Chapter 1. An Introduction to Sociology

1.1. What Is Sociology?


North America Face To Face With Itself
Figure 1.3 Sociologists can learn about society as a whole by studying face-to-face interactions (photo courtesy of Tom Waterhouse/Flickr.) CC BY-NC 2.0

Dictionaries define sociology as the systematic study of society and social interaction. The word “sociology” is derived from the Latin word socius (companion) and the Greek word logos (speech or reason), which together mean “reasoned speech or discourse about companionship.” How can the experience of companionship or togetherness be put into words and explained? While this is a starting point for the discipline, sociology is actually much more complex. It uses many different theories and methods to study a wide range of subject matter, and applies these studies to the real world.

The sociologist Dorothy Smith (1926-2022) defines the social as the “ongoing concerting and coordinating of individuals’ activities” (Smith, 1999). Whenever there is more than one person in a situation there is coordination and mutual attunement of behaviours. Sociology is therefore the systematic study of all those aspects of life designated by the adjective “social.” They concern relationships, and they concern what happens when more than one person is involved. These aspects of social life never simply occur; they are organized processes. They can be the briefest and most unconscious of everyday interactions — moving to the right to let someone pass on a busy sidewalk, for example — or the largest and most enduring interactions — such as the billions of daily exchanges that constitute the circuits of global capitalism. If there are at least two people involved, even in the seclusion of one’s own mind, then there is a social interaction that entails the “ongoing concerting and coordinating of activities.” Why does the person move to the right on the sidewalk? What collective processes lead to the decision that moving to the right rather than the left is normal? Is it different in countries where people drive on the left? Think about the T-shirts in the chest of drawers at home. What are the sequences of linkages, exchanges, transportation conduits, and social relationships that connect one’s T-shirts to the dangerous and hyper-exploitative garment factories in rural China or Bangladesh? These are the type of questions that point to the unique domain and puzzles of the social that sociology seeks to explore and understand.

What are Society and Culture?  Micro, Macro and Global Perspectives

Sociologists study all aspects and levels of society. A society is a group of people whose members interact, reside in a definable area, and share a culture. A culture includes the group’s shared practices, values, beliefs, norms, and artifacts. One sociologist might analyze video of people from different societies as they carry on everyday conversations to study the rules of polite conversation from different world cultures. Another sociologist might interview a representative sample of people to see how email and instant messaging have changed the way organizations are run. Yet another sociologist might study how migration determined the way in which language spread and changed over time. A fourth sociologist might study the history of international agencies like the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund to examine how the globe became divided into a First World and a Third World after the end of the colonial era.

These examples illustrate the ways in which society and culture can be studied at different levels of analysis, from the detailed study of face-to-face interactions to the examination of large-scale historical processes affecting entire civilizations. It is common to divide these levels of analysis into different gradations based on the scale of interaction involved. As discussed in later chapters (specifically, see Chapter 7. Groups and Organizations), sociologists break the study of society down into four separate levels of analysis: micro, meso, macro, and global. The basic distinctions, however, are between micro-level sociology, macro-level sociology and global-level sociology.

The study of cultural rules of politeness in conversation is an example of micro-level sociology. At the micro-level of analysis, the focus is on the social dynamics of intimate, face-to-face interactions. Research is conducted with a specific set of individuals such as conversational partners, family members, work associates, or friendship groups. In the conversation study example, sociologists might try to determine how people from different cultures interpret each others’ behaviour to see how different rules of politeness lead to misunderstandings. If the same misunderstandings occur consistently in a number of different interactions, the sociologists may be able to propose some generalizations about rules of politeness that would be helpful in reducing tensions in mixed-group dynamics (e.g., during staff meetings or international negotiations). Other examples of micro-level research include seeing how informal networks become a key source of support and advancement in formal bureaucracies, or how loyalty in criminal gangs is established.

Macro-level sociology focuses on the properties of large-scale, society-wide social interactions that extend beyond the immediate milieu of individual interactions: the dynamics of institutions, class structures, gender relations, or whole populations. The example above of the influence of migration on changing patterns of language usage is a macro-level phenomenon because it refers to structures or processes of social interaction that occur outside or beyond the intimate circle of individual social acquaintances. These include the economic, political, and other circumstances that lead to migration; the educational, media, and other communication structures that help or hinder the spread of speech patterns; the class, racial, or ethnic divisions that create different slangs or cultures of language use; the relative isolation or integration of different communities within a population; and so on. Other examples of macro-level research include examining why women are far less likely than men to reach positions of power in society, or why fundamentalist Christian religious movements play a more prominent role in American politics than they do in Canadian politics. In each case, the site of the analysis shifts away from the nuances and detail of micro-level interpersonal life to the broader, macro-level systematic patterns that structure social change and social cohesion in society.

