SOC 101 - Introduction to Sociology

Noorin Manji

Estimated reading time: 41 minutes

Table of contents

The Basics of Sociology

This week is a zoomed out look of the sociology.


What is sociology as a discipline? Here are 3 ‘student definitions’ (taken from sociology introductory text):

  • “the scientific study (observation and explanation) of human social behaviour”
  • “the systematic study of society and of human social organization”
  • “the study of the relationship between individual behaviour and social group membership”

What are the issues with these definitions? Consider the following:

Is sociology a science? Only the first one mentions “scientific study”. Then different methods and approaches are involved.

Also consider the significance of observation. These three definitions mention directly or indirectly the observation, but they don’t mention the details of the observation, like the parameters and so on.

Finally, we should note that there are multiple ‘right’ answers. There’s no linear way when study sociology. We will face lots of choices. Sociology is “messy” discipline as it has a lot of different layers and connections and ideas and no linear way to study sociology. Besides this, note the role of politics, how sociology works in the real world.


What is the purpose of sociology?

If we can’t agree on the definitions, at least we can agree on the purpose. In general, the purpose is first to describe things like events (e.g., convention), groups (e.g., groups of educators), processes (e.g., process of learning a new language), relations. Do we describe the things that we are observing from the point of view of the observer or observed? Do we want to take a step back to observe an event and describe how we say it from outside? Or do we want to talk to people about how they experience that particular thing and describe it from their perspective?

Beyond description, we can generalize: look for patterns when it comes to relations. We draw from particular cases to society in general because we are developing a study where we can’t study everybody, do everything.

The third purpose is to explain the descriptions and the generalizations that we’re making from the observations we make in society. In other words, we use and apply some of the findings. Then we have a question: are we producing knowledge for itself or make the world a better place (politics)? For example, we could do a study on how do partners in a marriage deal with domestic violence incidents in their home or possibly come up with laws or policies to punish domestic violence abusers. If we choose the latter, namely make the world a better place, then whose definition of better?

Sociology as a career

To become an expert as a sociologist, we need to do B.A., M.A., PhD.

There are a couple of different elements. One is substantive areas. One substantive area is technology, which is like investigating smartphones. The instructor has done some researches on smartphones and how people use them in their daily lives. Other substantive areas include deviance, race, education, and literally everything.

Beyond substantive areas, there’s also methodological concerns. For method, we are collecting data by asking people questions to gather information we need. There’s usually a split between qualitative methods and quantitative methods. Qualitative methods comes down to asking people questions and getting at their words and understanding the meanings they make about their experiences in society. Quantitative methods deals with numbers and statistics.

The third part is theory. There are many different theoretical ‘umbrellas’ and ‘branches’.

Now back to sociology as a career. Two big things we will have a chance to choose from are research or teaching, which is much like pure mathematics, having barely no application in industry. The third option for sociologist is industry, which means not in academia, like companies, corporations, industry. These relies on data about people to function. For example, we can think of something like marketing. Big companies need to think about how to improve their products, make commercials so that they can have more people buy their products. These decisions usually are involving sociologists who can collect data and understand people’s behavior.

Levels of Sociological Analysis

Generally speaking, we separate between two major levels of sociological analysis: microsociology and macrosociology.

Microsociology is usually an individual or a small group. Let’s consider an example for individual: someone converting to a new religion. An example for small group would be like biker gangs in Southern Ontario. Here we are restricting within specific locale Southern Ontario and a specific kind of group.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is macrosociology, which refers to larger, higher, bigger levels of analysis. The unit of analysis could be whole society (e.g., Canada). Or it could be whole types of society, for which an example could be capitalist societies. When we look at the US and Canada and any other country, then we know we are following a capitalist economic model. Another type of macro level study is looking at entire institutions, often longitudinal. For example, family over the course of western history. We have to navigate an entire institution over time.

We also have “mesosociology”, which is often between micro and macro. For example, one institution or one small group of institutions (e.g., a medical school or a big corporation). Some researcher questions could be like how do Canadian medical schools change their admissions criteria every year.

Here are some types of question that sociologists ask:

Research Question Micro OR Macro SOCIOLOGY?
How has post-secondary education evolved in Ontario over the last 50 years? MACRO
How do individuals learn a new language? MICRO
What is the experience of becoming a pharmacist like? MICRO
How have Canadian seniors been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic? MACRO

The Nature of Sociology

The nature of sociology is all sociologies would agree upon.

