An Invitation to Sociology

Photograph by William Megalos, courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

From the Mortarboard 1971, p. 51. Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

Sociology explores social life in all its fascinating variety. We illuminate the intricate processes through which human beings express their social being: cooperation, conflict, power, exchange, morality, symbolism, solidarity, domination, dependency, affection, morality, identity, deviance, social control, and violence. We also study the forms those processes take: face-to-face interaction, social networks, small groups, subcultures, families, gender divisions, religion, popular and high culture, social class, structures of race and ethnicity, bureaucracy, social movements, professions, the state, even the larger world of relations among states.  Our students learn to identify these social processes and forms in any topic they study.

The subjects that sociologists study are practically limitless. Our course and research topics range far and wide: from the big global forces that shape immigration to the United States and elsewhere to the most personal of identity dilemmas faced by their second-generation children;  from the powerful impact of law on the design and flow of our urban life to the changing boundaries of race, religion and ethnicity; from life in immense, hierarchical institutions to the most intimate realm of sexuality and the body; from the organization and ideology of social movements that shake established structures to the meanings encoded in popular culture texts, child-rearing practices, and inaugural speeches; from the complex entangled forces of labor market and demography that produce inequality to the micro-forces that shape Wall Street traders and art auctioneers. And that’s only for starters.  Sociology students can either develop a broad knowledge in a diverse array of subjects or proficiency on a concentrated topic.

Sociologists offer a distinctive, often surprising take on the topics that consume friendly discussion and public policy debate, tv punditry and social movement rhetoric.  They do so by deploying careful research methods to expose what the casual observer often cannot see.  The methods themselves may vary.  Some scholars look to the sciences and quantitative data to uncover causal connections among social phenomena. Others embrace the methods of historical inquiry, delving into archives and oral history. Some ask people directly to respond to large surveys, in-depth interviews, or requests for biographical narratives. Still others are drawn to the practices of participatory observation and ethnography, heading to the field to clarify conundrums through intimate contact and close observation.  But whether sociologists look to humanist, historical, or scientific endeavors for their inspiration, it is this ideal of rigorous methodology that lies at the heart of the field, and imparting it defines our undergraduate mission.  Such proficiency equips our students with skills not just for their academic courses but for the entire array of professions and experiences that beckon them.