Why Christians should study sociology

It is within relationships, and in particular the group relationship, that reality is best conceptualized, accessed, and constructed.

Some Christians have “deep misgivings about sociology.” The fear is that students who take sociology as a course in college may have their religious conviction “undermined, if not destroyed.”1 However, in spite of the alleged fear, Christian colleges and universities continue to offer sociology as a course to their students. In light of this, it seems relevant to ask the following questions: Why do professors and students at Christian colleges teach and study sociology? Can the study of sociology facilitate a deeper understanding of the Christian life? Can it serve as a vehicle for building faith?

To understand the reason for offering sociology as an academic discipline at a Christian college/university, we must first understand the broader purpose of the educational enterprise. Educational institutions aim to expose students to a variety of experiences, with the ultimate purpose of preparing them for life. The goal of the education offered, at least from the Christian standpoint, is to equip students with the knowl-edge, skills, dispositions, and perspectives that will enable them to live meaningfully and fully in this world as a preparation for heaven. Hence, the selection of a curriculum for a Christian school presupposes a careful analysis and grasp of humans’ life activities and need dispositions.

Though positions vary on the qualities that are considered central to a person’s development, and those deemed important but not central,2 educators generally agree on the wholistic nature of human beings. Despite the varied views advanced on this subject,3 some basic needs have been determined. Maslow4 conceives of these in terms of lower- and higher-order needs. He identifies six levels of need, with the physiological being the lowest and self-actualization the highest. Pratt’s5 classification of philosophical, social, aesthetic, and survival needs is similar to Ellen White’s6 formulation of the physical, men-tal, spiritual, and social faculties. Based on these categorized needs, core experiences considered necessary to facilitate a person’s meaningful and optimum development have been identified.

Educational institutions, particularly Christian schools, aim to provide a balanced education. Thus, the various core areas of the curriculum — such as the natural sciences, the social sciences, the arts, and the humanities — take a cue from and are organized in keeping with the needs identified above. The objective is to facilitate the individual student’s optimal development in the way best suited to these needs. As Ellen White has suggested, the process of education is concerned with the wholistic development of the mental, physical, spiritual, and moral faculties, with the ultimate goal being godlikeness of the student.7 In this regard, where does sociology come in?

The sociological focus

Sociology is concerned with the study of human behavior. As a method of approach and a body of knowledge, sociology differs from other social sciences in that it emphasizes the “groupness” of human behavior. The basic argument advanced in this perspective is that human behavior is strongly contingent upon social norms and values that result from group interaction. This group-based (interpersonal) perspective is somewhat unlike the more individualistic (intrapersonal) emphasis as-sociated with human behavior by some divisions of the social sciences.

Economists, for example, tend to point out the utilitarian nature of hu-man behavior, positing rational choice as the basis of such behavior.8 They suggest that human beings calculate their choices and negotiate their responses to the various demands of their environment in terms of cost and benefit outcomes. In other words, an individual will most likely carry out and repeat a course of action he or she deems to be beneficial. On the other hand, if that individual does not consider the particular behavior to be beneficial, it will not be carried out, much less be repeated. However, while sociologists do not deny the role of rational choice as a feature of human activities, they do not hold it as the primary motivating force of these activi-ties. Sociologists point to the fact that many human behaviors are carried out without regard to their value. Many people, for example, continue to adhere to social practices (e.g., cigarette smoking or hazing) that are clearly not in their best interest. Yet they are inclined to indulge in these practices, largely because of the weight of social expectations.

Emile Durkheim9 argues for an external locus for hu-man activities. He maintains that social facts10 which are group-produced and group-sustained phenomena constitute the mainspring of human conduct. In the development of his ideas on the forces that inform human behavior, Durkheim takes issue with the reigning theories of psychology and sociobiology of his time period. While psychology proposes that human behavior is due to psychological factors, such as the will and other characteristics of the mind, sociobiology suggests that biological principles, such as genetic predispositions and hormonal levels, are the real cause of human behavior. Contrary to both of these views, Durkheim argues that the ways in which people relate to the world around them are socially rooted.

For example, Durkheim notes that the ways people fulfill their duties in their jobs and other personal relationships have all been given in the social expectations and established practices of their society. In other words, the ways people relate to their brothers, mothers, or bosses are largely deter-mined by the norms of the society in which they live. In keeping with this Durkheimian logic, sociologists recognize that there is an objec-tive, socially-created reality that provides the impetus for and sustenance of human action and interaction.

