I started caring about inequality and the underlying causes of social problems somewhat late in my young adulthood—it wasn’t until around my junior year of high school that I really “got it” that the world is a more complicated place than my suburban upbringing indicated. Before I was 16, it never occurred to me to question the patterns of the world, what they meant, or whether they would always be that way.
(This is despite the fact that I spent an entire childhood reading excellent books, including novels centered on race, gender equality, poverty, disability, and other struggles. I guess I just never made the connection between elegantly written young adult fiction and the real world around me.)
I enrolled in college with a major in Comparative Literature to pursue my love of lit while also qualifying for a scholarship which an English degree did not cover (more on my Comp Lit experiences in a future post). It wasn’t until the end of my freshman year that I made the leap to sociology.
Before I go further, a couple of quick notes:
- There is no “one right major” for everyone. Obviously. No two people’s pro-con lists match. Therefore, I will not attempt to write a “why sociology is right for you” post. It was the major I chose, and for reasons (good and bad) that were unique to me.
- As with many of my other educational experiences (notably studying in Belfast), my sociology degree was a mix of good and bad. While the specifics might be unique to me, some of these factors probably apply to anyone interested in sociology.
- A word of caution: if you haven’t already noticed on this blog, I can be a bit blunt. Please do not be offended. An advisor once told me I was “perhaps overburdened by opinions.” Consider yourself warned.
What is Sociology?
Sociology is a major branch of the social sciences which focuses on society and social behavior. It examines institutions and phenomena within groups of people, and delves into both causes and impacts of these social structures.
Sociology is popular with those interested in social change, activism, and humanitarian action. Like the other social sciences, it draws on both quantitative (numbers-based, statistical research), and qualitative (story-based, subjective experiences surveyed over a broad spectrum) to address subjects as diverse as crime rates, poverty alleviation, and chores allocation in families. It is incredibly broad-ranging in topic and in methods, which makes it interesting for people with a range of different interests.
How sociology is different from other social sciences
Some branches of the social sciences are extremely similar in face-value focus and interest. For example, sociology, anthropology, social geography, economics, and political science all study group behavior and social phenomena. The biggest differences lie in the foundational theories and principles which inform how a discipline approaches the subject. The best way to get a sense of those differences is to do a bit of reading in the key texts and theorists in the various subjects.
There are some general differences between disciplines. To paint with a broad brush, here are the differences between sociology and the other social sciences:
- Sociology vs. Psychology: Psychology is focused on individual behaviors and mental processes. Sociology is primarily interested in groups.
- Sociology vs. Anthropology: Anthropology is interested in human cultures (and human ancestors) through time, focusing on culture and physical and social changes and relations. Sociology is focused on understanding current groups of human beings, and the structures that define their lives.
- Sociology vs. Political Science: Political Science focuses more on statistical measurements and the impact of government structures on people. Sociology is more broad-ranging and (some argue) less mathematically driven.
- Sociology vs. History: This one’s pretty simple (although probably not as simple as it seems), but historians are focused on events along a timeline, often in the past but sometimes as they relate to events of today. Sociology does not have this same interest in the past.
- Sociology vs. Geography: Geography (social/cultural geography, anyway) focuses on the interactions between place and social structures. Geographers study similar topics, but always with an examination of how space and place (be it international borders, a route to the grocery store, or interactions in a prison) influence the people in those places. Sociology addresses those same issues, but without a focus on place.
- Sociology vs. Economics: Economics is all about the money, and the complicated relationships between economic systems and individuals in society. It is therefore focused on statistics and quantitative results, with an eye to understanding root causes as they relate to economic distribution. Sociology looks at similar phenomena, but without the focus on money.
If you get right down to the basics, all of these fields are interested in human behavior and interaction. Most are interested in group dynamics and the reasons behind why our world looks the way it does.
Many social scientists draw upon work from other fields of study, and in some cases scholars will work together across disciplines. However, an anthropologist studying the impact of a dam on a local community would go about doing so differently than an economist or a geographer, and they would quite possibly come to different conclusions.
How to choose
If you are interested in the social sciences, the best thing you can do to choose is experience being a student in several different disciplines. Enroll in some intro-level coursework, read syllabi, or even go sit in on a couple of lectures.
Another great way to learn which of the social science majors might be right for you is to read the bio information for the various professors in each department. Go on your university website (or, if you’re still in high school, look at the schools you’re interested in and/or the most prestigious schools). Read their resumes. Look through their book titles. What are they actively working on? Is the current research interesting and exciting to you? Can you imagine working with these people?
