Undergraduate

Sociology, A 21st Century Major

Sociology is a discipline built on passion and knowledge.  To learn sociology is to develop what C.Wright Mills calls ‘the sociological imagination’.  As Mills tells us, without the sociological imagination, individuals often feel their “private lives are a series of traps” bound by “seemingly impersonal changes” taking place in remote institutions at an intimidating rate of historical change.  Without the sociological imagination, social forces and social change can feel overwhelming and beyond the capacity of the individual to effect change.  What the sociological imagination gives us is the “capacity to shift perspective” and understand the connection between “the most impersonal and remote transformations” with “the most intimate features of the human self.”  Through this new lens, sociology looks beyond the life of the single individual to better understand how larger social structures such as power, economics and culture shape individual life chances, thinking and behavior.  With this new imagination, larger social forces come into focus bringing a clearer understanding of the value of the individual in advancing social change.

It is this ability to ‘shift perspective’ which allows sociologists to study some of the most complex and important questions of social life.  Sociologists ask questions related to understanding the relevance of social power and social hierarchies such as race, class and gender in everyday life, the processes and implications of social change in both public and private lives including family, labor and sexuality as well as questions related to social and personal health including environmental and health care policy, health disparities and individual well-being.  The questions sociologists ask are at the heart of social and cultural debates related to living and working in the modern world.  It is for this reason that the American Sociological Association labeled sociology as a ‘21st century major’ and Daniel Little, the Chancellor of University of Michigan-Dearborn identified sociology as “a valuable part of university education.

The value of sociology to 21st century education derives from the scientific approach used to answer social and cultural questions.  Sociology is a ‘social science’; it is a discipline grounded in using sociological theory and the scientific method to create the knowledge necessary for understanding and improving social life. Using theory as a foundation for analysis, sociologists collect and analyze empirical data useful in making decisions related to public life such as social and economic policy and private life such as family and interpersonal health.  It is this relationship between sociological theory, as the foundation of critical thinking, and the scientific method, as the guiding principles of analysis, which makes sociology a rapidly expanding field with expertise increasingly sought after by those who craft policies and create programs.

The skills necessary to conduct sociological research–critical thinking, analytical processing and writing–are highly marketable skills in the modern economy.  According to the American Sociological Association, the core skills a sociology major acquires includes:

  • Conduct Research and Analyze Data: Students learn both qualitative and quantitative research methods.  These skills allow for the recognition of trends and patterns and produce social statistics such as those used in market research, opinion polling, sales and countless other applications.
  • Communicate Skillfully: Students learn how to convey complex ideas and arguments through writing, presentations and digital media.
  • Practice Critical Thinking: Through theory, writing and analysis, students learn to look beyond the surface of issues to discover the ‘why’.  This process of investigation builds valuable analytical skills sought after by market researchers, policy analysts, government agencies, non-profit organizations and other institutions interested in understanding and solving complex social problems.
  • Gain Global Perspective: Nothing is more critical in the modern global economy than a demonstrable appreciation for and ability to work inside diverse cultures.  Sociology, as a discipline concerned with understanding social difference, provides students with valuable skills useful in understanding groups and societies through a global and historical perspective.
  • Prepare for Graduate School: An undergraduate major in sociology provides an excellent foundation for graduate study in a wide range of fields including law, social work, medicine, public health, public administration and, of course, sociology (at VCU).

According to Forbes, the top three job skills for 2013 were critical thinking, complex problem solving and judgement/decision making all of which are most marketable when able to be applied to data.  According to Linked In, the critical skill for 2020 is empathy and the ability to develop effective interpersonal relationships with diverse people.  While the word ‘sociology’ is generally found in job titles requiring graduate education, the skills learned through a bachelors degree in sociology are found in a vast number of job descriptions across a wide variety of fields.