Survey Me

by James Hearne

Horizon Reporter

Sociology means the study of society. That is what Charles Thompkins, a sociology professor at Whatcom Community College, tries to instill in his students every day. One of the ways he does this is through the use of surveys, one of  many techniques for finding information.

“It is an actualization of the course material,” Thompkins says.

“The ability to comprehend the links between our immediate, personal social settings and the remote, impersonal social world that surrounds us and helps to shape us,” is how noted American sociologist C. Wright Mills described sociology, and Thompkins feels this sums it up perfectly.

The first three weeks of Thompkins’ sociology courses, the students select a topic and look at how other scholars have approached it. They then form their own hypothesis (for instance, “Eating Disorders are mostly caused by stress factors in adolescent teenage girls”) and survey the population pool. They answer a variety of questions, that are both demographic (age, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) and specific to the topic of the survey.

Some past topics include, “Do our fears change as we get older?” The conclusion reached was yes, they do. Another studied the correlation between whether or not one believed that homosexuality was predetermined or a choice, and acceptance of homosexuality. This one provides a useful illustration of the basic formula that sociologists try to use, which is basically “if x, then y.” X, in this case, would be one’s opinion on the origins of homosexuality, and Y being someone’s acceptance of it.

“Surveys are a tool to test thought and to move from thought into action,” Thompson says.

Even though the sample pool tends to be somewhat low, Thompkins says his students are often surprised at what they find out about people in their community. Many students have had their preconceptions shattered. Thompkins adds that he is not immune to this. For example, he was surprised to find that race played a bigger role in eating disorders than stress level.

Thompkins says that it is important to look at sociology like one would do with any other science. Sociology is “like going to the moon, and looking down on the puzzle of human interaction,” he says. Surveys give us a way to measure perhaps the greatest scientific puzzle of all: that of human interaction, he adds.

He says that sociology borrows from the natural sciences, but with the acknowledgement that, unlike many of the principals of biology or physics, the factors involved in sociology are constantly changing, because society is constantly changing. The laws of gravity are not changing anytime soon, but society is, he says.

“The social world is prone to error,” Thompkins says. He wants his students to realize it. “Our senses are prone to error,” Thompkins adds. “We have to test our senses.”

Logan Johnston, a student in Sociology 101, is studying attitudes towards homosexuality. He says the reason this course caught his eye is that it is related to what he is interested in. “I love psychology,” Johnston says, “and sociology and psychology go hand in hand.”

As Thompkins tells his students, “I don’t care what you think about abortion. Show me the data.”

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