My husband died from a heroin overdose on my 25th birthday, he is my push, my energy, my spirit, and still, in another realm my best friend. Thank you again. Joseph Naperkowski (Joey Naper) on Facebook.

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