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Sociology in a Nutshell: "What is Sociology?"


Sociology: Society and the Individual

The discussion on the last class meeting of my Sociology of Religion course was supposed to center around what sociological concept stood out most to each of us. I chose the sociological processes and developed a story to try to illustrate each idea and the progression of ideas in society. While Sociology does begin with the individual, keep in mind that it is much different from Psychology, and from Social Psychology.

To start the story off, we look at how the customs and norms of a society begin with an individual and their behavior, or strongly held belief:

I rake leaves. I do so because I believe strongly that raking leaves is important. I can’t imagine a life in which leaves are not raked.

What Are Sociological Processes? Externalization, Internalization, Externalization

There are a number of sociological processes, and the first of those are externalization and internalization. This is simply the way that a belief or behavior is expressed by an individual, and subsequently adopted by another person. This is how the behavior of one person can influence another, a group, and eventually, an entire society. The processes of externalization and internalization allow for the transmission of ideas from one person to the next.

The story continues:

People see me raking leaves. I talk about raking leaves with everyone I meet. I explain how important it is and ask why they are not raking like me. People begin to talk to each other about my raking, my ideas about raking, and possibly raking leaves themselves.

Some people begin rake leaves too. This encourages me and I have conversations with the new rakers and we all start to feel even more strongly that raking is important and more people should join us. We all talk about it with others at any opportunity. Some people notice that there are now a small number of people raking and the idea begins to catch on.

Eventually, more and more people are raking leaves. Sometimes they lean on their rakes and talk about the experience with me and with each other. We discuss the pros and cons of raking and the ways in which we rake. We are a little disappointed in some of our family members and friends who do not rake, and encourage them to join us.


What is the Sociological Process of Objectivation?

In the process of objectivation, ideas are solidified. Because there is a need for order and teamwork, ideas that originally belonged to one person or a small group of people, and that have been externalized, become the standard that behavior is measured by.

Eventually, it is as if the idea itself is an object. For example, we call the bonding of pairs of individuals the institution of marriage. We have many institutions, such as education, money, politics, and religion. By classifying something as an institution, we identify it as if it were something solid, something exterior to ourselves, as if it did not originate with an individual or small group of individuals.

The story continues:

One day, five of us leaf-rakers are at the local hardware store. We were the first few people who began the whole movement. We discuss our techniques and preferences. We argue about what the best ways to rake the leaves are and which rakes are the most efficient. We finally agree that raking leaves should be done with particular rakes, in particular ways, on certain days using specific techniques, and even while singing a specific selection of songs, and that this what everyone who rakes leaves should do.

We talk to all of our other leaf-raking friends about it. Most of them agree with us because we are viewed as leaders. We start to meet regularly, and more rakers join us on Monday evenings. We discuss all the important reasons for raking leaves, what kinds of rakes should be used, what songs to sing, and how the piles should be arranged and disposed of. We question others who do not follow our lead.

We now call our activity the institution of raking.

What Are Plausibility Structures In Sociology?

Plausibility structures are frameworks within which people operate that allow for the justification of certain behaviors. Because of the various institutions of a society, certain behaviors become standard and acceptable.

Plausibility structures are concepts that explain and support the behavior. For example, we celebrate holidays. If an alien from another world were to inquire as to the reasons for this behavior, certain patented answers would be given. Some customs, such as shaking hands or bowing are understood to be just what should be done. Some are considered so important that if they are not done, it is found to be offensive.

The story goes on:

We designate a day each year as Raking Day, and have a big festival where we all take the day off and enjoy special foods and raking games.

When people from out of town ask us why we rake and sing and greet each other the way we do, we say, “It’s just the way we do things around here.” Young people who have grown up with these habits are surprised when they come across anyone who does not do these things.


What Is Legitimation In Sociology?

Eventually, the plausibility structures are not enough to keep people behaving in the customary, prescribed way. Rules must be made stronger and must also be enforced. Penalties are instituted and meted out for disobedience in a range of forms, from scorn and shunning to imprisonment and death.

The plot thickens:

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When it becomes known there are some people in town who do not rake as they should, don’t come to the meetings, or show scorn for the rules of raking, we establish the Raker Council. We then appoint certain senior Rakers and enthusiastic Rakers to ensure that all raking is done in the customary manner, according to the instituted rules. We make more rules about the days and times leaves should be raked, the methods that are acceptable and at what age people can begin raking. The new “rake police” regularly make the rounds, checking on everyone’s leaf-raking habits.

When people do not follow the guidelines, fines and penalties are issued. Those who break the rules are looked down on by the obedient Rakers, and even shunned by them.


