Principles of Sociology (inspired by Mankiw’s Principles of Economics)

I think every sociologist (budding or full-fledged) faces the dilemma of what to say when someone asks, “What do you study?” In trying to come up with good answers to this question, I asked myself, what are the central insights (if any) that unite Sociology? What are the ‘principles’ of sociology? Here’s a somewhat lengthy post on the subject.

The inspiration for this rephrasing of the question comes from the popular economics textbook by Gregory Mankiw at Harvard, whose Principles of Economics is one of the top-selling introductory economics textbooks. In his book, Mankiw lays out 10 Principles of Economics, which I’ll reproduce here:

Mankiw’s Principles
1. People face tradeoffs.
2. The cost of something is what you give up to get it.
3. Rational people think at the margin.
4. People respond to incentives.
5. Trade can make everyone better off.
6. Markets are usually a good way to organize economic activity.
7. Governments can sometimes improve market outcomes.
8. A country’s standard of living depends on its ability to produce goods and services.
9. Prices rise when the government prints too much money.
10. Society faces a short-run tradeoff between inflation and unemployment.

The stand-up economist Yoram Bauman has “translated” these principles here, in one of the funniest videos I’ve ever seen:

If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. There’s a lengthier written version here.

So, all levity aside, it’s kind of amazing that a top economist can generate 10 relatively simple propositions that summarize a lot of the deep insights* of the field. What would sociologists come up with if they tried to do the same? This list is not intended to be uncontroversial or exhaustive, but it captures both my way of thinking about the discipline and also, I hope, an important piece of what many important thinkers have argued as well.

Without further ado, I offer my first draft of Hirschman’s n** Principles of Sociology (and some corollaries to follow)

1. Things are real because they are socially constructed.
2. Society is not just the aggregation of discrete, pre-existing individuals. That is, the individual is not ontologically prior to the social.
3. The ideas we hold about the world change the world.
4. The language we use to describe the world changes the world.
5. Society cannot be understood by looking at individuals separately from their interconnections and their environments (both social and physical).
6. The economy is not separate from the political or social world.

Let me elaborate what I mean a little bit with regards to each of these principles, and throw in some corollaries that describe some of the major trends/areas of sociology which I know very little about and thus will probably mangle.

First, principle 1. I don’t mean ‘things’ like rocks and trees. I mean things like race or nationality. When people hear a phrase like ‘race is socially constructed’, they often jump to the conclusion ‘and therefore not real’. I believe that one of the central insights in sociology (and other related areas of inquiry) is the realization that that logic is exactly backwards – things are real because they are socially constructed. I made this point in an earlier post about booze and pot. But we can shy away a bit from the physical/biological realm to see the real importance of this insight. Here I’ll offer three corollaries:

A. Race is real because it is socially constructed.
B. Class is real because it is socially constructed.
C. Gender is real because it is socially constructed.

The current dominant paradigm*** in sociology is sometimes called the “Race, Class, Gender” paradigm, where sociologists spend a lot of time looking out how those three factors, variables, phenomena play out in modern and historical societies. For example, Devah Pager has some incredible work on race in the labor market, showing that employers use race as a proxy not for criminality but rather for low-skills. Black men are simply seen as less-skilled than their white counterparts, and thus are not offered interviews for jobs as often. So, sociologists are not saying race isn’t real when we say that it is socially constructed. What we are saying is that it is contingent, historically specific, and mutable. It does not have to be as it is now, and has not always been as it now. For example, the generation of immigrants that arrived in the late 19th and early 20th century from place in Eastern and Southern Europe were not considered white when they arrived. By the end of World War II, most of their children are considered white. What happened in between? The way race was constructed changed. (For some good descriptions of this story and its implication for modern immigration questions, I recommend Mary Waters’ Ethnic Options and Nee and Alba’s Remaking the American Mainstream.)

In some ways, this conception of ‘things’ harks back all the way to Durkheim’s concept of social facts, if not before. For Durkheim, social facts “are the beliefs, tendencies and practices of the group taken collectively” and exist outside of the individual consciousness. Durkheim often constructs these facts in the negative, e.g. “A social fact is any way of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint…” (More on social facts available here, in a section of Durkheim’s Rules of the Sociological Method. I am not asserting that I mean exactly what Durkheim meant – I would not come close to presuming I know what that was, having only studied a little Durkheim – but merely wanted to show that this general way of thinking about the importance of features of society that are real (“facts”) but outside the individual is really essential to the discipline’s founding.

The implications of the first principle are pretty vast. If very basic social facts exist outside the individual, then something funny must be going on with, in President Clinton’s words, “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” And this takes us to principle 2:

2. Society is not just the aggregation of discrete, pre-existing individuals. That is, the individual is not ontologically prior to the social.

