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Image:People3.jpg Sociology is a social science on the study of the social lives of people, groups, and societies, sometimes defined as the study of social interactions. It is a relatively new academic discipline that evolved in the early 19th century. It concerns itself with the social rules and processes that bind and separate people not only as individuals, but as members of associations, groups, and institutions. Sociology is interested in our behavior as social beings; thus the sociological field of interest ranges from the analysis of short contacts between anonymous individuals on the street to the study of global social processes. In a broad sense, sociology is the scientific study of social groups, the entities through which humans move throughout their lives. There is a current trend in sociology to make it a more "applied" discipline, applicable in areas such as non-profit organizations and nursing homes.

The results of sociological research aid educators, lawmakers, administrators, and others interested in resolving social problems and formulating public policy. Most sociologists work in one or more specialties, such as social organization, social stratification, and social mobility; racial and ethnic relations; education; family; social psychology; urban, rural, political, and comparative sociology; sex roles and relationships; demography; gerontology; criminology; and sociological practice.


History of sociology

Main Article: History of sociology

Sociology is a relatively new academic discipline among other social sciences including economics, political science, anthropology, history, and psychology. The ideas behind it, however, have a long history and can trace their origins to a mixture of common human knowledge and philosophy.

Sociology as a scientific discipline emerged in the early 19th century as an academic response to the challenge of modernity: as the world was becoming smaller and more integrated, people's experience of the world was increasingly atomized and dispersed. Sociologists hoped not only to understand what held social groups together, but also to develop an antidote to social disintegration.

Image:Auguste Comte.jpg The term "sociology" was coined by Auguste Comte in 1838 from Latin socius (companion, associate) and Greek logia (study of, speech). Comte hoped to unify all studies of humankind--including history, psychology and economics. His own sociological scheme was typical of the 19th century; he believed all human life had passed through the same distinct historical stages and that, if one could grasp this progress, one could prescribe the remedies for social ills. Sociology was to be the 'queen of sciences'.

The first book with the term 'sociology' in its title was written in the mid-19th century by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer. In the United States, the discipline was taught by its name for the first time at the University of Kansas, Lawrence in 1890 under the course title Elements of Sociology (the oldest continuing sociology course in America and the Department of History and Sociology was established in 1891 [1],[2]) and the first full fledged independent university department of sociology in the United States was established in 1892 at the University of Chicago by Albion W. Small, who in 1895 founded the American Journal of Sociology [3]. The first European department of sociology was founded in 1895 at the University of Bordeaux by Émile Durkheim, founder of L'Année Sociologique (1896). The first sociology department to be established in the United Kingdom was at the London School of Economics and Political Science (home of the British Journal of Sociology) [4] in 1904. In 1919 a sociology department was established in Germany at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich by Max Weber and in 1920 in Poland by Florian Znaniecki. Image:Max Weber.jpg

International cooperation in sociology began in 1893 when René Worms founded the small Institut International de Sociologie that was eclipsed by the much larger International Sociologist Association [5] starting in 1949 (ISA). In 1905 the American Sociological Association, the world's largest association of professional sociologists, was founded.

Other "classical" theorists of sociology from the late 19th and early 20th centuries include Karl Marx, Ferdinand Toennies, Émile Durkheim, Vilfredo Pareto, and Max Weber. Like Comte, these figures did not consider themselves only "sociologists". Their works addressed religion, education, economics, psychology, ethics, philosophy, and theology, and their theories have been applied in a variety of academic diciplines. Their most enduring influence, however, has been on sociology, (with the exception of Marx, who is a central figure in the field of economics as well) and it is in this field that their theories are still considered most applicable. Image:Kmarx.jpg

Early theorists' approach to sociology, led by Comte, was to treat it in the same manner as natural science, applying the same methods and methodology used in the natural sciences to study social phenomena. The emphasis on empiricism and the scientific method sought to provide an incontestable foundation for any sociological claims or findings, and to distinguish sociology from less empirical fields like philosophy. This methodological approach, called positivism, became a source of contention between sociologists and other scientists, and eventually a point of divergence within the field itself.