The first nature is that sociology is doubly perspectival. There are two layers of perspective. First layer is that sociology is one social science among many that examine human social behavior, and there’s no concrete boundary between the disciplines. The second perspective is that once we are within sociology, there are lots of different theories or perspectives approaches and methods to doing it as well, no one right approach, method, or kind of sociology.

The second nature is that sociology is not just divided, but it’s conflict-ridden, in terms of an intellectual and political perspective. No one will judge you if your favorite color is green. But in sociology, when you say you are a marxist, then it means something. It’s not just an arbitrary division.

The third nature is the focus on ‘social’ elements. Clearly it is opposed to biological, individual, religious or common sense elements. For example, when studying love, we are not looking for a biological explanation of how people fall in love and look at the chemicals in their brain. Neither will we look for individual explanations well that person’s a nice person, or religious explanations, or common sense. We are looking for social explanations of why you fell in love. For example, what was your family’s background in history? Do you guys have a shared culture or religion? Similar socioeconomic status or similar educational backgrounds?

The fourth nature is that sociology is synthetic, which means it sometimes uses theory, methods, and data from other disciplines. Synthetic here means to bring things together to synthesize.

The last nature is that sociology is not purely philosophical or speculative. We collect data by observing, sending out a survey, interviewing somebody. We don’t just make up the answer in our mind.

Developing a Sociological Imagination


Social imagination is basically covered in every introductory sociology course because it is the foundational ability to become a sociologist. Let’s first define this term.

This term was introduced by a sociologist, C. Wright Mills, in 1959. According to a quote from him, he defines the sociological imagination as

“the vivid awareness of the relationship between experience and the wider society”

In other words, it is between personal experience and the wider society. We already know there are connections on a surface level. However, we might not know how we do it, how we engage it, how to activate it, how to use it, how to apply it, what contexts it can be applied in. These are the points in this module.

The whole point of the sociological imagination is to bridge society and the individual. Alternatively, we can use the terms ‘structure’ vs. ‘agency’. These are also fundamental kind of sociological terms concepts ideas in our toolkit that help us to do our researches. As we study sociology, we would prefer using the terms “structure vs. agency”. Why? Society demarcates everything whereas individual refers to something inside of us like ourselves not anything outside of us. However, structure is the structure according to which society is formed, how it functions, what institutions are there, what forms the society takes. Now consider individual vs. agency. Here in sociological discipline, agency is choice, individual ability to choose a path.

Sociological imagination is our ability to recognize individual behaviors and beliefs as having a connection to wider societal patterns. This should be clear now that we have drawn the distinction with structure and agency.

Sociological imagination also requires the ability to see personal troubles as public issues. When we’re especially in a society like ours that’s very individualistic, we’re told from a young age we can do whatever you want if we go to school; we work hard and then we’ll achieve whatever we can. Because of that individualist mentality, we might have a personal explanation for a personal trouble. When we have activated our sociological imagination, we will start to see a connection between personal troubles and public issues or society issues, or the way the structure affects our agency. For example, it’s not that I am not working hard enough to make enough money, it’s the way the society is structured that’s making it impossible for me to make money without having five jobs. Caveat here: this does not mean all personal troubles are a result of public issues. Sometimes a person’s individual decisions can be the source of their personal troubles. Part of sociological imagination is at least being able to zoom out enough and step out from our circumstances enough, to at least contemplate that there might be a connection between personal troubles and public issues.

How to Develop Your Sociological Imagination

A direct quote from Mills:

“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.”

This means the individual who has agency and the society that has structure, they are not separate entities even though they feel that way. This also means there are some linked elements, factors, processes between these two. For example, to understand how the society evolved this way, we need to understand people’s experiences, individual history and agency.

Moreover, we can see the ‘unusual’ in the ‘usual’. We somehow take life for granted. Our goal is not to say this is what society is. Instead, our goal is to look at it like a stranger, looking for the unusual. For example, why do I wear the clothes I wear? Why do I have the friends I have? All these questions challenge the usual.