Ok, so what does this mean? I do not mean that somehow the chemical and biological processes that make up human beings as physical things are somehow less than fully real, or anything of the sort. When I refer to ‘individuals’, I am not referring to human beings as chemical and biological processes, but rather as social entitites. For example, in his important if problematic book Discipline and Punish, Foucault asserts that disciplinary powers and the sorting procedures of modern society (examinations, tests, prisons, schools, etc.) create individuals. That is, human beings as biological processes are turned into “individuals” through a social process. The process of being examined molds a person into something in particular, and the way that process plays out has changed over the last couple hundred years. Durkheim also talks a little bit about this in his discussion of social facts, which I’ll quote at length so you can get a flavor of it:

…it is patently obvious that all education consists of a continual effort to impose upon the child ways of seeing, thinking and acting which he himself would not have arrived at spontaneously. From his earliest years we oblige him to eat, drink and sleep at regular hours, and to observe cleanliness, calm and obedience; later we force him to learn how to be mindful of others, to respect customs and conventions, and to work, etc. If this constraint in time ceases to be felt it is because it gradually gives rise to habits, to inner tendencies which render it superfluous; but they supplant the constraint only because they are derived from it… What renders these latter facts particularly illuminating is that education sets out precisely with the object of creating a social being. Thus there can be seen, as in an abbreviated form, how the social being has been fashioned historically. The pressure to which the child is subjected unremittingly is the same pressure of the social environment which seeks to shape him in its own image, and in which parents and teachers are only the representatives and intermediaries.

When I say “the individual is not ontologically prior to the social”, what I mean is that individuals (as collections of ideas, behaviors, identities, etc.) are products of society and, in turn, produce and reproduce society. Nothing about how we are as individuals is ‘natural’, even if there are biological processes which are connected to our social selves.

Whew, now that we’ve tackled the toughest two, onto some slightly more bounded principles:

3. The ideas we hold about the world change the world.
4. The language we use to describe the world changes the world.

To me, these principles go together and flow naturally from the first principle, but have slightly different emphases. While the first principle asserted that many of the interesting things going on in the world are socially constructed, principles 3 and 4 focus a couple of the more visible ways that process happens. In particular, principle 3 says that what we think matters, and 4 says that what we say and how we say it matters. In both cases, however, that ‘changes the world’ bit is neither simple nor direct. But let me dig in a bit before adding too many caveats.

Ideas matter: In a 2005 article, Peggy Somers and Fred Block show how changes in the ideas about poverty and welfare led to changes in the welfare laws in 1830s England and 1990s America. In 1830s England, the Old Poor Laws gave money to the poor to make sure they wouldn’t stop having children and thus decrease the strength of the nation (and also so they wouldn’t, y’know, starve to death or revolt). Thomas Malthus, a political economist and social thinker, proposed famously in his Essay on the Principle of Population that society faced a long-run problem from increasing population, as the growth of the food supply would lag behind the growth of the population and thus lead to massive social upheaval and declining standards of living. This idea included within it the notion that welfare money distributed to the poor turned them into dependents – they would no longer seek employment, and would instead have more children and expect more handouts. Somers and Block argue that this shift in ideas (and a nearly identical one in 1990s America, both of which they term “From Poverty to Peversity”) led to changes in the law (in this case, the ending of the Old Poor Laws, which were replaced by much less generous programs that prohibited the able-bodied from receiving money, welfare to work style). I quote this example at length mostly because I just finished reading the paper, but also because it’s a good example of a strong claim made about the importance of ideas.

Language matters too, and is intimately connected to our ideas in complex ways. The linguistic anthropologists Sapir and Whorf formulated this as a hypothesis about linguistic relativity. Here’s one quote that sums things up, nabbed from wikipedia:

… the real world is to a large extent built up on the language habits of the group. We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached. (Sapir, 1956)

George Lakoff, a linguist who has done a lot of work recently on political language (e.g. Don’t Think of an Elephant) also focused on the concept of metaphor and how metaphors structure our lives. Social movement scholars Benford and Snow discuss how social movements frame their claims in order to mobilize supporters and win ideological arguments, which taps into both principles 3 and 4. So, to sum up, the language we use to communicate with each other has a non-trivial impact on how we each actually perceive and interact with the world, and thus changes it.

Principle 5 speaks to methodology as much as anything else:

5. Society cannot be understood by looking at individuals separately from their interconnections and their environments (both social and physical).

