Whether you should study sociology is an important question and one that can be hard to find the answer to before you actually make a decision. In this guide, I will help you answer that question in detail by attempting to provide an unconventional guide. If you have read other ‘guides’ then I think you will find this one very different. I will guarantee that if you have read other so-called ‘guides’ then you will have seen the same things repeated consistently: transferable skills, widening skills, planning and development, performing independently, decision-making, teamwork, which jobs you can get, the ‘student experience’. None of these actually contribute much to making a decision in terms of considering sociology itself. I am not going to discuss those here and I will explain why at the end of this guide. Firstly, lets consider what you will be doing.
One of the most attractive facets of sociology is its breadth. It covers literally anything and everything in society. However, depending on which course and which educational institution you choose, these will tend to have core areas and maybe some optional areas depending on what kind of sociology department the institution maintains. At A-Level, some modules are optional but it will likely be the institution which chooses the modules unless you are having private tuition and sitting the exams privately.
Areas of sociology include topics as diverse as politics, crime, gender, family, sex, media, disability, health, religion, economy, conflict, poverty, and ideology. For beginners at undergraduate there is usually something around the idea of the ‘sociological imagination’ to try and get you to think about society in an abstract way. Research methods will likely also be another compulsory module somewhere in the course and this can include things like qualitative and quantitative methods as well as ethnology, questionnaires, or photographic research.
Out of all the modules and topics I have ever covered, and I think others will agree with me here, research methods is by far the most uninteresting unless of course you have a specific interest in it. If you can put up with this module then you will be off to a good start as pretty much every other module you do should have something interesting. Saying that, there is usually at least one area of research methods that is interesting anyway. For me, ethnology and autoethnology seemed reasonably interesting although it is not something I have had much opportunity to do.
Literally anything that is social can be covered but the exact content of what you would actually cover can only be found through the university or institution you wish to study with so it is important to check out their website and actually look through the modules. Sometimes, you can search the module code on google and find recent module handbooks which then give more detail on the specifics. These can be extra useful as, for some unknown reason, universities tend to make sociology courses sound phenomenally boring on their websites.
Sociology at A-Level is quite restricted and tends to focus on a select few central introductory areas. These can be found on the AQA website for example. It is restricted for good reason however which is to give you an introduction to the general themes of sociology and help you develop a generalised awareness of the sociological ideas. But please do not be fooled into thinking that those A-Level modules are as good as it gets because it is not. There are far more interesting things to be learned in the subject.
A large proportion of sociological content is around theories. This is also one of the main areas people struggle with in sociology and is something I have seen continually in the time I have spent in sociology classes. The general theme seems to be “I just don’t get it”. This is one reason I started this site, so that I could use the Everyday Sociology section to show how theories and sociological knowledge from the Academic Sociology section connect to peoples’ everyday lives.
There are a number of reasons why people may find sociological theory difficult and I believe that this is in part due to the fact that theory is presented as something that is ‘over there’, ideas that are seemingly not reality, or perhaps they do not reflect what people recognise in their everyday life. Sociological theories tend to be quite abstract and require a certain amount of imaginative thinking to understand. This is perhaps why many sociology courses, at least at university, tend to begin with C. Wright Mills’ book ‘The Sociological Imagination’.
Theories are taught at various difficulties but generally do not make it far past the surface level, even at undergraduate. This is because it is you that needs to do the reading. What you are taught is generally just the basic outline. Do not be fooled into thinking that what you are taught is the beginning and end of the topic. Take Marxism for example. At A-Level, you tend to be told the ‘Marxist view’ of a given topic such as the Marxist view of poverty perhaps. Here, you would be expected to remember the general outlines of this view, the correct terminology, and then be expected to revise and repeat it back during an exam. At undergraduate, a deeper exploration of the ‘Marxist view’ of poverty would involve theoretical analyses and a strong emphasis on researching and referencing academic works in support of your arguments. However, even at undergraduate, nobody is expecting you to read all 50 volumes of the collected works of Karl Marx and be an expert.
Thus, one thing to consider is whether you see yourself as open or closed-minded. If you are open-minded to new ideas then you will find it much easier to consider the various sociological theories. If you are closed-minded then you will be much more resistant to taking on new ideas, especially when those ideas destabilise your everyday knowledge of life. Likewise, if you are creative in imaginative terms, you may also find sociology a good choice. If you enjoy practical pursuits then sociology is unlikely to be of interest unless you think you could combine the two such as through sociology of sport for example. Even in this case, the work would be predominantly written.
Theory Is Not ‘Over There’
Before, I mentioned that theory can be presented in a way that makes it appear as if it is ‘over there’, external to us. In a way it is, but that’s a complex argument. I feel that many students approach theory in a way where they see it as something to be learned and then put down at the end of the day when they return to the ‘real world’. This is not necessarily a good way to approach sociology. One of the most important things to remember is that you already live in a theory! The way in which your life is structured is directly a result of theory put into practice in some form. When you go home, you can no longer put what you have learned into a box and forget about it. It should and does become part of you and your understanding of the world. To put it in a box at the end of the day is a kind of wilful ignorance through which you willingly reject knowledge. Therefore, if you are going to study sociology then you should really be willing to embrace what you learn.
