What works of sociology really changed the world?
June 6, 2010 9:38 PM   Subscribe

What are the gripping must-reads in scientific sociology? What are sociological studies that really changed how we view certain cultures/groups etc?

I am thinking of studying sociology at a postgraduate level. I have never studied anything much like sociology before. First I want to be inspired by some academic works that really set the world ablaze. Any suggestions? What I really want to get out of it is an understanding of the methods of sociologists, without being put to sleep. Textbooks, bestsellers, academic publications all welcome. Thanks.
posted by zaebiz to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Read The Lucifer Effect by Zimbardo, he managed the Stanford Prison Experiment.
posted by geodave at 9:46 PM on June 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Bourdieu's Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field is fascinating, and I found it relatively easy to read (I'd only need to go back to the beginning of the sentence every three sentences or so, that is, once per page).
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:48 PM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is on the "bestseller" end of the spectrum (as opposed to "textbook"), and more sociobiology than sociology, but it is such a fantastic book that it deserves a mention: Matt Ridley, The Origin of Virtue. It absolutely changed how I view certain cultures / groups, in that I read it and thought, "Oh, so that's what humans are."
posted by kprincehouse at 10:00 PM on June 6, 2010

I'm an anthropologist, so I only know sociology as an interested neighbor, but here's my take. Sociological methods run the gamut from highly formal, mathematical approaches to modeling social dynamics to highly qualitative studies based on participant observation. My impression is that most of sociology falls in the middle, with a lot of work based on quantitative analysis of large (often survey-based) datasets without necessarily resorting to the formalisms that economists and political scientists are so fond of.

I don't know much about mainstream sociology, but I do know that as with political science, sociology in America tends much more towards the quantitative. In the UK and Europe you're far more likely to see things that are more theoretical and more concerned with "culture" and interpretive or critical (ie using Marx, Foucault, etc ) analysis--although see my para on ethnographic sociology below for some US sociological work in this vein.

You can see some of the formal side in the still-rather-hot-right-now field of
social network analysis
, for whom Mark Granovetter and The Strength of Weak Ties seem to be a founding document. That article has to be among the most cited in social science. There is also quantitative and mixed-methods work in SNA--Granovetter's own work straddles that divide very nicely.

Berkeley is a stronghold for ethnographic sociology: see Michael Burawoy and Loïc Wacquant in particular--Wacquant in particular is a very engaging writer, dealing largely with urban politics and sociology. Speaking of which, Sudhir Venkatesh at Columbia got a lot of popular press when his highly ethnographic study of gangs in Chicago was featured in Freakonomics, and he now has a couple of books out. If you really like this stuff (especially if you want to know "how we view cultures") you should have a look at anthropology: feel free to Memail if you're interested.

I don't know his work except at second-hand, but Talcott Parsons is generally accepted as having set the tone for mid-late twentieth century sociology, and is still an important touchstone. Going further back, Emile Durkheim (see e.g. his Rules of Sociological Method and his idea of the "social fact") and Max Weber were also very important. Coming back closer to the present, Anthony Giddens and his theory of structuration were very popular once upon a time (80s and 90s; I think the bloom is somewhat off that rose these days), and I think they still offer a fairly compelling framework from which to start towards an analysis of society. If you like his ground-up style of thinking through social interaction, Erving Goffman's Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is still a very good read and had a great deal of influence on thinking about sociology down through the years.

Re geodave: Zimbardo is a psychologist, not a sociologist, so he's not really the go-to guy on this, although he may be interesting in other ways.

Re Monday: Bourdieu is wonderful, but a very difficult person to start with. My favorite of his is Outline of a Theory of Practice, but it's a tough book, especially if you don't know where he's coming from. Distinction is not that much easier, but it is mixed methods and deals with less esoteric material (ie French 1960s consumption practices rather than rural Algerian ethnography) You could also look at Invitation to a Reflexive Sociology, co-written by Wacquant. Not read it, but it sounds interesting, if you like the looks of interpretive sociology.

