Welcome from the Chair
Sociology offers a unique perspective, a special way of looking at human behavior with special tools for studying it. However, sociology is not a comfortable discipline and, in fact, frightens some people.
Sociologist Peter Berger (1963:24), in his Invitation to Sociology, warns:
People who like to avoid shocking discoveries, who prefer to believe that society is just what they were taught in Sunday School, who like the safety of the rules and maxims of what Alfred Schutz has called "the world-taken-for-granted," should stay away from sociology.
We all have our own perspectives, or views of the world and how it works, based on our personal values and beliefs that we have learned. Sociology challenges those views by questioning what we normally take for granted. It asks, for example: How does society really work? Is the justice system truly just? Is the United States a meritocracy where people earn their positions and rewards through their own individual efforts? In asking these critical questions, sociology is challenging myths and stereotypes. Due to this, students are often either excited or threatened by the potential that the sociological perspective has to offer.
The Sociological Imagination
A major purpose of sociology is to identify the social forces that affect our lives. The sociological perspective refers to the ability to see the impact of social forces on our private lives; C. Wright Mills (1959) called it the "Sociological Imagination." Mills (1959) believed that humans were alienated or "entrapped" in a sense of helplessness in the midst of their personal problems. Overcoming this entrapment, according to Mills, means being able to distinguish between "personal troubles," which affect the individual (e.g., getting divorced), and "social issues," which reflect a problem for the entire society (e.g., divorce). This sociological distinction between personal problems and social issues is important because it enables us to see the general in the particular. Sociology focuses on the larger social issue of divorce and its impact on society. This broader view will allow us to see the social forces that are affecting divorce, such as changing international relations, changing gender roles, longer life expectancy, etc. In seeing the relationship between the personal trouble of getting divorced and the wider social issue of divorce, the individual is empowered with the understanding that he or she is not alone and that social forces are contributing factors to the particular situation. This understanding allows us to take better charge of our lives, becoming shapers of society and not just being shaped by it and accepting our troubles as "bad luck" or "destiny."
Freedom consists in knowing what these forces are and how they work so that we have the option of saying no to the impact of their operation. For example, if we grow up in a racist society, we will become racists unless we learn what racism is and how it works and then choose to refuse its impact. In order to do so, however, we must recognize that it is there in the first place. People often are puppets, blindly danced by the strings of which they are unaware and over which they are not free to exercise control. A major function of sociology is that it permits us to recognize the forces operative on us and to untie the puppet strings which bind us, thereby giving us the option to be free. (McGee 1975:3)
Mills (1959:3) noted, "Neither the life of the individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both." As individuals, we affect and are affected by the larger social context in which we live (e.g., our neighborhood, community, state, country, etc.). Sociology recognizes this intersection between the individual and society and provides us with the lens to understand, anticipate, and adapt to personal troubles and to changing social conditions (e.g., economic booms and downturns, peace and war times, etc.). From this awareness of how our daily lives are shaped by larger historical processes, we can become makers of history.