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Chapter 1- The Sociological Imagination

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Richard Arum
Grew up as white privileged Jewish kid in suburbs of New York
Grew up connected to individuals that included cultural icons & civil rights heroes (like
Muhammad Ali)
Got teaching certificate from Harvard & worked as teacher in segregated public high
school in Oakland, California
Enrolled at University of California, Berkeleytraining in Department of Sociology to
develop sociological tools & skills to better understand problems around schooling in
Developing a sociological imagination was an attempt to develop a set of analytical
competencies to participate actively in policy discussions (to improve outcomes of youth)
When describing ourselves, we tend to think about our individuality (likes, dislikes,
interests, skills) but we are also products of the time/place we live in & the family we
were born into
We are individuals but also social individuals (connected to other people in a
variety of different ways)
Facebook: worldwide phenomenon w/ hundreds of millions of registered users allowing
us to link & communicate w/ friends & create communities
Popular b/c of its wide variety of uses
Drawn from sociological ideas about social networks (ties b/w people, groups,
organizations, work)
o We are part of hidden social networks in which we know people who
know other people we dont know but share important traits (common
interests, backgrounds, areas of expertise, etc.)
Uses algorithm that makes that makes these normally hidden connections b/w
people visible
Danger of facebook: people could create & spread antigovernment ideas or mobilize
groups of citizens to protest in the streets
Ex: Facebook has been blocked in countries like China, Syria, Pakistan, Iran
Facebook appears to change the nature of friendships
Makes it easier to develop new contacts & keep in touch w/ old friendships even
after people become geographically apart
Part of entire social networking phenomena
Exemplifies one way in which learning sociological ideas can help us better understand
some of the ways that our existence is dependent on our relationships w/ others
Society: large group of people who live in the same area & participate in a common
Hidden in our individual biographies
Sociology: study of societies & social worlds that individuals inhabit w/n them

Faces specific challenge of trying to uncover & analyze patterns that lie beneath
the surface of social worlds for individual lives

What Sociologists do
Sociologists are keen to explore phenomena like Facebookwhich raises fundamental
issues about social aspects of our lives
Ask hard questions about future of social networking & implications for how
individuals & societies relate to one another:
o How has new technology changed the form, content, & character of
o How has the emergence of online dating changed the nature of intimate
o How has technology changed the way work is organized, how we find
employment, & what kinds of jobs are likely to be available in the future?
o Is the new technology helping governments spy on their citizens or
helping citizens better monitor their governments & exercise their
democratic rights?
Sociologists have begun to think about how what happens in any one society is
influenced by the rest of the world
Digital revolution
The entire social networking phenomena exemplifies one way in which learning sociological
ideas can help us better understand some of the ways that our own existence if dependent on our
relationships w/ others.
Has facilitated & deepened long-standing patterns of global interaction
Sociology always has drawn upon cross-national comparisons & explored how societies
Theories of globalization (increased flow of goods, money, ideas, people across national
borders) have raised host of new questions
Sociology Project
Sociology provides set of tools to understand patterns of globalization & impact on
societies & individuals
Will have tools to think about how & why our world is the way it is & how you can make
decisions to navigate its challenges
Reflects idea that constant changes in world around us make life & study of sociology is
ongoing project
1. How can a sociological imagination help you better understand your world?
Sociological imagination
Sociology puzzles over how we are connected to each other in the world
Relationships shape our unfolding individual lives & how we come to understand our
Book helps you in developing sociological imagination that provides you w/ scientifically
informed understanding of social aspects of life

Sociological imagination: capacity to think systematically about how many things we

experience as personal problems
Personal problems include debt from student loans, competing demands from
divorced parents, inability to form rewarding romantic relationship at college
o Personal problems are widely shared social issues
Term coined by sociologist C. Wright Millswrote that sociological imagination
enables us to grasp history & biography & relations b/w 2 w/n society
Helps us to ask hard questions & seek answers about social worlds we inhabit
To understand world around us & begin to think deeply about how to improve world
recognize extent to which our individual lives are strongly shaped by where, when & to
whom we are born & range of experiences we have as a child, adolescent, & adult
At each stagewe are both individuals & members of a social world
Opportunities & potentials are influenced by inequalities & injustices we
encounter but understanding these requires that we think about them