Writing and Knowledge Organisation
Sociology then, requires a good understanding of writing as for the most part sociology is a non-practical subject. The only time where a practical element arises is if you opt to do some form of primary research, perhaps utilising other participants. Even then however, it will ultimately fall back on writing. You don’t need to be an author-level writer to do sociology but it is certainly a skill that you should at least be willing to develop. Although essays can seem daunting, they aren’t actually as bad as you think. Even if you are not an excellent writer, you can still learn how to write an essay. And of course, Microsoft Word has spell check and grammar check which we all use, even at the highest level. You can check out our guides on how to write good essays.
When it comes to organising knowledge, it can quickly become overwhelming. Therefore, you need to be good at, or at least wiling to develop, knowledge organisation skills. This just means being able to find and select relevant knowledge to use from various sources. Although this seems straightforward, if, like me, you are easily distracted by interesting things, you can quickly be led astray when doing research. There are so many interesting things to find out about the world that keeping everything organised can quickly become a mammoth task.
So being able to stay on topic, select relevant information from numerous sources, and organise knowledge in a logical order is definitely essential. Although this really refers to undergraduate, at A-Level the sheer onslaught of new concepts presented to you can be a challenge. However, any good A-Level tutor will already have a good logical knowledge ordering for you and if you follow this pre-set ordering then it not only guides you through this by example, but also exposes you to how to organise it.
Language and Concepts
Similarly, another area for struggle can be the number of concepts and terms that students come into contact with. Being faced with so many unknown concepts can seem overwhelming. A-Level sociology is perhaps going to be the most overwhelming in this case. The reason for this is that A-Level tends to be much quicker paced with less time to cover the concepts and terminology. Further, you don’t know what will be asked of you in an exam and therefore have to try to learn all of the concepts as well as possible.
At undergraduate this is generally not the case. You tend to be given essays quite early on and in my experience often have a selection of essay questions to choose from. As this is the case, essays tend to be more narrowly focused on a select few concepts. This means you don’t need to obsess over what to know and what not to know and can spend much more time focusing on and developing your chosen topic. Although there are still time pressures from deadlines, you still tend to have much more time to thoughtfully consider what you want to write.
Not only does sociology have a very wide range of subject matter, but it is also subject to the persistent change happening in the world. Despite the fact that academia can be notoriously slow when it comes to keeping up to date with social events, it is still a subject where things change rapidly. Many of the existing theories in sociology are just as applicable to world events now as they were when they were formulated. Remember that nobody is expecting you to change the world with new theories, even at PhD!
At A-Level, there isn’t much requirement to think beyond the material given to you but you should still have a think about how what you learn can be applicable to everyday events. At undergraduate you are expected to be able to analyse theories but if you can apply these to, or frame them within, current events then you can do well and hopefully SociologyMag will provide some inspiration. In this light, there is always something new to be thinking about and the more adept you become at understanding sociological theory, the more you can apply ideas to changing events. In a way, this gives you consistent change over time and there is always something new and fresh even when using old ideas.
Have a Point to Make or an Axe to Grind
I first started sociology doing an Access to Higher Education course at college in the evenings. I did well and thought about stepping things up to a higher level. When I first started at university, I began studying philosophy. I only lasted two modules before switching to sociology. The primary reason for this was that I just didn’t have anything to say on the material that was being taught. This is not to say I didn’t learn anything because, in fact, those two modules literally unlocked my ability to think better and revolutionised the way I approached knowledge. However, if Plato and Socrates couldn’t overcome certain philosophical problems, who was I to overcome them? Although the point was really to explore philosophical issues, philosophical issues tend to already be at a point where nobody can move forward very much and if you can’t move forward then what can you really offer the subject? That was my line of thinking anyway.
Sociologically, I was much more vocal and opinionated, or at least I was inside my own head. This meant I already had a built-in motivation to write about these opinions. Although you may have repeatedly been told that bias is an issue, when it comes to writing an essay, it isn’t really a problem at all. In fact, since you are overwhelmingly expected to produce arguments, then that argument is likely going to based in some form of bias. The idea is that if you have an opinion then you should be able to utilise academic researching and referencing to give support to this opinion ultimately allowing your view to move beyond the state of simply being an ‘opinion’ and moving into a well informed and supportable argument.
Ultimately though, if you don’t have anything you want to say, then you will have nothing to write, and if you have nothing to write then you are at a dead end. If social events inspire little from you, then sociology will not be for you. An interest in social and political events is needed to inspire reaction from you, motivate you to respond by externalising thoughts and words which in turn convert to essays.
