Sociology enables you to better understand the social forces that shape human behavior. Once you learn sociology, you’ll be better equipped to handle a variety of life situations.Â
So, how exactly should you go about learning sociology? Reading about it from the experts, of course! That’s why we’ve found the best sociology books, so you can learn everything you need to know.
Best Sociology Books
To better understand how social forces operate and the ways they may create fortune or misfortune, take a look at the top 11 sociology books below.
1. The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills
In The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills sets forth his beliefs on how social science should be pursued. In this, he takes issue with the ascendant schools of sociology in America and calls for a humanist sociology instead. In a humanist sociology, the personal, social, and historical dimensions of our lives would be intertwined.
In this, he calls for a sociological vision in which we can see the links between the apparently private problems of the individual and pressing social issues.
Key Topics and Themes
- The Sociological Imagination: The primary focus of the book is to establish and explore the concept of the sociological imagination. Mills describes this as the ability to understand the intersection between personal biography and history, or more specifically, the ability to understand individual experiences and choices as they relate to larger social structures and historical events.
- Distinction between Personal Troubles and Public Issues: One of the book’s key points is the distinction Mills draws between personal troubles and public issues. Personal troubles are problems experienced by individuals that are related to their immediate social setting, while public issues are societal problems that affect many people. Mills emphasizes that many personal troubles can be understood as public issues when examined under the lens of the sociological imagination.
- Critique of Abstract Empiricism and Grand Theory: Mills criticizes contemporary sociology for focusing either on abstract empirical research, which he sees as lacking in narrative and meaning, or grand theory, which he considers too generalized and detached from real, tangible experiences. He argues for a middle ground that utilizes both detailed empirical evidence and theory, enabling sociologists to connect the personal and the social.
- The Role of Sociologists: Mills suggests that sociologists have a responsibility to engage with the social issues of their time. He advocates for sociologists to work toward social change by using their research and the sociological imagination to make public issues more understandable and relatable to the public.
- Bureaucracy and Power Structures: Mills discusses the concentration of power within modern societies, especially within bureaucracies, and the implications this has for individuals and democracy. He highlights how power structures can shape individual experiences and societal trends.
- Historical and Comparative Analysis: The book emphasizes the importance of historical and comparative analysis in sociology. Mills encourages sociologists to consider how societal issues and individual experiences have changed over time and vary across different cultures.
2. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is one of the most notable contributions when it comes to better understanding ourselves. In this, Goffman explores the realm of human behavior in social situations and how we appear to others. Using theatrical performance as a framework, this book explains how knowledge of everyday social intercourse can help us control the impressions that others form about us.
By reading this, you’ll learn about the techniques that you can employ to sustain a particular performance, similar to an actor with an audience. The various social techniques offered in this book are based upon detailed sociological research and various cultural customs from around the world.
Key Topics and Themes
- Dramaturgical Perspective: Goffman presents the metaphor of a theatrical performance to understand social interactions. In this perspective, life is seen as a stage, individuals as actors, and our daily interactions as a series of performances. We “perform” different roles in various social situations.
- Front Stage and Back Stage: In our “performance,” Goffman explains that we have a ‘front stage’ where we present ourselves to others and adhere to shared norms and values. Conversely, the ‘back stage’ is where we can retreat, drop our performance, and behave more freely without the need to maintain social norms.
- Impression Management: Central to Goffman’s theory is the concept of impression management. This refers to the effort that individuals exert to control the impressions others form of them in social interactions. We adjust our performance based on the social situation and audience we encounter.
- Performance Tools – Setting, Appearance, Manner: Goffman identifies various tools that individuals use in their performances. ‘Setting’ refers to the physical scene of the interaction. ‘Appearance’ encompasses personal items, clothing, and physical characteristics that convey social information. ‘Manner’ refers to how we act and communicate in given situations.
- Role Distance: Goffman introduces the concept of ‘role distance,’ which is the gap between an individual’s actual self and the role that society expects them to play. This distance can lead to feelings of alienation or disenchantment with the role they are performing.
- Teams: Goffman discusses the concept of ‘teams,’ groups of individuals who cooperate in staging a single routine. This concept emphasizes the collaborative nature of performances and how individuals work together to maintain certain social realities.
- Embarrassment and Tact: Goffman highlights the role of embarrassment and tact in social interactions. When a performance breaks down (e.g., someone stumbles over their words), it can lead to embarrassment. Other actors often employ tact, helping the individual recover and maintain the overall illusion of the performance.
