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Seeing Through New Eyes: The Sociological Perspective

By Student Author Genevieve Andersen

What is Sociology? Sociology is the study of human behavior in society (Andersen & Taylor 2006). ‘Well, that’s all well and good,’ you say, ‘but what do you mean by that statement? There are many components to human behavior, not to mention human interaction; many parts and pieces of society. In fact, what does one mean by society? Does a sociologist study the individual or the group as a whole? Does he or she study the reasons for behavioral patterns and or simply the statistics – what they are? What is so special? And why should it matter?’

Well, a sociologist studies all these things and infinitely more. In sociology, one begins to discover that personal perception is tainted – or colored, if you will – by many more things than just ones own opinion. It studies how – and why – those opinions came to be. Rather, you begin to see that everything you thought was ‘true,’ everything you thought was ‘reality’ and ‘unbiased’ is in fact only a half truth; every thought you may believe to be solely your own, is indeed, in a sense, created for you. Granted, thoughts and opinions may vary from one person to another in a relatively small way, but there is a general framework and way of thinking that people share when they belong to a society. People's opinions as well as their personalities, habits, and choices in life – from what toothbrush to use to our career choice to the people they find attractive – are all highly influenced by society. But what happens in a society that creates this influence on an individual and his or her choices? Well, in essence, it’s a double sided question, because what makes a group of people a society and not just some random gathering is exactly that: a society is a group of people sharing, not only a common culture, a social structure, and a territory (Wolf…in class on the overhead 2006), but a common reality. This reality is created by both the group as a whole and the individuals making up that group. Sociologists study the different societies of the world and sub-societies therein, their common points and differences, and the ways in which they form these different realities and how that makes them view others in turn. They study both the group and the individual created by that group, as well as the patterns of change and adaptation each group takes on accordingly. But in order to do this efficiently, the sociologist must first be able to recognize the societal influences in his/her own perceptions and step back from their own preconceptions and judgments when viewing others.

As an example of the w3ay in which the common person views the world, let us take a look at something we are all too familiar with in this country. Most Americans may believe that they are uninfluenced in the personal choices they make. After all, we are all unique individuals, are we not, and have a right to be so? In fact, that is what we as a nation pride ourselves on… But everywhere you go in America, whether you are in a big city or out in the middle of nowhere, what do you see? Advertising. And what do these advertisements tell us? To ‘buy Double Mint Gum’ because, ‘only Double Mint makes your breath stay fresher longer?’ Well, yes. These advertisements are there to sell particular products and many people are susceptible to them. The people who believe they are not swayed will say, ‘Well, I’m not so easily influenced. I make my own choices! I can see right through that.’ But a sociologist knows that they are wrong. A person may not succumb to a specific company's product, but they are still swayed by the product itself and the underlying societal implications connected with each product or advertisement. What an individual is aware of is the product being sold: Double Mint Gum. But what they are unaware of is that with Double Mint Gum and its slogan, this company and society itself are also trying to persuade the individual that in order to be happy and successful, it is necessary to have a beautiful and bright smile and good breath. Note the actors and models used in these commercials and billboards: they are people that are almost always thought to be ‘beautiful’ or attractive in this particular society. This in itself sends 3 messages:

1. That beautiful people chew gum or, possibly, that gum/fresh breath/a clean, white smile is what makes the individual into something attractive and ‘good’ or that, if it can’t make one beautiful, it will at least make them appear to be so. If this is so, than obviously something else can be concluded:

2. If you maintain a fresh smelling, flavored and beautiful mouth, than you will be beautiful and other beautiful and successful people will like and be attracted to you. It is also reinforcing the opposite: that a mouth the way it is – the way it naturally tastes, smells and looks – is somehow ‘wrong,’ ‘bad,’ or undesirable.

3. By seeing these people and the pleasant and positive situations they appear in these ads, we as a society are also having the idea of what beautiful and successful is and how it looks continually demonstrated to us and reinforced again and again and that if you are not this idea of ‘beautiful’ or ‘successful,’ than you must be something else…something ‘less than.’

Even the most open minded of us can be easily swayed by society's voice. In fact, even when you can recognize it, your reactions, judgments, and feelings are already coming from it. And if one has so much trouble recognizing it in oneself, imagine trying to recognize it in another's society, not to mention in one's view of another society.

As humans, we tend to separate all people into 2 groups: us and them; they are either like us or they are something different, and since our ideals are undeniably ‘best’ for what is considered to be ‘human,’ than whoever make up ‘them’ must be somehow wrong; somehow slightly less than human. What is interesting to note is the inability of the individual to see this subconscious logic used when viewing other peoples and conveniently left out when viewing our own. In “Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” (Miner 1956) we were given a new society to examine, a dark and masochistic society, obsessed with the body and all it’s apparent ‘flaws.’ This society was filled with horrifying and painful ritual, the like of which, it seems one of normal sense and sanity would be appalled by and which would seem to be unnecessary and unhealthy. After reading this dissection of a people, it was easy to distinguish a few biased words and an obviously prejudiced opinion from Miner's description of this people. He tainted his work with judgmental adjectives like “barbaric” and “sadistic.” It was also easy to attempt to make these people understandable by likening their rituals to some of our own. We however would never go so far as to commit such masochistic atrocities as this ‘tribe’ under examination. What is interesting to note is that, in reading this, we, the class, had failed to recognize ourselves. Taken from an outsider's perspective, we could not see the rituals as our own: how could something so sadistic and wrong be our own? We are natural and normal – these people are “barbarians.” But what we take for granted in ourselves we will subconsciously judge in another culture and label it as odd and wrong.

Without sociology, we might never come to understand one another, and – perhaps even more importantly – we might never know ourselves for what we are. These are just a few of the ways in which society influences each and every one of us and all these things are the study of a sociologist. We feel we are individuals, and yet, every choice we make is so intertwined with this non-existent reality we have come to create for ourselves. But say for just a moment that you could take a step back from all these rules and ideals that are supposedly real, everywhere and inescapable? Think of the freedom you might find there… These everyday manipulations of perception are exactly what a sociologist must learn to remove from his/her observations and, indeed, must begin to learn from. Once this transformation of the usual human thought process begins, it seems to me, the sociologist can almost begin to hear that other language all its own – perhaps not universally understood, but universally spoken – embedded in our everyday thoughts, actions, and lives: the language of society; our ever present, ever subtle, ever-changing dictator.