What’s sociology? A sociologist explains why Florida’s college students should get the chance to lea

The boards that oversee the education of students enrolled in Florida’s public colleges and universities are trying to restrict enrollment in sociology courses on those campuses.

By Joya Misra Published on Feb 08, 2024.
Studying this discipline helps you understand how society works. FG Trade/E+ via Getty Images

In January 2024, Florida officially voted to reduce the number of students enrolled in sociology courses.

That might sound baffling if you haven’t tuned into this cultural skirmish. But for me – I’m the American Sociological Association’s current president and a professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst – it’s both disturbing and an opportunity to help the public better understand my academic discipline.

Sociology is the study of social life, social change and the social causes and consequences of human behavior.

Sociologists analyze how society is structured and how people interact with one another in groups, organizations and society.

A central concept to sociology is the “sociological imagination.” As defined by the scholar C. Wright Mills, it’s the ability to link someone’s experiences to societal forces or historical trends; for example, connecting losing a job to waves of unemployment due to a recession.

Sociology can change how you see the world.

Why does sociology matter?

Because my discipline helps identify how social structures work, it provides insight into how to fix processes that malfunction. Sociological research has helped address questions like why 700 people died during a Chicago heat wave in 1995, or why the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, identifying strategies to avoid such catastrophes in the future.

The research that sociologists conduct can identify better approaches for supporting people with breast cancer. It can explain how social media platforms like X, formerly Twitter, profit from hostility between users.

Sociologists do studies that show that jobs with unpredictable schedules are bad for your health and that homicide rates typically increase as inequality grows.

Sociologists also study inequalities, such as gender or racial inequalities in workplaces. These studies can show how workplaces can create more inclusive cultures that benefit Black workers as well as other employees.

Learning about sociology can help students hone their critical thinking skills by training them to evaluate evidence, analyze data and clearly communicate its meaning – all skills needed in most well-paid jobs.

Sociology also provides students with soft skills, giving them a better understanding of how to work effectively with others, including those with different backgrounds and experiences.

The Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, an exam required for anyone wishing to attend medical school, emphasizes sociological concepts because they give future doctors tools for how to engage with their patients most effectively.

In 2020, more than 25,000 students earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology, and approximately 1,300 earned a master’s degree, with another 600 earning a Ph.D.

Many people who majored in sociology work as social workers, teachers, school counselors, market research analysts, human resource coordinators, tech workers, paralegals, public relations professionals, urban planners and community health workers.

Curbing sociology in Florida

The boards that oversee the education of hundreds of thousands of students enrolled in Florida’s public colleges and universities voted to reduce the number of students who study sociology on those campuses.

They officially removed principles of sociology from the lists of classes that count as core courses that satisfy requirements for undergraduate degrees.

This change, made in January 2024, was in response to a law that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed in 2023. That measure bans general education college credits for instruction “based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.”

Introductory sociology classes, such as the principles of sociology course taught in Florida’s public colleges and universities, teach students how a variety of social institutions work, such as families, education, religion, health care, the economy, politics, the criminal justice system and the media.

Students also learn about topics such as globalization and inequality – whether it’s tied to wealth, income, race, gender, age or whether people live in urban or rural areas.

Sociology is a major that most students first become acquainted with in college, often through courses that satisfy general education requirements. As a result of this policy change, it is likely that enrollment in sociology classes will drastically drop in Florida, and fewer students will major in sociology.

Sociology courses, by considering inequalities by wealth, income, race, gender, sexuality and age, may seem overly “woke” to conservatives. But sociological findings are based on scientific analysis of data from objective sources, such as the U.S. Census Bureau.

Global history of censorship

U.S. conservatives are not the only ones who have tried to ban the spread of sociological knowledge.

Sociology has been censored for long periods in many countries, including Russia, Hungary and China.

In April 2019, then-president Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil also lashed out at sociology. Since January 2023, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is again serving as Brazil’s president. Because he married sociologist Rosângela Lula da Silva in 2022, sociology is safe for the time being in Brazil.

Joya Misra is currently the president of the American Sociological Association.

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