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Why Study Sociology

What is sociology?

Sociology is the systematic study of social groups, and the basic premise of sociology is a powerful intuition about human life: Human beings are not islands unto themselves. We are social creatures. We are “group animals,” as the phrase goes.

In a very general sense, sociologists are interested in why different social groups form, change, and fade away; how people make sense of their belonging to different social groups; and how different social groups shape the world that we live in. 

That is not in the least bit inaccurate, but it is a bit general and abstract. 

The different types of specific questions that sociologists ask are easier to grasp. Do children from more affluent families have access to better educational opportunities? If so, is it because of what they learn at home from their parents or because they are sorted into better schools? Why are some countries in Latin American richer than other countries, and is the difference related to where liberally minded, commercially oriented townspeople tended to live in the Spanish Empire during the seventeenth century? Why did the town elders of Birmingham, Alabama, suddenly concede to the demands of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights movement on the morning of May 7, 1963? Was it concern about the bad publicity generated by the violent response of the police force to mass protest in the streets, or was it the fact that protestors were able to bring economic life in Birmingham to a virtual standstill with no end in sight? 

Sociology is distinctive in the social sciences for the special emphasis it places on the importance of social groups in human life. It does not deny that individuals matter. It simply recognizes that individuals are not always and everywhere the sole building blocks of human interaction. In the eyes of sociologists, people are not simply automatons that are wired to maximize their utility or self-interest at every waking moment of their lives. Nor do sociologists think of people as creatures who merely follow the biological dictates of their genetic blueprints or merely act out the underlying tendencies of their individual psychologies. Sociologists are committed to the idea that human life is a collective phenomenon in crucially important ways. Human life is a product of our belonging to social groups. It cannot be understood simply as the aggregation of individual responses to the supply and demand of scare resources. 

When thousands of Americans (many of them white) took to the streets last May and June in the midst of a global pandemic to protest the killing of George Floyd, were they motivated strictly by a desire to maximize their personal utility? Or, were they motivated by something else, something bigger than themselves? If your thoughts turned toward the latter possibility, then your sociological imagination is alive and well! 

Why study sociology?

Career skills

As the broadest of all of the social sciences, Sociology provides a wide range of practical and marketable skills, including critical analysis, statistical methods, theory, and field research.

Our majors have gone on to work in in law, medicine and public health, consulting, finance, non-profit and public administration, social network research, culture, and the arts. To learn more about careers in Sociology please visit our careers page.

Our Department

The Department of Sociology at Northwestern is a top-ranked program with world-class faculty committed to teaching all students to engage more effectively with the world around them. The undergraduate program features a generous faculty-student ratio and many opportunities for students to get to know their professors beyond the classroom.

Sociology is an ideal major for pursuing a senior thesis, an internship through the Chicago Field Studies Program, or other capstone project.