Why Study Sociology?
Many people have heard of sociology but what it actually is. On a simple level, sociology is the study of society and group behaviour. We want to understand how the interactions we have with one another shape our behaviour and our sense of identity and self. Yet we also want to look at bigger issues, such as power and inequality. At this level, we look at society as a whole and look at issues such as class, gender, and ethnicity. To do this we utilise a number of different theories such as Functionalism, New Right, Marxism, Feminism, Postmodernism to help us conceptualise the social world and human behaviour.
A-Level Sociology introduces us to some of the key debates in this field. This includes the study of crime and deviance. One question that we all wonder about at times is why have people committed certain crimes? What drove them to it? Why choose to re-offend? Some sociologists believe that criminals make a rational choice to commit a crime and that the lack of severe punishments encourages criminal behaviour. Therefore, to reduce crime, we need tough action such as the Three Strike Rule in America (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-strikes_law). Others argue that crime is often a result of poverty and the lack of opportunities this creates (https://revisesociology.com/2016/09/13/jock-young-late-modernity-exclusion-and-crime/).
Another viewpoint explored is the extent that the police create crime by labelling groups as criminal and then over-policing them. For example, the high levels of stop and search with the Black community. If police continually search one group, it is argued it becomes more likely to find more low-level criminal behaviour in that group than in much less searched groups. This creates the impression that this group is more criminal than others which can lead to further discrimination in society.
At the same time, we also sometimes wonder why some actions are criminal even though a large number / a majority commit it. For example, large numbers of young people use illegal streaming / downloading services, but they do not view themselves or their friends as criminals despite this being an illegal act. Yet, if they shop lifted, they would see that as a criminal act.
As sociologists we attempt to answer these questions. We do so by utilising a number of research techniques. Often, for example, sociologists in the Home Office can analyse large data sets to help identify patterns of crime and offending. This helps the police target their resources more effectively. Other sociologists may observe or interview criminals to try to understand the world from their perspective.
A famous study of this was by a sociologist called Venkatesh who wrote a book called ‘Gang Leader for a Day’. In this he reports on the time he spent observing an American gang and learning how they operated and what drove people to join them. He also discovered some interesting details about the links these gangs had within the local community and how the police chose to police them. For one day, he was given the position of gang leader to see what this entailed. Watch the YouTube video below to hear Professor Venkatesh discuss his research.
We also consider the accuracy of research to help assess its value to us. For example, on one hand, Venkatesh’s study uncovers a lot of detail through his interactions with the gang which may be missed by a broader approach, however, his relationship with the Gang Leader JT may also have shaped how he perceived the actions of the gang and may lead to biased results. As sociologists, we don’t just have an idea, we must test it and the quality of the data is just as important as the quality of the argument. Take the Police figures above these are the official figures provided by the government for every Stop and Search conducted. As such, we can be confident that the findings that are presented are accurate. For sociologists, we now need to understand why these groups are stopped more often and what effect these policies have in both reducing crime, but may also affect trust in the police within our communities which may have longer term consequences.
This is just a small window into one part of sociology. Sociologists also study the education and health systems, the role of families and family relationships, the role of religion in society. Increasingly, sociologists are examining the role of media and social media in shaping our identities, our socialisation, and as shown with recent scandals such as the rise of ‘Fake News’, the role of media within our democratic system.
Studying Sociology will help you think about how the society in which you live works. It will help you question and interrogate the information you receive through media and politicians to help make informed choices when participating in political life whether through voting or within a community. Sociology will make you question your beliefs and why you hold them and provide new ways to look at the world. These include both left and right-wing perspectives as well as ones that focus on the individual and small groups versus looking at society as a whole. Above all, sociology is the study of the society you live in today so we look at the issues that have the largest effect on you from how you spend your leisure time to the economic structure of society and how this might shape your opportunities. Above all though, it will give you curiosity and empathy about the world in which you live and all the people in it.