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Sociology: Topics

 Concerts, sports games, and political rallies can have very large crowds. When you attend one of these events, you may know only the people you came with. Yet you may experience a feeling of connection to the group. You are one of the crowd. You cheer and applaud when everyone else does. You boo and yell alongside them. You move out of the way when someone needs to get by, and you say "excuse me" when you need to leave. You know how to behave in this kind of crowd. It can be a very different experience if you are traveling in a foreign country and find yourself in a crowd moving down the street. You may have trouble figuring out what is happening. Is the crowd just the usual morning rush, or is it a political protest of some kind? Perhaps there was some sort of accident or disaster. Is it safe in this crowd, or should you try to extract yourself? How can you find out what is going on? Although you are in it, you may not feel like you are part of this crowd. You may not know what to do or how to behave. Even within one type of crowd, different groups exist and different behaviors are on display. At a rock concert, for example, some may enjoy singing along, others prefer to sit and observe, while still others may join in a mosh pit or try crowd surfing. Why do we feel and act differently in different types of social situations? Why might people of a single group exhibit different behaviors in the same situation? Why might people acting similarly not feel connected to others exhibiting the same behavior? These are some of the many questions sociologists ask as they study people and societies.


Are there rules for eating at McDonald’s? Generally, we do not think about rules in a fast food restaurant, but if you look around one on a typical weekday, you will see people acting as if they were trained for the role of fast food customer. They stand in line, pick items from the colorful menus, swipe debit cards to pay, and wait to collect trays of food. After a quick meal, customers wad up their paper wrappers and toss them into garbage cans. Customers’ movement through this fast food routine is orderly and predictable, even if no rules are posted and no officials direct the process. If you want more insight into these unwritten rules, think about what would happen if you behaved according to some other standards. (You would be doing what sociologists call ethnomethodology: deliberately disrupting social norms in order to learn about them.) For example, call ahead for reservations, ask the cashier detailed questions about the food’s ingredients or how it is prepared. Ask to have your meal served to you at your table. Or throw your trash on the ground as you leave. Chances are, you will elicit hostile responses from the restaurant employees and your fellow customers. People have written entire books analyzing the significance of fast food customs. They examine the extensive, detailed physicality of fast food: the food itself, wrappers, bags, trays, those tiny ketchup packets, the tables and chairs, and even the restaurant building. Everything about a chain restaurant reflects culture, the beliefs and behaviors that a social group shares. Sociological analysis can be applied to every expression of culture, from sporting events to holidays, from education to transportation, from fashion to etiquette. In everyday conversation, people rarely distinguish between the terms culture and society, but the terms have slightly different meanings, and the distinction is important to a sociologist. A society describes a group of people who share a community and a culture. By “community,” sociologists refer to a definable region—as small as a neighborhood (Brooklyn, or “the east side of town”), as large as a  country (Ethiopia, the United States, or Nepal), or somewhere in between (in America, this might include someone who identifies with Southern or Midwestern society). To clarify, a culture represents the beliefs and practices of a group, while society represents the people who share those beliefs and practices. Neither society nor culture could exist without the other. In this chapter, we examine the relationship between culture and society in greater detail, paying special attention to the elements and forces that shape culture, including diversity and cultural changes. A final discussion touches on the different theoretical perspectives from which sociologists research culture.



Most people have a sense of what it means to be a part of some kind of a group, whether it is a sports team, sorority, school club, or family. Groups connect us to others through commonalities of geography, interests, race, religion, and activities. But for the groups of people protesting from Augusta, Georgia, to Oakland, California, and hundreds of cities in between, their connection within the Occupy Wall Street movement is harder to define. What unites these people? Are the out-of-work doctoral candidates truly aligned with the high school dropouts? Do the urban poor genuinely feel for the campus-based protest against university tuition hikes? Groups are prevalent in our social lives and provide a significant way we understand and define ourselves—both through groups we feel a connection to and those we don’t. Groups also play an important role in society. As enduring social units, they help foster shared value systems and are key to the structure of society as we know it. There are three primary sociological perspectives for studying groups: Functionalist, Conflict, and Interactionist. We can look at the Occupy movement through the lenses of these methods to better understand the roles and challenges that groups offer.



Sociologists use the term social stratification to describe the system of social standing. Social stratification refers to a society’s categorization of its people into rankings of socioeconomic tiers based on factors like wealth, income, race, education, and power. You may remember the word “stratification” from geology class. The distinct vertical layers found in rock, called stratification, are a good way to visualize social structure. Society’s layers are made of people, and society’s resources are distributed unevenly throughout the layers. The people who have more resources represent the top layer of the social structure of stratification. Other groups of people, with progressively fewer and fewer resources, represent the lower layers of our society.



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