Home » SOC 101 Lecture 1: Why Sociology?

SOC 101 Lecture 1: Why Sociology?

Welcome to the first online lecture in the Fall 2015 Introduction to Sociology course at the University of Maine at Augusta.  A course is a journey that we take together along a path; this week, at the very beginning of our journey, we consider what the nature of that journey might be and why it is so important to take that journey.

Each of the online lectures features some combination of text, images, links, activities and video.  To get the most out of each lecture, please participate fully — watch those videos and answer questions that may arise.  At the end of each lecture is a comments section; I encourage you to post any questions you might have there.  Keep in mind that to protect your privacy, I don’t require you to sign your name to any comment or lecture response on this page.  Please feel free to use a pseudonym in your online interactions should you choose.

The sections of this week’s lecture are:

Orientation to SOC 101: Four Pieces of Information to Get Started

This week is your chance to get acquainted with the basic structure of this course. As a modern university course, we will use the internet extensively as a place to archive information. To get yourself started, please watch the following short introductory video; it provides basic orientation information for students regarding the syllabus (which you can find here), the textbook (which you can obtain here), online lectures (which are always saved here) and contact information (which you can find both on the syllabus and on this web page):

Why Sociology?

Why bother studying sociology? To answer that question, we need a better definition of sociology than the trivial definition provided by your textbook, that sociology is “the study of society.” The video below works on that project by considering how we study anything, how we know anything to be real, true, a verifiable fact. Once we consider the basis for knowledge in sociology, perhaps the next objection is, “isn’t this all just common sense?” But although common sense feels like a safe bet, careful study reveals common sense to be anything but obvious and anything but accurate. Sociology is the systematic study of social interaction and its consequences, an approach to knowledge that grounds itself in the empirical (that is, observations of the world available to our senses). As a discipline, sociology seeks to avoid sources of bias and to acknowledge bias when it is unavoidable.

In the above video, I reference selective perception bias, a problem in which we see mostly what we expect to see (and fail to see what we don’t expect to see). Daniel Simons and Christopher F. Chabris have famously illustrated how strongly selective perception bias can work in an experiment asking subjects to count basketball passes:

Now, you were definitely primed by my lecture to see something unexpected — the literal gigantic gorilla in the room. But the subjects of Simons and Chabris’ experiment (1999) were not primed to look for the unexpected. Instead, they expected to see basketball passes. And so, what did they see? Only basketball passes. No gorillas.

You may be asking yourself why we should care if people don’t notice gorillas in the room. After all, you might reasonably point out, we don’t tend to have many rooms with free-roaming gorillas in them these days. This kind of reaction led Drew, Trafton, Melissa L-H. Võ, and Jeremy M. Wolfe (2013) to insert images of waving gorillas in radiological images like this:

A figure from Drew, Vo and Wolfe's 2013 piece on gorillas in radiology images

In their study, 83% of radiologists didn’t notice the gorilla. Radiologists aren’t trained to notice for odd shapes unless they fit the exact profile of worrisome spots they learned about in their medical training. This striking result leads us to wonder: what else are the radiologists missing?

This trend is not limited to psychological studies. As magician Derren Brown shows in his spot Person Swap, selective perception bias can lead us to keep going in our social scripts when the most astonishing changes occur. If the changes occur where we aren’t looking for them, we won’t see the changes at all:

These examples, backed by systematic research show the danger in depending on “obvious” “common sense” to build your understanding of society. You just don’t know what you’re missing.

How is Sociology Distinctive?

Sociology is in some ways a study of the invisible. Geologists can see rocks. Astronomers can see stars. Biologists can see bodies. But how do we see societies when they have no immediately noticeable physical form? As I discussed in the above video, invisible facts like social facts gain a second-hand visibility of sorts through their consequences.

Social facts do have their consequences. I’ve asked you to complete a short introductory reading for this first week of class — Chapter 1 in UMA’s book of the year for 2014, Outliers. In that chapter, author Malcolm Gladwell reviews the decades-long study of the community of Roseto, Pennsylvania by Stewart Wolf and John Bruhn (1993). As a physician, Stewart Wolf was trained to look inside the human body for reasons why a person would remain healthy or become sick. So when Wolf heard the story of Roseto, the town where residents lived marvelously long lives, he looked for medical explanations based in the human individual as a biological organism. He could find no classic medical causes for the long-lived Rosetans, compared to four other American towns — no differences in diet or exercise or genetics. Instead, Wolf and his sociologist colleague John Bruhn found the difference of Roseto compared to the other four towns they studied lay in the social structure of the town.

You’ll recall from the video above that structure refers to the arrangement of individual parts in some sort of meaningful pattern. You should also recall from that video that the adjective social refers to some kind of interaction between people, groups, institutions or communities. A social structure, then, is an arrangement of people, groups, institutions and/or communities in a pattern of interactions between them. Stewart and Wolf found that the social structures in which Rosetans were active members in a single unifying organization (the Catholic Church) and tight-knit family units that formed the center of Rosetans’ lives. The punch line to Wolf and Bruhn’s work goes untold by Gladwell — as tight bonds of church and family were replaced by looser social ties in the 1960s, Rosetans began to die younger. By the 1970s, when the social structure of Roseto had evolved to resemble the individualistic, non-collective structure of surrounding towns, Rosetans had lost their longevity. As Wolf and Bruhn show, a change social structure can kill you just as much as a walk off a cliff.

References

Asch, Solomon. 1955. “Opinions and Social Pressure.” Scientific American 193(5): 31-35.

Blau, Peter. 1977. Inequality and Heterogeneity. New York: Free Press.

Drew, Trafton, Melissa L-H. Võ, and Jeremy M. Wolfe. 2013. “The Invisible Gorilla Strikes Again Sustained Inattentional Blindness in Expert Observers.” Psychological Science 24(9): 1848-1853.

Durkheim, Emile. 2014 [1904]. The Rules of the Sociological Method. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Feld, Scott L. 1991. “Why Your Friends Have More Friends than You Do.” American Journal of Sociology 96(6): 1464-1477.

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2008. “The Roseto Mystery,” Chapter 1 of Outliers. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

McPherson, Miller, Lynn Smith-Lovin and James Cook. 2001. “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks.” Annual Review of Sociology 27: 415-444.

Merton, Robert K. 1995. “The Thomas theorem and the Matthew effect.” Social Forces 72(4): 379-422.

Milgram, Stanley. 1965. “Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority.” Human Relations 18:57-76.

Rosenthal, Robert and Lenore Jacobson. 1968. “Pygmalion in the Classroom.” The Urban Review 3(1): 16-20.

Simons, Daniel J., and Christopher F. Chabris. 1999. “Gorillas in our Midst: Sustained Inattentional Blindness for Dynamic Events.” Perception-London 28(9): 1059-1074.

Tversky, Amos and Daniel Kahneman. 1974. “Judgments Under Certainty: Heuristics and Biases.” Science 185: 1124-1131.

Wolf, Stewart and John Bruhn. 1993. The Power of Clan: The Influence of Human Relations on Heart Disease. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.


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