In global-level sociology, the focus is on variables, structures and processes that extend beyond the boundaries of states or specific societies. In the era of globalization, as Ulrich Beck (2000) has pointed out, in many respects people in modern societies no longer “live and act in the self-enclosed spaces of national states and their respective national societies.” Issues of climate change, the introduction of new technologies, the investment and disinvestment of capital, the images of popular culture, or the tensions of cross-cultural or religious conflict, etc. increasingly involve people’s daily life in the affairs of the entire globe, by-passing the traditional borders that defined distinct societies and, to some degree, distance itself. The example above of the way in which the world became divided into wealthy First World and impoverished Third World societies reflects social processes — the history of colonization or the formation of international institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and non-governmental organizations, for example — which are global in scale and global in their effects. With the boom and bust of petroleum or other export commodity economies, it is clear to someone living in Fort McMurray, Alberta, that their daily life is affected not only by their intimate relationships with the people around them, nor only by provincial and national based corporations and policies, etc., but by global markets that determine the price of oil and the global flows of capital investment. The context of these processes has to be analyzed at a global scale of analysis.

The relationship between the micro, macro, and global remains one of the key conceptual problems confronting sociology. What is the relationship between an individual’s life and social life? The early German sociologist Georg Simmel (1908/1971) pointed out that macro-level processes are in fact nothing more than the sum of all the unique interactions between specific individuals at any one time, yet they have properties of their own, which would be missed if sociologists only focused on the interactions of specific individuals. Émile Durkheim’s (1897/1951) classic study of suicide is a case in point. While suicide is one of the most personal, individual, and intimate acts imaginable, Durkheim demonstrated that rates of suicide differed between religious communities — Protestants, Catholics, and Jews — in a way that could not be explained by the individual factors involved in each specific case. The different rates of suicide had to be explained by macro-level variables associated with the different religious beliefs and practices of the faith communities; more specifically, the different degrees of social integration of these communities. The discussion returns to this example in more detail later in this chapter. On the other hand, macro-level phenomena like class structures, institutional organizations, legal systems, gender stereotypes, population growth, and urban ways of life provide the shared context for everyday life but do not explain its specific nuances and micro-variations very well. Macro-level structures constrain the daily interactions of the intimate circles in which people move, but they are also filtered through localized perceptions and “lived” in a myriad of inventive and unpredictable ways.

The Sociological Imagination

Figure 1.4 Sociology begins with an act of sociological imagination. How do personal problems of milieu relate to public issues of social structure, and vice versa? (image courtesy of Mike Kline/Flickr.) CC BY 2.0

Although the scale of sociological studies and the methods of carrying them out are different, the sociologists involved in them all have something in common. Each of them looks at society using what pioneer sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) called the sociological imagination, sometimes also referred to as the “sociological lens” or “sociological perspective.” In a sense, this was Mills’ way of addressing the dilemmas of the macro/micro divide in sociology. Mills (1959) defined sociological imagination as how individuals understand their own and others’ lives in relation to history and social structure. It is the capacity to see an individual’s private troubles in the context of the broader social processes that structure them. This enables the sociologist to examine what Mills called “personal troubles of milieu” as “public issues of social structure,” and vice versa.

Mills reasoned that private troubles like being overweight, being unemployed, having marital difficulties, or feeling purposeless or depressed can be purely personal in nature. It is possible for them to be addressed and understood in terms of individualistic, personal, psychological, or moral attributes — either one’s own or those of the people in one’s immediate milieu. In an individualistic society like North American society, this is in fact the most likely way that people will regard the issues they confront: “I have an addictive personality;” “I can’t get a break in the job market;” “My husband is unsupportive,” etc. However, if private troubles are widely shared with others, they indicate that there is a common social problem that has its source in the way social life is structured at a macro or global level. At this level, the issues are not adequately understood as simply private troubles. They are best addressed as public issues of social structure that require a collective response to resolve.

