We have Jeanne Mekolichick, Associate Provost and Professor of Sociology at Radford University on our podcast.
In this Podcast, Professor Mekolichick first tells us what Sociology is, and then takes us through a brief background of how the Discipline evolved, areas of Sociology, the kinds of research, the skills needed to pursue Sociology in College and the available opportunities when you graduate.
Hi-Fives from the Podcast are:
Episode Title: About Majors: What is Sociology? With Prof. Jeanne Mekolichick of Radford University.
The goal of this series is to serve as a Primer for High Schoolers about a College Major, through our conversations with Faculty Experts in the various US Colleges and Universities.
We continue this series with Sociology, with Jeanne Mekolichick, Professor of Sociology at Radford University.
In particular, we discuss the following with her:
Topics discussed in this episode:
Memorable Quote: “ I've told my students for years, we're giving you the superpowers of sociology and you know, you could do with them you know, you can go use them for good or evil” Prof. Jeanne Mekolichick.
Episode Transcript: Please visit Episode’s Transcript.
Suggestions for you: Primers on College Majors
Transcript of the episode’s audio.
<Start Snippet> Prof Jeanne Mekilochick 0:14
What's been interesting, I think, during the pandemic is that I've heard sociologists quoted more in the news now than many years, which has been fun and I'm like, Huh, that's really interesting, right? But there are a lot of really, I think critical, you know, we're at a critical time in so many ways in our world, and I think associate with this sociological lens, can help us understand and advance.
That is Jeanne Mekolichick, Professor of Sociology at Radford University.
Hello, I am your host, Venkat Raman.
Today’s episode is on Sociology, on our podcast series on “College Majors” to serve as a Primer for High Schoolers.
We are fortunate to have Professor Mekolichick with us on our podcast.
Venkat Raman 1:17
In this Podcast, Professor Mekolichick first tells us what Sociology is, and then takes us through a brief background of how the Discipline evolved, areas of Sociology, the kinds of research, the skills needed to pursue Sociology in College and the available opportunities when you graduate.
Venkat Raman 1:39
Before we jump into the podcast, here are the High-Fives, Five Highlights from the podcast:
[What is Sociology?]
Essentially the study of human behavior and groups social life, social change, we look at social causes and consequences of human behaviors.
[What does Sociology Address?]
You know, like Karl Marx and Harriet Martineau and W.E.B Du Bois, who are taking perspectives of the status quo, and asking questions, right, so I think what sociologists do really well is are we're good critical thinkers. We're analysts and we ask hard questions that are oftentimes invisible to others.
[Role of Sociology]
There are certainly some sociologists who see their calling as to understand and explain. There are sociologists who see their calling is to understand, explain and change.
[Skills to Study Sociology]
I have seen fabulous sociologists come with various different skill sets. And what I see as the foundational pieces are that students are curious, they are analytical or methodological, and their approach and they are critical thinkers.
I had mentioned earlier the skills, knowledge and dispositions that gain and hone, you know, coming out with a degree in sociology. And those match very closely to what we hear as, as employers are saying, what the critical skills, knowledge and dispositions that they're looking for, in new talent that they're trying to secure for their companies and industry.
Venkat Raman 3:43
These were the Hi5s, brought to you by College Matters. Alma Matters.
Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Venkat Raman 3:56
Now, I'm sure you want to hear the entire podcast with Prof. Mekolichick.
So without further ado, here is Prof. Jeanne Mekolichick!
Venkat Raman 4:07
If you're ready, we can jump right into it.
That sounds great.
Venkat Raman 4:11
Cool. So let's start with the most basic question. What is Sociology?
Excellent question, great place to start.
Well, you know, a lot of folks don't know right, essentially the study of human behavior and group's social life social change, we look at social causes and consequences of human behaviors. Both on what we talk about is the micro level, so small, mezzo, medium and macro levels and how hollow all of those interact, right? Yeah. Since that, you know, some sociologists Study what we talked about as dyads. So groups of two, all the way up to studying how societies interact with one another. So, it is pretty broad.
Venkat Raman 5:18
So, how did this start? I mean, when did, as long, as much as we can tell start this discussion? I mean, might be as old as mankind, but when did it formalize, I guess?
Right! I mean, so I think the ideas and and thought processes around interactions between humans and humans in groups been around for a very long time.
The beginnings of what we talked about as modern sociology, really start with Auguste Comte, who is named as the father of sociology. He coined the term in 1838. And he talked about bringing together, right in a formal way, looking at the scientific study of the social patterns. And so it was really from that time forward. And and I think what caught on from them and beyond is, as society is a society is we're modernizing, and we were trying to understand this shift. More folks were focused on that and looking at that.
