5 Key Terms Every Sociologist Should Know

Understanding people is an intriguing study, which is a large part of what draws so many students to sociology. Going beyond psychology’s emphasis on the individual, sociology examines groups, delving into the social structure and the interactions within the many groups that make up society. The ways in which these group behaviors influence others inside and outside of the group then becomes central to sociology. As a result, knowledge of a few essential terms facilitates that study. Here are five key terms every sociologist should know:


Sociologists view culture as being the way of life shared by a society or by groups within a society. This encompasses beliefs, family life and marriage customs, attire, language, work and leisure activities as well as religious ceremonies and celebrations, to name a few elements. Because culture so often dictates social and familial relationships and discourse, it is of primary interest to sociologists as they analyze societal groups and compare and contrast them with those of other societies. Noting similarities and differences among specific groups within a society forms the basis for sociological theories and perspectives as does contrasting these with other societies.


Like the meaning accorded the word “value” in everyday life, the sociological view of values refers to that which has worth. In a society, values are beliefs that have a moral aspect and are commonly held by the people within that society. Of course, this has a cultural component as well since values are strongly influenced by customs and traditions, varying greatly from one culture to another. While people hold values in high esteem, there tends to be a hierarchy of values, with some taking precedence over others. Additionally, some values are explicitly stated while others are implicitly understood by the members of that group.


Similar to values in that it is also based on societal beliefs, norms are the accepted rules for behavior among the members of a group or society. These rules are commonly known, and the behaviors governed by them are not merely universally acknowledged among group members but expected as well. Viewed in a cultural context, norms have just as much variety as values, with behavior that is condoned and even celebrated in one society or culture considered in a negative light in another. Ultimately, what is deemed normal behavior in a society evolves with the times, changing with the values of a society.


Founded on the belief that one’s own ethnic group, culture or nation is not only the right one but the superior one, ethnocentrism appears in all societies. It’s a viewpoint often instilled from childhood through the values espoused within the home as well as those promoted in the community and through other group affiliations, including social clubs, fraternities, and sports teams. Moreover, ethnocentrism is often reinforced through several different kinds of teachings, from history to religion. While the concept has a decided ability to unite group members in an us-against-them manner, ethnocentrism can also be a precursor to discrimination, prejudice and even hatred.


Socialization, the process by which people learn the culture, values and norms of the society in which they live or the group to which they wish to belong, starts early. In a society, it begins virtually at birth, with parents, teachers and other influential adults initiating the process and ensuring that the child conforms to the socially agreed standards. For those seeking entrance and acceptance within a new group or culture, socialization takes the form of newcomers being advised by those who are already members as to the behaviors, language, attire and even social interactions that are circumscribed by the group, organization or culture.

Although these five key terms are essential knowledge for a sociologist, providing basic categorization of sociology concepts along with an appropriate means for discussing them, they are just the beginning. For potential sociology enthusiasts, these terms can lead to greater discoveries, becoming steppingstones to understanding the people around them.