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Sociology: A Brief Introduction, 4/e
Richard T. Schaefer, DePaul University

Understanding Sociology

Learning Objectives

Sociology is the systematic study of social behavior and human groups. In this chapter, we examine the nature of sociological theory, the founders of the discipline, theoretical perspectives of contemporary sociology, and ways to exercise the "sociological imagination."

This textbook makes use of the sociological imagination by showing theory in practice and research in action; by speaking across race, gender, class, and national boundaries; and by highlighting social policy around the world.

After studying this chapter you should be able to understand the following:


An important element in the sociological imagination-which is an awareness of the relationship between an individual and the wider society-is the ability to view our own society as an outsider might, rather than from the perspective of our limited experiences and cultural biases.


Knowledge that relies on "common sense" is not always reliable. Sociologists must test and analyze each piece of information that they use.


In contrast to other social sciences, sociology emphasizes the influence that groups can have on people's behavior and attitudes and the ways in which people shape society.


Sociologists employ theories to examine the relationships between observations or data that may seem completely unrelated.


Nineteenth-century thinkers who contributed sociological insights included Auguste Comte, a French philosopher; Harriet Martineau, an English sociologist; and Herbert Spencer, an English scholar.


Other important figures in the development of sociology were Émile Durkheim, who pioneered work on suicide; Max Weber, who taught the need for "insight" in intellectual work; and Karl Marx, who emphasized the importance of the economy and of conflict in society.


In the twentieth century, the discipline of sociology is indebted to the U.S. sociologists Charles Horton Cooley and Robert Merton.


Macrosociology concentrates on large-scale phenomena or entire civilizations, whereas microsociology stresses study of small groups.


The functionalist perspective of sociology emphasizes the way that parts of a society are structured to maintain its stability. Social change should be slow and evolutionary.


The conflict perspective assumes that social behavior is best understood in terms of conflict or tension between competing groups. Social change, spurred by conflict and competition, should be swift and revolutionary.


The interactionist perspective is primarily concerned with fundamental or everyday forms of interaction, including symbols and other types of nonverbal communication. Social change is ongoing, as individuals get shaped by society and in turn shape it.


Sociologists make use of all three perspectives, since each offers unique insights into the same issue.