Textbooks often promise to teach your students how to “think like a sociologist,” but what do they actually do? Most simply relay sociological theories and research findings to your students. That is, they tell your students what sociologists think, but not how sociologists think. But come to think of it, the very same thing could be said for how I often teach sociology and how it was taught to me.

Most of my undergraduate sociology education could be roughly described as my teacher saying to the class, “watch me as I sociologically analyze this aspect of society.” Then once the teacher reached their conclusion they would step back and say, “See? Did you see how I came to that conclusion?” If the whole class was still lost the professor would pick another similar topic and sociologically analyze it. And again s/he would ask, “do you get it now?” In the absence of direct instruction, sociological thinking is taught through repetition, trial and error, and inferred meaning[1].

“But there is no one way to think sociologically!” I imagine many of you are shouting in your mind. When discussing thinking like a sociologist with colleagues I am often told that there really isn’t a sociology to speak of, but rather many different sociologies tenuously connected under an umbrella term. This is a cop out. Especially for a discipline that prides itself in seeing commonalities within absurdly complex systems.

I completely agree that there are ways of thinking that are specific to sub-disciplines within sociology, but I reject the idea that these ways of thinking are mutually exclusive. I’m arguing that there are a set of habits of thought, recipes of understanding, ideologies, mental frameworks, heuristic devices, and so on that almost every sociologist uses when analyzing the social world, but we rarely teach them to our students directly.

Stop and think about it this fact for a second. See the familiar as strange for a moment. Isn’t this peculiar? Why would people tasked with teaching novices how to think like sociologists and become the sociologists of tomorrow not explicitly teach their students how to think like sociologists?

Why We Don’t Teach How To Think Like a Sociologist

I do not empirically know why instructors would not teach the mechanics of sociological thought, but I have a list of suspects- skill mastery chief among them. Instructors have practiced sociological thinking to the point that it no longer requires effortful thinking. Sociological thinking is automatic for us. This is not to say that sociological thinking is easy, but rather that with practice your mind can skip steps and your intuitive judgment is more accurate (Ambrose et al. 2010; Beilock, Wierenga, and Carr 2002; Lansdown 2002; Smith and Chamberlin 1992).

Second, I think many of us struggle to find the words to express the mechanics of our thought process because we lack the requisite metacognition[2]. We just do it, we don’t know how we do it.

Finally, within sociology and within communities of sociologists the legacy of how sociology has been taught in the past creates a structural/cultural force that says, “this is what sociology is and how it should be taught.” This is how I’ve seen 101 taught and this is how I am most comfortable teaching. No one taught me directly how to think sociologically and I turned out alright.

Next Week’s Topic: Sociology’s Imagination & Sociology as a Skill


  • Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K., & Mayer, R. E. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Beilock, S. L ., S. A. Wierenga, and T. H. Carr. 2002. “Expertise, Attention and Memory in Sensor Motor Skill Execution: Impact of Novel Task Constraints on Dual-Task Performance and Episodic Memory.” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology: A Human Experimental Psychology. 55(A): 1211–1240.
  • Lansdown, T. C. (2002). “Individual differences during driver secondary task performance: verbal protocol and visual allocation findings.” Accident Analysis & Prevention, 34(5), 655–662.
  • Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Pelton, J. A. (2014). “How Our Majors Believe They Learn Student Learning Strategies in an Undergraduate Theory Course.” Teaching Sociology, 42(4), 277–286.
  • Smith, M. D., & Chamberlin, C. J. (1992). “Effect of adding cognitively demanding tasks on soccer skill performance.” Perceptual and Motor Skills, 75(3), 955–961.

  1. I have to point out that this is exactly how common sense is learned, tacitly. Sometimes we hate in others what we see in ourselves.  ↩

  2. Julie Pelton (2014) has an excellent piece in Teaching Sociology on Metacognition and student learning that I would highly recommend.  ↩