By: Joslyn Brenton
I am a sociologist. When I tell people this, I usually get a strange look. “A what?” people will say. “Is that like a psychologist?” others will ask. These are good questions. You do not meet that many sociologists because most of us work at universities where we teach sociology classes. And some people can go to college, leave with a degree, and never take a sociology class. Here is my attempt to explain what a sociologist is, what we do, and how sociology is involved with Voices into Action.
A sociologist is a person who studies society. What is society? It is you, me, our families, neighbors, schools, workplaces, government, hospitals, the military, the media, and almost any other type of group you can think of. Basically a society is all of those things combined. If that seems like a pretty big “thing” to study, it is. Maybe that is why it takes 8-10 years of school to become a sociologist!
In reality each sociologist will choose one part of society to study. Voices into Action was started by sociologists and other people at NC State University who are interested in families, and food, and health. To learn about more about how families eat, they decided to interview mothers and grandmothers who care for small children. Other sociologists study things like crime, the workplace, health and illness, and sexuality.
Sociologists are always trying to understand how individual behaviors are influenced by the social world. None of us lives on an island alone. Instead, who we become, what we do, and how we raise our children is influenced by the people who raised us, the schools and churches we attended, the neighbors we grew up with, and the society we live in (growing up in the United States, for example, is very different than growing up in China). We are individuals to be sure. Every day each person gets up, gets dressed, and makes a bunch of decisions about eating, work, family life, etc. But how do we know what to do? How do we learn what foods we should eat for breakfast? How do we know what jobs are good (like a nurse), and what jobs are bad (like a bank robber)? In other words, most of what we do and know comes from what other people have taught us.
For the Voices into Action project we are interviewing mothers and grandmothers who care for small children. We ask participants what they and their kids eat, where they shop for food, and what they think about health. As sociologists we want to understand how the individual actions mothers take (like feeding kids and buying food), and what they think (like how they know when someone is healthy or unhealthy), are connected to other things. Take shopping for food, for example.
This is what mothers tell us: before they buy food they will think about what her kids like and do not like to eat. They will think about the amount of money they have (maybe they have only has $20 until payday). They may also think about how many family members will stop by for dinner that week, and about the electricity bill that is overdue. They will think about what foods are healthy for their children, but they may also want to buy their kids sweet treats to show them they love them.
So while individual mothers buy food, they only buy food after they have taken all of these things into account. Individual decisions are affected by many different factors beyond the individual. Understanding what mothers buy becomes more complicated when we think about what they ate growing up, food advertisements, and the fact that what we cook says something about who we are as women and/or mothers (I know because I am both!).
Sociologists try to understand how individual people do things, hold certain beliefs, and make certain choices. And we believe that the best way to answer the question, “Why do people do what they do?” is to ask people and to pay attention to what is happening in people’s social worlds (their immediate community and even their government!).
There is a lot that individuals are aware of and can control. But sometimes we forget where we learned certain rules we follow (for example that we should eat scrambled eggs for breakfast but not for dinner). And sometimes we do not even know why we hold a certain belief (most people believe they should eat fruits and vegetables. But do we know why?).
As a sociologist, it is my job to try to understand the link between individual behaviors and beliefs and society. Through our research, like the Voices into Action project, sociologists can help people and policy makers understand some of our most important social problems so that we can work together to tackle them.