We must ‘think yourself away’ from the ordinariness of our everyday experience to ask and answer sociological questions in an imaginative way. This is Mills’ words. He means to take ourselves out of what have been taken for granted and step back and question our everyday experiences.

We can also consider both macro and micro factors at play. Take using smartphones as an example, micro elements might be basic level questions like why do I call these people? Macro level factors could be why does someone in society want to get latest iPhone?

We can also consider links between: individuals and society; individuals and history; public and private; etc. These are a set of dichotomies (二分法). This is a an exercise in our ability to kind of demarcate what you experience in our own life. Seeing these connections is where our sociological imagination will start to develop.


Everyday Individual Activity Societal Connection
Getting dressed in the morning, deciding what to wear Cultural implications, Fashion trends, Gender norms, Peer Groups
Travelling around your city - by car? Bus? Bike? Taxi? Other? Your socio-economic resources, Access
Choosing which university to attend Cultural/ethnic/religious background, Socio-economic resources, Geographical location

If we want to activate our sociological imagination, we would need to apply these questions to everything we do: why am I doing it? what social/historical/societal elements could be factoring in?

Social Forces Shape Life

There are many social forces that shape people’s lives. Here we discuss a distinction between society centered forces versus individual centered forces.

When we are looking at it from a society centered focus, we are looking for a societal kind of macro lens. Cultural norms and values is one type of society centered forces. For example, our cultural background might change how we function in society. Dominant ideologies, often called hegemony (霸权) is a sociological term describing dominant ideology becoming the way things are done. For example, we live in a capitalist society because the hegemony of capitalism is so strong. Then under capitalism, we can only do some things in certain ways. Another force is social structure, which consists of various institutions and patterns. For example, in an educational institution like school, we have to follow some time routine or some patterns.

Now let’s consider some individual centered forces. We have internalization of societal forces which is known as socialization. As we grow up, we internalize everything about the society. As we get socialized, everything from society comes to be within us because socialization shapes our life. Another individual centered force is our location in the social structure. Where we are located in the social structure, which often times we don’t have much choice over, has a huge impact on as a force that shapes our life.

Applying our sociological imagination

Consider the following question.

Do you drink tea or coffee everyday? Why or why not?

Remember what is the sociological imagination, we start to connect society and the individual, public versus private, structure versus agency, looking for the unusual in the usual. So why might someone drink coffee or tea every single day?

First, there might be some health or digestive implications. Or it could be a tradition ritual or routine. Or caffeine addiction. Or it might be a social activity as well.

The point is something as simple as drinking tea and coffee every day has all these larger social explanations. The sociological imagination allows us to examine everyday/mundane behaviors and beliefs and take new perspectives in our understanding and analysis of them.

The importance of sociological imagination

Why is it important?

We can develop self-awareness in engaging in everyday behaviors and beliefs, which can aid us with decision making it might prompt you to challenge inequalities or injustices. In other words, having the sociological imagination and applying it can allow us to be self-aware to question why it is that we do the things that we do, and even aid us when we want to make tough decisions. When we apply the sociological imagination, we can make it in a much more informed way.

The sociological imagination can also help us to understand the actions of others as well for the same reasons they can help us understand our own.

The sociological imagination can help us to understand or solve social problems like various forms of deviance: violence, theft, substance abuse, etc.

Also, with sociological imagination, we are able to navigate new developments in society. For example, technology, social media influence, and all the new things we see emerging in our society now. Why do I feel the need to post on social media every day? Is it about reinforcing my beliefs of people in my age group should be doing? Is it about me meeting the expectations of my peer group?

If we want to be a sociologist, sociological imagination is required.

Now let’s contemplate why it’s called sociological imagination, not sociological lens, or approach, or framework, or theory, or idea, or technique. Here are some reasons:

  • It is a technique approach or method that compels your mind to think in a new way, which is imagination.
  • This imaginative way of thinking is different than the way that we think when we passively operate in the world as social actors.
  • Sociological imagination requires you to shift away from your own individual vantage point in society and imagine what it looks like to an outsider.
  • Applying it allows you to imagine yourself and other individuals as a product of social and historical forces.



We need to define socialization first. Technical definition is

the process through which people learn to become members of a society.

Several things to note:

  • it’s a process, not something happens at point in time.
  • the definition assumes that if you are born into a society, you are not necessarily an operating member. In other words, you are not born with the understanding of the society enough to function in it.