3. Distinction by Pierre Bourdieu
Distinction is a sociology classic that brilliantly illuminates the social pretensions of the middle class in the modern world. First published in 1979, this book explores the tastes and preferences of the French bourgeoisie.
In the course of everyday life, we constantly choose between what we find appealing and what we find appalling. Taste is not pure. Rather, our different choices are all distinctions, made in opposition to other options. This fascinating book argues that the social world functions as both a system of power relations and one in which taste becomes the basis for social judgment.
Key Topics and Themes
- Taste as a Social Construct: One of the primary arguments Bourdieu makes is that our tastes—what we like and dislike—are not purely personal but are heavily influenced by our social class. What we enjoy or find valuable is often a reflection of our social background and upbringing.
- Cultural Capital: Bourdieu introduces the concept of “cultural capital”, which refers to the knowledge, skills, education, and other cultural assets that a person possesses. Cultural capital is a form of symbolic wealth that can be used to achieve a higher social status and is inherited and passed down from generation to generation.
- Habitus: Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus” refers to the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we develop over time due to our life conditions and experiences. Our habitus, according to Bourdieu, influences our tastes and behaviors, shaping our perception of the world around us and our place within it.
- Social Distinction: The title of the book refers to the distinctions people make between themselves and others based on differences in taste. These distinctions often serve to reinforce social hierarchies and class divisions. The choices we make, from the art we appreciate to the food we eat, can symbolize our social position and separate us from other classes.
- The Role of Education: Bourdieu argues that education plays a critical role in the transmission of cultural capital and, consequently, in the reproduction of social hierarchies. Those from higher social classes have access to more and better educational opportunities, which in turn allow them to accumulate more cultural capital.
- Legitimate Taste: Bourdieu also discusses the notion of “legitimate taste,” referring to the dominant aesthetic preferences in a society. These tastes are usually determined by those in power, and aligning with them can grant individuals social prestige.
4. Suicide: A Study in Sociology by Emile Durkheim
If everyone understood the social frameworks in which we operate, there would be no need for sociology. Thanks to Emile Durkheim, we do have a connection to the larger picture. If anything can explain how individuals react and relate to society, it is suicide. Why does it happen? What goes wrong? Why is it more common in some places than others?
In this, Durkheim explains how suicide can help us refine our approach to sociology and better understand humans from this largely misunderstood act.
Key Topics and Themes
- Suicide as a Social Fact: Durkheim treats suicide as a “social fact,” meaning it’s not just an individual act but an occurrence that can be analyzed statistically and sociologically. He argues that suicide rates differ among different social groups, indicating that societal factors contribute to suicide.
- Four Types of Suicide: Durkheim classifies suicides into four categories: egoistic, altruistic, anomic, and fatalistic (though the last type is less emphasized in his work). Egoistic suicide occurs in societies where individuals are not sufficiently integrated into social groups. Altruistic suicide happens when individuals are overly integrated and may sacrifice their lives for the collective good. Anomic suicide occurs during times of social upheaval and confusion when norms are disrupted.
- Social Integration and Regulation: Durkheim identifies two major social factors that influence suicide rates: social integration (the extent to which individuals feel connected to society) and moral regulation (the extent to which individuals’ desires are kept in check by societal norms and rules). Too much or too little of either can increase the likelihood of suicide.
- Role of Religion, Family, and Politics: Durkheim discusses the role of various social institutions in influencing suicide rates. For instance, he notes that Protestants have higher suicide rates than Catholics and Jews, possibly due to lesser community integration. He also finds that married individuals and those with children are less likely to commit suicide due to stronger social ties.
- Anomic Suicide and Economic Factors: Durkheim pays particular attention to anomic suicide, which he links to rapid social and economic change. He argues that periods of economic crisis or boom disrupt social order and lead to a state of “anomie,” or normlessness, increasing suicide risk.
- Methodological Approach: Durkheim’s work on suicide is also notable for its methodological approach. He used a comparative and statistical method to study suicide rates among different social groups, demonstrating the power of empirical, scientific methods in sociology.
5. The Social Construction of Reality by Peter L. Berger
A treatise in the sociology of knowledge, The Social Construction of Reality examines how knowledge forms and how it is both altered and preserved within a society. In this, Berger goes beyond intellectual history and focuses on common sense, everyday knowledge. The proverbs, morals, and beliefs shared by the majority of people can teach us loads about the human condition and our interactions with each other.