And so we have some folks who are likely to be familiar in broader audiences like Karl Marx, right? W.E.B. Du Bois, right, also named as founding fathers of sociology. Probably maybe some lesser known folks are Harriet Martineau, who, who was the first credit as the first woman, sociologist, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, sometimes those folks cross, other disciplines, such as economics, and so forth. But those are the folks that oftentimes, are named as our founding fathers and mothers of sociology.
Venkat Raman 7:30
So what was the basic thing they were trying to address, or were they addressing initially? Or has it been sort of pretty broad right from the get go?
Well, I think it's been interesting, right? That you've had these different thinkers are certainly bringing different perspectives to the field, right? And you have, you know, like Karl Marx, and Harriet Martineau and W.E.B. Du Bois, who are taking perspectives of the status quo, and asking questions, right, so I think what sociologists do really well is our we're good critical thinkers, we're analysts and we ask hard questions, that oftentimes are invisible to others.
So there's certainly kind of that perspective of questioning the status quo coming to understand trying to build and so that that whole stream on equity and social action is certainly a thread in sociology, you know, and then there is also another thread that looks at, you know, the, the structure and functioning of, of society, right, sure. So, thinking about and analyzing how things work, how things change over time, but not for the sake of change, right, not for that action piece. And I think also running threads and of course, you know, over time, all of these will mix, but that the quantitative approach, the use of statistics, and then the qualitative approach to understanding human behaviors from you know, conversation interviews, focus groups, analysis of texts and content. And over time, where I think we see sociology today is certainly those kinds of purists threads, and a lot of, you know, areas where they have overlapped and combined and moved into new things right, that are challenging us that are asking, calling us to ask these critical questions about our society today
Venkat Raman 10:00
Is the main role of sociology as you see it, to analyze and explain or is it also to provide solutions? In other words, how was humanity in general impacted? How are we all impacted by this?
So excellent and very provocative question Venkat. So, I will start by talking about a foundational concept in sociology. And that's called the Sociological Imagination. And it was coined by C Wright Mills in 1958. And what it means to have a sociological imagination means that someone possesses the ability to relate personal experiences and troubles to societal issues at the local, national and global levels. And it's the capacity to see the interplay between all of these between the individuals and these various layers of complexity of social structure. So, this allows us to consider history, biography and social structure together. And so, I say all of that, to say that this allows us to contribute to the conversation to contribute to our understanding of how how society is there are certainly some sociologists who see their calling as to understand and explain there are sociologists who see their calling is to understand explain and change. And so I definitely am in that second camp. I sort of feel like and I've told my students for years right, so, you know, we're giving you the superpowers of sociology and you know, you could do with them you know, you can go use them for good or evil right, you know, your cheek right. But there are, there are powerful perspectives and understandings that we that that sociology helps us see in new ways about ourselves and about our social structures. That to me, then we are called to act upon. So if we see inequities, if we see, you know, our society, we we are swimming and all of this right now, as we have for many years, right. Does discrimination. And, and we're called to make change on the things that we see.
Venkat Raman 12:51
So maybe it's time to ask, you know, look at it somewhat structurally, how is the broad area of sociology divided or categorized or classified? What are the different areas?
That’s a good question. Sure. So, like I said, we can, we can talk about macro sociology, and micro sociologies, as kind of general differentiators. We can also split up into what kind of content areas and there are many, right so I think there are these cross cutting skills, knowledge and dispositions, that sociology brings to bear analytical and research tools, both quantitative and qualitative, that then you can apply to a whole host of things. And so, we kind of carve up into not completely mutually exclusive areas, such as, you know,
Studying, say society, culture and complex organizations as a bucket.
Studying inequality and social stratification,
studying policy and social movements,
studying race, ethnicity, and immigration,
ones that now are really kind of taking off, such as environmental sociology, or science, technology and medicine, social demography, or
sociology of health and illness.
And I can go on and on right sociology, right. So it's one of the I think it's the double edged sword of sociology. It's this unique set of tools that you can bring to a number of different areas of Social Inquiry.
I have a question about this. So you know, I'm just thinking equity, right? There's a lot of reasons that As inequity may exist, right. And we see that and we've seen that now, other tools, and that you talked about do they apply across the board to all inequitable things? Or is it really case specific? And the reason I'm asking this is that, you know, do you have to treat each one as a separate thing? Or is there sort of, I don't want to call it a magic wand. But if you come up with a solution for one kind of inequity, that it generally can be translated to other things.
I wish there was a magic wand.
Venkat Raman 15:31
I was, I was guessing there wasn't!
