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Curiosity is the main tool of a successful sociologist. Sociologists are intrigued by questions. For example, why do the members of different high school sports teams interact with each other in certain ways? Or why do some people work better in teams than others? What are the opportunities for promotion for workers with disabilities? Sociologists can even be inspired to question social policies based on their everyday experiences. For example, a sociologist reading a newspaper article about someone on a state's death row may wonder what the effect that the state's death penalty has on its crime level. Or an article on a new casino may cause the sociologist to wonder what effects legalized gambling have on the residents of that area. Such curiosity is one of the driving forces behind a sociologist's work.
With thoughtful questions and desire for knowledge, sociologists investigate the origin, development, and functioning of groups of people. This can involve extensively interviewing people or distributing form questionnaires. It can involve conducting surveys or researching historical records, both public and personal. A sociologist may need to set up an experiment, studying a cross section of people from a given society. The sociologist may choose to watch the interaction from a distance, or to participate as well as observe.
The information sociologists compile from this variety of research methods is then used by administrators, lawmakers, educators, and other officials engaged in solving social problems. By understanding the common needs, thoughts, patterns, and ideas of a group of people, an organization can better provide for the individuals within those groups. With a sociologist's help, a business may be able to create a better training program for its employees; counselors in a domestic violence shelter may better assist clients with new home and job placement; teachers may better educate students with special needs.
Sociologists work closely with many other professionals. One of the closest working relationships is between sociologists and statisticians to analyze the significance of data. Sociologists also work with psychologists. Psychologists attempt to understand individual human behavior, while sociologists try to discover basic truths about groups. Sociologists also work with cultural anthropologists. Anthropologists study whole societies and try to discover what cultural factors have produced certain kinds of patterns in given communities. Sociologists work with economists. The ways in which people buy and sell are basic to understanding how groups behave. They also work with political scientists to study systems of government.
Ethnology and ethnography, social sciences that treat the subdivision of humans and their description and classification, are other fields with which sociologists work closely. Problems in racial understanding and cooperation, in failures in communication, and in differences in belief and behavior are all concerns of the sociologist who tries to discover underlying reasons for group conduct.
Sociologists and psychiatrists have cooperated to discover community patterns of mental illness and mental health. They have attempted to compare such things as socioeconomic status, educational level, residence, and occupation to the incidence and kind of mental illness to determine in what ways society may be contributing to or preventing emotional disturbances.
Some sociologists choose to work in a specialized field. Criminologists specialize in investigations of causes of crime and methods of prevention, and penologists investigate punishment for crime, management of penal institutions, and rehabilitation of criminal offenders. Social pathologists specialize in the investigation of group behavior that is considered detrimental to the proper functioning of society. Demographers are population specialists who collect and analyze vital statistics related to population changes, such as birth, marriages, and death. Rural sociologists investigate cultures and institutions of rural communities, while urban sociologists investigate origin, growth, structure, composition, and population of cities. Social welfare research workers conduct research that is used as a tool for planning and carrying out social welfare programs.