Sociologist Patrick Sharkey suggests taking a long view of crime and violence in American cities:
To answer this question requires thinking less in terms of months and years, and more in terms of decades. It requires thinking less about specific neighborhoods and cities where violence is common, and more about larger metropolitan areas where inequality is extreme and the affluent live separated from the poor. And it requires thinking less about individual criminals and victims, and more about bigger social forces, including demographic shifts, changes in urban labor markets, and social policies implemented by states and the federal government. All told, nearly six decades of data on violence in Chicago’s neighborhoods point to an unmistakable conclusion: Producing a sustained reduction in violence may not be possible without addressing extreme, persistent segregation by race, ethnicity, and income…
But we must also expand outward in time and space, and consider why American neighborhoods are vulnerable to violence. Zooming out can help reveal the truth about violence in our cities: This is a whole-society problem, not one isolated in the neighborhoods where it roars. Addressing it requires our whole society’s concern, investment, and attention, and that attention must be sustained well beyond the periods when gun violence is surging.
This is a good example of a sociological approach. Look at deeper, underlying issues. Consider patterns and relationships across contexts and time. Analyze evidence across decades. Think about institutions, structures, and networks at multiple levels (neighborhood, city, nation). Examine multiple causal factors and how they interact with each other.
Whether such a perspective is welcomed or utilized is another story. For many social issues in the United States, it is easier for the public to look for the one factor that many believe will address the concern. Or, it can be difficult to wrestle with longer histories and patterns that involve many. Some might ask if this is just academics making something more complex than it needs to be or they might want proof that a sociological perspective is helpful.
I hope to explain something similar when teaching sociology, whether in Introduction to Sociology to Statistics to Urban Sociology. As Americans consider society, what does a sociological approach look like and bring to the table? At the least, it can help broaden perspectives beyond individualistic mindsets or ones that only highlight a few individual and social forces. At its best, it can be a lens that sheds light on how a large-scale society actually operates with institutions, structures, networks, and relationships shaping contexts and lives.