Looking through a Sociological Lens

How can a sociological imagination help us to challenge stereotypes?
Sociological imagination challenges basic impulses all of us have
Helps us see the diversity of intimate relationships & question our assumptions
about a particular form of marriage being natural as opposed to social in its
Human mind wants to make sense of world around us by seeing aspects of it, differences
in it
If we have grown up in a social context where marriage is defined as a life-long
commitment b/w man & woman, we might be quick to conclude that the
arrangement was the way that intimate relationships were meant to be
People watching is enjoyable activity & way of beginning to exercise our
sociological imagination to make guesses about people we dont know
o We might be tempted to draw on stereotypes in making those guesses
We are often quick to identify differences across groups of people (men & women, rich &
poor, whites & other races) as inherent to characteristics of these groups
When attaching differences to real people, its easy to develop faulty generalizations
Stereotypes: beliefs about members of a group that are usually false or
exaggerated but basis of assumptions made from individual members of the group
Ex: some people think that older individuals are not good workers. Might be true
b/c at some point most of us will become too old to perform jobs
Discrimination: behavior, practice, policy that harms, excludes, or disadvantages
individuals on the basis of their group membership
Ex: Employers & fellow employees generalize that some older people who cant
perform jobs b/c they are too old applies to all older workers
Sociological imagination challenges stereotypes

Raises questions about: where stereotypes come from, what stereotypes are based
on, who benefits from stereotypes, why stereotypes are harmful
Sociology produces important theories & ideas but gives us tools to understand & think
critically & creatively about our own lives, times we are living in, why we are the way
we are
When we possess a sociological imagination, we are able to be more active, effective
participants in the world around us

Engaging our sociological imaginations: learning to ask good questions

Everyone has some degree of sociological imagination
We exercise our sociological imagination every time we try to make sense of something
in the social worlds around us
When observing lots of people at the mall or concert or sporting event can
make educated guesses about these people (gender, age, race, ethnicity, maybe
religion based on what they are wearing)
How people dress might convey something about their income (whether
someones jeans are expensive/high fashion or cheap knock-offs
Hearing them speak can determine if they are well-educated, from a particular
region of US, or from foreign country based on their accent
By people watching we are engaging our sociological imaginations
Sociological imagination requires one to ask deeper, more meaningful questions
*Our ability to ask hard questions instead of accepting easily available answers is
the hallmark of a good sociological imagination
Does not allow us to settle for simple answers in understanding human beings &
the worlds they inhabit
Goes much further than making broad generalizations about individuals
Well-developed sociological imagination is rich w/ ideas & theories about endless
complexity of very categories in which we assign individuals
Just looking at people or groups around us & making generalizations is not in &
of itself an example of the use of our sociological imaginations
Ex: knowing that someone is white or African American or Asian doesnt tell us
much about their annual income, type of job they have, what they like to do in
their spare time, whether they are hardworking or lazy
From personal puzzles to sociological questions
All professional sociologists have had experiences in their livesbefore beginning
sociological researchthat ignited their sociological imaginations
Can be triggered by particular event
Can be developed more slowlycombination of things that inspired them to
develop a sociological imagination
One situation that often triggers our sociological imaginations occurs when we see some
kind of conventional wisdom (widely shared assumption) as incorrect
Can happen at any moment

When it happens, we start asking questions about what we observe around us &
begin to develop our sociological imagination

