I asked my students to begin their semester-long blogging project by sharing what draws them to sociology and how they might use it in the future. I figured I'd answer the same question. The short story is that when I was introduced to the sociological perspective by my wonderful Introduction to Sociology teacher, I had an "aha" moment. The topic was food insecurity and public versus private responses to food insecurity. I was someone who had been hungry on occasion and who understood well what it meant to be worried about my ability to provide food for myself and my children. I had also had dealt with public institutions such as the Dept. of Social Services and private organizations such as food banks. So in this Intro class, I learned about how the federal poverty line, which is used to determine who is eligible for assistance. I learned about public policy regarding food insecurity (or the lack thereof), and I learned about the constraints and limitations of the private charity system which has tried to fill in the gaps left by our public policy response to food insecurity (we read Sweet Charity, which remains on my bookshelf to this day). This structural perspective enabled me to begin to understand my experiences as an individual when I had applied for assistance with food at both public and private institutions.
And that is the definition of sociology - the ability to move from thinking about personal experience as an individual problem to seeing that personal experience within a larger social system. C. Wright Mills, who coined the term, "the sociological imagination," to describe how sociologists view the world, defined it as the ability to distinguish between personal troubles and public issues. While it is certainly the case that individuals have agency, that is, they make choices that affect their everyday lives and their life chances, they don't do that within a vacuum. We exist within a larger social system that influences what choices we have and how we behave. Therefore, the benefits of the sociological perspective are that by examining the social system, we can see where inequalities are created and maintained - such as ways that public policies fail to provide adequate solutions for food insecurity - and can suggest alternative policies.