You Have a ‘Feeling’ About Things That Aren’t Right in Society
Following from being motivated by social events, you may also have niggling feelings about the world that you can’t explain but wish you could. Perhaps you are confused about the reasons behind events or even just confused about life itself. Again, this was a motivating factor for myself. All my life I knew that there were so many things in society that were just plain BS but I had no power to express why. This created huge frustration in me but through sociology I discovered the reasons behind what gave me those feelings.
In turn, I was able to use sociology as an outlet for the frustrations I felt at many of the negative aspects of society and I am now able to explain what those aspects are and why I find them so frustrating. For myself, this gave an incredible source of reclaiming power through knowledge. At the same time however, I feel even more frustrated because I now know what I know and I have limited capacity to change it. Perhaps you feel the same way. By doing sociology, in can be a kind of journey of self-discovery as well as a discovery about the world.
You Could Lose Friends
Yes, I am being serious! Sociology is a subject which, if you learn to interact with it and apply it, is extraordinarily powerful. You will come into contact with ideas which can seriously destabilise what you thought you knew and what you thought you knew about the people around you. If you are open-minded then you will likely embrace or reject these new ideas as you see fit. However, as you begin to grow in sociological knowledge, the people around you who are not sociologically minded will not. As such, the deeper knowledge you come to hold about the world may come to be confrontational to them.
People can quickly become angry when confronted with knowledge that doesn’t fit their own world view. For example, as you learn more about media narratives constructed around a given group, you begin to see how those media narratives are parroted by your own friends or family. Whilst you may have also once held that same view, exposure to a greater depth of understanding about the given group may mean that you can no longer support this view or what your friends say. Telling them that they are demonstrably wrong, or are simply repeating what they have read in the media, is likely to get them angry. How will you deal with it?
Even worse, once you get to a certain level of knowledge, some people do actually begin to think that you have mental health issues especially when you try to discuss topics and concepts which are seemingly very far removed from their everyday lives or that they have never heard of. I am not saying that this will happen to you, but it can and does happen. It has happened to me and it has happened to people I know.
As such, there is certainly an element of dangerous knowledge inherent to sociology, especially if you have a genuine interest in following the threads of knowledge to see how far it will take you. It tends to lead you to subject matter which can be shocking in its opposition to commonly held beliefs. This is particularly the case when you become more fluent in recognising things such as propaganda or ideological language or truths which completely invert what the media disseminates. Further, the inherent oppositionality to the status quo also tends to lead to dangerous knowledge as, at the end of the day, there are vested interests in the world who wish to keep things a certain way.
Critical thinking is also a form of dangerous knowledge. By learning to think critically, nobody can tell you what to think and, with persistence, all knowledge you come into contact with will come to be filtered through your ability to think critically. You will own your own mind which is one of the most powerful positions you can have. You will come to be adept at separating the conspiracy theory from the actual reality.
Then there is the activist element whereby new knowledge which you come to discover can lead to one becoming more activism inclined to help enact some form of change, or at least attempt to. After all, there is the argument that as a keeper of knowledge you have a moral responsibility for that knowledge to be used to better the world. If you would rather remain safe with what you think you already know then sociology is not for you. If you want to take on knowledge that can aid in doing good in the world then sociology might just be for you.
Why I Didn’t Reiterate Other Guides.
Back in the introduction, I said I was not going to discuss what other ‘guides’ discuss such as transferrable skills, which jobs you can get, or the ‘student experience’. Now that you have read this guide, I sincerely hope that you have a better understanding of whether you should study sociology or not for sociology’s sake. In other words, you should hopefully be more aware of whether you want to study sociology for the value of the sociological knowledge itself. But I want to let you into a little secret about those concepts that I did not want to talk about.
As a potential sociologist, you may have been intrigued as to the reason why I singled out those concepts to be excluded from the guide. The reason is because all of those concepts are not neutral concepts. They are, in fact, concepts which comply with ideological demands and, as such, I am not going to promote them. For example, when a guide explains what employment opportunities are available to you after completing a degree in sociology, what they are actually saying is ‘what value is sociology to the production of profit?’. So, education for its own value is erased in favour of education for its profit potential and how you yourself can be an actor in the production of that profit.
Although this may seem like ‘common-sense’, that common-sense is also not a neutral concept. It contains a certain logic of ideology. In other words, common-sense can be something that is seemingly normal in relation to the system in which you live regardless of how right or wrong that system is. Many guides simply parrot that same programming. Through studying sociology, you too will become further aware of this type of ideological programming and begin to see how these things manifest in everyday life. So, if hearing that increases your interest, and you want to uncover other ways in which these things happen, or you want to know where this is coming from or who is doing it, then perhaps sociology is for you.
So, to summarise:
Yes, you should do sociology if:
- You are motivated by social events
- You are motivated by learning about how you yourself fit into the world around you
- You like a bit of dangerous knowledge
- You like writing or would like to develop your writing skills
- You like to find things out on your own terms
- You want to empower your own mind through critical thinking
- You can organise knowledge
No, you should not do sociology if:
- You are primarily interested in practical activities
- You are not motivated by social events
- You are not interested in politics
- You are not a creative or imaginative thinker
- You hate writing essays