August 30, 2012

Why Sociology?

ksternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

Now and then, a student will come into my office and ask why I chose to become a sociologist. Like many people new to sociology, they often wonder what my process was in deciding to study sociology.

They are often surprised to learn that I came to sociology accidentally, due to a bureaucratic dilemma most college students can relate to: the class I had wanted to take was full, and a sociology course was open and fit my schedule.

I came to my first sociology class, Sex and Gender in Society, a week or two into the drop/add period, so I started off a bit behind and the class was already engaging in lively conversation. It was as if I had entered into a new world, surprised to find that issues pertaining to my everyday life could actually be part of the college curriculum.

Admittedly, my early “work” barely scratched the surface. I analyzed things like the Charlie Brown Christmas Special for a class paper, eeking out a decent grade but nothing to be proud of. (If I were grading the paper as a professor today the grade would have probably been even lower). clip_image002

There was no early indication that I would have a future in sociology based on my papers, but I know I enjoyed the subject. I took a few more courses, including Collective Behavior and Social Movements, as well as two social history courses that were cross-listed with sociology.

I graduated with a degree in drama, not thinking much about my sociology courses until months after graduation, when I found myself searching for a more meaningful career. I’d enjoyed the classes, but what could one possibly do with more training in sociology? I didn’t think about becoming a professor at that point, and had no sense of the many other uses for a sociology degree (including researcher and policy analyst, to name a just a few).

I had taken some psychology classes, and knew that “psychologist” was an actual job. So I took the GRE exam necessary for graduate school admission. In addition to the general exam, the GRE offers subject tests that offer test takers to demonstrate advanced knowledge of their proposed area of study.

In the subject test room I was one of many taking the psychology exam. When one woman was called to pick up her sociology exam (which is no longer offered) I was jealous; an emotion one does not usually feel about taking a test! That was my next clue that sociology was calling me, and within a few years of studying psychology I made the switch and have never looked back.

While at the time I found sociology extremely interesting, I hadn’t realized the extent to which the study of society can be used for the greater good. By learning about things like how race, class, gender, sexuality and other factors shape people’s life chances, their experiences in organizations, and how broad scale institutions impact individual lives, sociologists promote not just greater understanding but also positive change. (Of course, we don’t always agree on the best way to create change, but that’s another topic altogether).

(Listen to sociologist Roberta Spalter-Roth discuss her career path to becoming a sociologist in this podcast.)

Like any profession, sociology is not without its flaws. As I wrote about a few years ago, the discipline has many members who seek higher academic status and uncritically look down upon colleagues at lower-ranked universities and community colleges. I’ve seen some sociologists treat service workers and support staff poorly, react insensitively to family issues that colleagues may face, and apply stereotypes to others—all things that our discipline examines in depth. We should know better, but our behavior sometimes doesn’t reflect that knowledge. (And as sociologists study, organizations create their own hierarchies and rules of creating status).

The path to sociology can be varied. I always find it interesting to learn what drew others to a career in sociology, one that most of us never learn about as children. To learn more about why other sociologists chose this profession, check out Our Studies, Ourselves: Sociologists’ Lives and Work. Even if you don’t decide to become a sociologist, it may help you on your own search for a meaningful career.


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Thank you very much for this post. I received my B.A. in Sociology in 2010, due to a similar "bureaucratic accident." Looking back, I am so thankful that I had taken my first Sociology course, "self and society," during my freshman year. As I am currently considering applying for PhD courses in Sociology, I cannot imagine what my life and career path would be like if I had not stumbled upon that class!

Thank you for your insightful posts, I am a huge fan of the blog!

More about:
Introduces the sociological study of formal organizations. Attention given to processes within organizations, as well as to relationships between organizations and their environments. Topics include bureaucracy, leadership and power in organizations, interorganizational networks, and coordination among organizations.

Yeah Exactly! Sociology is an important aspect of this society.

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