Rich are getting richer

Income inequality is great in USdivide b/w rich & poor is growing
While rich are getting richer, majority of Americans arent
In 2010, US continued to recover form economic recession
Forming sociological questions
Can range from what is right before us to questions about entire societies
Sociologists develop social theories (overarching frameworks that suggest certain
assumptions & assertions about the way the world worksfor posing such questions &
evaluating evidence related to those questions)
Sociologists develop research methods (ways of systematically studying these questions
in order to develop new evidence that allows new answers to be generated)
Learning to ask questions about received wisdom key part of learning to think
seriously about world around us
Hard questions are important
World often times becomes a better place when authorities are forced to address
such hard questions
Asking questions can be dangerous
Governments dont like it when citizens begin to ask questions about topics that
government officials prefer to keep secret
Large corporations & other organizations often dont like it when workers or
members start asking questions rather than doing what they are told to do
True that questioning everything w/o foundation for questions is
Sociological questions: an example
Sociological view of student experiences in college poses a range of questions about how
individuals, institutions, & societies vary
Sociological questions are different from questions asked by researchers in other
academic disciplines
Psychologists studying cognition are interested in what affects our ability to
concentrate & focus for a sustained amount of time; address questions about how
individuals think, not necessarily the broader social factors shaping academic
performance & thinking
Sociological questions on higher education
What types of questions are sociologists particularly well-equipped to explore?
How do students lives before college shape their experiences in college?
Freshmen enter college w/ different backgrounds
o How does family influence educational experience?

o How does your parents educational background influence your own

o How would being the first in your family to go to college hurt or help?
o What are your parents educational expectations for you?
How does the social organization of college life shape students experiences?
Universities are like organizations
o Play important role in formation of identities
o Done via class size, faculty accessibility, study abroad programs, physical
layout of campus which could help or hinder development of group
College is a time when students form a variety of social, cultural, political
Does the experience of college benefit everyone equally?
Social hierarchies of class, race, gender shape who goes to what kind of college
Does college life offer more privileges to those who came to school privileged?
Are students w/ more resources (money, connections, confidence) better able to
take advantage of university opportunities?
How are students college path shaped by the larger labor markets awaiting students upon
U.S. economy is undergoing massive restricting as its manufacturing sector
continues to transform into service & high-tech sectors
Many jobs that once required skilled human intervention have been automated
dramatic reductions in amount of human labor required
New information technology means that many jobs can be performed anywhere in
the world, even if company headquarters remain in rich countries
Sociological questions are concerned w/ broad canvas of modern world
Countries range from basic units of human life (or individuals relationship w/
others) to groups & organizations we are all a part of
1 big question: learning how to ask important questions & to think about how to probe
for answers

Endless reach of sociological imagination

Few areas of life that cant be studied sociologically
Smallest particles (like DNA) to fall w/n sociological imagination
Theres genetic foundation to race
Sociology might appear ill equipped to address really big issues (ex: how world
economic systems developed across time/space)
Sociological imagination can be widely stretched to explore many aspects of human
Sociologists draw upon particular way of asking questions, set of theories about where to
look for answers
Sociologists deploy common set of tools for studying the questions
Questions build off of starting point: How & in what ways do social contexts

2. Why do social contexts matter?

Social contexts: form individuals to Society
How do our families & communities shape our social development?
Sociology is fundamentally concerned w/ how individuals are influenced by society
Social context: influence of society on individuals
Individual lives unfold in contextssocial environments, economic/cultural conditions
If we know contexts that infants will grow up in, we would be able to make
better-educated guesses about their prospects
Contexts that can influence a babys life:
Childs immediate family (past & present)
Parents education level, wealth, income
Neighborhood & community child grows up in or lives in as an adult
Education child gets (quality of schools)
Types of organizations (churches, clubs, groups)
Type of employment
Country he/she is born into (rich country, poor country, rapidly developing
country, etc.)
Period of history he/she is born into
Baby will enter social world that will have huge impact on where he or she ends up
Families & Communities as Context
First important context: families
Importance of family situations in helping us understand how individuals develop
Families shape who we are in variety of ways:
Give us racial, ethnic, religious identities
Teach us basic rules of society & how to behave in society or in particular social
Parents provide us networks & where we grow
Financial resources that parents invest in our education
Emotional & cognitive capacities that have developed via life-long interactions
Second important context: neighborhood & community we grow up
Living in safe environment w/ good schools & surrounded by families who encourage
children to do well in school in contrast to impoverished, high-crime neighborhood w/
poor schools
Impoverished, high-crime neighborhood w/ poor schools might have negative
Obvious consequences: risk of being victim of crime, lack of people who can
provide positive social networks
More subtle consequences: increased stress levels, reduced sleep & school
In NYU: discovery by Pat Sharkey that theres link b/w neighborhood violence &
childrens school performance

