Posts Tagged ‘sociological imagination’

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Developing a Sociological Imagination

February 8, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

One of the most difficult things for the new sociology student is to understand what on earth the “sociological imagination” or the “sociological perspective” is.  The idea of learning to relate, as C. Wright Mills puts it, your biography to your moment in history and realizing the ways in which that combination of factors influences how you view the world is challenging to say the least, and one of the major goals of any introductory sociology class.

Probably the easiest way to develop the muscles of your sociological imagination is to USE them; the only way to learn to think sociologically is to challenge yourself to DO SO.  This week, I asked my class to do just that – to think about how their own biography and history would impact their interpretation of a social phenomenon such as poverty, educational inequality, gender inequality, or the changing divorce rate.

As an example, we spoke about how my own biography and history might impact my interpretation of the childfree by choice movement.  In this growing social movement, individuals and couples of childbearing age are making the conscious decision to forego parenting for a variety of reasons.

Every individual would come to an analysis of this phenomenon based on their own experiences.  For me, a number of factors will impact how I look at the movement.  First off, I am a parent.  Not only that, I did not come by parenthood easily.  That personal experience naturally must shade my thoughts about people who would choose not to raise children.  I’m not just a product of my own relationship to parenting, though; my opinions are also influenced by the historical context in which I live.  In particular, I look at the idea of choosing a child free life through the lens of our growing knowledge of the impact that the growing human population is having on the planet.

Somewhere in the space between those considerations lies my sociological perspective on the childfree movement.  We all go through this same process, whether consciously or unconsciously, whenever we try to flex our sociological imaginations.  The challenge is to be aware of the process.

How do your own biography and history impact your sociological imagination?

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President’s Plane Causes Some to Panic

April 30, 2009
AP image of Air Force One

AP image of the President's plane

Sociologists argue shared social experiences influence patterns of human behavior. An infamous example of this might be the terrorists’ airliner attack on the Twin Towers in New York City. Recently, a 747 jet aircraft that serves as Air Force One when the President of the United States is on board, flew low over the Statute of Liberty and southern Manhattan. The president’s office explained this was done so that publicity photographs could be taken of the aircraft. However, something unexpected happened—people in the Financial District near the World Trade Center panicked, mistaking this for another terrorist attack.

 

Using this example to explore the application of the sociological imagination, would you like to respond to one of the discussion topics below?

1. What does the response of the people tell us about how the severity of (how bad) a social experience can shape human behavior? Which do you think is more important in explaining patterns of human behavior in society: frequency (how often something occurs) or severity (strength of impact)?

2. What does this occurrence tell us about how we learn the meanings of social behavior? Can you illustrate your response by a more common example?

3. Do you think this response could have been predicted? Why? How can this illustrate the utility of the sociological imagination?

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