Simple Snippets of Sociological Sense

Dan Brook

A work in progress - suggestions welcome
Brook@california.com

Sociology is the study of groups of people (2+) and their interactions, including how they act and react, organize themselves, construct ideas, produce, distribute, and consume things, work, play, learn, love, live, and die. Sociology also focuses on the social forces that shape individuals.

Basic sociological questions for any given problem include, but are not limited to:

a) what are people thinking and doing here?
b) what kinds of people are here?
c) who is included and who is excluded?
d) what rules and norms govern behavior here?
e) how are roles assigned and tasks divided?
f) who says so?
g) how are people socialized?
h) whose interests do these social arrangements serve?
i) who benefits and who loses?
j) what powerful people, processes, institutions, and structures influence these arrangements?
k) in what ways are things changing here and in what ways are they staying the same?
l) when and how do people resist?
m) is this system relatively sustainable?
(E.B. Phillips)


Things are not necessarily what they appear. Surfaces often hide essences. "You can't judge a book by its cover" (proverb). Appearance isn't always reality. What you see isn't all there is. Things are not always the way they seem. "Little things may contain big meanings; social insignificance need not imply sociological insignificance" (G.T. Marx & D. McAdam; E. Goffman).

When people "define situations as real, they are real in their consequences" (W.I. Thomas). Surfaces are often treated as essences. Appearance sometimes becomes reality. What you see can become what you get.

People who are labeled and treated as different and deficient often act different and deficient; conversely, people who are labeled and treated positively will also act accordingly. Expectations matter. Furthermore, labels and stereotypes serve to strip people of their other qualities, making the labeled and stereotyped appear grossly disfigured and one-dimensional. Stereotypes, or the "pictures in our heads" (W. Lippman), exaggerate bits of truth about certain individuals into monstrous imagined untruths that are then applied to entire groups of people. Like a "looking-glass self", you are what people think you are (C.H. Cooley; labeling theory).

Self-fulfilling prophesies are very common and appear to prove themselves, yet they may be more self-fulfillment than prophesy (R.K. Merton).

Names, language, and beliefs shape reality. What we think about something, what we call it, and how we describe it can be powerful influences on how it is seen, treated, and understood by ourselves and others.

Social structures constrain individual behavior, but social structures also empower individuals. Individual behavior can reinforce social structures, but people can also subvert them. Likewise with social systems. People and institutions continuously interact with each other, mediated by culture, recreating and reproducing each other
(A. Giddens; W. Sewell; agent-structure problem).

People exist within networks of family, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, co-congregants, peers, colleagues, classmates, and others. Some ties are stronger than others and may serve different purposes and perform different functions at different times (G. Simmel; M. Granovetter).

People often act in the pursuit of status (T. Veblen).

The questions we ask help determine the answers we get, along with the policies and solutions we propose. Definitions, ideology, perspective, methods, and levels of analysis can influence outcomes. "What you see depends on how you look at it" and who/what you are (E.B. Phillips).

People act different in groups (E. Durkheim).

Change is constant and ubiquitous. The only thing that doesn't change is change itself (proverb; Tao Te Ching; Heraclitus?; G. Simmel). People, languages, societies, and cultures are always changing. People generally both embrace and fear change.

People are always making choices. Even when they don't want to or don't think about it, people are making choices. Even choosing not to choose is making a choice. Choices are therefore inevitable. Everything we do (or don't do) and everything that is done (or not done) has an effect on ourselves and others.

Common sense is generally the common ideas associated with mainstream society and its dominant ideologies. The ruling ideas of the day are the ideas of the ruling class (K. Marx).

Everything is, in some way, related to everything else. Change in one area often produces change in other areas. Very small changes in the initial circumstances of a process can lead to very large changes in the outcomes (ecosystems analysis; chaos theory). "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality" (M.L. King, Jr.).

Race, class, gender, and sexuality are omnipresent in society, even when these issues may appear absent. They are not just master characteristics of people, they are also processes and projects that are "carried out", "done", and "accomplished". These master characteristics co-define and reproduce each other, while they also infuse all social relations and social structures.

Social phenomena (including people) are processes as well as events. Things happen, but they also have a context in which they happen, especially a history and a future. Events and processes co-exist in relation to other events and processes (event-process tracing).

Many problems cannot be solved by technical means alone, but can only be solved by incorporating social changes (G. Hardin).

Acts aren't criminal until we as a society deem them so. We do not dislike actions that are criminal, rather we criminalize actions that we do not like (E. Durkheim).

Culture guides action. Everyone thinks, speaks, acts, behaves, loves, learns, rears, dreams, develops, and exists in a cultural context.

People search for meaning, love, acceptance, interaction, belonging, and community. People also try to make sense of their world and often act to reduce uncertainty. Therefore, they join groups, form attachments, have children, construct belief systems, engage in rituals, tell jokes, make love, create art, build things, and follow
traditions.

All social phenomena are socially constructed, and can be deconstructed and then reconstructed. If people create something, they can recreate it. If we can imagine it, we can do it. Things can be different. "It could be otherwise" (E.C. Hughes). There are an infinite number of ways to arrange society (social constructionism).

Dichotomies are simplifying devices that are common in method but rare in reality. Social phenomena almost always fall on a continuum somewhere between the dichotomous endpoints.