Violence can be absorbed & transmitted via neighborhood contexts

Children are perhaps most vulnerable to violent exposureexperience at school
& at home

Organizations & Institutions

Organizations shape what identities are available to us, how we value them, & why we
gravitate to some & not others
Our opportunities depend on the kind of groups we place ourselves in & the kinds of
contacts we forge
Sociologists have found that our racial identity can change according to the kind of
institutions where we are connected
Being in prison can change the way we think of ourselves, including our racial
Ex: serving time in prison (where African Americans are significantly
overrepresented) can prompt a change in ones racial identificationmale
prisoners were more likely to identify as African American after doing time in
prison/jail than before
Our sense of self is deeply tied to institutions in which we are a part of
Sociological perspective: when you see someone begging for money on the street, what do you
One way to think about an unemployed person: poor & employed b/c was lazy & didnt
work hard in school
Putting our sociological imaginations by looking at situation differently: looking beyond
individual & uncover persons larger social situation
Think about individual as part of society
Consider poverty as not as individual problem but social one
Enables us to reframe question to ask why are so many individuals in this
situation (poverty)? Rather than why is this person in this situation?
Social & economic contexts
How do the organizations & institutions we are a part of help us form our identities?
State of the world we are born into shapes opportunities available to useither limits or
enables us to pursue different goals & aspirations
Child growing up in working-class family in Detroit in 1940s would experience
different set of economic opportunities than child growing up in contemporary
Detroit (once the center of automobile industry, home to large number of highpaying working-class jobs; today is hit by devastating decline in US
manufacturing sector)
Women entering adulthood in 1950s faced different set of choices & cultural
expectations than women currently entering adulthood
Contexts are influenced by global environment
We live in an era where events in regions & countries around the world deeply
influence the lives of America & vice versa

Many types of jobs once done in US are now performed by workers in other
o As jobs, idea, technology over around the globe at unprecedented pace,
becomes clear that we are connected to people & places far away

Sociology as study of social contexts

Sociology: study of diverse contexts w/n which society influences individuals
Sociology ranges from how individual attributes (race, class, gender, education, religion)
are associated w/ differences in life course outcomes
Core of social contexts: distinction b/w social interaction & social structure
Social interaction: way that people act together, like how they modify/alter their
behavior in response to presence of others
o Governed by set of norms (basic rules of society that help us know what is
& is not appropriate to do in any situation)
o Violation of norms in behavior problems
Social structure: external forces (esp. social hierarchies & institutions of society)
o Social hierarchy: set of important social relationships that provide
individuals & groups w/ different kinds of status
Social interaction
Importance of social part of social interaction when we violate societal rules of
acceptable behavior (or when we imagine the social sanctions that would follow if we did
violate the rules)
Sociologists argue that we censor ourselves b/c of our concern for the social
consequences of our actions
o Societies develop set of norms that typically govern our behavior
o Norms give us guidelines for our behavior but are not generally written
down anywhere
We learn via interaction w/ othersparents, friends, teachers,
ministers, mentors
Knowing what the norms of a situation are is important for
avoiding embarrassment & acting appropriately in different
contexts & most of the time we want to fit in
Not knowing or failing normsgaffe (mishap, faux pas, misstep)
Complexity of rules of social interaction
Difficult to build robots that can think & perform like human beings
Would have to program all of the rules & thought processes that humans
experience, from simplest tasks or having relatively simple conversations
Robots can do some tasks some of the time, they always & inevitably make some
catastrophic misjudgment
Artificial intelligence (AI) research now focuses on: Internet search engines (predict what
we are looking for, lead us to info that precomputer age couldnt)