I have written before about my profound dislike of career statistics. I won’t do that again here. Suffice to say that you can study anything in college and graduate with a set of marketable skills and solid employment options (just ask my friend Conor who studied Irish language for both an undergrad and master's degree and who has since landed a great job in the tech industry).
Your major is not a determinate of everything else you’ll do in your life. It’s a step, and a context for everything you’ll do in college. But through internships and study you can gain practical skills while pursuing an “impractical” major, or you can be so awesome at that “impractical” major that it will offer opportunities (and personal growth) that will serve as a great foundation for the rest of your life.
ALL THAT BEING SAID, it is worth looking at the kinds of careers there are in your field. “Sociologist” is a broad term, and more often soc grads end up either in research or in more social work types of fields. This could mean working for a government organization or a private company in a wide range of capacities, from statistical evaluation of programs to being directly involved with individuals in need of assistance of various kinds.
We’ll get back to me in a minute, but I am far from the only soc grad who is not working directly in sociology. I am grateful for the background framework my degree in sociology has provided for how I approach the world and my professional life. However, unless I decide to become an academic, I won’t ever hold the title “sociologist” (and even then I might decide to jump ship to geography. Don’t tell anyone!).
On the very most superficial level, sociology is a term that many people recognize as relating to society and groups of people. The most common question I have from “your average Joe” when I say I studied sociology was “what are you going to do with that?” and sometimes “is that like psychology?” I’ve tried hard to never answer “I’m going to, like, figure out how the world works.” And instead share some of the topics I most enjoyed, followed up by interesting and related internships and jobs I’ve been involved with.
“Average Joe” confusion is part of most people’s experience in the social sciences (and liberal arts more broadly). If you study history, people will quiz you on the dates of wars or the names of English royalty. If you study geography, people will ask you about the capital of Kyrgyzstan. If you study econ, they’ll probably ask you for business advice while saying “oh wow.” Anthropology is plagued with dinosaur misunderstandings and Indiana Jones references.
Sociology as a career somewhat suffers from its broad nature. However, being a more general topic does lead to wider name recognition, and usually in the right general area.
Maybe that’s superficial, but it does matter. If this is a real passion, these could be the kinds of questions you deal with for the rest of your life.
Why I Chose Sociology
During my freshman year, I took classes in political science, anthropology, and history in addition to sociology.
I decided on sociology for two main reasons:
- I had a great sociology professor.
- I decided sociology would be more broadly applicable to my interests, and therefore more fun to study and more likely to fit with my career hopes.
I had had great professors in other classes as well, and I’m not sure that, in the end, my idea that sociology would be more helpful than the other subjects is ultimately true. However, I know without a shadow of a doubt that my experience in an intro-level class “Social Inequalities” changed how I understood the world and what I wanted to be my place in it. It pushed forward my burgeoning interest in social change and activism and made me feel inspired and hopeful, while also introducing me to a great deal that was depressing and difficult to cope with.
I made a pro-con list between sociology, anthropology, and political science. I gave it some thought, and drew a lopsided ven diagram of my understanding of the disciplines, and concluded that soc was right for me.
In the time after that decision, I was sometimes frustrated, often inspired, and occasionally bored nearly to tears. I encountered fellow students who were set to change the world and challenge everything they believed… and I had peers who were attracted by the lower credit requirements and the reputation of relatively easy professors. In some ways I felt disillusioned, and in many others I gained a life-long framework for processing ideas and interrogating my experiences and the events around me.
I studied sociology because I wanted to understand poverty, immigration, educational inequality, racism, sexism, prisons, social movements, LGBT rights, and human interactions with the environment. Over the course of my time as a sociology undergrad, I studied all of those things and more. I’m not an expert, even after additional years pursuing these same interests. But overall I’m glad I studied sociology. It set me up for all kinds of great learning and professional experiences, from taking classes in prisons to being awarded a Mitchell Scholarship and conducting research in Honduras.
I’m not a sociologist by profession, but I am one by training. If you’re considering a sociology degree, I can only promise that you’re in for a lot of difficult work in delving into the painful places in human society. And also that, in the end, the understanding is worth the work.
Please leave comments and questions below. If you enjoyed this post, you might also like "Choosing an Engineering Major--an Unconventional Method," "Inventing an Internship," "Choosing a Second Language," and "Knowing When It's Time to Go."