Well, I, here's a common theme, this may help. Right. So I think, to the degree that we understand power, and how power works in society, that is instructive for understanding and equities, right? I think there are there are certainly elements of understanding how power works in culture, how power works in social structure, how power works at the individual level, and how power is realized across and through all of those areas. And it is in those spaces, right? When you talk about a content inequity, right, so racism or sexism, they're gonna look different, right? The mechanisms for, for how they work in society, you know, there's general rules, do you know what I mean? But then the manifestation of it is, is going to look different based on how it gets filtered through a particular culture or through a particular social structure.
Venkat Raman 16:57
So now, what what kind of areas of research have you and your team been personally working on? What are the general historically what have been sort of some broad areas of research?
Sure. So I am trained as a Sociological Social Psychologist. So if we get into all the terms here, right, so social psychology, right? Is a subfield of sociology, social psychology is also a subfield of psychology, right? And of certainly, it's the approach, right? Do you start with a focus on the group or you start with the focus on the individual? So So I come from the sociological side, I am trained in looking at primarily self and identity, how individuals interact. And that I have applied over the many years in a number of different areas. In You know, I'm in I'm in administration now and have been for some time, so sure, that has really shifted the how I study, but I'll tell you, I am using my sociology now, I think more than what I was actually teaching it, you know.
Venkat Raman 18:09
That's, that's what I was gonna say, Yeah, you probably get to apply.
Oh, my gosh, every day, every meeting, it's just been fascinating.
But I'll talk about two threads that I've been involved in, that are broad here. So for quite some time, and I worked with undergraduate students doing undergraduate research, studying undergraduate research and other high impact practices, and how they can reduce equity gaps for underserved student populations. And so it is a undergraduate research is a powerful pedagogical tool. When we link that to the sociological imagination, you know, it really helps students see makes that come alive. And so that's been one thread of study, like I said that when I was still in the classroom had would use would engage with students as student teams working with me on that. More recently, I've spent time partnering with STEM colleagues to help them understand the importance of these self pieces right. So self efficacy, science, identity sense of belonging, these elements that social psychologists understand and study to help them understand how to cultivate and solidify the STEM pipeline, particularly as it relates to recruiting and retaining underserved populations. Women, first gen low income bipoc students. So all of this fits with these general approaches of how do we reduce access barriers? How do we close equity gaps in higher education? By understanding how human beings work and how they work in groups?
Venkat Raman 20:11
What are some other, you know your contemporaries, what kind of research are they, or have they been doing?
So, yeah, a great question. There's what's been interesting, I think, during the pandemic, is that I've heard sociologists quoted more in the news now many years, which has been fun, and I'm like, Huh, that's really interesting, right? But there are a lot of really, I think, critical. We, you know, we're at a critical time in so many ways in our world. And I think sociate this sociological lens, can help us understand and advance so some of the hot areas in sociology I think, are hot areas nationally and globally. And what we're studying so environmental sociology, is a is a very popular research area these days, health disparities, health and illness, that kind of area. demography, right. A strong component of sociology, a strong area of research has always been that inequality and social structure. And I think we've seen an increase in that as we have seen unrest in the world. Sure. Another threat is technology in society, which I think is really interesting, right? So computers and technology are becoming more and more a part of our lives, and we're interacting with them and through them. Understanding that interaction, and how platforms. And I guess the structures that humans put in and around how we interact, mediated through technology is becoming another, I think it already is another robust research area for sociologists.
Venkat Raman 22:19
One area that I was intrigued by as Environment Sociology, what, what what exactly is that? What? What does that entail?
So a broad area for sure, yeah, generally studying the you can go in a couple directions, right? The impact of the environment on society, and human interaction and behavior and social structures? And then, of course, the flip of that, too. How can and do humans? How can we change what we know are the impacts that we're having on our environment? Right. So we all know that reducing waste is a good thing. reusing water bottles, and, you know, bringing our bags to the grocery store, you know, those sorts of things? I don't know that. Right. But there are certainly barriers, like in anything from knowing what we should do and what we do. Right. And helping to understand what those barriers are, how to better influence positive behaviors, you know, so that we are reducing our footprint impact so forth is is certainly a thread. You know, I have a colleague who, you know, we're located in the Appalachian Mountains and mining historically has been a large economic driver in the area that is shifting. And there have been environmental impacts that are left on the land from the mining. And so thinking about that and studying both the attachment to land, the culture, the historical significance and change, as well as, you know, health problems that have come from being in that environment. So those are some examples of, of environmental sociology.
Venkat Raman 24:32
Let's switch gears a little bit and talk about what is, what is needed to study sociology in college? What, a student entering college, what, what kind of background, what kind of competencies do they need to have?
