Whether one is a researching sociologist, a practicing psychologist, or an interested member of society, the social sciences have long captivated people’s interests. For this list, we’ve compiled 30 great books about sociology and the social sciences that are sure to interest anyone intrigued by the human mind and habits, the effects of culture, and the evolution of societies. Some of these books, like Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, have remained influential for decades, while others, such as Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, are newer publications, but destined to become classics. No matter how long they’ve been sitting on bookstore shelves, all 30 of these books have in common a lasting influence on anyone who wishes to better understand the world in which we live.
1. The Mismeasure of Man
Stephen Jay Gould
Called “the definitive refutation” to The Bell Curve argument, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man asks the important questions: how did scientists decide that intelligence is quantifiable? Gould’s surprisingly simple answer is that power maintains itself; as groups have seen themselves as the pinnacle of creation, they have sought to prove this assertion through hard measurement. To illustrate his point, Gould takes his readers on a journey through the minds of said groups, from pre-Darwinian 19th century Europeans, to 20th century scientists obsessed with numbers.
2. The Portable Jung
We could probably fill this list with all of iconic psychologist Carl Jung’s works, but we’ll settle for The Portable Jung instead. This massive book is a compendium of Jung’s most fundamental teachings on psychology and psychoanalysis. For those new to the topic, there may not be a better introduction to sociology and the social sciences than this wonderfully useful primer. Included are pieces on the unconscious, spirituality and creativity, and the influential “On Synchronicity.”
3. The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home
In The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely exposes the effects, both positive and negative, that irrationality can have on our lives. Focusing on both our work and private lives, Ariely offers eye-opening truths about things like what really motivates us, how one unwise action can become a long-term habit, and how we learn to love the ones we are with. Along the way, readers are treated to Ariely’s answers to questions like: why can large bonuses make CEOs less productive?, why is revenge so important to us?, and why is there such a big difference between what we think will make us happy and what really makes us happy?.
4. Man’s Search for Meaning
Since its first publication in 1959, Man’s Search for Meaning has been inspiring generations. In this part memoir, part important commentary on humanity, Frankl recalls the part of his life spent in four different Nazi camps, including Auschwitz, where his parents, brother, wife, and unborn child were all murdered. Based on these excruciating experiences, Frankl makes the argument that while people cannot avoid suffering, we can choose to find meaning in that suffering. Known as “logotherapy,” this theory asserts that our primary drive in life is to discover and pursue what we personally find meaningful.
5. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell, a pro at disseminating the ways in which we understand our world, discusses the complex and surprising ways in which the weak can defeat the strong, the small can take on the giant, and how our culture and goals can make a huge difference in the way we view success. To illustrate this fascinating view of society, Gladwell draws upon examples from business, sports, culture, psychology, and a variety of fascinating figures throughout history beginning, of course, with David and Goliath.
6. Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception
According to researchers, most people encounter upwards of 200 lies per day. We are lied to constantly, by our families, friends, work colleagues, and salespeople. In Liespotting, Pamela Meyer offers readers information on three different disciplines through which individuals can spot and combat lies: facial recognition training, interrogation training, and a comprehensive survey of research on the topic. This information has helped everyone from business executives to informed consumers root out the lies they are fed in corporate boardrooms, meetings, the job interview, legal proceedings, deal negotiations, and more.
7. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves
Speaking of lying… The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty is Dan Ariely’s thought-provoking work that challenges everything we may think we know about dishonesty. Does the chance of getting caught affect how likely we are to cheat? How do companies pave the way for dishonesty? Does collaboration make us more honest or less so? Does religion improve our dishonesty? Ariely answers all of these questions by drawing upon a massive compendium of research and examples from various industries.
Outliers, one of a few books by Malcolm Gladwell to make this list, asks the question: what makes high achievers so different? To answer this question, Gladwell tells the stories of the best, brightest, most famous, and most successful people in the world. Analyzing everything from their culture and generation, to their families and the idiosyncratic experiences of their childhoods, Gladwell discusses the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band.
9. Prozac Nation
Sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, Prozac Nation is Elizabeth Wurtzel’s bestselling book about the rising incidence of depression among American teens and young adults. The continuous story told here is that of Wurtzel herself, whose breakdowns, suicide attempts, drug therapy sessions, and eventual journey to emotional freedom put a face on this book that doubles as a sad cry for help from the first generation affected by the culture of widespread divorce and economic instability.
10. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
Still timely though it was written in 1985, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is an important and interesting discourse about the corrosive effects of television on our families and society. Now that television has been joined by cell phone, internet, and TiVo, Postman’s book is as important as ever, as it offers a blueprint for regaining control of the media before politics, journalism, education, and even religion all become subject to the demands of entertainment.
11.The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements
Eric Hoffer, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for psychology, is the author of this landmark book first published in 1951. Called “a genuine contribution to our social thought,” The True Believer breaks down the European populations during World War II in order to explain the ways in which an individual becomes a fanatic, and the ways in which this fanaticism drives the dynamics of a mass movement. In the words of Christian Science Monitor, “[The True Believer] is one of the most provocative books of our immediate day.”
12. When Breath Becomes Air
At the age of thirty-six, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. His transition from a doctor treating the dying, to a patient struggling to live, inspired him to write When Breath Becomes Air. In this moving commentary, Kalanithi chronicles his transformation while asking such poignant questions as: What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away? Though Kalanithi passed away while working on his book, When Breath Becomes Air remains a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality.
13. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
In this massive bestseller, Malcolm Gladwell weaves a fascinating commentary about “the tipping point” — that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads throughout the world. Just as a single sneeze can start a cold epidemic, this tipping point can set off a new fashion trend, the popularity of a product, or a drop in the crime rate. Indeed, Gladwell describes specific instances of all of these things, in addition to examinations in trends on smoking, children’s television, direct mail, and the early days of the American Revolution.
14. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Mary Roach’s massive bestseller is a compelling and hilarious exploration of our bodies postmortem. Roach begins with cadavers 2,000 years ago when, whether wittingly or unwittingly, they began to take part in science’s weirdest (yet most important) undertakings. Roach continues her story through the centuries to tell the fascinating tale of what happens to our bodies when we are no longer with them.
15. The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It…Every Time
Whether a Bernie Madoff or a small-time cheat, con artists are elegant, likable, and master persuaders. Exactly how do they do pull it off? And why do smart and successful people keep falling for it over and over again? In order to answer these questions, Maria Konnikova analyzes multimillion dollar Ponzi schemes and small-time frauds from scientific, dramatic, and psychological perspectives. The stories themselves are gripping, while Konnikova’s ideas about why we believe the things we believe, and how our sense of truth can be manipulated, is downright fascinating.
16. $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America
Kathryn J. Edin
Kathryn Edin researched for nearly two decades to write $2.00 a Day, a book that Mother Jones magazine said has “turned sociology upside down.” Edin estimates that the number of American families living on $2.00 a day has skyrocketed in the recent decade to 1.5 million American households, including 3 million children. Through stories like Jessica Compton’s, whose family of four would have no cash income unless she donated plasma twice a week, Edin reveals the startling answers to questions like: Where do these families live? How did they get so desperately poor? How do they really live?
17. Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Street
Those who enjoyed Sudhir Venkatesh’s story in the original Freakonomics (#19 on this list) will love his full-length book, Gang Leader for a Day. As a sociology graduate student, Venkatesh managed to gain entrance into one of Chicago’s most notorious gangs. He then wrote about his experiences and what he learned. Besides being a fascinating story and a glimpse into a life not known by most readers, Venkatesh’s methods revolutionized the academic establishment and injected a unique energy into the world of sociology.
18. Sociopathic Society: A People’s Sociology of the United States
According to Charles Derber, the idea of a “sociopathic society” has become necessary to understanding today’s world. A sociopathic society is rooted in governments and economies, not psychiatry, and is organized around antisocial values. Focusing on the United States, Derber uses his idea of a sociopathic society to find explanations for the Wall Street meltdown, guns and murder, uninhibited greed, the 1% and the 99%, a new crisis of unemployable “surplus people,” cheating scandals, and much more.
19. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Freakonomics asks the most pressing questions that you didn’t even know were pressing: which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? How did the legalization of abortion affect the rate of crime? How much do parents really matter? To answer these questions, scholar-economist Steven D. Levitt and award-winning journalist Stephen J. Dubner whittle away mountains of information to prove that economics is the study of incentives, and that incentives go a long way in driving the modern world.
20. The Sociopath Next Door
We tend to think of sociopaths as violent criminals, but Harvard University psychologist and bestselling author Martha Stout turns that narrow-sighted view on its head in The Sociopathic Next Door. Stout takes a closer look at the lying ex-boyfriend, the boss who enjoys humiliating people in meetings, and the sadistic high school gym teacher, among others. She argues, using years of research and plenty of real-life examples, that four percent of ordinary people (1 in 25) has an undetected mental disorder, the chief symptom of which is that that person possesses no conscience.
21. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
It is estimated that a full one-third of the world’s population are introverts, those who prefer listening to talking, who would rather read than hang out with large crowds, who create but dislike personal attention, who favor working on their own as opposed to brainstorming in teams. In this passionate and lovingly researched book, Susan Cain argues that though these introverts are often labeled “quiet,” it is to them that we owe many of the greatest contributions to society. To illustrate her point, Cain draws on a number of examples that include Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings and the invention of the personal computer, to name but a few.
22. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal
In Fast Food Nation, the massively successful book by Eric Schlosser, the ways in which fast food chains have taken over our landscapes, widened the gap between rich and poor, and fueled an epidemic of obesity are examined carefully under a discerning microscope. Schlosser traveled from coast to coast in order to truly understand America’s obsession with fast food, and with plenty of wry wit and a first-rate reporting style, he describes the incredible (and incredibly disturbing) changes that fast food has made to food production, popular culture, and even real estate in America.
23. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
Blink was powerhouse author Malcolm Gladwell’s first bestseller, in which he discusses the way human’s think without thinking, and why the choices made in the blink of any eye really aren’t as simple or as random as they may seem. To illustrate, Gladwell introduces readers to a psychologist who has learned to predict whether or not a marriage will last — based only on a few minutes of observation, a tennis coach who can tell if a player will double-fault before the ball even hits his racket, an antiques dealer who can recognize a fake at a glance, and more.
24. The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness
A classic since it was first published in 1960, R.D. Laing’s The Divided Self contrasts the “ontologically secure” person with the person who “cannot take the realness, aliveness, autonomy, and identity of himself and others for granted.” Laing explains how we all exist in the world as beings, defined by others who carry a model of us in their heads, just as we carry models of them in our heads. While The Divided Self is a work on its own, it is also part of a seven volume set of Laing’s most influential work.
25. Thinking, Fast and Slow
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman takes readers on a fascinating tour of the mind and explains the two systems that dictate the way we think. The first is fast, intuitive, and emotional, while the second system is slower, more deliberate, and more logical. Kahneman explains the extraordinary capabilities, faults, and biases of fast thinking, and reveals the influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and behaviors. Readers will discover when and where we can and cannot trust out intuitions, and how we can tap into the benefits of slow thinking.
26. The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less
Whether we are buying a pair of jeans, selecting a cell phone plan, or buying a house, everyday decisions have become increasingly complex due to the overwhelming amount of choices with which we are presented. In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz uses years of research, real-life anecdotes, and practical advice to explain why too much of a good thing — that is, too many choices — have proven a detriment to our psychological and emotional well-being.
27. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
Robert D. Putnam
Thanks in large part to things like social media, longer work hours, and more traffic, Americans have become increasingly disconnected from one another. As author Robert D. Putnam states, this phenomenon hasn’t just decreased the number of after-work bowling leagues, it has completely disintegrated various social structures like the PTA, church, and even political parties. In addition to diagnosing this growing problem, and describing the roots of its cause, Putnam makes a number of interesting suggestions as to what we can do to tun this phenomenon around and once again become healthy social creatures.
28. How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like
Fascinating and wittingly written, How Pleasure Works examines the science behind some of our most intriguing desires, attractions, and tastes. Why is the thought of sex with a virgin so arousing for many men? Why does the average American spend more than four hours a day watching television? Why do people spend millions of dollars on abstract art? Bloom draws on examples from child development, philosophy, neuroscience, and behavioral economics to show how certain habits of the human mind explain what we like and why.
29. The Art of Choosing
In The Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar draws upon her years of research to explore how and why we choose what we do. Are our choices innate or bound by culture? Why do we sometimes choose against our best interests? Do we really have control over our choices? According to Iyengar, the constantly changing political and cultural forces, the technological revolution, and the forces of commerce combine to have last effects on our decision making, while our decisions themselves have far-reaching consequences.
30. The Freud Reader
Sigmund Freud and Peter Gay (editor)
Perhaps no name is as synonymous with the disciplines of sociology and psychology as that of Sigmund Freud. Thanks to editor Peter Gay, one of the foremost scholars on Freud and his work, readers now have access to these fifty-one most influential texts, which range in topic from dreams, to sexuality, to the theory of the mind, and the basic techniques of psychoanalysis. Even better, The Freud Reader is the only English translation for which Freud gave approval for both the editorial plan and the renderings of key words and phrases, so English-speaking readers can be sure they are getting the most accurate and noteworthy writings by Freud.