A typical textbook definition of sociology calls it the study of the social lives of humans, groups and societies. 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.
Sociology as a discipline emerged in the 19th century as an academic response to the challenge of modernity: as the world is becoming smaller and more integrated, people'Social_disintegration" title ="Social disintegration">social disintegration.
Today sociologists research macro-structures that organize society, such as race or ethnicity, class and gender, 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 and how people will respond to 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. An appropriate middle ground is that both approaches are complementary, that results from each approach can fill in results from the other approaches. For example, the quantitative methods can describe the large or general patterns, while the qualitative approaches can help to understand how individuals understand or respond to those changes!
The term was coined by Auguste Comte, who hoped to unify all studies of humankind--including history, psychology and economics. His own sociological scheme was typical of the 18th 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.
Other, and much more enduring, "classical" theorists of sociology from the late 19th and early 20th centuries include Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. In a manner similar to Comte, none thought of themselves as purely "sociologists." In particular, their works address religion, education, economics, psychology, ethics, philosophy, and theology. Their ideas continue to be addressed today but their lasting endurance has been in sociology (save Marx) and it is in this field that their theories are still considered most applicable.
The beginning of sociology is typical for the formation of a new science in that there were was a multitude of different attempts about what sociology should be and do. In the view back, these struggles are filtered by the criterium of success and influence. Whereas the theories of Weber, Durkheim and Marx (and quite a few others) are still used in sociology today, there were other perspectives which are neither well known nor used today, sometimes even if they bear interesting ideas for today.
In the end, Sociology did not replace the other social sciences, but came to be another of them, with its own particular emphases, subject matter, and methods. Today, Sociology studies humankind'Industrial_society" title ="Industrial society">industrial societies.
Recent sociologists, taking cues from anthropolgists, have noted this "Western emphasis." In response, many sociology departments around the world are encouraging multi-cultural and multi-national study.
Sociologists study a great variety of topics. To get a good idea of the range of topics, visit the International Sociological Association's Research Committee's page which lists topics such as Aging, Arts, Armed Conflict, Disasters, Futures Research, Health, Law, Leisure, Migration, Population, Religion, Tourism, Women in Society, Work, and many others. The American Sociological Association's sections page lists sections covering many of the same topics, as well as others.
Below are some of these areas and topics, with links to Wikipedia discussions of these areas and topics.
- Social Inequality
- Economic sociology
- Environmental sociology
- Economic development
- Human ecology (sometimes included into sociology proper)
- Industrial sociology
- Medical sociology
- Micro sociology
- Political sociology
- Program evaluation
- Rural sociology
- Sociology of religion
- Sociology of science and technology
- Systems theory
- Sociology of Markets
- Sociology of industrial relations
- Social change
- Social demography
- Sociology of disaster
- Urban sociology
- Computational sociology
- Sociology of deviance
Sociology and the Internet
The Internet is of interest for sociologists in three views at least: as a tool for research, for example by using online questionnaires instead of paper ones, as a discussion platform (see 'External links'Virtual_World" title ="Virtual World">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).
Terms and methods
Sociology and other social sciences
In the early 20th century, sociologists and psychologists who conducted research in non-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.
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 is often influenced by sociological theories.
Social theory is a distinction applied to the work considered outside of the "mainstream" of sociology, although arguably, sociology before 1900 in the mainstream bears more resemblance to social theory than the "mainstream".
Among sociologists who model their work on the successful sciences of physics or chemistry, social theory may be applied to all work produced outside of the scientific method, in contradistinction to a sociological theory which has been "correctly" tested. However, a natural science model has never completely predominated sociology, nor has there ever been much consensus, even among the adherents of that model, as to what would constitute valid evidence or even the proper unit of analysis. Consequently, the distinction between sociology and social theory has always been more reflective of classifier than the theory described as belonging to one or the other. Many theorists prefer to describe themselves as social theorists because they are critical of the sociological community or were not trained as sociologists.
Prior to 1900, social theory was narrative and normative, telling stories and making interpretations, and both assuming ethical principles and recommending moral acts. Its thrust in the work of Herbert Spencer was profoundly conservative: Spencer believed in "survival of the fittest" and recommended avoidance of governmental action on behalf of the poor as a positive act. Even in John Stuart Mill, it hoped at best only to ameliorate and not change conditions. But if we go back to what "social theory" there is in St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, we find it's all normative, concerned exclusively with a just society.