As early as the 19th century positivist and naturalist approaches to studying social life were questioned by scientists like Wilhelm Dilthey and Heinrich Rickert, who argued that the natural world differs from the social world, as human society has unique aspects like meanings, symbols, rules, norms, and values. These elements of society result in human cultures. This view was further developed by Max Weber, who introduced antipositivism (humanistic sociology). According to this view, which is closely related to antinaturalism, sociological research must concentrate on humans and their cultural values. This has led to some controversy on how one can draw the line between subjective and objective research and also influenced hermeneutical studies. Similar disputes, especially in the era of Internet, have also led to the creation of branches of sociology such as public sociology.

The science and mathematics of sociology

Sociologists study society and social behaviour by examining the groups and social institutions people form, as well as various social, religious, political, and business organizations. They also study the behaviour of, and social interaction among, groups, trace their origin and growth, and analyze the influence of group activities on individual members. Sociologists are concerned with the characteristics of social groups, organizations, and institutions; the ways individuals are affected by each other and by the groups to which they belong; and the effect of social traits such as sex, age, or race on a person’s daily life. The results of sociological research aid educators, lawmakers, administrators, and others interested in resolving social problems and formulating public policy. Most sociologists work in one or more specialties, such as social organization, social stratification, and social mobility; racial and ethnic relations; education; family; social psychology; urban, rural, political, and comparative sociology; sex roles and relationships; demography; gerontology; criminology; and sociological practice.

Although sociology emerged in large part from Comte's conviction that sociology eventually would subsume all other areas of scientific inquiry, in the end, sociology did not replace the other sciences. Instead, sociology came to be identified with the other social sciences (i.e., psychology, economics, etc.). Today, sociology studies humankind's organizations, social institutions and their social interactions, largely employing a comparative method. The discipline has concentrated particularly on the organization of complex industrial societies. Recent sociologists, taking cues from anthropologists, have noted the "Western emphasis" of the field. In response, many sociology departments around the world are encouraging multi-cultural and multi-national studies.

Today, sociologists research micro-structures that organize society, such as race or ethnicity, social class, gender roles, and institutions such as the family; social processes that represent deviation from, or the breakdown of, these structures, including crime and divorce; and micro-processes such as interpersonal interactions and the socialization of individuals.

Sociologists often rely on quantitative methods of social research to describe large patterns in social relationships and in order to develop models that can help predict social change. Other branches of sociology believe that qualitative methods - such as focused interviews, group discussions and ethnographic methods - allow for a better understanding of social processes. Some sociologists argue for a middle ground that sees quantitative and qualitative approaches as complementary. Results from one approach can fill gaps in the other approach. For example, quantitative methods could describe large or general patterns while qualitative approaches could help to understand how individuals understand those patterns.

Social theory

Main article: social theory

Social theory refers to the use of abstract and often complex theoretical frameworks to explain and analyze social patterns and macro social structures in social life, rather than explaining patterns of social life. Social theory always had an uneasy relationship to the more classic academic disciplines; many of its key thinkers never held a university position. While nowadays social theory is considered a branch of sociology, it is inherently interdisciplinary, as it deals with multiple scientific areas such as anthropology, economics, theology, history, and many others. First social theories developed almost simultaneously with the birth of the sociology science itself. Auguste Comte, known as 'father of sociology', also laid the groundwork for one of the first social theories - social evolutionism. In the 19th century three great, classical theories of social and historical change were created: the social evolutionism theory (of which social darwinism is a part of), the social cycle theory and the Marxist historical materialism theory. Although the majority of 19th century social theories are now considered obsolete they have spawned new, modern social theories. Modern social theories represent some advanced version of the classical theories, like Multilineal theories of evolution (neoevolutionism, sociobiology, theory of modernisation, theory of post-industrial society) or the general historical sociology and the theory of subjectivity and creation of the society.

Unlike disciplines within the “objectivenatural sciences -- such as physics or chemistry -- social theorists are less likely to use the scientific method and other fact-based methods to prove a point. Instead, they tackle very large-scale social trends and structures using hypotheses that cannot be easily proved, except by the history and time, which is often the basis of criticism from opponents of social theories. Extremely critical theorists, such as deconstructionists or postmodernists, may argue that any type of research or method is inherently flawed. Many times, however, social theory is defined as such because the social reality it describes is so overarching as to be unprovable. The social theories of modernity or anarchy might be two examples of this.