Social structure
What is the distinction b/w social interaction & social structure?
Social structure: external forces, esp. social hierarchies & institutions of society
Limiting & enabling
Provide order & organization but are often invisible
Institutions of society: include longstanding/important practices (marriage, family,
education, economic markets)& organizations regulating practices (government, military,
schools, religion)
Give framework for our daily lives
External forces confront us in our daily lives & require that we work w/n them
2 distinct components:
Every society has a set of inequalities (class, race, or gender)
Where we stand in hierarchies impacts who we are & what we can accomplish
Roles in life (positions w/n institution or organization) come w/ specific rules or
expectations about how to behavepartly determined by our social standing
Institutions arent easily changed, difficulty to avoid
Include laws, legal system, economic markets
3. Where did sociology come from, and how is it different from the other social sciences?
Sociology of social sciences
Sociological imagination can be applied to development of sociology & social sciences
In general, sociology & other social sciences began to develop when growing numbers of
people began to turn from abstract ideas or debates into thinking about how things work
in the real world & how that world can be systematically investigated
Traces of sociological thinking can be found everywhere people talk or think about their
communities or institutions
Desire to answer hard questions about world w/ something other than pure speculation
lies at heart of modern sociological enterprise
Point where philosophy crosses over into sociology & social science
Sociology & Industrial Revolution
What was the historical context in which sociology began to develop?
Development of new way of questioning & seeking answers to issues & problems of
modern world unfolded in fits & started throughout 19th century
Idea that social world can be studied w/ rigor & scientific methods can be applied to
nature & natural world developed from 1880s onward
Auguste Comte coined the term sociology
Believed that sociology would eventually become ultimate science of social world
& include social statics (study of societies as they are) & social dynamics
(processes of social change)
As time went by, variety of different ways of studying social world began to emerge
Early social scientists often identified w/ several disciplines

Early economists Thorstein Veblen & John Commons held chairs in sociology at
one point
Philosophers Adam Smith & Karl Marx spent much of their time writing &
thinking about economy & economic relations
B/w 1880-1910: social sciences began to settle down into organized bodies of knowledge
& distinctive professional profiles
Settling down first occurred in Europe
Father of sociology Emile Durkheim founded first European Sociology
Department at University of Bordeaus in 1895 & 1st major European journal of
sociology in 1898
Sociology Department at University of Chicago founded in 1895 as 1st department
in America
2 important developments spurred social sciences in general & sociology especially
Industrialization: growth of factories & large-scale goods production
Urbanization: growth of cities in late 19th century in US, Europe, etc.
New technologies & innovations made growth of large-scale manufacturing of consumer
products possibletransforming economies based primarily in agriculture to those based
in manufacturing of goods
Spread of factory labor created jobs that were concentrated in urban areaspopulation
density of at least 1,000 people per square mile & surrounding areas have overall density
of at least 500 people per square miles
Period of urbanization marked by growth in proportion of population living in
urban areas & citiesgrew rapidly in size b/w 1850 and 1920
Jobs driving growth of cities & surrounding metropolitan areas pulled people away from
farms & rural communitiesproviding economic opportunities for wave after wave of
immigrants form other countries who arrived in steadily increasing numbers
Social changes enabled by industrialization were immense
Contexts of individual lives & whole communities were changing rapidly
Exploding cities developing in US & Europe from middle of 19th century onward had
deep problems that were different from agricultural economies of previous centuries
Cities were rife w/ high levels of poverty
o Early factories paid poorly
o Living in expanding cities was often expensive as housing supply
struggled to keep up with demands
Cities were dirty
o Before public health & public sanitation measures became widely
o Breeding grounds of disease, infant mortality, early death
Crime & violence were much more common than in rural communities
Had places where people could organize themselves to protest unpleasant
conditions of life
o Possible to meet & discuss problems w/ dozens or hundreds of people in
close proximity

o Created new type of political challengeunions (organized associations

of workers, created to protect & fight for workers rights)
o Lead to rise of social movements (collective action aimed at bringing a
change in society)
Sociology was not only academic discipline to emerge from period of social change
Diverse group of disciplines emerged right around the same time in late 19th-early
20th centuries
Traditional social sciences consolidated into coherent, organized, increasingly
distinct fields of study at a similar historical moment
Largely due to important expansions in higher educations in Europe & US

