Sociology looks at how society works. More specifically, it’s the study of social behavior, relationships, and interactions.
Scholars in the field attempt to answer questions like the following:
- “Why did so many Germans embrace Hitler and the Nazis?”
- “How do people behave in a sports bar as compared to a classroom?”
- “How does the layout of a neighborhood affect the relationships between the people living there?”
It’s possible to self-study sociology outside of school by reading sociology books, textbooks, and research papers, taking online sociology courses, and listening to sociology podcasts.
Below is a step-by-step roadmap for breaking into sociology and gaining a foundational education in the field, one that will enable you to identify and pursue the parts of sociology that most interest you.
By no means is this self-education roadmap the law of the land. It’s simply a useful and systematic guide to get you started in your self-directed studies.
The steps are designed to be followed in order. Each builds on the prior. But don’t let that stop you from following your curiosity and hopping around.
1. Begin With an Intro to Sociology Online Course
Crash Course Sociology is a great starting point for the self-directed learner. It’ll introduce you, in an amusing way, to many of the key thinkers, concepts, and theories in the field of sociology.
Over the course of 45 videos, you’ll learn about Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, social stratification, social mobility, culture, and so much more.
If you want a lecture series from a University, check out NYU’s Introduction to Sociology:
I like how this professor treats sociology as an incredibly interdisciplinary field that borrows from others like economics, anthropology, and even communications.
He also has a good sense of humor and does a good job making complex concepts and theories easy to understand.
2. Study The Practical Skeptic Sociology Textbook
Now it’s time to read about sociology like a new college student would. UC Berkeley prescribes the following two complementary books to its Intro to Sociology students:
- The Practical Skeptic: Core Concepts in Sociology: This concise, introductory textbook covers the core concepts of sociology that a beginner student should know.
- The Practical Skeptic: Readings in Sociology: This collection of classic and contemporary sociological research is often used as a companion to the textbook above.
The research essays should reinforce and broaden your understanding of the fundamental concepts you’ll learn about in the actual textbook.
After reading through both of these books, you’ll be well-versed in the language of sociology. A whole world of knowledge will be open to you, as you’ll be equipped to read classic sociology books and actually understand what’s being said.
Additionally, by reading about research findings and experiments, you’ll start to understand what practicing sociologists actually study in the real world, as well as the useful applications of that research. If you have the goal of becoming a professional sociologist, this is going to be especially useful.
3. Take a Few Online Sociology Courses for Beginners
After you read the two books above, consider taking a few online courses meant for beginners in sociology.
These will broaden your understanding of the field and give you introductions to the various aspects of sociology, like classical theory and criminology.
To start, consider taking Classical Sociological Theory, offered by Coursera.
This course traces the chronological development of sociology as a social science, and introduces you to its most influential thinkers and groundbreaking ideas, many of which are still relevant today.
Each lesson covers a different thinker, including big names like Adam Smith, August Comte (the man who coined the word sociology), and Alexis De Tocqueville.
After getting an understanding of the history of sociology, feel free to take some courses that interest you. Think of this as your chance to sample the field to find what really fascinates you.
For example, there’s one course called the Introduction to Criminology, which teaches you to speak and think about the sociology of crime like an expert criminologist.
Coursera offers some other interesting sociology courses, like UPenn’s Social Norms, Social Change, an exploration of the norms that hold society together.
Or, if you’re looking for something a bit more mathematically rigorous, there’s Social and Economic Networks: Models and Analysis.
Take 2-3 courses before heading to the next step, where you’ll grapple with some of the foundational works of the field.
4. Read the Classic Works of Sociology
By classic works, I mean the books that have had the greatest influence on the field of sociology, the ones that have stood, and will probably continue to stand, the test of time.
Reading deeply in one field like sociology will also help you become well-read. Through consistent reading of the classics you can become extremely knowledgeable about sociology. After a while, most of your friends and peers will start to consider you an expert on the topic.
As for which classic books to study, here’s a list of around 30 great sociology books, 9 essentials and 20 great yet often neglected works.
The list is the result of two sociologists trying to answer the question “ which books, written by sociologists, should all new graduate students in sociology read?”
If you just have time to read a few books, I have to recommend one of my favorites, Democracy in America, where Alexis de Tocqueville, “the man on whom nothing was lost”, examines the society of the United States in the early 19th century.
People also rave about The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. I haven’t read it yet, but I intend to within the next year or so.
In a world where social media and personal branding is everywehre, I’m interesting in learning about how people strategically portray themselves to others.
5. Listen to Sociology Podcasts
While you read the great books of sociology, mix in some podcast listening, which you can easily do while mowing the lawn or driving to work. Podcasts are how I get through my evening dishwashing task every night.
Below are some excellent sociology podcasts to supplement your self-directed studies:
- Thinking Allowed: This BBC Radio podcast discusses new research about how society works.
- The Social Breakdown: They analyze current social issues and phenomena through the eyes of a sociologist.
- Annex Sociology Podcast: This podcast is meant for academic sociologists, so it’s a bit more heavy-going than the other two, but still accessible to self-directed learners.
Podcasts are a great way to learn about what’s going on in the world of sociology today, and to better understand complex social phenomena.
By listening to sociologists and experts break down ideas and issues, you’ll also start to learn how to think and speak like a sociology. As the saying goes, monkey see monkey do.
6. Follow Your Curiosity & Keep Learning
At this point, you’ll know which topics and branches of sociology most interest you. Feel free to pursue further study in them by reading and taking more online courses.
You could also do any of the following for your next steps in your self-education:
- Get a Degree in Sociology: If you want to become a practicing sociology, consider getting a degree in the field.
- Study a Tangential Field: Consider teaching yourself another social science, like political science or economics. These will inform your sociology studies and enable you to draw interesting connections between the fields.
- Go Deeper into a Sociology Subfield: Consider focusing your reading on one sociological subfield, like sociology of education or sociology of religion.
The main thing you should do is continue learning. Keep reading and taking courses. Become a true lifelong learner in the field.
Through long-term self-directed study you’ll gain self-confidence, expand your knowledge, sharpen your mind, and become more interesting, articulate, and charismatic.
Bottom Line: Teaching Yourself Sociology
As long as you have the curiosity and self-discipline, you can give yourself a remarkably solid education in sociology by reading books, taking online courses, and staying abreast of the latest findings in the field.
Remember though, sociology isn’t only in the books. It’s all around you. Stop every once in a while and look at the world like a sociologist.
Maintain that interest in how society works. Ask questions about it, and try to find the answers through further reading or through your sociological imagination, which by now is grounded in the basic concepts of the field.