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You May Ask Yourself: An Introduction to Thinking like a Sociologist
Authors: Dalton Conley (Author)
Dalton Conley’s unconventional narrative uses personal anecdotes and current examples to help students understand big ideas. Chapter-opening Paradoxes stimulate sociological thinking. And NEW Practice activities invite readers to “make the familiar strange.” Scholarship and examples have been refreshed throughout, especially in a revamped Gender chapter. This purchase offers access to the digital ebook only.
I came to sociology by accident, so to speak. During the 1980s, there were no sociology courses at the high-school level, so I entered college with only the vaguest notion of what sociology—or even social science—was. Instead, I headed straight for the pre-med courses. But there was no such thing as a pre-med major, so I ended up specializing in the now defunct “humanities field major.” This un-major major was really the result of my becoming a junior and realizing that I was not any closer to a declared field of study than I had been when arriving two years earlier. So I scanned a list of all the electives I had taken until then—philosophy of aesthetics, history of technology, and so on—and marched right into my advisor’s office, declaring that it had always been my lifelong dream to study “art and technology in the
twentieth century.” I wrote this up convincingly enough, apparently, because the college allowed me to write a senior thesis about how the evolution of Warner Brothers’ cartoon characters—from the stuttering, insecure Porky Pig to the militant Daffy Duck to the cool, collected, and confident Bugs Bunny—reflected the self-image of the United States on the world stage during the Depression, World War II, and the postwar period, respectively.
Little did I know, I was already becoming a sociologist. After college, I worked as a journalist but then decided that I wanted to continue my schooling. I was drawn to the critical stance and reflexivity that I had learned in my humanities classes, but I knew that I didn’t want to devote my life to arcane texts. What I wanted to do was take those skills—that critical stance—and apply them to everyday life, to the here and now. I also was rather skeptical of the methods that humanists used. What texts they chose to analyze always seemed so arbitrary. I wanted to systematize the inquiry a bit more; I found myself trying to apply the scientific method that I had gotten a taste of in my biology classes. But I didn’t want to do science in a lab. I wanted to be out in the proverbial real world. So when I flipped through a course catalog with these latent preferences somewhere in the back of my head, my finger landed on the sociology courses. Once I became a card-carrying sociologist, the very first course I taught was Introduction to Sociology. I had big shoes to fill in teaching this course at Yale. Kai Erikson, the world-renowned author of Wayward Puritans and Everything in Its Path and the son of psychologist Erik Erikson, was stepping down from his popular course, The Human Universe, and I, a first-year assistant professor, was expected to replace him.
I had a lot of sociology to learn. After all, graduate training in sociology is spotty at best. And there is no single theory of society to study in the same way that one might learn, for example, the biochemistry of DNA transcription and translation as the central dogma of molecular biology. We talk about the sociological imagination as an organizing principle. But even that is almost a poetic notion, not so easily reticulated. Think of sociology as more like driving a car than learning calculus. You can read the manual all you want, but that isn’t going to teach you how to do it. Only by seeing sociology in action and then trying it yourself will you eventually say, “Hey, I’ve got the hang of this!” The great Chinese philosopher Confucius said about learning: “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” Hopefully you can skip the bitterness, but you get the general idea. For example, by trying to fix a local problem through appealing to your elected officials, you might better grasp sociological theories of the state. Hence the title of this book. In You May Ask Yourself, I show readers how sociologists question what most others take for granted about society, and I give readers opportunities to apply sociological ways of thinking to their own experiences. I’ve tried to jettison the arcane academic debates that become the guiding light of so many intro books in favor of a series of contemporary empirical (gold) nuggets that show off sociology (and empirical social science more generally) in its finest hour. Most students who take an introductory
sociology class in college will not end up being sociology majors, let alone professional sociologists. Yet I aim to speak to both the aspiring major and the student who is merely fulfilling a requirement. So rather than having pages filled with statistics and theories that will go out of date rather quickly, You May Ask Yourself tries to instill in the reader a way of thinking—a scientific approach to human affairs that is portable, one that students will find useful when they study anything else, whether history or medicine. To achieve this ambitious goal, I tried to write a book that was as “un-textbook”-like as possible, while covering all the material that a student in sociology needs to know. In this vein, each chapter is organized around a motivating paradox, meant to serve as the first chilling line of a mystery novel that motivates the reader to read on to find out (or rather, figure out, because this book is not about spoon-feeding facts) the nugget, the debate, the fundamentally new way of looking at the world that illuminates the paradox. Along with a paradox, each chapter begins with a profile of a relevant person who speaks to the core theme of the chapter. These range from myself to Angelina Jolie to a guy who wore a rainbow-colored clown wig to try and get media attention to share his Christian message. In addition, to show the usefulness of sociological knowledge in shaping the world around us, each chapter also culminates in a Policy discussion and a Practice activity, which has been reimagined for the Sixth Edition.