However, this group-focused approach to human behavior seems to ignore the biblical view that each human is responsible for his or her actions (2 Corinthians 5:10). While this is true to some extent, it is the contention of this author that the characterization of the sociological perspective as anti-biblical will not hold up upon closer inspection. In fact, the group focus of sociologists in their quest to understand human behavior and society is largely defensible within the biblical view of humans. This point will be articulated toward the end of this article as one of the principal reasons Christians ought to study sociology. But there are at least two other reasons for Christians to understand the human condition from the sociological perspective.

Rationale for the study of sociology

Sociology is a useful tool for Christians because (1) it provides an important account of the self and others, and (2) through it one can obtain a much-needed understanding of the social world. Of course, the position that sociology provides the only or even the best account of the human condition is not taken here. Human beings are far too complex to be reduced to a single disciplinary, perspectival explanation.

The need for Christians to seek an authentic understanding of themselves and others derives in part from God’s command to humans to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) and to love one another as they love themselves (Matthew 19:19). These injunctions loom even larger when viewed in the light of human beings bearing the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Indeed, to reproduce (multiply) selves created after the image of God and to love one’s self and extend that love to others cannot be attempted on the basis of mere guesswork and uninformed emotions. Thorough and systematic efforts are required. Moreover, it would be enormously difficult for humans made in the image of God to reproduce themselves and truly love themselves and others without an authentic awareness of the self and others. Common-sense understanding would not suffice. Often such understandings display no more than a superficial, impressionistic grasp of the issues. In addition to inspired writings, we must draw upon the accumulated wisdom of the human race for clarity and direction.

Many people take their behavior for granted, seemingly unable to see their behavior within the multi-layered circumstances of their lives. Saddled with an individualistic ethos, most people seem to think of their behavior in terms of their personal qualities, thereby demonstrating a lack of the capacity to grasp the general in the particular, that is, to see themselves within the wider circumstances of their lives. In this they display a notori-ous innocence regarding the “thereness” component of their behavior. Yet this component seems clearly biblical, in light of the Psalmist’s suggestion that God will take note when He documents the lives of the people that “this man was born there” (Psalm 87:6). The implication here seems to be that God considers the place of a person’s birth and his or her socialization experi-ence to be important to his or her life activities and character formation.

The sociological imagination

C. Wright Mills, who drew upon and extended the Durkheimian notion of social facts, has given us perhaps the most insightful account of the “thereness” approach. Mills11 advances the notion of the “sociological imagination,” which is critical to understanding that the behavior of humans is guided by the normative demands of their society. He suggests that one who possesses the sociological imagination is able to see how history and biography intersect in their impact upon the lives of people.

Thus, “the sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner and the external careers of a variety of individuals” and “to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two in society.”12 Accordingly, Mills argues that any social investigation properly carried out will demonstrate a grasp of human conduct as a function of the intersection of history (those broad structural features within a society) and biography (the personal and more immediate circumstances of the lives of individuals).

It is these historical and biographical “thereness” factors that comprise the multi-layered circumstances of people’s lives and against which sociologists seek to understand social behavior. It is also within this perspective that varied patterns of behaviors that Christians manifest across cultural boundaries can be understood. Consider the example of Adventist Christian men in the United States of America and in Northern Cameroon. While these two groups definitely share the same compelling worldview and are constrained by it in significant ways, they differ in some important ways. Adventist men in Northern Cameroon speak French, don Muslim-like robes to worship, and are likely to be married to wives chosen for them by their parents. On the other hand, Adventist men living in the United States speak English, wear a jacket and tie for worship services, and are most likely married to wives of their personal choice. Despite their common beliefs and values, these two groups differ in the ways they enact these beliefs and values, largely because of the social expectations of their respective societies.

The capacity to see people’s behaviors in terms of the circumstances of their lives holds much significance for the practice of Christianity. Perkins13 has argued that the study of sociology leads to greater analytic clar-ity. He suggests that this clarity, coupled with the ability to communicate theoretical insights gained from the study of sociology, is invaluable to the realization and development of people’s potential as beings made in the image of God. The insights and clarity of thought gained are especially valuable for a person’s self-consciousness as well as his or her awareness of other humans. These provide the conditions that facilitate true love to self and others.