Obesity, for example, has been increasingly recognized as a growing problem for both children and adults in North America. Michael Pollan (2006) cites statistics that three out of five Americans are overweight and one out of five is obese. In Canada in 2018, just over one quarter adults (26.8%) were obese, up from 16% of men and 14.5% of women in 2003, and 36.3% were overweight  (Statistics Canada, 2019). Obesity is therefore not simply a private concern related to the medical issues, dietary practices, or exercise habits of specific individuals. It is a widely shared social issue that puts people at risk for chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. It also creates significant social costs for the medical system.

Pollan argues that obesity is in part a product of the increasingly sedentary and stressful lifestyle of modern, capitalist society. More importantly, however, it is a product of the industrialization of the food chain, which since the 1970s has produced increasingly cheap and abundant food with significantly more calories due to processing. Additives like corn syrup, which are much cheaper and therefore more profitable to produce than natural sugars, led to the trend of super-sized fast foods and soft drinks in the 1980s. As Pollan argues, trying to find a processed food in the supermarket without a cheap, calorie-rich, corn-based additive is a challenge. The sociological imagination in this example is the capacity to see the private troubles and attitudes associated with being overweight as an issue of how the industrialization of the food chain has altered the human/environment relationship — in particular, with respect to the types of food people eat and the way they eat them.

By looking at individuals and societies, and how they interact through this lens, sociologists are able to examine what influences behaviour, attitudes, and culture. By applying systematic and scientific methods to this process, they try to do so without letting their own biases and preconceived ideas influence their conclusions (see Chapter 2. Sociological Research).

Studying Patterns: How Sociologists View the Relationship between Society and the Individual

All sociologists are interested in the experiences of individuals and how interactions with social groups, and society as a whole, shape those experiences. To a sociologist, the biographical details of an individual and the personal decisions an individual makes do not exist in a vacuum. Social patterns and social forces put pressure on people to select one choice over another. Sociologists try to identify these general patterns by examining the behaviour of large groups of people who live in the same society and experience the same societal pressures.

When general patterns persist through time and become habitual or routinized at micro-levels of interaction as social scripts, or institutionalized at macro or global levels of interaction as rules, laws, or power relations, they are referred to as social structures. Social structures are repeated patterns of behaviour and social coordination that persist through time. They have three general properties:

  1. they control or constrain individuals so they act in the same way in the same circumstances;
  2. they change individuals so they fit within the expectations and rules of social or institutional situations; and
  3. they both resist social change and enable social change in that they persist through time and yet enact processes that affect themselves and other social structures and processes (Tepperman, 2010).

Often the collective effects of social structures are referred to as “society.”

As noted above, understanding the relationship between the individual and society is one of the most difficult sociological problems. Partly, this is because of the reified way the two terms are used in everyday speech. Reification refers to the way in which abstract concepts, complex processes, or fluid social relationships come to be thought of as “things.” A prime example of reification is when people say that “society” caused an individual to do something, or to turn out in a particular way. In writing essays, first-year sociology students sometimes refer to “society” as a cause of social behaviour or as an entity with independent agency — “Society did something to somebody” — but society is not an agent or an object. On the other hand, the “individual” is a being that seems solid, tangible, and independent of anything going on outside of the skin sack that contains its essence. But the individual is a social being through and through.

This conventional distinction between society and the individual is a product of reification, as both society and the individual appear as independent objects acting upon each other. A concept of “the individual” and a concept of “society” are given the status of real, substantial, independent objects, like pool balls on a pool table. As discussed in the chapters to come, society and the individual are not objects, nor are they independent of one another. An “individual” is inconceivable without the social relationships to others that define their internal, subjective life and their external, socially defined roles. “Society” is inconceivable without the living, breathing, desiring, interacting individuals that compose it.

One problem for sociologists in grasping the individual/society relationship is that the concepts of the individual and society, and their relationship, get reified in terms established by a very common moral framework in modern democratic societies — namely, that of individual responsibility and individual choice. Individual responsibility and individual choice are components of the idea of individual agency: the capacity of individuals to act and make decisions independently. The individual is morally responsible for their behaviours and decisions. They are “good persons” or “bad seeds.” Often in this framework, any suggestion that an individual’s behaviour needs to be understood in terms of that person’s social context is dismissed as “letting the individual off” from taking personal responsibility for their actions. Talking about societal forces and structures is akin to being morally soft or lenient.