This book transformed both Western philosophy and sociology, introducing social construction and many more revolutionary ideas.
Key Topics and Themes
- Social Construction of Reality: The central argument of the book is that the reality we perceive is largely a subjective construction shaped by social processes. Our knowledge of the world is influenced by our interactions with others and the social context we live in.
- The Role of Language: Berger and Luckmann emphasize the crucial role of language in the construction of social reality. Language provides the conceptual tools and symbols that people use to make sense of the world. It’s not only a method of communication, but also a mechanism to construct and reinforce shared understandings of reality.
- Primary Socialization: This is the process through which individuals learn and internalize the values, beliefs, norms, and social roles of their society, usually in childhood. This foundational process significantly shapes an individual’s perception of reality.
- Secondary Socialization: This refers to the learning processes that occur later in life, often associated with entering new social roles or environments (like starting a new job or moving to a new city). Secondary socialization processes further refine and adapt our perceptions of reality.
- Institutionalization: The authors argue that as humans interact, they develop patterns of behavior that become institutionalized over time. These institutions are created by humans, but they also shape human behavior and thoughts, contributing to the social construction of reality.
- Legitimation: Once institutionalized, social patterns require justification or “legitimation.” These legitimations help explain and justify societal norms and institutions, ensuring their continuity and stability.
- Reification: Berger and Luckmann introduce the concept of “reification,” which is the process by which abstract concepts or relationships are viewed as concrete, real objects. Reified institutions and norms further influence individuals’ perceptions of reality.
- Social Change and Deconstruction: While social reality is constructed and often appears fixed, it is also subject to change. Individuals and groups can challenge existing realities, norms, and institutions, leading to the deconstruction and reconstruction of social realities.
6. Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam
Drawing on new data that reveals the underlying reasons for Americans’ change in behavior, Bowling Alone explores why we have become increasingly disconnected from one another. Social structures, from church groups and political parties, have widely disintegrated.
In this fundamental book, Putnam explains how social groups hold fundamental power when it comes to creating a happy and healthy society. Not only does he define what this central crisis means for our society, but explains what we can do to improve our current condition.
Key Topics and Themes
- Decline of Social Capital: The central premise of the book is that social capital—networks, norms, and trust that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives—has declined in American society. This is characterized by reduced participation in politics, less engagement with community organizations, and diminished faith in public institutions.
- Bowling Alone Metaphor: Putnam uses the decline of bowling leagues, despite the rise of individual bowlers, as a metaphor for the loss of communal participation in society, hence the title “Bowling Alone.” This metaphor exemplifies how individualism has increased while communal activities have decreased.
- Consequences of Declining Social Capital: The book explores the negative consequences of the decline in social capital. Putnam argues that this trend has led to an increase in societal problems, including crime rates, decreased educational performance, political polarization, and overall reduced quality of life.
- Causes of Declining Social Capital: Putnam explores various potential causes for the decline in social capital. These include busier lifestyles and time pressures, economic hardship, residential mobility, the rise of television and the internet, and generational changes in values and attitudes.
- Generational Shifts: Putnam gives significant attention to generational shifts, emphasizing how the generation who came of age during the Depression and World War II (whom he calls the “long civic generation”) participated more in civic activities compared to subsequent generations.
- The Role of Technology and Media: Putnam discusses how the rise of technology and media, particularly television, has contributed to less personal interaction and involvement in community activities. People spend more time in front of screens and less time in face-to-face social activities.
- Reviving Social Capital: The final part of the book discusses potential strategies for reviving social capital. Putnam emphasizes the need for institutional reform, investment in youth, and fostering a renewed culture of civic responsibility.
7. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell takes the reader on a story of success, explaining exactly what makes high-achievers different from the rest. Not only does he provide timeless pieces of wisdom and advice, but backs it up with evidence of those who have lived the most influential lives.
According to Gladwell, we pay too much attention to what successful people are like and too little attention to their upbringing. Along the way, he explains the secrets of software billionaires, what made The Beatles the greatest rock band, and how you can apply the knowledge of successful humans to your life, too.
Key Topics and Themes
- The 10,000-Hour Rule: Gladwell introduces the concept of the “10,000-Hour Rule,” arguing that mastery in any field requires a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice. He uses examples like Bill Gates, who had access to a high school computer at a time when it was rare, and The Beatles, who performed lengthy live shows in Hamburg before they became famous.
