If you’re thinking about taking the Introductory Sociology CLEP exam, this study guide and free multiple-choice practice test is designed to be the equivalent of a freshman single semester course.

You will cover all of the foundational sociological topics including: the sociological perspective, institutions, social patterns, social processes, and social stratification.

Fast Introductory Sociology
Study Guide

If you’ve previously studied social studies in high school, there may be some concepts or ideas that are familiar to you. Even if you haven’t, the beauty of sociology is that it just makes sense! It helps to explain many of the patterns and experiences that you’ve had in your life, but may not have stopped to think about. You should be able to devour this material quickly and finish the CLEP exam with no trouble at all. The bonus is that once you learn this material, you’ll begin to apply your “sociological imagination” wherever you go!

The exam will be divided into five major chunks:

  • (20%) The Sociological Perspective

    Truthfully, this is not the most exciting section, but helps to provide the larger context from which to increase your understanding of sociology. This section covers the history of sociology, major sociological theories, as well as methods when doing sociological research. Sociology emerged as a way to understand human behavior after the Industrial Revolution. Over the years, sociologists have developed theories to help explain interaction and patterns of human interaction. Macro-level theories (such as structural functionalism and conflict theory) try to explain how society operates as a whole, while micro-level theories (such as symbolic interactionism) are more concerned with interactions between individuals. Many sociological methods such as surveys, experiments, and secondary research are outlined which support the development of robust research studies.

  • (20%) Institutions

    This section is dense because there is a lot of material covered, but the concepts and ideas are straightforward. It discusses six main institutions including economic, education, family, medical, political and religious. Although for the most part, all these systems exist in most nations around the world, they differ depending on many things, like how communities are organized, people’s wealth, distribution of power, etc. In order to understand culture, we need to explore and understand these various institutions. The economy is the institution through which a society’s resources are exchanged and managed, and is one of society’s earliest social structures. Economies in small communities are very different from those in large nations that have advanced technology. For example, some societies are based on sharing similar work (e.g., farming communities), while others are organized based upon specialized roles (e.g., urban areas). In terms of education, there is some form of educational system in every nation in the world, however, as you may expect, they vary a lot depending on the country’ wealth, level of inequality and the value placed upon it. Family is a vital structure in most societies and of key interest to sociologists. They are interested in the primary debate of what constitutes a family—is it a husband, a wife and two children? What about all the families that deviate from this traditional model? Sociologists analyze how government power influences society and the ways that conflict can arise when power is distributed unevenly. They are also interested in how the political system affects people differently based on their status, class, and socioeconomic standing.

  • (10%) Social Patterns

    This section is a lot thinner than others and you should be able to get through it quite quickly. Essentially, demography, human ecology, and rural/urban patterns are explored by sociologists to further understand how our built environment (such as roads, public transportation, parking lots, etc.) impact our patterns and the way that we live our lives. For example, in many parts of North America, the car is dominant and essential to moving from one place to another, whereas in Europe, public transportation such as high-speed trains are the most popular ways of getting around. How does this impact our lives? Sociologists also explore people’s relationship to their natural environment, how extreme weather patterns are impacting lives, as well as climate change policy that will impact our future.

  • (25%) Social Processes

    This section is interesting and relatable, as we’ve all been raised in a society where there are expectations placed upon us. Sociologists are interested in all social processes that impact behavior such as socialization, culture, deviance and social control, groups and organizations, social change, social interaction, as well as collective behavior and social movements. Socialization is the process that takes place for us to fit into society and come to an understanding of what is expected of us. Why do we say “I’m fine” when someone asks us how we are, even though we are on the verge of a meltdown? Why do we expect an arm’s length of personal space between us and another person and rarely touch others during our interactions? Sociologists are interested in how we create and follow these rules and standards in our culture and the ways that they are enforced. Deviance is a violation of social norms, but differs substantially from culture to culture. Ever wonder why you would do things in a crowd that you would never dream of doing as an individual? That is what the study of collective behavior and social movements is all about.