However, social theories are a major part of the science of sociology. Objective science-based research can often provide support for explanations given by social theorists. Statistical research grounded in the scientific method, for instance, that finds a severe income disparity between women and men performing the same occupation can complement the underlying premise of the complex social theories of feminism or patriarchy. In general, and particularly among adherents to pure sociology, social theory has an appeal because it takes the focus away from the individual (which is how most humans look at the world) and focuses it on the society itself and the social forces which control our lives. This sociological insight (or sociological imagination) has through the years appealed to students and others dissatisfied with the status quo because it carries the assumption that societal structures and patterns are either random, arbitrary or controlled by specific powerful groups -- thus implying the possibility of change. This has a particular appeal to champions of the underdog, the dispossesed, and/or those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder because it implies that their position in society is undeserved and/or the result of oppression.

Social research methods

Main article: social research

There are several main methods that sociologists use to gather empirical evidence, which include questionnaires, interviews, participant observation, and statistical research.

The problem with all of these approaches is that they are all based on what theoretical position the researcher adopts to explain and understand the society the researcher sees in front of themselves. If one is a functionalist like Émile Durkheim, they are likely to interpret everything in terms of large-scale social structures. If a person is a symbolic interactionist, they are likely to concentrate on the way people understand one another. If the researcher is a Marxist, or a neo-Marxist, they are likely to interpret everything through the grid of class struggle and economics. Phenomenologists tend to think that there is only the way in which people construct their meanings of reality, and nothing else. One of the real problems is that sociologists argue that only one theoretical approach is the "right" one, and it is theirs. In practice, sociologists often tend to mix and match different approaches and methodologies, since each method produces particular types of data.

The Internet is of interest for sociologists in three ways: as a tool for research, for example, in using online questionnaires instead of paper ones, as a discussion platform, and as a research topic. Sociology of the Internet in the last sense includes analysis of online communities (e.g. as found in newsgroups), virtual communities and virtual worlds organisational change catalysed through new media like the Internet, and societal change at-large in the transformation from industrial to informational society (or to information society).

Sociology and other social sciences

In the early 20th century, sociologists and psychologists who conducted research in industrial societies contributed to the development of anthropology. It should be noted, however, that anthropologists also conducted research in industrial societies. Today sociology and anthropology are better contrasted according to different theoretical concerns and methods rather than objects of study.

Sociobiology is a relatively new field to branch from both the sociology and biology disciplines. Although the field once rapidly gained acceptance, it has remained highly controversial as it attempts to find ways in which social behavior and structures can be explained by evolutionary and biological processes. Sociobiologists are often criticized by sociologists for depending too greatly on the effects of genes in defining behavior. Sociobiologists often respond, however, by citing a complex relationship between nature and nurture. In this regard, sociobiology is closely related to anthropology, zoology, and evolutionary psychology. Nonetheless, for most in the discipline, its ideas are unacceptable. Some sociobiologists, such as Richard Machalek, call for the field of sociology to encompass the study of non-human societies along with human beings.

Sociology has some links with social psychology, but the former is more interested in social structures and the latter in social behaviors. A distinction should be made between these and forensic studies within these disciplines, particularly where anatomy is involved. These latter studies might be better named as Forensic psychology. As shown by the work of Marx and others, economics has influenced sociological theories.

Subfields of sociology

See also

External links

Self-study courses:

Other resources:


  • John J. Macionis, Sociology (10th Edition), Prentice Hall, 2004, ISBN 0131849182
  • Piotr Sztompka, Socjologia, Znak, 2002, ISBN 8324002189
  • Stephen H. Aby, Sociology: A Guide to Reference and Information Sources. 3rd edn. Littleton, CO, Libraries Unlimited Inc., 2005, ISBN 1563089475

Further reading

  • Anthony Giddens, Conversations with Anthony Giddens, Polity, Cambridge, 1998. A useful introduction to core themes in classical and contemporary sociology.
  • Anthony Giddens, Sociology, Polity, Cambridge
  • Anthony Giddens, Human Societies: Introduction Reading in Sociology
  • Robert A. Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition, London, Heinemann Educational Books, 1967, ISBN 1560006676
  • Evan Willis, The Sociological Quest: An introduction to the study of social life, 3rd edn, New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 1996, ISBN 0813523672

General subfields of the Social Sciences
Anthropology | Economics | Education | History | Linguistics |
Political Science | Psychology | Sociology |

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