Socialization is the most intense period of socialization during infancy and early childhood. This is because that’s when the individual is learning the most in terms of the volume of this new society. And that’s why so much social-psychological work on adults is connected back to childhood experiences.

As children, we

  • develop cognitive (neural pathways are forming) and emotional skills (how to cope when we are scared).
  • engage in daily routines: wake up in the morning, brush teeth and so on.
  • learn to conform to adult expectations about a wide range of behaviors. Because adults are the conduits (引领) of socialization.
  • begin developing individual identity. For example, a child hears his name over and over again, then he recognizes that it is his name. Side note: a lot of socialization happens passively.
  • learn social roles, especially related to social categories like race, class, gender, etc.

Types/Levels/Forms of Socialization

There are five types: primary, secondary, reciprocal, anticipatory socialization and resocialization.

Primary Socialization

Primary socialization is the most intense form of socialization. It occurs from birth through adolescence. Family is the most important agent (but also friends, education, and media!)

The friends here actually refer to larger peer group, e.g., including bully, which will play a role in the socialization. Education includes interacting with teachers, peer groups, authorities, senior administration and staff and so on in the school. The media clearly plays a role nowadays because we can see a child of age 1 or 2 is swiping away on YouTube and knowing how to use an iPhone.

There are some distinctions between intentional and unintentional socialization. Intentional, for example, parents teach children how and what to eat, what to wear, what to play with, what is funny, what is sad, how to treat others, etc. However, for unintentional ones, socialization is impacted unintentionally. For example, children learning about power and authority dynamics, gender, age, class, ethnic differences, love, affection, intimacy, etc.

A concrete example for power and authority dynamics would be that parents’ role in the family: father is the decision maker, mother is the homemaker. For gender, we will have a discussion later. For age, it can be seen in sibling dynamics, where certain ages are given certain privileges, while some not.

Secondary Socialization

It is an ongoing process of ‘recalibrating’ throughout your life cycle as you have new experiences and adjust to them. Arguably, this can be done from adolescence to the death. Caveat: we tend to have less new experiences the older we get.

New experiences. For example, changing jobs, getting married, coping with a life crisis (like pandemic) and so on.

Secondary socialization is based on accumulated learning and previous experience. Let’s take marriage as an example. Suppose we marry at 30 years old for the first time. We still base on what’s depicted on the TV show or the marriage from our parents. Thus secondary socialization pulls in experiences we had from primary socialization, then we operate according to those assumptions and recalibrate.

Reciprocal Socialization

It comes down to both sides. When both, the most commonly identified teacher learns, and the most commonly identified learner teaches. Note that the teacher here refers to a role in the learning process.

A classical example is when parents teach children, but children also reciprocally teach parents. When the parents are teaching/socializing the baby, the parent is learning a ton about how to be a parent, especially it is their first baby. The same goes for teachers and students and other similar relationships.

Note that reciprocal socialization does not apply for socialization via media. The media socializes us, but we don’t socialize the media right back, the media does not learn anything from us. The media is like passive, superimposed experience to us, while parent-children is more reciprocal.

Anticipatory Socialization

It occurs when an individual mentally prepares for future roles and responsibilities via the capacity they have built through previous experiences.

In other words, we know something is coming and we contemplate what that will be like. What we know from before will inform our assumptions in the future.

The effectiveness of it depends on the degree of ambiguity of a new situation. In other words, if the new situation is very different, then probably we will not be able to engage in anticipatory socialization effectively.

An example would be that university students engage in anticipatory socialization as they acquire necessary academic skills for their future occupations. Another example could be that one can use high school educational experience to prepare for the university.


It occurs when a new situation is so unique that an individual cannot rely on their previous experience to anticipate how to act. In other words, we can do nothing to anticipate how to act. Thus, when the individual joins the new situation, they begin to be resocialized ‘from scratch’ in terms of what behaviors/norms/beliefs etc, are appropriate in that new environment.

We can think of this arguably as a new kind of primary socialization, because we are like a blank slate but we are not baby anymore. We do have some frameworks and ideas in society generally, but we don’t know how to operate in the new environment that we are going to be a part of.

