What is sociology, in a nutshell?

The way I explain it

Sociology is all about the connection between structure and agency. Structure affects and influences agency. Agency creates, changes, and reinforces structure.

In any given situation, one can ask oneself, where is the agency, and where is the structure?

It’s a chicken-and-egg question, which came first, although one fun starting point is biology, physics, and chemistry: how do the structures and constraints of our social world begin with some basic physical science phenomena?

Have I lost you? Try this: in humans, who gives birth? Biologically, structurally, so far people without uteruses cannot gestate and birth a child. Structure. What does that do? How do we humans use that to explain, justify, arrange, and organize myriad dimensions of social life? More on this to come!

Sociology is all about the connection between structure and agency.

Another example of structure from the physical world is physical geography. Where does the river flow? The regions downstream are easier for upstream regions to reach than the regions even further upstream. Where are the mountains and the mountain passes? Lower more level ground will be easier to reach than rocky, precipitous areas. What is the climate? Hospitable or uncomfortable for humans? Where is a water source? What kinds of food supplies does a given area have? History is full of examples of how the structure of physical geography influences social development and what people are able to do in a particular space. Consider the Nile river, the Amazon river, the Himalayas, the Alps, the Andes.

Chemical structures affect the social world as well. For example, the principles of water freezing and thawing are hugely relevant at shaping human life. Russia’s rivers flow north, toward the North Pole, and because of the tilt of the planet, their mouths are frozen a part of the year (or were before global warming). That means ports are fewer for Russia than for most of Europe, giving Russia a special urgency for keeping, protecting, and defending ports that they have or conquer. The struggle over the Crimea is a contemporary example.

Structure isn’t just biology, geography, or chemistry.

Structure also describes social dimensions that we have been born into or inherited or socialized to accept.

The legal system, political structures and policies, legacies of history are examples.

It’s good to know about the structures. What’s there. What’s informing my perspective, blocking my progress, holding things as they are? How are things likely to develop based on past experiences? What are the probable influences in this situation, what shall I or we be aware of? The examination, description, understanding of structures is a key strength of sociologists.

Some people get stuck here. Some of my students are already discouraged. They feel everything is helpless and hopeless. After class or after a discussion, they tell me their utter despair. We have ruined the environment, the political system is in tatters, why bother, they tell me. We might as well party like it’s 1999 and let it all just crash around us, nothing can be done.

I tell them: we have agency. It does not have to remain this way. We can take action.

I tell them: we have agency. And it’s never been better.

Yes, more people are educated, literate, healthy, than we have ever seen on this planet. We are able to identify the problems, we are able to make connections and draw conclusions and cooperate to change our behavior. There is time, not to make everything go back “the way it was” but to take a clear look at what is, imagine what might be, and work together, if we so choose, to bring a new way into reality.

We need to be aware of what the obstacles may be. But tremendous things have happened. Who, in 1914 or in 1939, could have predicted the existence of the European Union? Who during any past plague could have envisioned the global scope of the World Health Organization?

I am up at night with worry, too. I am a sensitive person and my very digestion is disturbed by things going on in our world, things so awful that it’s hard to understand how people can be so rotten to each other. And yet, I have hope.

Agency describes the fact that we can affect the course of events.

Agency is the ability of a person, organization, group, to use their energy to change course or to stay on course.

Agency is where the potential lies.