June 06, 2011

Asking Sociological Questions

new janisBy Janis Prince Inniss

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:

  1. Most of the poor are African American.
  2. 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.

clip_image002Based 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.

clip_image004You 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.


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You ask who your readers think is poor in America? Since I live in the desert southwest, my first thoughts are Native Americans, not blacks. That is my experience. As soon as I leave my town I enter Native American held land. Some of these people don't have electricity or indoor plumbing. They are truly American's forgotten poor.

Thank you for the help on how to ask sociological questions. I understand better how to ask questions and research them to find the answers. I agree that individual experiences are not necessarily reflections of the larger society. Larger society doesn't always play a key role in individual experience. I also believe sociologists should pursue this belief when they are doing their research.

THank you for shedding light to my misunderstanding of some sociological terms. I am a law student here at the Faculty of Arts and Law at Emalus Campus of the University of the South Pacific. Sociology is one of my elective course, however, it is pretty difficult to use examples from my country in response to sociological questions asked of me by my lecturer who is from another country, who always give no marks to me. This is due mainly for the fact that she does not understand the cultural settings, and social behavior between a village live and modern life in terms of economy, subsistence...etc of my community, which I have always tried to put across. So, in such situations, how do I explain that to a foreign sociology lecturer.
Thank you anyway, in advance, for your response and assistance.

I find sociology very helpful in terms of the understanding of the way society is structured and managed, which is usually done informally without realising that society, especially village life has been, and is being structured society. There are so many social issues that people do not realise that they are part of a life cycle, or fact of the existence of life. For example,negative impact of a particular activity like committing theft (crime) and end up in jail is a message to the offender himself/ herself not to do it again, and is also a message to others to realise that theft is a crime, which anybody must not do. And not only that but many other aspects of life which always comes to affect the society in both, negative and positive ways, in order to shape ones life to be a better person in the society.

On learning sociology we can knew a lot of things that happened , they are very interesting and we can also how are improved like this to the present stage by the discoveries of a lot of things by many great persons we are in the present stage;

Thanks for the interesting article.The information provided here is really good and helpful.The content is really good.Thanks for sharing.This information might lead us to consider various social issues.

Explain the significance of the “semiperiphery” in world systems theory

How would each of the paradigms exlain the persistence of inequality in America?

What was the 'Sociology Hesitant' by W.E.B Dubois actually about? Like the key themes and what he was trying to achieve from this essay. The text in it is really confusing, and I can't seem to pin point on what he is talking about.

Do straights (both genders), now a days, enjoy a greater societal admissibility, for exploring their adolescence and later, for exploring adulthood through relationship/s of all kinds and at all depths, as compared to their 'alternative' peers? Please be honest and open to share your perspective, with respect to the changing Indian social values.'

How does the way that women are portrayed on television affect the way women are seen in society ?

Women are portrayed in the media as inferior to men and often times the media spreads images of the "ideal" woman such as being a size zero, wearing makeup, bronzed, and toned. These images are seen my millions of women around the world and puts a huge pressure on them leaving them with disorders and unrealistic body goals. When men see women, they compare them to the women they see on TV or online without even realizing it. Everyone's views are distorted by the media because the visuals are everywhere we turn, almost inescapable. It's difficult for women to get jobs because the media has taught men that women can't do hard labor. Until the media portrays women for what they truly are, we will all need to learn to have better media literacy to make better judgments of reality.

the first question about the ideas of poverty levels among our society in america is what is poverty? and what is to be rich? we think that white people are rich and the rest survives somehow. we create our own idea about societies base in color and that is absurd.

Being in poverty means being in a constant state of being poor. Being rich means having an abundance amount of income and money.

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