Class is a vitally important category (K. Marx). Money (or capital) has the power to influence all social phenomena, as well as interact with them, from birth to death and everything in between. "Money changes everything---and huge amounts of money change things almost beyond recognition" (E. Gleick). "Money makes the world go
round" (proverb).

Human nature is little more than typical human behavior at a given time in a given place. We are less biologically pre-determined than we are socially and environmentally capable.

People both observe and change reality simultaneously. Facts and values are inseparable (fact-value problem).

Governments, corporations, religious institutions, militaries, prisons, hospitals, schools, and many other organizations are inherently hierarchical and coercive and are increasingly routinized, rationalized, and bureaucratized (M. Weber; M. Foucault;
G. Ritzer).

Writing history is an exercise in constructing, not recording, pieces of past social reality; just as making maps is an exercise in constructing, not reproducing, the world. "Who controls the present controls the past" (G. Orwell).

Everything is relative, based on time, place, ideology, and culture.

"Power and powerlessness corrupt; absolute power and powerlessness corrupt absolutely" (Edward Abbey? following J. Acton; M. Lerner). People pushed to the extremes tend to go to extremes. "Brutal conditions breed brutal behavior" (E. Currie), while comfortable conditions more often foster generosity and tolerance (D. Morris; R. Inglehart). "Scarcity---not familiarity---breeds contempt" (E.B. Phillips).

"Blaming the victim" is a common technique to shift blame and responsibility from systems and structures to individuals and groups. This approach justifies inequality by finding fault in the victims of inequality, thereby diffusing any systemic critique or threat, and supporting the dominant interests of society. The formula for blaming
the victim is quite simple: identify a problem, study those affected to find differences, and then define the differences as the cause of the problem (W. Ryan).

Humor is often used to soften or disguise the delivery of uncomfortable beliefs or information (J. Scott). "Often what is said in jest is meant in earnest" (Talmud). "There is truth in jest" (proverb).

Most people follow the norms most of the time, yet deviance from the norms always exists and is itself normal (E. Durkheim). Deviance can be personally dangerous or rewarding, as it can also lead to social repression and social change.

"We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are" (Talmud). People don't "tell it like it is", they "tell it like they see it" (von Glasserfeld). "Reality is in the eye of the beholder" (E.B. Phillips). The world is (re)interpreted through our multiple
lenses. However, it has been stated that "if you really want to understand reality, try to change it" (?).

People aren't inherently either good or bad; we can be horrible, heroic, neither, or both. Very few people or things, if any, are all good or all bad.

People are more likely to believe or do things if they are led, or otherwise supported, to do so. People will resist authority when they feel compelled to do so and are more likely to do so the more support and leadership they get (S. Milgram; Asch; P. Zimbardo). When people feel oppressed, they may engage in individual and
collective resistance along a continuum of activities, ranging from the common "everyday forms" such as gossip to the much less frequent forms such as rebellion (J. Scott).

Politics, economics, and culture can only be separated for analytical purposes; they are inextricably linked in practice, if not always in theory.

All people (and societies) have potential beyond their actuality. There are virtually no limits---besides imagination---to what can be done.

The powerful always try to legitimate their power, often by blaming the victim, though also by employing myths, legends, rituals, symbols, signs, flags, xenophobia, expertise, knowledge, tradition, custom, culture, religion, and ideology (A. Gramsci).

People are always on stage. They play roles, act out parts, give performances, read from scripts, wear masks, put on shows, and present themselves, although they do so on a set that has already been constructed. People are also directed and produced by others. People are what they say and do. People are who they pretend to be (E.
Goffman; dramaturgical model).

People and organizations can affect social change only when opportunities and circumstances allow for change to occur. People and organizations can help make opportunities and circumstances arise by their words and actions (political process model).

Social life may be complex but it isn't random. There are patterns and tendencies amongst the seeming chaos in the world.

Organizations and institutions have inertial qualities. They tend to reproduce themselves and stay on their trajectories unless they are externally influenced otherwise. Successful organizations, which tend to become bureaucratized, are much greater than the sums of their parts (M. Weber).

There's no one Truth, History, National Interest, Answer, Common Sense, or Right Way. There are multiple realities and these are all cultural, historical, ideological, biased, relative, tentative, negotiated, and contested processes, which are manifestations of power relations. Nothing and nobody is neutral or value-free
(post-modernism).

Hierarchy, stratification, and elite rule are ubiquitous but not inevitable; there are few but notable exceptions throughout time and space (power elitism).

Cooperation and competition usually exist side by side and are practiced simultaneously (P. Kropotkin). People and organizations compete with some, while they cooperate with others; they may also compete on some levels and cooperate on others. "Politics is the art of uniting friends and dividing enemies" (K. Danaher). Corporations ultimately cooperate with each other more than they compete with each other. The rhetoric of the primacy of competition is ideological. There is, however, competition between classes, and often between races and sexes among others, for social goods (conflict perspective). "Without struggle, there is no progress" (F. Douglass).

Individual social problems are often manifestations of collective societal issues (C.W. Mills). Effective leaders make the connections explicit and inspire the socialization and mobilization of private energies for allegedly public purposes.

Simplicity is seductive while complexity seems chaotic. People usually seek parsimony. "Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler" (A. Einstein; W. Occam).

All rules have exceptions.

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