What is Anomy In Sociology?

Anomy is like a shockwave. When the standard, acceptable, or typical lifestyle and patterns of society are disrupted, anomy can ensue. It can be a confusing and uncomfortable time.

This can happen within families, communities or large groups like states and countries. The people of New Orleans likely experienced anomy after Hurricane Katrina demolished their city and forever changed their routines and lives.

Disaster strikes at the very heart of a society:

Overall, we are a happy group of rakers. We teach our children good leaf raking skills and hope that someday they will be great leaf-rakers. Raking leaves is who we are now and we rake with pride. We create artistic renderings of leaf raking. Raking Day is something everyone looks forward to each year.

One day, without warning, a great wind storm blows down many trees and our neatly raked piles of leaves are scattered all over the place. Some people are even injured. We are shocked, and confused. We wonder why it happened. Why us?! We are troubled, sad and left questioning what we have done to deserve such a tragedy.

People who seem very wise offer comforting words and try to explain what behind-the-scenes force might have had something to do with the disastrous turn of events. Some point out the lack of adherence to the rules, or the lack of following prescribed norms.

In time, we recover from the disaster and put new protocols into place in case there is another wind storm.

What is Alienation in Sociology?

Alienation occurs when an institution in a society seems to be out of control. Individuals or small groups begin to feel as if they no longer are a part of the society, and start taking action in order to change things. Sometimes it starts small and grows, just as the institution did.

Eventually, there is unrest and confusion. The more objectivated and legitimated a society's institutions are, the more alienated people will be, and the greater the unrest, feelings of ill-will and suspicion tend to be.

The story takes a side road:

Things seem to be fine for a while but eventually some people who are not happy with the way the leaf-raking system works begin to raise questions about raking. They discuss their misgivings with sympathetic listeners.

Some think of Raking as a sinister force that is controlling their lives against their will. They begin to question the motives of the leaf raking council and rake police. They get together and talk about their discontent, and sometimes do not participate in the regular meetings. Sometimes they do not even rake, or when they do, it is not in the prescribed manner. Splinter groups may form and rake in ways that go against the Raking institution guidelines.


What is Social Unrest in Sociology?

Social unrest occurs when people who feel alienated begin to take action or speak out. They may do this as individuals or as small groups. They may band together and form coalitions against the institution.

People who are entrenched in the institution, or afraid of change or that just want to keep things the way they are because it is comfortable challenge the protestors. They insist there is nothing wrong with the system and the detractors are trying to destroy their way of peaceful living. Debates, arguments and hostilities often follow. Social unrest can occur for a short time or can be ongoing.

The clouds gather:

One day, there is a commotion on the town square. Several young adult rakers are burning their rakes! They address the gathering crowd, complaining about the unfairness and inhumane conditions they must endure as a result of being rakers. Some carry large signs that point out flaws and injustices in the system. People who had never second-guessed the institution of raking are shocked. Some launch counter-protests and there are clashes. Some of the protesters are arrested and imprisoned or fined.

Most people go back to raking. But there is talk at the dinner table and at the meetings about whether or not there was any substance to what the young people had to say. Some members of the institution even begin to question whether there might be things they should change.

Does Alienation And Social Unrest Bring About Change?

Some changes usually result from alienation and the social unrest that stems from dissatisfaction with an institution that is no longer serving the best interests of the society in the ways that it was in its infancy.

More extreme viewpoints are developed on both sides of the issue. Sometimes, because of an individual with insight, an institution is radically modified or even abandoned. Even with the dissent of some, overall, society accepts this and moves on.

Sometimes, as a result, new institutions spring up on both sides of the issue, and the journey begins all over again. This is the typical flow of things within any human society.

Understanding this can help us to learn to get along better and be more flexible. Sometimes a new idea is not as bad as it seems to some people. Sometimes, a new idea is more in line with what is best for the human race as a whole.

The story comes to an end... or does it?

Eventually, the young rakers are sent to raking camp. But now people are talking about change. Some fervently argue that the system is fine the way it is. Others insist that things could be better and change is necessary. Many people are uneasy.

Handfuls of people begin distancing themselves from the core Rakers, and establish new institutions. Some splinter groups become a little more ‘fundamental’ about their Raking, while others become more flexible, and some people just find other interests or leave town altogether.

A few people realize that eventually all things will change, one way or another and are hopeful that in time, and with patience and understanding, society will heal and improve itself. Some realize that this is the natural course of society, and that all is not lost.

What is Sociology?

© 2011 Isibane Bergen

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