  • (25%) Social Stratification (Process and Structure)

    Sociology is on a quest to deepen understanding of inequalities that exist because of the ways that systems are set up, as opposed to pointing to individual blame. It look at the the way that society is stratified, or divided based on these difference in the areas of aging, power and social inequality, professions and occupations, race and ethnic relations, sex and gender roles, as well as social class and social mobility. It examines why certain professions such as doctor or lawyer may be seen as more prestigious and higher paying than other positions such as teacher, waitress or garbage collector. It discusses the difference between race and ethnicity and how minority groups have historically lacked power, and faced prejudice and discrimination. Lastly, it explores why gender inequality remains in our society based on ways that we view innate capabilities of males and females, as well as reasons why the LGBTQ community continues to face opposition in many societies.

Introductory Sociology
Practice Quiz

Ready to give it a shot?  Dive into the 10 question quiz below to get a feel for how prepared you are! Once you’ve written down your answers, hover over (or tap on a phone) the question to see the answers and explanations.

Please do keep in mind that we can’t guarantee the accuracy of this quiz, so we do recommend you also run through a full-length practice exam.  The CollegeBoard offers a good one that we’ll share in the resources section below.

Question 1. Applying sociological methods helps people analyze data using which of the following?

a. interview techniques
b. theory application
c. statistical tests
d. all of the above

Answer d: Sociological methods and approaches offer a range of tools in your toolbox to better understand the world around you! Sociological methods are complex, well-established, and include all of the above—interview techniques (e.g., open-ended, close-ended, how to analyze qualitative research), theory application (how can we use micro or macro-level theories to try to help us understand), and statistical tests (thankfully, many of these are now performed using statistical software and doing calculations by hand is becoming increasingly rare). As an aside, there is still a sociological debate as to whether traditional scientific methods can be used to predict human behavior. No doubt, this debate will be an on-going amongst sociologists into the foreseeable future.

Question 2. Who of the following was one of the forefathers of symbolic interactionism?

a. Emile Durkheim
b. George Mead
c. Robert Merton
d. Herbert Spencer

Answer b: Yes, when you think of symbolic interactionism, George Mead should come to mind! He (as all symbolic interactionists) believed that we can only understand human interaction if we analyze the exchange of symbols between people. This is in contrast to functional perspectives that seek understanding by looking at society as a whole.

Question 3. All the following are an example of collective behavior, EXCEPT

a. a student protest for a decrease in tuition fees
b. a group of people at a poetry jam
c. a prisoner questioning a guard’s authority
d. a class going on a field trip

Answer c: Emile Durkheim coined collective behavior to refer to any group behavior that is not institutionally mandated where people engage voluntarily. Answer d is not an example of collective behaviour because usually a prisoner is not incarcerated by choice.

There are three primary forms of collective behavior: the crowd, the mass, and the public. As you can imagine, there are countless examples of collective behavior in our society— other examples might be flash mobs or a group of teenagers adopting the hairstyle of their favorite pop star.

Question 4. A person who is walking down the street murmuring loudly to him/herself is violating which of the following?

a. folkway
b. more
c. law
d. value

Answer a: As you know, it’s not breaking any formal law when you walk down the street murmuring to yourself, but you certainly will get some stares and funny looks from people passing by. That’s because you’ve violated a folkway, which directs behavior in the day-to-day practices in any culture. On the other hand, mores are norms that embody the moral views and principles of a group and can have serious consequences when they are violated. Values are a culture’s standard for discerning what is good and just in society.

Question 5. Which of the following specific roles for men and women did Talcott Parsons identify in his functionalist approach to gender?

a. Expressive roles for men and instrumental roles for women
b. Expressive roles for women and instrumental roles for men
c. Expressive roles for both men and women
d. Instrumental roles for both women and men

Answer b: This one’s a tough one! Parsons claimed that there was a division of labor present in each family, and he described these roles as instrumental and expressive. He said that men tend to assume the instrumental roles in the family, which typically involve work outside of the family and providing financial security; women tend to assume expressive roles, which involve work inside of the family focusing on emotional support and physical care for children.