That the sociological perspective empowers people to love others meaningfully is ably brought out in the work of Michael Schwalbe.14 This author suggests that sociological insights invest people with a “sociologi-cal mindfulness,” which enables them to pay attention to the hardship and options of others. He notes that “if we observe how others’ circumstances differ from our own we are more likely to show compassion for them and to grant them the respect they deserve as human beings, and less likely to condemn them unfairly.”15 In other words, being sociologically mindful equips the Christian with the capacity of reflexivity (see Perkins). A reflexive Christian is one who is able to step outside one’s social situation and frame of reference (his or her “thereness”), and “judge” oneself and others based on a careful and objective understanding of the facts. This ability to be reflexive is indispensable to a person’s capacity to follow the golden rule, i.e., treating others as one wishes to be treated (Matthew 7:12). This is why Leming, DeVries, and Furnish argue that “the sociologically conscious Christian is better equipped to realize Shalom, to implement love and justice in the world.”16

Another reason Christians should give sociology scholarly attention lies in the potential of the discipline to create an awareness of the varied ways in which the social world is conceived and constructed. This awareness is especially important to Christians for the empowerment it affords them to engage systematically in scholarly discourse on the social world. Indeed, discourse on the origin, nature, and change of social patterns must not elude Christians. Christians are called upon “to appraise any new ethos that shapes the culture in which God calls believers to live,”17 “to demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and to take captive every thought to make it obedient to God” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

This implies that Christians ought to be equipped to engage in an offensive against ideas that stand opposed to God. This suggests a “communication among persons who share their differing experiences of reality for the purpose of discovering some ultimate truth.”18 In the process of the encounter, the tension between opposing views is addressed, giving rise to a new proposition, the synthesis. The principles that guide the process ensure that the best views presented in each of the positions advanced are retained and included in the new adopted position, while those that cannot stand the scrutiny of informed judgment are discounted.

Consistent with this spirit, Christians, in their effort to “demolish” arguments and take every thought captive, are expected to evalu-ate carefully the submissions of their non-Christian counterparts in order to retain whatever is salvageable therein. This demands that Christians exercise good judgment and display due civility when debating secular ideas. This will ensure that proponents of these ideas are not left to feel dejected or irate at the discounting of their ideas, without the sense of knowing that their works have been properly scrutinized and evaluated before they were thus treated. Fair play would have the secular researcher return like favor to the Christian researcher.

For Christians to effectively engage in the challenge of demolishing ar-guments and taking ideas captive, making them conducive to the glory of God, they first need to understand the relevant ideas and arguments. Spe-cifically, they must understand the basis of the propositions advanced in the arguments to be demolished or preserved and be able to come up with informed, credible counter-propositions or justifications that result in the generation or adoption of a new, more defensible position. The objective of such an exercise, of course, is not to generate sterile theories that lead to endless strife, but rather, as the apostle Paul suggests in 2 Corinthians, to facilitate thoughtful obedience to God.

Further, this challenge of Paul to Christians to demolish arguments and take every thought captive suggests that Christians become the thought leaders of their society. This position harmonizes with Jesus’ commission to His followers to be the light and the salt (Matthew 5:13, 17) of the world. The assertion of Jesus in these verses may be construed as having relevance to all dimensions of the human condition, including the social, intellectual, physical, and spiritual. The implication, therefore, is that follow-ers of Christ must be the means through which these dimensions in their operational forms in society are flavored and preserved (the salt effect) and illuminated and explicated (the light effect). In these ways, Christians can demonstrate their faithfulness to their roles as the light and the salt of their society, respectively. True to these roles, Christians will become not only the stabilizing and preservative forces in their society but the meaning generators as well. As meaning generators, Christians will lead out in the creation of new knowledge, providing answers to the many puzzling questions of their society in such areas as health, family life, and religious practice.

However, Christians will remain much challenged if they attempt to meet these functions without a thorough and authentic grasp of the theories and conceptual models that address the social patterns of their society. Heddendorf has charged that “at a time when modern society stag-gers with the complexity of social life, Christian social thought remains largely naive and uncomprehending of these complexities.”19 It is largely because of this deficit that Christians by and large have neglected (and in some cases abandoned) their light-bearing (meaning-generating) roles and have contributed by their inaction to the proliferation of secular ideas antagonistic to biblical claims. Where sociology empowers Christians with an understanding of the social world, thereby facilitating the execution of their roles as thought leaders and light bearers of their society, its study is certainly justified.

