Meet the Major: Sociologists study groups, not the sum of individuals

By MUHAMMAD ABIDI | November 7, 2019

How do humans interact? How are societies maintained? How are they changed? These are among the multitude of critical questions that the sociology major aims to answer through an analytical social science approach.

As a field that studies how humans interact with each other and as a group of individuals, everyone would benefit from learning the principles of this subject area. In an interview with The News-Letter, Professor Rina Agarwala, director of undergraduate studies in Sociology, explained the universal benefit that the major offers.

“The Sociology major is good for every single person, because it studies how society functions and because we are social animals,” she said. 

Agarwala encourages every student to at least take the Introduction to Sociology course. Additionally, upper level seminar-style courses usually do not require any prerequisites and provide more discussion-based environments to develop ideas of social theories. Agarwala highlighted how the program complements studies in other disciplines.

“The Sociology major has quite minimal requirements, and we encourage double majoring with our department, as we understand many students ‘discover’ Sociology only once they take a few courses,” Agarwala said.

Many students entering Hopkins may not be considering Sociology as a major; however the introductory and discussion-based courses often provide eye-opening insights into the field and help students determine their passions regarding the main foundations of sociology.

One such foundation is the emphasis on social structures. Agarwala describes social structures through the caricature of a stick figure. The stick figure individual makes many decisions in its life, such as where to study, what job to pursue and who to marry. Then a box is drawn around this stick figure, and it is the sum of these decisions, their causes and effects, that describes the social structures that this individual has consciously or unconsciously interacted with during its lifetime of decision-making.

Agarwala explained that underlying structures are what make Sociology a keystone field that addresses imperative concepts regarding the relationship between individuals and society, and how that shapes our individual and community lives.

“In Sociology, a lot of us [sociologists] spend time analyzing behaviors that are so deeply ingrained in us [humans] that we don’t even realize their impact on us and our surroundings,” she said. 

Agarwala also discussed how there are many concepts regarding what is lost in the translation of individual realizations to group decisions. An example is how many individuals recognize that many sorts of labor are underpaid and unrecognized; however, as a society, many people still purchase items and use products made with that sort of labor. So what occurs in that translation from individual knowledge to group decision?

These are the sorts of questions often researched in Sociology. At Hopkins, Sociology has long maintained a tradition of investigating inequality at the domestic, as well as the global level. Many professors look at inequality in U.S. cities in relation to education, homelessness and land rights. Others examine social structures in developing countries around the world, such as social movements across nations and across time.

Undergraduates in the department are encouraged to seek out these research projects and to gain valuable experience in quantitative and qualitative methods. These experiences, combined with coursework, are often highly useful in later career opportunities that many students pursue.

Agarwala says that majors continue on into a wide array of fields, including medical school. Many students pursue a PhD in Sociology, while others work in journalism, research think tanks and education. With the quantitative and qualitative research methods the majors are exposed to, they are primed to enter these careers with the necessary experience and the tools to follow their curiosity.

Sociology often overlaps with many other fields. However, Agarwala emphasized that it is also inherently focused on group behavior, which stands it apart from other fields.

“The group is not the same as the sum of the individuals. Something changes when you put everyone together,” she said. 

This is a guiding principle in the field of Sociology, and Agarwala explained that it is important for any and every student to follow the underlying questions of society that Sociology pursues. 

“Why is it that we acquiesce to things that we know are bad for us? When does the system crack? How does change arise?” she said. 

These are just a few of the investigations of Sociology that all individuals must be involved in pursuing.

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