- Opportunity and Timing: Gladwell emphasizes the role of extraordinary opportunities and luck in achieving success. He asserts that birth date (which impacts school enrollment dates) can significantly affect an individual’s opportunity for success in areas like sports and academia.
- Cultural Legacy: Gladwell introduces the concept of “Cultural Legacy” as a strong influence on individual success. He argues that cultural backgrounds significantly shape people’s behavior, aspirations, and attitudes towards success. He uses the example of a higher rate of plane crashes in countries with high power distance index, suggesting that cultural attitudes towards authority played a role.
- Context and Community: The author explores how one’s community, family, and generation affect success. He illustrates this through the “Roseto Mystery,” where a close-knit community in Roseto, Pennsylvania, had a lower rate of heart disease, which he attributes to social structure and community support.
- The Matthew Effect: Gladwell employs the Biblical concept of the Matthew Effect, “For to everyone who has, more shall be given,” to explain how small initial advantages can lead to disproportionate rewards later in life.
- Success as an Outlier: The term “outlier” refers to a data point that is significantly different from others. In the book, Gladwell suggests successful people are outliers in the sense that they have been given opportunities—and have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.
8. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
The Tipping Point is all about how little things can make a huge difference. In this, Malcolm Gladwell explores the science behind viral trends in business, marketing and human behavior. The tipping point is the magic moment when an idea or social trend spreads like wildfire. Similar to how one single person can start a pandemic, one single person can start a worldwide trend.
In this widely acclaimed best-seller, Gladwell explains how this process occurs and how this phenomenon is already changing the way that people think about human behavior and business.
Key Topics and Themes
- Concept of the Tipping Point: Gladwell introduces the concept of the “tipping point”, a moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. He compares this phenomenon to the spread of viruses, arguing that small, precise pushes can lead to a tipping point that causes a larger change in behavior.
- Three Rules of Epidemics: Gladwell discusses the “Three Rules of Epidemics” which are the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.
- The Law of the Few: According to Gladwell, social epidemics are driven by the actions of a select group of individuals. He categorizes them as Connectors (people who know a wide array of people from various social, cultural, economic, and occupational circles), Mavens (information specialists who gather and share information), and Salesmen (persuaders with powerful negotiation skills).
- The Stickiness Factor: Gladwell uses the term “stickiness” to refer to a unique quality that compels the phenomenon to “stick” in the minds of the public and influence their future behavior. He provides the example of “Sesame Street” and “Blue’s Clues,” whose creators made deliberate changes to make their shows “stickier” and thus more effective at teaching children.
- The Power of Context: According to Gladwell, human behavior is strongly influenced by its environment. Small changes in context can cause a large change in behavior. An example given is the drastic drop in crime in New York City in the 1990s, which Gladwell attributes in part to context changes like the cleanup of graffiti in the subway system.
- Social Epidemics and Their Effect: Gladwell explores numerous examples of social epidemics, such as the sudden popularity of Hush Puppies shoes, the decrease in crime rates in New York City, and the impact of educational television on child learning.
9. Economy and Society by Max Weber
Recognized as one of the greatest sociological books of the 20th century, Economy and Society is the foundational text of the sociological imagination. In this, Weber compares social structures and normative orders. Conducted in world-historical depth, this book looks at social action, religion, law, political communities, and more.
This book offers important challenges to our sociological thought. Whether you’re a scholar who must match wits with Weber or a new graduate student looking to develop your analytical skills, this book will help you apply that knowledge.
Key Topics and Themes
- Social Action: Weber introduces the idea of “social action,” actions individuals take based on their interactions with others and how they interpret those actions. This concept is foundational to Weber’s understanding of social relations.
- Types of Social Action: Weber distinguishes between four types of social action: purposeful rationality (action driven by rational pursuit of a goal), value rationality (action driven by belief in a goal’s intrinsic value), affectual action (action driven by emotions), and traditional action (action driven by ingrained habituation).
- Ideal Types: Weber’s “ideal types” are theoretical constructs that help us understand the world, although they don’t correspond directly to it. They serve as comparison tools to measure and categorize social phenomena. Examples include bureaucracy, charisma, and city.