Thus far, two reasons have been put forth for the necessity of Christians to engage in the study of sociology. The first reason pins the relevance of sociology to the Christian upon the knowledge of self and others it facili-tates, thereby increasing the Christian’s capacity for loving and serving others. The second reason suggests that sociology allows for an authentic and thorough grasp of the social world and that, as such, its study places the Christian in a position of empowerment to take every thought captive for the glory of God. Now a third and final reason: the sociological unit of analysis, the group, is an eminently biblical theme.

A biblically-based unit analysis

One of the critical decisions social scientists must make in their research endeavors relates to the unit of analysis. This term refers to the source from which the researcher intends to obtain the data for his or her study. Units of analysis include, but are not limited to, individuals, roles, personality types, institutions, regions, and groups. Kaplan considers units of analysis to be the “locus problem” of the research enterprise. He describes units of analysis as the “ultimate subject matter for inquiry.”20 Once the unit of analysis is chosen, decisions regarding the research design and the method of analysis are made. While not denying the validity of other sources of data, sociologists have long considered the group the ultimate unit of analysis, and for good reason.

Once chosen, units of analysis are subject to two kinds of fallacies: ecological and individualistic. The individualistic fallacy occurs when the researcher uses data from one level of analysis and extrapolates the findings. For example, suppose a researcher carried out a study to determine the attitude of young adults to abortion and found that young male adults in the Southern counties of the United States where the study was done were more pro-choice than pro-life. Now, the unit of analysis in this study is individual young adults. Findings should therefore be general-ized to young adults. However, if the researcher concluded on the basis of her findings that Southern counties were more likely to adopt pro-choice policies than other counties, she would be committing the individualistic fallacy, drawing conclusions about county governments on the basis of individual data. The converse of this example is also possible, where a researcher could have committed the ecological fallacy by lifting data from county administrators, and then generalizing the findings to individual young adults. Both of these fallacies must be avoided, since they lead to a distortion of the facts.

The preferred sociological unit of analysis, the group, remains a firm basis upon which probable conclusions about individuals and other phe-nomena may be understandably reached. This argument draws on the logic of the systems theory,21 which posits that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and that while the parts may be understood in terms of the whole, the opposite is not true. The implication here is that the individual, while limited in his effect upon the group, cannot escape the impact of the group, in particular the family group; in fact, he is deeply influenced by his primary group background.

Therefore, the contention of those who argue that groups have no real existence apart from the individuals who comprise them ignores an impor-tant point, much as it seeks to isolate the identity of the individual outside the group context. Durkheim has made that point in insisting that the group is not limited to its constituent members, but becomes a new thing independent of its individual members. Thus, contrary to the views of those who would otherwise argue, groups are real and constitute a fundamental aspect of reality.

The biblical view of the group

The position regarding the fundamental nature of the group is a pervasive biblical theme. This notion comes up early in the biblical account. When God made the first human being, He declared him, along with the rest of His created works, to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Soon thereafter, He interjected that it was not good for the man to be alone (Genesis 2:17) and provided Adam a companion, Eve. But what could God mean by saying that the man was good, but yet that it was “not good” for him to be alone? The point of emphasis here is that the human person as a product of God’s creation, given all his or her potential for creative expression, is in an excellent state. However, human beings are not inanimate objects or will-less creatures; rather, they are beings endowed with the capacity for meaningful relationships. They will thus be hopelessly stifled and stagnated without the opportunity to fulfill their need for relationships. In this light, it is not good for human beings to live in isolation, without the benefit of interaction with others.

Many years ago, sociologist Charles Horton Cooley captured the essence of this thought when he noted that “a separate individual is an abstraction unknown to experience.”22 What Cooley meant is that a developed and actualized individual is inconceivable outside of a group context. Humans do not fare well apart from the group. Indeed, some studies have supported the idea that the actualization of our humanness is difficult to achieve outside of the group context.23

One God in three

The group reality must be appreciated not only for its relevance to hu-man development but also for its apparent appropriateness in capturing the divine reality. In spite of its clear monotheistic ring, the biblical account seems uncompromising on the idea of God as a group. While God has been declared to be one God (Deuteronomy 6:4; 1 Timothy 2:5), He has also been presented as a plurality of beings (Matthew 28:19; Ephesians 4:5). These positions on the deity, while they seem to involve a contradiction of terms, become clearer within a wider sweep of Scripture.

Spouses become one flesh at marriage (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5; Ephesians 5:31), and Jesus prayed for His followers to be one (John 17:21). Paul (1 Corinthians 12) presents the church with its plurality of members as one body, and Matthew (chapter 25) pictures the redeemed of the ages as a bride. Thus, the notion of oneness emerging from groupness seems clearly biblical. Yet, as evidenced by the experience of husbands and wives and of the followers of Christ, this group-based oneness does not translate to fusion of beings or personalities. Neither husbands and wives nor individual Christians are molded into a single entity at the point where oneness between them is reached.

