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Sociology in a Nutshell: "What is Sociology?"

Updated on February 9, 2015

Sociology: Society and the Individual

The discussion on the last class meeting of my Sociology of Religion course was supposed to center around what sociological concept stood out most to each of us. I chose the sociological processes and developed a story to try to illustrate each idea and the progression of ideas in society.

Society begins with the individual, and so does this story:

I rake leaves.

Sociological Processes: Externalization, Internalization, Externalization

The sociological processes of externalization and internalization allow for the transmission of ideas from one person to the next. The story continues:

People see me raking leaves. I talk about raking leaves with everyone I meet. People begin to talk to each other about me raking and talking about raking leaves.

Some people start to think that maybe they would like to rake leaves too.

Eventually, others buy rakes and start raking. More and more people are now raking leaves. Sometimes they lean on their rakes and talk about the experience with me and with each other.

Sociological Processes: Objectivation

In the process of objectivation, ideas are solidified. Because there is a need for order and teamwork, ideas that originally belonged to one person or a small group of people, and that have been externalized, become the standard that behavior is measured by. Eventually, it is as if the idea itself is an object. For example, we call the bonding of pairs of individuals the institution of marriage. By calling it an institution, we are classifying this behavior as if it were something solid, something exterior to ourselves, as if it did not originate with an individual or small group of individuals. The story continues:

One day, five of us leaf-rakers are at the local hardware store. We discuss our techniques and preferences. We argue about what the best ways to rake the leaves are and which rakes are the most efficient. We finally agree that we believe in raking leaves in particular ways, on particular days and that this what everyone should do. We talk to all of our other leaf-raking friends about it. Rakers start to meet at the hardware store every Monday to discuss the reasons for raking leaves, what kinds of rakes should be used and how the piles should be arranged and disposed of. We now call our activity the institution of raking.

Sociology: Plausibility Structures

Plausibility structures are frameworks within which people operate that allow for the justification of certain behaviors. Because of the various institutions of a society, certain behaviors become standard and acceptable. Plausibility structures are concepts that explain and support the behavior. For example, we celebrate holidays. If an alien from another world were to inquire as to the reasons for this behavior, certain pat answers would be given. Some customs, such as shaking hands, are understood to be just what should be done. The story goes on:

More people start raking leaves and coming to the meetings. Sometimes we have dinners and contests just for fun. Someone writes a song about the beauty of leaf raking and it becomes popular. People begin to sing it whenever they are raking and we sing it at the meetings. When we begin to rake, we make a sweeping motion with the rake. Everyone does it. When people from out of town ask us why we rake and sing the way we do, we say, “It’s just the way we do things around here.”


Sociology: Legitimation

Eventually, the plausibility structures are not enough to keep people behaving in the customary way. Rules become stronger and must be enforced. Penalties are meted out for disobedience in a range of forms, from scorn and shunning to imprisonment and death.

The plot thickens:

Eventually we establish the Raker Council and when it is discovered that some rakers are not raking in the customary manner, or following the guidelines, we appoint a few people to enforce the rules. We make more rules about the days and times leaves should be raked, the methods that are acceptable and at what age people can begin raking. The rake police make the rounds, checking on everyone’s leaf-raking habits.

When people do not follow the guidelines, penalties are issued.


Sociology: What is Anomy?

Anomy is like a shockwave. When the typical lifestyle and patterns of society are disrupted, anomy can ensue. This can happen within families, communities or large groups like states and countries. The people of New Orleans likely experienced anomy after Hurricane Katrina demolished their city and changed lives.

Disaster strikes at the very heart of a society:

Overall, we are a happy group of rakers. We teach our children good leaf raking skills and hope that someday they will be great leaf-rakers. Raking leaves is who we are now and we rake with pride. We create artistic renderings of leaf raking.

One day, without warning, a great wind blows our neatly raked piles of leaves all over the place and we wonder why it happened. Why us?! We are confused and sad and wonder what we have done to deserve this.

People who seem very wise offer comforting words and try to explain what behind-the-scenes force might have had something to do with the disastrous turn of events.

In time, we recover from the disaster and put protocols into place in case there is another wind storm.

Sociolgy: What is Alienation?

Alienation occurs when an institution in a society seems to be out of control. Beginning to feel as if they no longer are a part of the society, individuals or small groups begin to try to take actions to change things. There is unrest and confusion. The more objectivated and legitimated a society's institutions are, the more alienated people will be.

The story takes a side road:

Things go on quietly for a while but eventually some people who are not happy with the way the leaf-raking system works begin to raise questions about raking. Some think of raking as a sinister force that is controlling their lives. They begin to question the motives of the leaf raking council and rake police. They get together and talk about their discontent, and sometimes do not participate in the regular meetings. Sometimes they do not even rake, or when they do, it is not in the prescribed manner.


Sociology: Social Unrest

Social unrest occurs when people who feel alienated begin to take action or speak out. People who are afraid of change or that just want to keep things the way they are because it is comfortable challenge the protestors and insist that there is nothing wrong with the system. Debates, arguments and hostilities can follow. Social unrest can occur for a short time or be ongoing.

The clouds gather:

One day, there is a commotion on the town square. Several young adult rakers are burning their rakes! They address the gathering crowd, complaining about the unfairness and inhumane conditions they must endure as a result of being rakers. Some carry large signs that point out flaws and injustices in the system. People who had never second-guessed the institution of raking are shocked. The youths are arrested and imprisoned.

Everyone else goes back to raking. But there is talk at the dinner table about whether or not there was any substance to what the young people had to say.

Sociology: Does Alienation Bring About Change?

Some changes usually result from alienation and the social unrest that stems from dissatisfaction with an institution that is no longer serving the best interests of the society. More extreme viewpoints are developed on both sides of the issue. Sometimes, because of an individual with insight, an institution is radically modified or abandoned. Society accepts this. Sometimes, as a result, new institutions spring up and the journey begins all over again. This is the typical flow of things within any human society. Understanding this can help us to learn to get along better and be more flexible. Sometimes a new idea is not as bad as it seems to some people. Sometimes, a new idea is more in line with what is best for the human race as a whole.

The story comes to an end... or does it?

Eventually, the young rakers are sent to raking camp. But now people are talking about change. Some fervently argue that the system is fine the way it is. Others insist that things could be better and change is necessary. Many people are uneasy. A few realize that eventually things will change, one way or another and are hopeful that in time, and with patience and understanding, society will heal and improve itself and everything will be alright.

What is Sociology?

© 2011 Robin Turner


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