Question 6. If you had preconceived stereotypical notions about a person’s limitations, what would this be called?

a. ableism
b. sexism
c. racialization
d. direct institutionalism

Answer a: It can get confusing with all these “isms,” but in this case the answer is ableism. Ableism refers to discrimination against people who have a mental or physical disability based on stereotypes about their limitations. Sexism is the belief that one sex is superior over another, direct institutionalism happens when institutions put policies into practice that deny people rights and freedoms, while racialization is the thinking that complex characteristics apply to people of different races (e.g., Asians are more intelligent than others).

Question 7. How do sociologists define a family?

a. the connection of bloodlines
b. the status roles that exist in a family structure
c. how closely members adhere to social norms
d. how a given society sanctions the relationships of people who are connected through
blood, marriage, or adoption

Answer d: Not surprising, right? Sociologists concern themselves with the social, rather than the biological and therefore would not define a family according to bloodlines. Further, it is not the job of the sociologist to “judge” the status roles or the ways in which members adhere to social norms. Rather, the focus of sociologists of on the ways that other members of society sanction relationships of people who are connected through blood, marriage, or family—with recognition that all these institutions are socially constructed.

Question 8. What does human ecology theory address?

a. the relationship between humans and their environments
b. the way humans affect technology
c. the way the human population reduces the variety of nonhuman species
d. the relationship between humans and other species

Answer a: Human ecology uses a functionalist perspective that looks at society as a whole to understand how people relate to their natural and physical environments. Sociologists can generally predict patterns of urban land use and where people want to settle in urban settings, once they understand how people relate to their living environment. Urban planners must understand not just physical space, but the ways that people live in them.

9. Based on meritocracy, a lawyer’s assistant would:

a. receive the same pay as all the other lawyer’s assistants
b. be encouraged to earn a higher degree to seek a better position
c. most likely marry a professional at the same level
d. earn a pay raise for doing excellent work

Answer d: Meritocracy is an ideal system that is based on the belief that your status in society is a result of your personal effort. Therefore, if you are a hard worker, you’ll go far in life, but if you aren’t, there is no way to achieve success. That means that the lawyer’s assistant would be recognized through a pay raise because of his or her personal efforts. Of course, no society has ever been purely based on meritocracy because of the complex structures and reality of economic systems, socialization, pressure to confirm, inheritance, etc.

10. What is the most significant factor that affects education systems throughout the world?

a. teacher interest
b. student interest
c. resources and money
d. transportation

Answer c: All nations have education systems, but there is a great deal of inequality across the world, which means that no two are alike. The most significant factor impacting a nation’s education system is how much money the country invests into education. As expected, countries that are not able to provide even basic needs for their citizens don’t have the resources and money to devote to education; some have no mandatory formal schooling at all.

More CLEP Study Resources

Looking for a study guide to fill a couple gaps, or just want a full length practice exam? You can find a few of my favorite resources below.  Note that some of the links are affiliate – meaning I’ll make a few dollars if you purchase, but I’m only sharing resources that were genuinely helpful during my own CLEP journey.

Official CLEP Study Guide: It’s quite short on the study side of things, but this is the go-to practice test bank.  I don’t think I’ve done a single CLEP test without taking the practice test in this book first.

REA CLEP American Government: I’m not huge on reading, but this book series is fantastic if you’re into that kind of thing. It also includes some nifty online practice tests, though I always found the official practice tests more reassuring.

InstantCert Academy: The website looks like it was made before the internet, but it’s legitimately the single most useful study guide I’ve found. Basically it’s a series of flashcards that help you learn about American Government in a fast paced and fun way.

Plenty of other resources exist – just do a quick internet search – but these are the three that I’ve personally found the most helpful back when I did CLEP.

Congrats on starting your CLEP study journey! Study hard, earn credit, and most of all remember to have fun.