What the notion of a triune (group) God seems to suggest is that the three members of the Godhead become joined in their relationship with each other on the basis of their common purpose, values, and interests. Furnish24 has suggested that a mystical oneness emerges when people interact in a group context. If this is true of human beings, how much more might it be illustrative of the oneness of the Godhead?

The point underscored by Scripture in the persistent image it portrays of “oneness” being a function of “groupness” is that reality is ultimately relational; it is within relationships, and in particular the group relationship, that reality is best conceptualized, accessed, and constructed. But this view does not sit well in cultures dominated by the Western individualistic notion of human nature, best sum-marized by the Lockean concept of “ontological individualism,”25 by which the individual is deemed to be prior to the group, and the group is seen to emerge upon the coming together of individuals, whose existence is independent of the group.

Yet, an “individual-less” collective is not the ideal. The Christian worldview steers clear of this. What seems inescapable, however, is that God in whose image humanity has been created is communal, and humans are in essence social beings – made for God and for each other.26 That the group is the primary reality is the unyielding contention of the sociolo-gist – and of Scripture, too. It thus seems reasonable to conclude that, if only for its espoused unit of analysis – the group – sociology ought to find some place of importance in the Christian’s scholarly inquiry. But sociology must be studied through the eyes of Christian understanding.

Lionel Matthews (Ph.D., Wayne State University) is associate professor of sociology at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A. This article is slightly shortened from the opening chapter of his book Sociology: A Seventh-day Adventist Approach for Students and Teachers (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Andrews University Press, 2006). Printed by permission of the author and the publisher.


  1. R. Perkins, Looking Bothways (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 13.
  2. R. Pring, Personal and Social Education in the Curriculum: Concepts and Content (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1987).
  3. N. Nohria, P. Lawrence, and E. Wilson, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002); R. Ryan and E. Deci, “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well being,” American Psychologist 55 (2000) 1:68-78; and M.Thompson, C. Grace, and L. Cohen, Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children (New York: Ballantine Books, 2001).
  4. A.H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper, 1970).
  5. D. Pratt, Curriculum Planning: A Handbook for Professionals (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1994).
  6. Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903).
  7. Ibid., 13.
  8. A. Rawls, “Can rational choice be a foundation for social theory?” Theory and Society, 21 (1992) 2:219-241.
  9. E. Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, ed. S.A. Solovay and J.H. Mueller, trans. E. Catlin (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1964).
  10. Durkheim defines social facts as “ways of acting, thinking, and feeling, external to the individual, and endowed with a power of coercion, by reason of which they control him.” Ibid., 3.
  11. C.W. Mills, The Sociological Imagination (London: Oxford Uni-versity Press, 1959).
  12. Ibid., 65-66.
  13. Perkins, Looking Bothways.
  14. M. Schwalbe, The Sociologically Examined Life: Pieces of the Con-versation (Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2001).
  15. Ibid., 5.
  16. M.R. Leming, R.G. DeVries, and B.F. Furnish, eds. The So-ciological Perspective: A Value Committed Introduction (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1989), 12.
  17. S.J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Wil-liam B. Eerdmans, 1996), 167.
  18. R. Heddendorf, Hidden Threads: Social Thought for Christians (Dallas: Probe Books, 1990), 191.
  19. Ibid., 9.
  20. A. Kaplan, The Conduct of Inquiry (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 78.
  21. I. Goldenberg, and H. Goldenberg, Family Therapy: An Overview (Pacific Grove, California: Brooks/Cole, 2003).
  22. C.H. Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order, (New York: Schocken, 1964; original work published 1902), 36.
  23. K. Davis, “Extreme isolation” in J.M. Henslin (ed.), Down to Earth Sociology: Introductory Readings 12th ed. (New York: Free Press, 2003; original work published 1940), 133-142; R. Rymer, Genie (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994).
  24. B.F. Furnish, “Are groups real?” in M.R. Leming, R.G. DeVries, and B.F. Furnish (eds.), The Sociological Perspective: A Value-Com-mitted Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Academie Books, 1989).
  25. R.H. Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, California: University of California, 1985), 143.
  26. J.W. Sire, Discipleship of the Mind: Learning to Love God in the Ways We Think (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1990).