Here are some examples:

  • joining the army. This is almost completely different than anything we have done in our lives. We are going to learn new norms and so on.
  • experiencing the sudden death of a loved one. It could fit in secondary socialization too. If this is the first time, never experience any death of closest people, then it could be resocialization as there are nothing to be compared to.
  • being fired.
  • going to jail.

Agents of Socialization

Agent comes down to the learning process. Recall the definition of socialization is a process. So the agent of socialization is the person/individual/institution group that is doing the teaching in the learning process. They have the knowledge so that they could tell the people who do not have the knowledge.

An important agent of primary socialization is the family, including parents or siblings. School and education is another huge agent of socialization, especially when it comes to primary socialization when children are young. Peer groups refers to friends and bullies, people of similar age.

One may ask: how can they be an agent of socialization if they are learning at the same time I am? When we get socialized by our family, other people from peer groups get socialized by their family as well. Alice might have learned \(xyz \), while Bob might have learned \(\xi \zeta \wp \). When they meet in a peer group, they are bringing with them their own early experiences of socialization, and now they are socializing each other.

We have talked about mass media as an agent. Mass media encompasses everything from news outlets, televisions and films, social media.

Or others? because we might be able to parse out other agents of socialization in our particular life that are specific to us. But in general, the four listed above are the most prevalent agents of socialization that affect everyone.

Gender Socialization - An Example

We need to distinguish the difference between prescriptive and proscriptive socialization.

  • prescriptive: how to behave appropriately as a girl/boy/woman/man. This definition could be extended to other places: how to behave appropriately as a university student.
  • proscriptive: how not to behave; what is prohibited.

In terms of gender especially, many of these ‘rules’ are indirectly conveyed, especially through positive vs. negative reinforcement. It’s more like a passive process, not let you sit down and tell you the rules.

For gender specifically, these ‘messages’ are often transmitted before or just after birth (e.g., clothing is a certain color; different types of toys; the first question after a baby is born - boy or girl?) Consider how different toys impact cognition - e.g., boys are given Legos and cars, to develop more imagination and motor skills when compared to girls. Girls are given dolls and kitchen sets. Historically, boys and girls have clear separation in terms of their gender.

The role of the parents are important when it comes to gender socialization because the family and parents are agents of socialization. Parents let children know what the behavioral expectations are of boys vs. girls. Research shows parents paly more aggressively with boys and engage in more verbal action with girls, while treating them with greater fragility.

In modern times, gender is a more fluid set of categories on a spectrum. Gender used to be finite. Now because of advancements in medicine, psychological researches, policies and all sorts of areas, we see how gender has evolved as a concept, and we have control over it.

Sociological Methods

Recall The Basics of Sociology, we have learnt the definitions of sociology. From there, we know that there is no one type of method in sociology.

How do you actually ‘DO’ sociology?

We do sociology in some methodological way, using research methods: systematic approach to doing research. For example, we first develop an idea, a question, an approach, and there are multiple steps within each of those.

Empirical evidence is emphasized all over the places. It is the basis of sociological work. It is data gathered through the senses. If we go back and look at the history of social scientific disciplines, it hasn’t always been based on empirical evidence. One thing might have been mentioned in ANTH 100, Introduction to Anthropology, is “armchair anthropology” or “armchair sociology”. Back in the day before empirical evidence was standardized for researches, people do “though experiments”: they literally sit in an armchair and think, come up with questions and answers based on their common sense. An example of thought experiment could be time dilation in the context of special relativity, which can be found on page 65 of AMATH 271.

When we made the shift to empirical evidence, that changed the game across many different disciplines. When we gather data through the (five) senses, then somebody else could come along, repeat those same steps we have done. They either support or refute our findings. The reason why it is important is because we can repeat what we find, and other people can confirm what we find, which is quite different from philosophizing.

Below are some branches that sociological research can be split up into.

                                   |-- qualitative
                   |-- primary   --|
                   |               |-- quantitative
research types ----|                
                   |               |-- academic literature
                   |-- secondary --|
                                   |-- government resources

Caveats: this structure is not an exhaustive diagram. There are other types of research.

Secondary Research

It is research that relies on data gathered by other researchers. It involves a review of the available literature/resources. For examples, books, textbooks or journals, anything that has been published within the academia and already speaks to the research question we have asked.