Sociology, as a social science, remains neutral on these types of moral questions. For sociologists, the conceptualization of the individual and society is much more complex than the moral framework suggests and needs to be examined through evidence-based, rather than morality-based, research. The sociological problem is to be able to see the individual as a thoroughly social being and, yet, as a being who has agency and free choice. Individuals are beings who do take on individual responsibilities in their everyday social roles, and risk social consequences when they fail to live up to them. However, the manner in which individuals take on responsibilities, and sometimes the compulsion to do so, are socially defined. Individuals do often have “the freedom to do ‘what they want’; yet seemingly, what they want often falls into predictable patterns” (Tepperman, 2010). The sociological problem is to be able to see society as a dimension of experience characterized by regular and predictable patterns of behaviour that exist independently of any specific individual’s desires or self-understanding. At the same time, a society is nothing but the ongoing social relationships and activities of specific individuals.

A key basis of the sociological perspective therefore is the concept that the individual and society are inseparable. It is impossible to study one without the other. German sociologist Norbert Elias (1887-1990) called the process of simultaneously analyzing the behaviour of individuals and the society that shapes that behaviour figuration. He described it through a metaphor of dancing. There can be no dance without the dancers, but there can be no dancers without the dance. Without the dancers, a dance is just an idea about motions in a choreographer’s head. Without a dance, there is just a group of people moving around a floor. Similarly, there is no society without the individuals that make it up, and there are no individuals who are not affected by the society in which they live (Elias, 1978). “Society” is a kind of shorthand term for the “web of interdependences formed among human beings and which connects them: that is to say, a structure of mutually oriented and dependent persons” (Elias, 2000).

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

The Individual in Society: Choices of Indigenous Gang Members

Figure 1.5 While Indigenous people account for about 5% of the Canadian population, in 2020 they made up 30% of the federal penitentiary population (photo courtesy of Fiore Power/Flickr.) CC BY 2.0


In 2010, the CBC program The Current aired a report about several young Indigenous men who were serving time in prison in Saskatchewan for gang-related activities (CBC,2010). They all expressed desires to be able to deal with their drug addiction issues, return to their families, and assume their responsibilities when their sentences were complete. They wanted to have their own places with nice things in them. However, according to the CBC report, 80% of the prison population in the Saskatchewan Correctional Centre were Indigenous and 20% of those were gang members. This is consistent with national statistics on Indigenous incarceration. While Indigenous people account for about 5% of the Canadian population, in 2020 they made up 30% of the federal penitentiary population. In 2001, they made up only 17.6% of the penitentiary population. Overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prisons has continued to grow substantially (Office of the Correctional Investigator, 2020).

The outcomes of Indigenous incarceration are also bleak. The federal Office of the Correctional Investigator summarized the situation as follows. Indigenous inmates are:

  • Routinely classified as higher risk and higher need in categories such as employment, community reintegration, and family supports.
  • Released later in their sentence (lower parole grant rates); most leave prison at Statutory Release or Warrant Expiry dates.
  • Overrepresented in segregation and maximum security populations.
  • Disproportionately involved in use-of-force interventions and incidents of prison self-injury.
  • More likely to return to prison on revocation of parole, often for administrative reasons, not criminal violations (Office of the Correctional Investigator, 2013).

The federal report notes that “the high rate of incarceration for Aboriginal peoples has been linked to systemic discrimination and attitudes based on racial or cultural prejudice, as well as economic and social disadvantage, substance abuse, and intergenerational loss, violence and trauma” (Office of the Correctional Investigator, 2013).

This is clearly a case in which the situation of the incarcerated inmates interviewed on the CBC program has been structured by historical social patterns and power relationships that confront Indigenous people in Canada generally. How do sociologists understand it at the individual level, however — at the level of personal decision making and individual responsibilities? One young inmate described how, at the age of 13, he began to hang around with his cousins who were part of a gang. He had not grown up with “the best life”; he had family members suffering from addiction issues and traumas. The appeal of what appeared as a fast and exciting lifestyle — the sense of freedom and of being able to make one’s own life, instead of enduring poverty — was compelling. He began to earn money by “running dope” but also began to develop addictions. He was expelled from school for recruiting gang members. The only job he ever had was selling drugs. The circumstances in which he and the other inmates had entered the gang life, and the difficulties getting out of it they knew awaited them when they left prison, reflect a set of decision-making parameters fundamentally different than those facing most non-Indigenous people in Canada.

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Introduction to Sociology – 3rd Canadian Edition by William Little is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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