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What Is Sociology? Janice McCabe Have you ever wondered why kids group together the way they do at your school? Or whether it’s a coincidence that you read three books in a row about boy animals? Or if your parents are the only ones with friends who are quite similar to them? Thinking about those patterns and investigating them in a systematic way is sociology. In 1959,the American sociologist C.Wright Mills coined the term “sociological imagination”to refer to the ability to connect seemingly personal experience with broader social forces.By using your sociological imagination,you will come to look at your own life through a different lens.You will start to see patterns in people’s experiences according to history,biography,and social structure.Another way to think about this is that although we certainly make choices that impact our lives—such as deciding on a favorite color or who to be friends with—larger structural forces shape these choices. In other words, some choices are more likely and seem more “natural”than others. Gender, race, and class background are three of the main structures at play in our society. Sociologists uncover the structures organizing social life. Becoming Socialized You were born into a society. But you were not born knowing how to act in society. You learn through watching and listening to people around you. Sociologists speak about socialization as the process through which people learn cultural norms—in other words, the values and behaviors deemed appropriate within a society. Socialization is a lifelong experience, but it’s often invisible to us except when we violate cultural norms or are unsure about what they are. It’s What Is Sociology? 307 in these new situations, such as entering a new school or visiting a country for the first time, that we discover these cultural norms. For example, when I first moved to the South from the Midwest, I realized that although we still spoke English,there were things that I did not understand.One that stands out to me was when I went to the grocery store and the clerk asked if I wanted a “buggy.” I stood there trying to figure it out,thinking that I did not have a baby with me, so he wasn’t asking if I wanted a “baby buggy,”so maybe this was a new kind of food? He must have sensed my confusion, so he pushed a grocery cart toward me and again said,“Would you like a buggy?”I realized that a “buggy”was what I called a “shopping cart”or “grocery cart”and came to expect this as I went to the grocery store again. This was no isolated event. I also learned that “Coke” was what we midwesterners called “pop” and that if I just ordered an “iced tea” it would arrive heavily sweetened. I soon learned to order “unsweetened iced tea.”In short, my new neighbors quickly socialized me so that I became one of “them”—at least linguistically! Language is just one kind of behavior to which we are socialized. We often don’t notice socialized behaviors until either someone breaks a norm or we experience unexpected norms in a new situation—in other words, when we see someone who behaves “out of the ordinary.” This often happens when you travel or, even better, live abroad. I taught and lived for a summer in Florence, Italy. Immediately I noticed a very different response from the Italians (or at least the Florentines) when I took my eleven-month-old son out into the city than I generally received when doing the same in the United States. When my son started fussing while we were waiting in line at the local grocery store, I was worried that we were disturbing the other customers (that’s what I had come to expect at home),so I looked around to assess how disruptive we had become, ready to apologize. To my surprise, several other customers met my gaze with wide grins and started to walk our way.They got within a few inches of us and began talking and singing to my son in Italian. He immediately calmed down, relishing the attention. This happened each time he started fussing when we were in public. It made outings quite enjoyable. Another surprising behavior was the frequent sharing of food with my son.The first time it happened was a little cracker at the corner bakery,then a banana...


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