Side note: usually available academic literature involves peer review: some experts in that field has reviewed that research.

The findings can include both number/statistics (quantitative) + words/ideas (qualitative). This is clear when we look at the result.

Usually, we use secondary research when exploring a well-established topic to directly answer a research question. If there are tons of people have already investigated the same question we are asking, we then do not need to go out and collect the same data and so on.

Secondary research is also used when beginning to explore a new topic to anchor the research question and orient a research design. For example, consider an RA has not been asked a lot and it’s not well established in the literature. Even if we are going to collect the data for the primary research, before going out, we still start by secondary research, looking at some (remotely) related literature.

We cannot do primary research without secondary research! In the sociological discipline, we do not ever just start doing research. Instead, we always anchor whatever research we are doing in whatever research came before.

Primary Research

Primary research is a research that relies on data you gather yourself, as the researcher. We are using the five senses to gather data. It usually starts with a review of the available & relevant secondary research. This was discussed in the previous section.

It involves considerations of ethics and approval by an institutions’ governing body of ethics. For example, we want to research on streaming services. We could go out and ask related questions. If we want our primary research, self-found data to be published, or considered valid, this doesn’t work. We have to do this through the systematic process. One of the elements in the process is getting ethics approval. For example, we have a research ethics board at the University of Waterloo.

It involves many decisions related research design. This is covered with more details in research methods course. Here are some questions: What methodological approach? Which participants? How many? How to sample? How to recruit? How to compensate? What analytical approach? What reporting method?

Qualitative Research Methods

Focus is on understanding the meanings people associate with their behaviors, interactions, etc. What does it actually like to go through that experience? We can interview several people related to the topic with the questions, then we take a look at the answers and come up with the meanings they associate with behaviors. For example, mathematicians do math because math makes them clever (maybe not true), which could not be concluded from quantitative data.

The emphasis is on ‘naturalistic’ inquiry: talking to people, instead of sending out the surveys.

It usually involves the researcher trying to understand a person’s experience from their socially situated, lived perspective. It’s from their perspective, not how we perceive their experiences.

The data form is usually in words. Maybe hundreds of pages of questions and answers.

Below are six types of qualitative methods.

  • interviews: sitting and talk to people face to face
  • focus groups: one researcher and a larger group of participants
  • case study: look at one particular instance of something
  • content analysis: look at existed content, e.g., text messages, twitter feed
  • ethnography: involves immersing yourself in a particular community or organization to observe their behavior and interactions up close (from scribbr)
  • (participant) observation

The last two involves the researcher going into the experience. Take the ballerina question as an example: how does somebody decide to become a ballet dancer? We could engage in some observation. We sit and watch this experience happen. Or even further, we can participate in the activities while I am observing.

Quantitative Research Methods

The focus is on understanding the objective, scientific data that reveals trends/patterns that are external to any one individual. Unlike qualitative ones, with the focus on meaning, quantitative methods are not in favor of these. It’s like a zoomed out view on the objective, scientific data.

The emphasis is on ‘scientific’ inquiry (like the natural sciences: chemistry, physics, biology) and we often test a ‘hypothesis’. This is similar in natural sciences.

With quantitative research, it usually involves the researcher trying to establish distance between themselves and the people they are studying. Recall in qualitative methods, we sit down and observe. For quantitative methods, we do not want that close relationship with the participants, and we act as outsiders. This is because sciences should not be muddled by all the biases introduced by the close relationships with the participants.

The data form is usually in numbers: percentage, amount. chi-squared, t-tests. These can be found in STAT 231 or ARTS 280, which is like an infant version of STAT 221.

There are several types of quantitative research methods

  • experiments in real world or laboratory (like experiment in science)
  • correlational research: focus on multiple variables to see how they are related to each other.
  • cross-sectional surveys: check boxes, Likert scale
  • longitudinal surveys: a set of surveys over several periods of time

Mixed Method is a kind of method between qualitative and quantitative methods. It provides us with the opportunity of gathering different types of data, asking and answering different types of questions in unique ways, then different type of data can support each other.

Which is the best?

Which research approach is best?