- Bureaucracy: Weber offers a detailed analysis of bureaucracy, which he considers the most efficient and rational way that one can organize human activity. He outlines characteristics of bureaucracy, including a fixed division of labor, hierarchy of offices, and set of rules. However, he also cautions about the “iron cage” of bureaucracy, where individuals are trapped in efficient but dehumanizing systems.
- Authority and Domination: Weber identifies three legitimate types of political leadership, domination or authority: charismatic, traditional, and legal-rational, each of which corresponds to a type of social action.
- Religion and Capitalism: Drawing from his earlier work, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Weber discusses the relationship between religion and economic systems, arguing that Protestantism contributed to the development of modern capitalism.
- Methodology: Weber outlines his approach to sociological research, emphasizing the importance of “verstehen,” or interpretive understanding, where researchers must understand both the context and the subjective meaning of social action.
10. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Named one of the best books of 2017, Evicted is a compelling exploration of one the most basic human rights: shelter. From abandoned slums to shelters, author Matthew Desmond has spent his life recording the stories of those who struggle to survive. Yet, none of these people give up.
In this work of care and humanity, Desmond reminds us why, without a home, nothing is possible.
Key Topics and Themes
- Cycle of Eviction: Desmond illustrates how eviction is not just a symptom, but also a cause of poverty. The book exposes the eviction cycle where many poor tenants are spending over half their income on housing, often leading to missed rent payments, eviction, and thus further poverty.
- Profit from Poverty: The book shows how landlords in impoverished neighborhoods often make substantial profits due to the shortage of affordable housing, lack of rent control, and limited housing regulation. The title’s “profit in the American city” refers to how landlords, often not wealthy themselves, can profit from high rents and eviction turnover in these poor communities.
- Gender and Race Disparities: The book demonstrates how eviction disproportionately affects women (particularly black women) and people of color, exacerbating social inequality. Women in poor black neighborhoods were found to be evicted at twice the rate of men.
- Effects of Eviction: Desmond explores the wide-ranging impacts of eviction, from job loss, mental and physical health issues, to children’s education being disrupted. The long-lasting effects of a single eviction notice can create a downward spiral that’s incredibly difficult to reverse.
- Housing as a Basic Right: Through his research, Desmond argues that affordable housing should be considered a basic right for all citizens. He posits that stable housing is a crucial step toward achieving economic security and escaping poverty.
- Policy Implications: The book emphasizes the need for policy reform in the area of housing. Desmond suggests expanding the housing voucher program to all low-income families, improving legal representation for those facing eviction, and regulating landlords and rent more effectively.
11. The Rules of Sociological Method by Emile Durkheim
The Rules of Sociological Method is a masterful work on the nature and scope of sociology. Now with a new introduction and complete translation, this book remains one of the most important contributions to the field of sociology. Through letters, arguments, and debates, Durkheim defends his objective scientific method that he applies to the study of humans.
This essential work argues that explanations of human behavior cannot be reduced to individual-level factors. Instead, social phenomena must be explored on a much larger scale to better understand how and why certain trends occur.
Key Topics and Themes
- Social Facts: Durkheim introduces the concept of “social facts,” which he defines as ways of acting, thinking, and feeling that are external to individuals and endowed with power by virtue of which they control individuals. These include societal norms, values, and structures that exist independently of individuals.
- Objective Study of Society: Durkheim emphasizes that sociology should be studied in an objective manner, akin to the natural sciences. He calls for the use of empirical evidence and eschews subjective impressions.
- Collective Conscience: Durkheim introduces the concept of “collective conscience,” which refers to the shared beliefs, ideas, and moral attitudes that operate as a unifying force within a society.
- Sociology as a Distinct Discipline: Durkheim argues for the establishment of sociology as a discipline distinct from psychology and philosophy. He asserts that sociologists should study social facts instead of individual actions.
- Suicide as a Social Fact: Durkheim uses suicide as an example of a social fact that can be studied sociologically. He argues that the suicide rate within a society is not merely an aggregation of individual actions, but a social fact shaped by societal forces like religious beliefs, marital regulations, and economic conditions.
- The Use of Statistics: Durkheim emphasizes the importance of using statistical data in sociological research. He asserts that statistics provide necessary objectivity when studying social phenomena.
- Normative Theory of Society: Durkheim proposes a normative theory of society, wherein societal norms form the basis of social order. He argues that these norms, though changing over time, are essential for maintaining social cohesion.
Final Thoughts: Best Sociology Books
The books above will help you better understand how social trends start, how communities impact our happiness, and how social norms prevail.