July 11, 2011

Sociology vs. the Obvious

KS_2010aBy Karen Sternheimer

What is sociology?

This question may seem obvious (especially—I hope—if you have taken or are taking a sociology class), but when I asked this question on a midterm years ago, I observed a troubling pattern.

While the majority of students successfully responded in some form that sociology is the systematic study of patterns of human interaction with special focus on social institutions and processes of power and inequality, a few students regularly answered as follows:

“Sociology is just what you think about things in society,” or

“Sociology is what peoples’ opinions are about their community,” and similar responses to this effect.

Yes, these tended to be answers of students who didn’t pay attention in class and didn’t seem to do the reading. But these responses reflect a broader belief that sociology—and maybe even social science itself—is rooted in the obvious.

A recent Los Angeles Times story echoes this sentiment. Titled “’Duh Science: Why Researchers Spend So Much Time Proving the Obvious,” the story critically examines whether or not federal funding for some research wastes tax dollars.

Yes, sometimes research findings come out exactly as common sense would dictate (the Times story cites conclusions like “obese men have lower odds of getting married” as one example). But failing to conduct research on topics because the answers seem obvious would have prevented us from discovering important counterintuitive findings.

Take, for example, the “obvious” notion that people who live together before marriage will be less likely to divorce than those that do not cohabitate. “Common sense” would tell us that people who have had a chance to get to know each other before taking the next step in their relationship would be less likely to divorce.

But sociological research historically did not back this up. In fact, in some cases cohabitation predicted a greater likelihood of divorce, especially if people had cohabited more than once before marriage. Yet in a 2008 USA Today Poll, 49 percent of respondents said they believed living together before marriage reduced the odds of divorce.

Some groups advocating traditional marriage have taken this finding and turned it into a “new obvious”: that people shouldn’t live together before marriage because they will be more likely to divorce.

But relationships are complex and multifaceted, and so are reasons that they may end. Sociological research seeks to go beyond the obvious—even the obvious from prior research findings—because society is dynamic and findings can change over time.

Continued investigation into the cohabitation question has clarified the contexts and circumstances in which relationships end. When the first studies were conducted decades ago, it was less common for couples to live together before marriage than it is now and perhaps cohabitation was more likely to occur between people who were skeptical about traditional marriage to begin with.

Because so many more people might live together before marriage (even Prince William lived with Kate Middleton before their marriage) it is likely that cohabitation draws many different people with a variety of motivations. As Susan L. Brown discusses in "How Cohabitation is Reshaping American Families," a couple’s motivation for living together impacts the outcome of their relationship. Couples who move in together because they intend to get married eventually are more likely to remain together than those who move in together to share housing costs or for other short-term reasons. By continuing to study what some might consider “obvious” we learn more about what factors predict a lower likelihood of divorce among those in cohabiting relationships.

So while it’s tempting to think that sociology is rooted in common sense, consider that it is often social science research that leads to what we now think of as obvious, as sociologist Dalton Conley discusses in the video below:

That said, we sociologists sometimes need to do a better job communicating our research questions and the importance of our results to the public. Sometimes—some might argue all too often—sociological research seems arcane and even unnecessary to the lay observer. Proponents of public sociology argue that communicating our results more clearly is not just about self-promotion, but about making a bigger impact and improving the lives of those whom we study.


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Being a student of Sociology, I really enjoyed this piece. I love what I study, because it is so dynamic. Every class I take, I learn a different facet to the relationship between society and the individual. You are absolutely right, there is much more to sociology than just the obvious. Sociological research is crucial to not just the study, but to helping people as well. The majority of the readings assigned are research studies. Albeit, they are at times confusing, they are no doubt useful.

Society is complex, just as people are. People are not easy to figure out. The people I work with tend to get sociology and psychology confused. They automatically think I am a psychology major, making the two studies the same thing. I wonder how common that is?

Sociologia versus óbvio
Com o título em epígrafe, um texto da socióloga Karen Sternheimer, aqui. Para traduzir, aqui.

Read more: http://www.oficinadesociologia.blogspot.com/#ixzz1VXQjaXim

An understanding of sociology helps you to understand general things about people before you even meet them. It can help you to understand why people do seemingly irrational things. It can also help you to see social problems, things that are often addressed in politics, with a deeper, broader understanding, and thus be a more educated voter or perhaps leader.

It's important to remember that you can't make sense of your own behavior, much less the patterns of behavior in families, corporations, or nations, without developing a quality of mind which sociologist C. Wright Mills termed "the sociological imagination."

I really enjoyed reading this piece, especially for that fact that it is directly stating that Sociology is not just about the obvious. As was mentioned, we sociologists want to go beyond the obvious, and potentially make a bigger impact on improving peoples' lives.

I really loved reading your blog. It was very well authored and easy to understand. Unlike additional blogs I have read which are really not good. I also found your posts very interesting. In fact after reading, I had to go show it to my friend and he enjoyed it as well

Great information, I’ve been reading about this topic for one week now for my exams in school and thank God I found it here in your blog. I had a great time reading this .

understanding sociology is just learning that a person should always ask questions,and not believe the normal things that everyone else does. also sociology is basically an "educated opinion" not an educated guess. because a true sociologist will put in the work and research things that they do not understand.

This article is very informative and easy to understand. It proves good points and makes it's case. This article discusses the importance of sociologist conducting research on obvious topics because it can lead them to new information.

I really enjoyed reading this. This helped me to understand more of the subject thank you so much

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