How do sociologists study the impact of society on individual thoughts, feelings, and behavior? What “tools” or concepts do they employ to explain how society impacts individuals and how individuals affect society?

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Sociologists usually study people in groups rather than as individuals and thus use techniques such as interviewing, statistical analysis of census data, participant observation, and qualitative theories to produce descriptions of patterns which occur in groups of people of which individuals are members. A way to show how this works...

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Sociologists usually study people in groups rather than as individuals and thus use techniques such as interviewing, statistical analysis of census data, participant observation, and qualitative theories to produce descriptions of patterns which occur in groups of people of which individuals are members. A way to show how this works might be to examine the problem of suicide in the United States.

A psychologist might study why "Joe" committed suicide or is a high suicide risk by looking at Joe's individual emotions and situation. A sociologist might look at the demography of suicide in the United States and note that white, middle-aged males with only high-school educations have suffered a spike in suicide rates in the past decade. Rather than looking at Joe specifically, the sociologist would interview or study hundreds of people in this demographic group looking for commonalities among suicide victims, such as religiosity (regular church-goers commit suicide at lower rates than non-church-goers), employment status (losing a job correlates with suicide risk), and similar factors. Rather than seeking an explanation for Joe's suicide in individual factors such as personal experiences in childhood, a sociologist would explain emotions as responses to larger social and environmental conditions.

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A sociologist has a number of concepts and tools at his or her disposal when attempting to explain how society impacts individuals and vice versa.

Firstly, they have a number of sociological theories, such as structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. Structural functionalism looks at all the organs of society (schools, churches, clubs, and the like) as the glue that holds society together. Conflict theory talks about the ongoing quest for power and resources creating an "each man for himself" scenario in society. Symbolic interactionist theory is another construct often used by sociologists to explain the reciprocal relationships between individuals and society. This theory looks at the relationships between individuals, and the ways in which they communicate with each other.

There are a wide variety of ways that sociologists acquire the quantitative and qualitative data that they need. Surveys (with open- or closed-ended questions), focus groups, and participant observation studies are all examples of sociological methods.

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Sociologists study the effect of society on individual thoughts, feelings, and behavior and the effect of individuals on society through the scientific method. To study a question, sociologists apply a theory, such as functionalism (which looks at the balance of different forces in society); conflict theory (which looks at change and conflict within society); and interactionalism (which looks at the way in which social interactions change society). They then identify a question, study relevant research on that question, and collect and study the data. To collect data, they use surveys (such as questionnaires, scales, and other forms) and observations. Sometimes, they use participant observations and join a group to study it from within and understand social phenomena firsthand. The data they collect then affect their theories and questions in a cyclical and iterative process. In addition, sociologists use their sociological imagination, as C. Wright Mills called it. This is the ability to see society and how it affects individuals from an outsider's perspective. 

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