Sociologys family: siblings

What units of analysis do sociologists work with, & how do these differ from those of other
Distinction of sociology from other social sciences:
Concepts & theories cover wide range of topics than other disciplines
Explanations of how external world shapes behaviors of individuals & social
outcomes are broader than those of other disciplines
o Move from individuals to groups to institutions to global society
Encompass different units of analysis
o Most concerned about how different units of analysis link up to &
mutually influence on another
Danger w/ working w/ broad spectrum of topics: hard to define parameters of sociology
Sociologists DONT define ourselves according to a specific institution or area of life
Other scientists define people according to specific institution or area of lifein contrast:
Political scientists: concerned w/ topics involving governments & policies
government produces
Economists: concerned w/ individuals economic behavior (microeconomics) &
performance of national or global economy (macroeconomics)
Psychologists: interested in understanding workings of mind & dynamics of
Anthropologists: claim expertise in practices of diverse cultures 7 how they vary
across time and place
Flexibility in how sociologists approach topics of study
Focus on many different levels of analysis when examining a given topic choose to
highlight 1 or more surrounding contexts; freedom to make choices
Sociology consists of many contexts shaping our livessmall to large to local to global
Units of analysis: pieces of topic that researcher bites off when he or she studies it
Sociology works w/ different units of analysis
Sociologists offer multifaceted perspectives on similar social phenomenon
Sociologists are interested in emotional life of families like psychologists

Unlike psychologistsisolate family unit to study patterns of interaction & their

psychological effects
Places family life & dynamics b/w family members in larger context
Important b/c they affect what aspects of our topics we can see & shape sociologists
Sociologists address wider range of connections than other social sciences
In contrastpsychologists focus on study of mind, psyche, physical brain &
explain individual behavior by simply understanding intricacies of psyche
Sociologists believe that many things motivate individualsaltruism, self-interest,
reputations, status, money
In contrasteconomists build & test models of economic behavior using clear &
simple assumptions about human natureex: everything being equal, we will
always act in ways that will enhance our self-interest & financial well-being
o Ideas & mathematical models of human behavior are often elegant & lead
to clear predictions that can be tested by researchers
Sociological theories tend to be messier & more difficult to test, they provide wide range
of possible explanations that produce new understandings
Most social scientists draw on ideas & insights of other fields & disciplines
Interdisciplinary research: increasingly central part of learning about any topic in
social sciences
Sociology is most likely social science to take interdisciplinary approach
o Depending on question at hand, sociologists need to know something
about research & theories developed by economists, political scientists,
psychologists, anthropologists
Sociology by itself does NOT have all the answers to questions that social scientists raise

Sociologys children
What are some of the spin-off fields that originally started in sociology?
Sociology has mothered number of new areas of study into existence
Large group of spin-off majors & programs that developed out of social sciences:
Gender studies
African American studies
Latino/a studies
Organizational or management studies
Industrial relations or labor studies
Sociology has long served as important incubator for new arenas of investigation
Even today, there are exciting new areas of study in sociology that may eventually grow
into disciplines of their own
Learning basics of sociology essential foundation for any one of newer fields
Sociology remains foundational discipline for many of interdisciplinary social sciences
Sociology in America

Sociology emerged recentlyunlike physics, history, philosophy

Sociology is dynamic field b/c it changes when the world changes

4. How can this book help you develop a sociological imagination?

Looking Ahead
What does it mean to describe this book & sociology as a whole as a project?
Goal: gain enough background on key areas & findings of sociological research so that
we can develop our own sociological imagination
Understanding how individuals lives are embedded in social contexts might lead to
appreciation on personal issues that individuals face & understand it as part of larger
social problems facing society
Split into 5 sections, each containing 4 chapters:
Section 1: foundational issues to discipline, ex: research methods, social
interaction, social systems
Section 2: building blocks for applying sociology to understand individual &
society, topics include culture, politics & power, organization & markets, cities &
Section 3: processes of social inequality, chapters on class, race & ethnicity,
gender & sexuality, immigration
Section 4: exploring 4 main social institutions that individuals face in lives
(family, religion, education, criminal justice system)
Each chapters components:
Puzzle/story highlighting 1 or more key sociological problems
Identification of big questions defining research
Exploration of how sociological thinking about each question has developed