What is meant here is an extension of principle 2 – if you acknowledge that society is not simply an aggregation of individuals, then to understand society you cannot simply look at individuals. One way of putting this, to invoke the terminology of complex systems, would be to say that social systems have emergent properties. In economic sociology, this principle manifests itself frequently in the analysis of networks – for example, Mark Granovetter famously looked at how people use social networks to get jobs in his aptly titled book, Getting a Job. One of the findings from his research is the “strength of weak ties” argument. Granovetter learned that many people found jobs not through their close friends and relatives but rather through slightly more distant connection – friends of friends or acquaintances. These weak ties had access to different information than the individual and their close ties, and thus were more useful in finding new job opportunities. This network analysis would not be observable in a study that focused solely on individuals. While Granovetter looks at individual level networks and systems, other sociologists look at levels all the way up to the entire world. Immanuel Wallerstein, in 1974, called for a “world-systems theory”, and argued that the history of even entire nations cannot be understood if it they are analyzed in an isolated way. Wallerstein rejected the stage-theory of development (that countries go through agricultural then industrial stages, for example), and argued that the world functioned as a single economy, and had for a long time (at least since the beginning of the mercantile era). In any event, the general methodological insight is similar: individuals, organizations and even nations exist in social and physical contexts which cannot be ignored if they are to be understood.

Lastly, principle 6 comes from my sub-discipline, economic sociology, and in particular the work of Karl Polanyi interpreted by Mark Granovetter:

6. The economy is not separate from the political or social world.

I hope to add a few more principles like this one – a little more substantive, and less axiomatic or methodological – but for the moment (given my limited expertise), this one will have to do. Mark Granovetter, in his 1985 article Economic Action and Social Structure, laid out a paradigm for analyzing the economic world that went in between existing ways of looking at the economy. In particular, Granovetter rejected the narrow focus on rational decision makers embodied in what he called “undersocialized” economic models. Invoking Karl Polanyi’s work decades earlier, Granovetter argued that we must see the economic world as embedded within the social world. Indeed, this view was the only one that existed until fairly recent times. Daniel Breslau argues, in his paper Economics Invents the Economy, that the economic sphere only became something separate from the social world in about the 1890s, with the work of early economists. Early studies of the economy went under the heading “political economy”, including the work of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, among many others. In any event, the modern concept of the economy is just that, modern. Also, inaccurate, if Granovetter and those working in the economic sociology tradition are to be believed – the economic sphere has never been separate from the social. What does this mean? Well, here’s one corollary:

There is no such thing as a free market.

Without social and political relations (property relations, trust between buyers and sellers, contract regimes to enforce agreements, common languages, etc.) there could be no transactions. So, the free market is not even an ideal from which existing markets deviate, but rather a mythical entity. To the extent that markets function, they function through social and political means, and not apart from them.

Ok, so, now you know what I think some of the Principles of Sociology are and why. I would love to have some more suggestions, possibly from other fields (race or gender studies, say, or social psychology) that are similar to this last principle (the sort of baseline principle for economic sociology). Any comments or thoughts would be welcome as well. Thanks for reading this far, and I hope it wasn’t too abstract or uninteresting.

* Ok, so some of those insights (e.g. “Rational people think at the margin.”) are more like definitions and a lot less like empirical findings, and indeed may be rather bad prescriptions for behavior.
** Where n is small.
*** I don’t really mean paradigm in the Kuhnian sense, but something more basic and common language-y, ‘the way things are typically done’ or something like that.



  1. Natalie

     /  April 4, 2008

    If the purpose of this list is to explain what you study to normal people, I think you need to seriously reword principle two. The language is pretty opaque compared to the others.

  2. Steve Houpt

     /  October 27, 2010

    Is there a corollary that states that the more you become familiar with a group, the more that you will dislike them?

  3. Matt Landry

     /  December 2, 2012

    I would reword and reorganize the list to make it more parsimonious and improve flow:

    1. Social reality is constructed
    2. Society is constantly reconstructed through the ideas we hold about the world and the language we use to describe the world.
    3. Society is not just the aggregation of discrete individuals.
    4. Society cannot be understood by looking at individuals separately from their interconnections and their environments
    5. The economy is not separate from the political or social world.

    What does the fact that sociology has only half as many core principles as economics say about sociology?

    • It should say that sociology needs less to prop it up, I hope! That’s how things work over in math: the less axioms the better.

  4. I can do you better:

    1. Thought matters: to humans living in society what is real is largely what is social, mental, and linguistic.
    2. Society has emergent properties, and so is at least as influential as individuals

    Corrollary to 2: The world cannot be understood by looking at individuals separately from their interconnections and their environments (both social and physical).
    Corrollary to 1: There are no free markets; economics is bound up with politics, science, philosophy, and culture.

    Dropping 6 to a corrolary is only fair. Economics only features on this list because of some of the intellectual heritage you’re trying to throw off, which doesn’t, to my mind, make it a valid piece of the core.

    Also Sapir and Whorf’s strong hypothesis should be dead! What about tribal cultures who lack language for “five” but are able..and I think more decisively by mathematican ability to deal with mathematical concepts without necessarily having clear notation for them: notation comes after. The weak form, though, is very relevant to socioloy.

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