There’s no answer here. It depends on

  • the (research) question you are asking. For example, for questions like how does one learn a language, qualitative methods might be better. For questions like what a portion of our population knows more than one language, quantitative might be better.
  • the resources you have. Qualitative research often takes longer than quantitative methods. Typically, interviewing consumes much more time than sending out the surveys.
  • the people/population you want to study. Some people are more accessible to talk or interview.
  • your own assumptions about human nature, society, sociological research, etc. What you assume and take for granted as part of the discipline and society will affect that you believe the discipline should look like and the related researches.

In terms of overarching orientations, usually there are three different orientations:

  • positivist: a researcher who believes that their research is scientific, systematic, usually based on quantitative data.
  • interpretivist: a researcher who usually does qualitative research, and is interested in interpreting people’s meaning.
  • critical researcher: they can fit into either category, but they are critical of their specializations. They usually study something that has a solution, or something to be solved/improved. This often occurs in the context of politics.

Social Interaction & Identity

What is the society? There’s a tendency when we think of society in our minds, we think of it as the buildings and institutions or any physical existence in our community. In fact, how society operates comes down to an assemblage of individuals that regularly interacts.

Then from here, we know that the society is usually compromised of recognizable patterns in the structure and functioning of all sorts of things. Including people’s behavior, there are patterns according to which people behave and operate as we can see from sociological work, even though we may think we are always operating according to free will. Moreover, social institutions, shared beliefs, norms, customs, etc., are also part of this dynamic, where we see recognizable patterns.

What factors impact these interactions & patterns on a MICRO level? Status, roles, and identity.

Factors impacting interaction


We know the definition of status in a popular sense, but within sociology, it has a clear distinction with other types of dynamics or labels, like roles. In sociology, status is a social position that a person occupies.

A person’s status is determined by social factors, though it is an individual’s characteristic. In other words, the origin of that status isn’t from the individual, it comes from the society. Status is a social element that assigned or defined in individual lives.

There are several social elements that contribute to status:

  • occupation: occupation happens in society but the status of it that of us doing that occupation is what’s associated with us on a micro individual level.
  • SES (socioeconomic status): some people have higher status because of their wealth.
  • relationships to others (family; friendships; romantic relationships, etc.) The two above somehow are associated with hierarchy, but relationships here are situated amongst others. For example, in north American community, it’s highly valued that people are paired off into relationships.

Then we come to the definition of status set: all the different status positions that a person occupies at one time. This changes over time. For example, education might be an indicator of the status if one is a university student. This might be different from others if some universities are less competitive. Later on, this might change as one gets his part-time job.

There’s an important distinction between ascribed vs. achieved status. Basically, it means “voluntary or not”. In terms of ascribed status, that’s automatically given to us, where we do not have much choice. Some examples for ascribed status include race. For achieved status, that’s what we can choose, e.g., socioeconomic status or wealth status, education we pursue.

Out of all the different statuses that make up our status set, there is one more important than the rest. This is master status. This status has far reaches in our life. It affects lots of different parts of our life. For example, for many people, occupation is their master status as it affects people’s relationships with others and socioeconomic status. Another type of master status could be major illness that someone is suffering.


Role and status, as two sociological concepts often go together, relate to each other, but they are not the same. Recall status is a social position that a person occupies. Role is a behavior of a person in a specific status. Thus, status and role are inextricably (密不可分) linked.

Status set is all the different status positions that a person occupies at one time. Similarly, role set is all the different roles associated with a specific status. So in one status position, there can be many different roles.

Now let’s examine an example, status vs. role. Consider occupational status of being a doctor. It includes roles like: patient care role, researcher role; peer/colleague role; supervisor role to nurses/admin. Similarly, mothers have lots of roles to fulfill.

Role conflict refers to challenges between the roles of multiple status positions. Consider Amy as a mother, a doctor, a friend, and so on. These are all her different statuses. Now imagine if Amy was called to care for a patient at the same moment that her child called her because her child has been expelled from school. Does Amy go and take care of her patient or go to care for her child? This is a clear example of role conflict where there is a challenge between multiple status positions and roles that are associated with both.


We have talked about role and status. Where does identity fit into this? Identity is one of those interdisciplinary concepts. It also can be examined in lots of different subfields of study. In sociology, identity refers to a unit of self-definition. It’s what we define ourselves by the self and the situated self. Situated self is who we are in comparison to ‘everybody’ else, or specifically, the society to which we belong.
Identity units can be indefinite in number. It could be 5 or 500. It depends on how many different statuses and roles that we fulfill.

