It’s an interesting question, one that I was faced with while trying to convince an underclassman to concentrate in the Department yesterday. Unfortunately, the go-to standard for college-level research isn’t much help with this one. “The study of society.” Really. So now we’re back where we started. What is Sociology? One would hope that after over 3 years of training as a sociologist at Princeton, I would be able to answer this question to some degree of certainty. After some reflection, I decided that an answer to this question wasn’t going to be much use to any given undergraduate anyway (or anyone, really). Since an answer isn’t that useful, let’s revise the question. Rather than attempt to settle on a definition of what sociology is, I will address what it can be.
Sociology can be the study of interactions between individuals. It can be the study of the interplay between a government and its people. It can even be the study of a users’ interactions with technologies he or she encounters everyday. Sociology can be the study of the effects of race, class, and gender on any of these things. The beautiful thing about sociology is that it can be (nearly) anything you can imagine—and then through that imagination (the sociological imagination), you have the potential to influence what sociology is. The field is evolving constantly, investigating new developments in nearly every corner of daily life, from the effects of Facebook on employment markets, to the observable differences between students attending small, private liberal arts colleges and those attending large public universities. Instead of placing such an emphasis on defining what sociology is, efforts would be better spent on developing new ideas for what sociology can be.
And that is where we, as students at a prestigious University, should focus our time. Rather than simply conforming to existing conceptions of what research in our subject-areas are supposed to look like, we should be breaking free from those constraints to develop completely new areas of interest for academia. By doing that, we might even manage to interest those outside of our academic-journal-reading bubbles. Maybe then we wouldn’t have to spend time answering the question “What is Sociology?”