Alright, so Do you know at base I have seen fabulous sociologists come with various different skill sets. And what I see is the foundational pieces are that students are curious. They are analytical or methodological, in their approach. And they're critical thinkers. So I would say those are fundamental pieces. It helps to be observant, you know, being able to be flexible of mind seeing, if you don't start out this way, you'll end up this way as a trained sociologist.
Seeing things from multiple perspectives, you know, being able to kind of spin the kaleidoscope as I talked about it, to take alternative perspectives, systems thinking, you know, as we think about complex organizations are network studies, you know, how different groups relate to other groups, students who enjoy exploration and research that is, you know, foundational pieces of how we know the things that we know about the world.
You know, statistics are always a valuable skill I have to think in in life, right? We're living in now, being flexible and fluent in statistics. I wouldn't say though, that it is a requirement because there is such a strong qualitative thread to sociology, right. And so folks who are steeped in language and text, you know, students can be very successful in going in that path as well.
Venkat Raman 26:40
Now, one of the other things I noticed, as you were talking about sociology, as so far is the interdisciplinary nature of sociology. I mean, it's, you know, it's almost, it seems like it should be a huge plus having some other related fields or areas of interest, because then that might enhance your ability quite a bit, right?
Yeah, I'm a, I'm a huge fan of transdisciplinary work and interdisciplinary work, sociology or not. Yes, I totally agree.
Venkat Raman 27:19
Okay, so what, you know, let's say that a student completes their undergraduate degree in sociology, what career opportunities are available to them? What kind of things? Could they be doing?
A great question. And I think I'm always challenged to respond to that in a concise way. So I will pause the time that I had mentioned earlier, the skills, knowledge and dispositions that gain and hone, you know, coming out with a degree in sociology.
And those match very closely to what we hear, as, as employers are saying, what are the critical skills, knowledge and dispositions that they're looking for, in new talent that they're trying to secure for their companies and industry? And so there is a core, this core grouping of skills that can be applied to many different areas, just as I had mentioned earlier in the different kinds of areas of sociology.
Students, in my mind can do whatever they want, which is I talked about it as the jelly aisle. It's great, right? Yes, I just want to refill it. And there's 80 Different kinds of getting, you know, stumped.
So, you know, taking those analytical skills, they can be brought to survey research, right? Well, who uses survey research? Well, marketing firms use survey research, banks use survey research. The government at all levels. So that is a path right? If you're shifted in, in doing research or analysis, yeah.
Students have gone on to successful careers in marketing, successful careers in government planning. I, I am so challenging. I'm actually working with the American Sociological Association, which I'm a member right now. And we're trying to wrestle literally with just this question of how do we help share the value and the kinds of things that students can do in a world were the names of all the jobs that students are going to be going into in the next five years, may not exist yet. Trying to pin down into specific areas where we know that employers are looking much less for the type of degree that you earned, but the competencies that you've gained along the way.
So if a student is interested, you know, in sports, or interested, like I said, in the environment, or social justice work, there are so many different kinds of positions that they can fill and be successful and advance their careers.
Venkat Raman 30:40
So before we close here, I thought I could get a little personal and ask you how you got into sociology, give us a little bit of your journey. And maybe a couple of other things I want to sort of dive into.
Sure. So I, I entered college, not as a sociology major, which is very typical, really even know what it was. I'm a first gen student. And my parents didn't know what it was either I had to come home and convinced them after I changed my major, which a lot of students to have to do, right? Yeah. But I took my first sociology class and was introduced to just that whole perspective, I think it honed some things that I was, I'd always had been thinking, right, just in kind of my disposition or makeup as a human. I have always been curious about how things work and how humans work together, and organizations function and advance and change.
And it it really kind of shine light on that and help me refine and understand and explore those areas. I also was very much interested in social justice issues and social change. And it gave me an avenue for understanding how that worked, how to make change, how to advance ideas, and move forward. And so. So I took a class and was hooked. And then continued on my studies, I had a undergraduate or a head of research methods class, which most students aren't loving. And that's what I ended up teaching for many years, but took that class and was really excited about the tools that I was able to then kind of really answer the questions that I was looking to find about our social world. And just kind of continued from there, then I decided that I wanted to go on to earn my PhD and teach, which I did for many years thought that that's what I would do for the rest of my life. And you know, how it is other things come in the way and now I'm, I'm using my sociology in new ways.
Venkat Raman 33:09
Two things, right. One is you decided to continue in academia or decided to be in academia. Was that, was that a big decision? Or was that sort of a natural thing for you?