There are many different frameworks for understanding identity. One particular thinker is Baumeister (1986). He is talking about the defining criteria of identity. He says, for an identity unit to be applied to you, it either needs to provide your identity with continuity and/or it needs to provide your identity with differentiation.

Name and race are examples of continuity. Being University student would be continuous over a period of time, and may not be continuous over the whole life. Differentiation refers to any identity unit that differentiates you from somebody else. Name could provide differentiation. Occupation can provide as well.

Another concept that’s not the same but related is the idea of the ‘self’. The ‘self’ develops through social interaction to comprise an individual’s personality, self perception, etc. Basically, we, as individuals, develop an understanding of what our ‘self’ is as we interact with others.

There are lots of different sociological frameworks to understand identity.

Identity Framework 1: Dramaturgy

It is given by Erving Goffman (1959). It’s quite an interesting framework and it still applies in so many different contexts. It focuses on ‘Presentation to Self’ as a ‘performance’. When people are interacting with each other, we are not passively interacting. Instead, we are acting presenting ourselves in a certain way. 🤔

Essentially, he uses a theater metaphor to depict how people actively behave/perform in certain ways to achieve a particular impression with others. When it comes to theater play, consider what the actors do when they are performing: they speak, dress, move in a certain way to communicate to us.

One of the dynamics he gives us is ‘frontstage’ vs. ‘backstage’ acting. Frontstage is what they show us on the stage, and backstage is everything behind the curtain to help them prepare for the front stage, like changing costumes.

If we delve more deeply into the dramaturgical model, Goffman talks about performance dynamics. Consider roles, scripts, costumes, rehearsals, etc.

Identity Framework 2: Looking Glass Self

It is by Charles Horton Cooley in 1902. Looking glass is just a mirror. Basic premises of his idea is that other people in society are like a looking glass or a mirror through which we see ourselves. How we think others see us, it how we understand our own identity. As we interact with others, e.g., a friend, an instructor, we are essentially looking at them like a mirror. The way they interact with us informs how we see ourselves. 😲

Self & Society

This is by George Herbert Mead in 1934. In fact, the whole title is Mind Self and Society. George is known as the father of symbolic interactionism. He says, the ‘self’ does not exist when people are born. People have social experiences and that’s how the self develop. People attach meaning to their own actions and the actions of others. In order to figure out how to behave in a social situation, we imagine the meanings of the other so we can orient our own actions towards them.

For example, the child is always getting feedback from their parents for certain things and behaviors, and that’s positive/negative reinforcement. The child knows what’s good or what’s bad. We associate meanings with different behaviors that other people in reaction to us.

People are capable of and must try to take the role of the other, in order to understand how their self is perceived by other people in society.

He gives the distinction between the “I” and the “me”.

  • the “I”: subjective, spontaneous, active self. I am hungry so I am going to eat.
  • the “me”: objective, meaning-mediated, self related to how others see and interact with us. “me” is how other people tell me that they perceive me.

Identity Crisis

There are wide variety of literature on this specific topic.

One frame that we can use to see why identity could be seen in a state of crisis is related to the demands of modernity. Unique individuality is highly valued. We probably grew up in a home where we were told that if we study hard enough we can cultivate a great career. Then we tend to be pushed towards individuality, being different. However, on the other hand, unique individuality is increasingly elusive in modern, mass societies. Thus it’s not easy to stand out from the crowd when we are surrounded by millions of people within a very small geographical area.

One of the reasons why mass societies make it difficult for us to have unique individuality is because of homogenization of experience. We are essentially have the same experiences, via media, technology, etc.

Theorizing the Evolution of Society

There are two goals in this module. First, get a general sense of how that evolution has happened and what it entailed. Second, the idea of understanding where theory fits in as a component of the discipline.

What is Sociology Theory?

Theory a.k.a. ‘perspective,’ ‘paradigm,’ ‘model,’ ‘framework,’ etc.

Different Types of Societies

  1. Hunter/Gatherer
  2. Horticultural/Pastoral
  3. Agrarian
  4. Industrial
  5. Post-Industrial

Social Stratification, Inequalities, and Financialization of Everyday Life

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