A few years ago, I was at home minding my own business and watching one of my favorite shows, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, when sociology made an appearance. The episode, as I recall, centered on a child who was bullied at school because she had two mothers. In the show, the lawyers discuss research on parenting that was published in the American Sociological Review.While my search uncovered that the episode to which I’m referring originally aired on NBC on December 6, 2005, I have not been able to unearth the article to which the show’s characters refer. The American Sociological Association does note, however, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’s mention of the journal on its website: www.asanet.org/news/2005.cfm.
It’s amazing where and how often you might discover sociology rearing its head when you begin to pay attention, look for it, and listen for it. The benefit of having knowledge about sociological research methods is that when sociology does appear in your everyday life, you’ll be better equipped to understand those brief mentions than you would be without some background in research methods.
Sometimes we might come across sociological research and not even realize it. As you’ve seen in the examples described throughout this chapter, there are opportunities every day to encounter sociological research or, at the very least, its effects. Remember our discussion of the Walmart case in Chapter 1? As you may recall, Professor William Bielby testified as a sociologist on behalf of the plaintiffs in the case. The Walmart case is a great example of sociology playing a role in matters of everyday life even when we may not realize it. Sociologists have participated as expert witnesses in numerous other cases as well. As a sociologist who studies workplace harassment, I was once called upon to offer the sociological perspective in sexual harassment suit. Professor Emeritus Lewis Yablonsky (2002)You can read more about the cases that Professor Yablonsky has been involved in in the following article he wrote for the American Sociological Association’s newsletter in 2002: Yablonsky, L. (2002, January). Sociologists as expert witnesses in the criminal justice system. Footnotes. Retrieved from http://www.asanet.org/footnotes/jan02/fn17.html has been involved in more than 50 cases, providing his expert sociological opinion on cases involving homicide and other forms of violence.
In addition to offering their expert testimony in court cases and law suits, sociologists also play a role in shaping social policy. Professor Valerie Jenness, for example, has consulted with the state of California to help craft corrections policies there, particularly those focused on transgender inmates, sexual assault in correctional facilities, and hate crime statute implementation (www.asanet.org/about/awards/public/Jenness.cfm). Professor Diane Vaughn, an organizational sociologist, participated in the investigation following the space shuttle Columbia’s disintegration during reentry in 2003. Vaughn’s sociological perspective added a social dimension to the investigation and helped identify the social and cultural factors at NASA that contributed to the Columbia’s demise (www.asanet.org/about/awards/public/vaughan.cfm). Finally, Dr. Darlene Iskra’s research “had a dramatic impact on national policy” (www.asanet.org/about/awards/public/segal.cfm) when her work on gender discrimination in the military led to legislation that eliminated unequal requirements for men and women personnel serving in Saudi Arabia (“What is a trailblazer?,” 2011).What is a trailblazer? Dr. Darlene Iskra, adjunct instructor, sociology, is a Navy pioneer. (2011, July 15). Columbia College Spotlights. Retrieved from http://spotlight.ccis.edu/2011/07/what-is-trailblazer.html These are just a few of the many examples of how the sociological perspective and sociological researchers have played a role in shaping our policies.A useful source for additional examples is the American Sociological Association’s descriptions of past winners of its prestigious Public Understanding of Sociology Award. Those descriptions can be found at www.asanet.org/about/awards/public.cfm.
Another way that we might inadvertently come across sociology is when we encounter the ever-popular armchair sociologist. Perhaps you’ve met some of these folks or even played the role yourself a time or two. Armchair sociologists tend to wax poetic about how society “is” or how various groups of people “are” without having anything more than anecdotal evidence (or perhaps no evidence at all) to support their sweeping claims. Remember the example from Chapter 1 about a friend who once proclaimed that “all men lie all the time?” That’s a perfect example of armchair sociology. Now that you are equipped with a better understanding of how we know what we know, and in particular how sociologists know what they know, you are well prepared to question the assumptions of the armchair sociologists you meet. And by sharing with others what you know about how we “know” things, perhaps you’ll even help others break the habit of making unfounded assumptions. Understanding sociological research methods is excellent preparation for questioning the everyday assumptions that others make. And let’s face it; we’ve all probably made some unfounded assumptions about the way the world works or about what “other” people are like at one time or another.