Finally, if you're serious about looking into grad school, do feel free to email grad students at some top programs, ideally alums of your undergrad institution or others with whom you have some prior connection (although I've spent time talking to complete strangers about my program, and I'm sure there would be those out there willing to talk to you even if you dropped them an email completely out of the blue). Ask them what they do, what's hot, what the life is like, and try to get a feel for whether sociology is for you. That and, of course, all the usual caveats about going for a PhD if you're not really sure it's the only thing out there that you want to do.
posted by col_pogo at 11:13 PM on June 6, 2010 [14 favorites]

seconding Sudhir Venkatesh, who is an amazing ethnographer. I loved Off the Books. The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, especially his work with sex workers. Of course, not all sociology is ethnography, but it's a pretty awesome part.
posted by acidic at 11:39 PM on June 6, 2010

Bourdieu is indeed difficult; I may have found Rules of Art easier than the rest of his stuff because it deals with a subject I know a little bit: French literature.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:03 AM on June 7, 2010

As outsider I enjoyed The origins of scientific sociology by John Madge. That describes 12 influential works, like "Suicide" (Durkheim), and the "Middletown" case study. He analyzes the methodology used, and the influence of the paper on the field. It's from the 60's, a no-nonsense book without too fancy graphics, and I like that.
posted by willem at 12:34 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

C. Wright Mills wrote The Power Elite, which contributed significantly to antiestablishment attitudes during the 60s (and is still echoed today). Another work of his, The Sociological Imagination is more meta and attempts to reconcile individualism with a socialized world.
posted by mnemonic at 12:39 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't read Talcott Parsons - it's not good writing, and incredibly difficult, it will kill your inchoate interest in sociology!

Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority (1974) is definitely a book - or rather, an experiment - that set the world on fire at the time.
posted by smoke at 5:11 AM on June 7, 2010

Mary Douglas' work was pretty mind blowing.

Cultural Theory of Risk in particular. (my synopsis is: members of groups agree on what is dangerous, and different groups may not agree. These decisions about risk are based on more than empirical facts. So, malarial mosquitoes vs witchcraft; airplanes vs cars; pot vs tobacco)
posted by bilabial at 6:10 AM on June 7, 2010

Future Shock - Alvin Tofler

Future Shock is a book written by the sociologist and futurist Alvin Toffler in 1970. It grew out of an article "The Future as a Way of Life" in Horizon magazine, Summer 1965 issue. The book has sold over 6 million copies and has been widely translated. Future shock is also a term for a certain psychological state of individuals and entire societies, introduced by Toffler in his book of the same name. Toffler's shortest definition of future shock is a personal perception of "too much change in too short a period of time".
posted by MechEng at 11:38 AM on June 7, 2010

Speaking as a sociology Ph.D. here (but not in academia), I think if you're thinking about studying sociology at the postgraduate level, eventually you're going to have to be less concerned with "What works of sociology really changed the world?" than with "What can I do to get published in the current academic environment?" In this respect, I would recommend checking out the American Sociological Association web site and looking at the web sites for different ASA "sections" (i.e., the professional subgroups within the ASA based on areas of specialization). Look at what books get awarded prizes within the various sections, and then read whatever books that look interesting and that you can get your hands on. In addition, I would also check out books that were based on Ph.D. dissertations that won the ASA Dissertation Award. These include Devah Pager's Marked, Dalton Conley's Being Black, Living in the Red, and Steven Epstein's Impure Science. A full list of the dissertation award winners is here. Finally, if you're really serious about this, I would consider subscribing to at least one of the major sociology journals, such as the American Journal of Sociology, the American Sociological Review, or Social Forces, since a lot of academic sociology never gets published in book form.

After doing this reading (both books and articles), then do some self-reflection about what your reaction is. If your reaction is, "I can do this!" or "Give me more!", then postgrad education in sociology is probably a good choice. If not, then maybe grad school isn't for you.

If you want more recommendations or advice on grad school in sociology, feel free to MeMail me. I've been there, done that.
posted by jonp72 at 12:12 PM on June 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Many great answers thanks. Going to look for almost all of those listed. Am just going to mark a couple as favourite for admin purposes based on perceived overall helpfulness of the answers.
posted by zaebiz at 10:38 PM on June 7, 2010

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