Connecting Sociology and YOU!

34 Years in Prison for Tweets?

The power of sociology comes from the fact that it can be used or applied to any aspect of social life. Whether it is family or the media, the sociology toolkit offers options to enhance our understanding of why people act the way they do towards each other as members of dyads, a group of two people, triads, a group of three members, communities or nation states. Take for instance the case of Saudi doctoral student and mother of two Salma al-Sheha. A resident of the United Kingdom, al-Sheha took a vacation to Saudi Arabia to visit family and friends. While there she tweeted some of her views on human rights in Saudi Arabia and shared some retweets. The response of the Saudi government was to sentence her to 34 years in prison. Thirty-four years. On top of that, the Saudi government has banned her from traveling for an additional 34 years once she is released. This isn’t the only incident of tweeting being punished in Saudi Arabia. In 2021, aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan was sentenced to 20 years in prison and a 20 year travel ban after his anonymous Twitter account was hacked. Let’s consider these events from a sociological perspective.

Sociology is the scientific study of social relationships, social institutions and societies. All of these concepts are evident in the experience of al-Sheha, the Saudi reaction and the global response. Broadly speaking, al-Sheha’s experience is not just about the tweets. It is about her position in society as a woman, a mother and Saudi citizen living abroad. It is also about the guidelines or expectations of behavior, i.e., norms, that make up Saudi society. Only within the last decade has Saudi Arabia began to relax its strict rules governing the lives of women by allowing them to do things like vote and drive. Even with these changes, social inequality, the unequal distribution of power, property or prestige in a society, still exists between the sexes, and criticizing the Saudi government – whether by a man or woman – is strictly prohibited.

The question is, how do Saudi citizens view this event? Is it just a random incident in which an individual made a tweeting mistake? Or is it a pervasive problem associated with the Saudi government’s response to people expressing their views on social media? The sociological imagination helps us understand how to approach these questions. The sociological imagination is defined as the ability to see the details of our own lives in the context of larger social structures as opposed to merely personal choices or personal troubles. Let’s study each side of the coin.  Personal troubles refer to matters experienced at the individual level. We can easily see that Salma al-Sheha’s experience is personal. Her imprisonment impacts her life, but also the personal lives of her husband and children. In contrast, public issues are matters that impact society as a whole. The Saudi government’s response to al-Sheha, al-Sadhan and other social media critics indicates a pattern of behavior on the societal level. Arguably, Saudi social institutions, structures in society providing the framework for governing the behavior of individuals in a community or society, work to informally and formally perpetuate the notion that criticizing the government is wrong.

Even though the Saudi government may view criticism as punishable behavior, and the vast majority of citizens refrain from speaking out against the government, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the population agrees with the Saudi government. Nor does it mean that the members of the society see government criticism as a social problem, the societal caused conditions that harm segments of society. In fact, given the extreme penalties for speaking out, many people may disagree with the government, but be too afraid to voice their opinion. How could sociology address that aspect of the issue? By doing the research. By measuring the objective conditions or the scope of the problem and subjective concerns, people’s feelings about a problem, sociology could be used to better understand and explain how individuals and groups interact within Saudi society.

Sociology affords you the opportunity to make sense of your own experience in the world and that of those around you. As you learn and apply your sociological knowledge you are encouraged to practice verstehen, to take an empathetic approach to understanding human behavior. In doing so you will find that the choices and decisions people make are not made in a vacuum but within the context of their lived social experience.

This blog post provided by the co-authors of SociologicalYOU (Seventh Edition), a digital NextGen Introductory Sociology textbook engaging students in critical thinking to “Connect Sociology and YOU!” For more information, contact

About Author

Angela L. Thompson, Ph.D.

Dr. Thompson received her B.A. in English and Sociology from Wellesley College, her joint M.A. in Sociology and Women’s Studies from Brandeis University, and her Ph.D. in Sociology also from Brandeis University.

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