Sociology: the study of constrained choices

I recent saw a blurb about a new online course that explores how sociology explains how we make choices:

In his lecture “If You’re So Free, Why Do You Follow Others? The Sociology and Science Behind Social Networks,” part of Floating University’s Great Big Ideas course, Christakis explains why individual actions are inextricably linked to sociological pressures. Whether you’re absorbing altruism performed by someone you’ll never meet or deciding to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, collective phenomena affect every aspect of your life.

Christakis is well-known for research in recent years that shows things like obesity and emotions spreading through social networks and affecting friends of friends.

But this larger idea about constrained choices is interesting. When faced with a new Introduction to Sociology class at the beginning of the semester, this is one of the ideas that I present to them: sociology is less interested in how individuals make their individual choices and more interested in how larger social factors, society, culture, institutions, networks, etc., constrain the choices of individuals in certain ways. While we live in a culture that loves to celebrate individual choice, we don’t really have completely free choices to make. Common areas of analysis in sociology, such as race, social class, and gender, can open up or limit possible choices for individuals.

Of course, there are sociologists more interested in individual choice. This has led to a larger debate in the discipline between agency and structure. But overall, sociologists tend to focus more than other disciplines on social factors that often unknowingly affect all of us.

UPDATE 12/21/11: The Washington Post gives more information on this course that will be offered on a few elite college campuses as well as online.

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