Um, no, I was, that was a couple of years ago, Venkat. Like, I just wanted to continue to swim in these ideas and talk about them and tell other people about them. And how I saw, you know, create this army of folks who can change the world, you know, through sociology. And that is, that's how I think I at the time, if I can remember what I was thinking at the time, I think that that's how that's how I thought I could advance society by contributing to others, and sharing the knowledge that I gained and found so valuable in my own growth and development.
Venkat Raman 34:14
You know, it seems like sociology spoke to you in a way that you really resonated with and so was there a time Or was this a process that you realize that you were really good at it? I mean, I like to ask this question only because, you know, it's one of the toughest things to pick something and stick with it. So I'm just asking, was that was that was that something that was the process or were there some moments in time that you said, Ah, you know, this comes naturally to me.
That's I think that's a really interesting question. I need to listen to more of your The podcasts to see how other disciplinary folks? Well, and I'll tell you why. Because as sociologists, what I have found over the years, I do not have empirical data support this, this is experiential here, I will call. But as a faculty member, what I see in the students that come to sociology in my colleagues who are sociologists, I would say the vast majority of us are, have been, or are a little bit to a lot on the outside of what we deem mainstream culture, right, or mainstream society. So, we've always had a little bit of a, you know, that's not quite how I see it, right, when you hear something stated. Yeah. And so having that experience in, in part in my own family, as well as in the school systems, and the environment that I grew up in, which were all very positive and supportive, but I was a little bit outside of all of them, and had the ability because of that, to reflect on them and ask questions that if you're, you're in it, you are not privy to write or don't see that you come to sociology, and it is reinforcing and, and helping you to further articulate the things that you are intuitively thinking about and considering. Do you know what I mean? Yeah. And so I think that that's probably very different for other disciplines. Or maybe not at all. But I have seen so many students who come to us, and are like, oh, yeah, this is the you are my people write this. To me. Yes, this society is yes, we need to be asking these questions that nobody is asking. Right. So the kind of good at it. I don't know if I really kind of thought about it that way. I thought about sociology as well, this is this is helping me be who I am.
Venkat Raman 37:07
Okay, a final question for you. You've been doing this for a lot of years. So what has been the most satisfying part of being in sociology?
Oh, that's a tough one. So I think, you know, whatever I'm doing, I think I'm always a faculty member, at my core. And so that is teaching and learning. And as a sociologist, who is a faculty member, that is contributing to the world in a positive way, and advancing social justice and change. And so I would say the most rewarding work that I've done as a sociologist, and a researcher, has been when I have worked with undergraduate students, and that's primarily who I've worked with, as a faculty member, doing community based research. So many of the classes I taught I would infuse undergraduate research into the curriculum, and we would take on projects for a semester or a longer arc, and work with many times nonprofits in the area who didn't have the expertise or knowledge to be able to do the the work, and helping them advance their work. So there's work that I had done for many years with the Women's Resource Center of the New River Valley, in their education outreach programs, in their transitional supportive housing programs. work that we did with the Boys and Girls Club of southwest Virginia, advancing their efforts. And the to me it was a win win all around. The students gained such valuable experiences in doing that work and contributing to their communities, real needs in the community. So they were growing and learning and then also just seeing how the work that they did advance the efforts of those organizations in the community and how grateful they were, for us to be helped us to be able to help them achieve their goals.
Venkat Raman 39:38
Yeah, I mean, you're really making a difference. I think that's huge. Okay, so Jeanne, thank you so much for taking the time to tell us what sociology is and I'm sure it's going to be extremely beneficial to the high schoolers out there. So thank you as always, and sure we'll talk again for right now. Take care, be safe. Thank you so much.
Thank you. It has been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for the opportunity to spend some time talking about sociology, and spend some time to argue with you. I really appreciate it. Thank you.
Venkat Raman 40:17
Sure thing. Thank you. Bye, bye.
Hope you enjoyed our podcast on Sociology with Professor Jeanne Mekolichick of Radford University.
Prof Mekolichick gives us a great overview of Sociology, the role of sociologists, research opportunities, and what it takes to pursue undergraduate study.
I hope this podcast inspires you to learn more about Sociology as a major.
For your questions or comments on this podcast, please email podcast at almamatters.io [email@example.com] with the Subject: Sociology.
Thank you all so much for listening to our podcast today.
Transcripts for this podcast and previous podcasts are on almamatters.io forward slash podcasts [almamatters.io/podcasts].
Till we meet again, take care and be safe.
Podcast for High Schoolers, College Major, College Majors Podcast, US Colleges, Primer for High Schoolers, Sociology, Environment Sociology, Radford University, Human Behavior, Group Social Life, Inequity.