St. Augustine describes late Roman society but through a lens of hatred and contempt for what he believed for false Gods, and in reaction theorized The City of God.
If we go outside the West, we find the same situation. Perhaps the major "social theorist" of China, Master Kong (misnamed Confucius by Jesuits) theorized a just society and only glancingly described the actual society of Warring States. Later on and also in China, Mo Tzu recommended a more pragmatic sociology, but ethical at base.
Islam has an advanced but also normative sociology...if we can call it that, and if any normative content does not disqualify the theory.
Some of the nastier specimens of pre-1900, Western social theorists like Houston Chamberlain inspired National Socialism and this fact is often counted against social theory...as a theoretic venture with unpredictably pernicious results as people start to generalize about "inferior races".
And, of course, Marx as a social theorist created quite a lot of havoc along with quite a lot of good. Marx attempted to be "scientific" in the fashion of the later 19th century and hence less normative but failed to start with an ethical tabula rasa or end with no normative recommendations.
In a sense, "social theory" is either a reversion-to or continuation of this subterranean mainstream because it revives abstract speculation, narrative, and normative assumptions and normative results. Fortunately all of its practitioners, without exception, have left off raving about master races and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In fact, essential to the enterprise of "social theory" as practiced by Adorno and others is a methodological challenge to the hegemony of a scientific method. Sharing its core commitment to truth the social theorist points to the radical difference in phenomena between the subject matter of physics and that of sociology.
In sociology, the "objects" of study regard themselves as equal "subjects" with the researcher and for this reason must be gamed, carefully, by the researcher to get objective answers and also to avoid the ethical issues raised in the Milgram experiment, where the people whose authoritarianism was being investigated were persuaded to inflict what they thought was severe pain on others.
The social theorist is suspicious of "objectivity" not as a lifestyle choice but because his social theory, self-applied in a responsible way (vaguely reminiscent of mathematics) generates the notion that people deal in social constructs by default.
He doesn't reject confirmation and denial by the facts, only adds the need for a theoretical venture that typically takes into account self-interested behavior that in turn results from oppressive conditions.
Of course, "mainstream" sociology has developed a continual body of minor theory to avoid false results, such as the double-blind experiment. But it still must act as part of the social phenomena it would describe while the physicist doesn't have to enter a black hole in order to fully describe a black hole.
In fact, in terms of the general Western and non-Western history of social theory, which usually appears in philosophy and religion with a strong normative streak, "scientific" sociology is the exception rather than the rule, and it derives from Daniel Bell's work on the end of ideology...more sociology, in other words. The deep presumption of "scientific" sociology turns out to be economic, and a desire for market operations, which begs the question as to whether they are even fair, far less the question as to whether the respondent hopes for anything better.
World-wide, both economists and sociologists including Amartya Sen start from a questioning as to the justice of markets and the relation between the developed and underdeveloped world to come to quite different conclusions than often supported by the American mainstream, such as "a rising tide lifts all boats" and models showing economic progress at the hidden expense of human rights.
Of course, much nonsense has been emitted by social theorists. "Scientific" sociology avoids this in its purest form. But, the social theorist might reply, scientific sociology then meets the market and turns into political pollstering in which it is gamed, using hidden computer models, to give predetermined answers after all.
Of course, the "mainstream" sociologist would as a "pure", academic practitioner disclaim any association with pollstering and spinmeistering; but this places, in play, the question as to whether in a subject belonging to what Kant would call practical reasoning even bifurcates into the pure and the applied in the first place.
Again, this relates to the very different situations of physics and mathematics versus sociology. Einstein and the physicists had to cross a very bright line between pure and applied physics to build the Bomb, but because sociology takes place inside its phenomena, any social research can at any time, it seems, have a political implication.
One of the most recent theorists in America was C. Wright Mills, who in White Collar: The American Middle Classes and The Power Elite, assumed and narrated social divisions in an America still thought to be roughly egalitarian. Basing his work both on statistics and narration, Mills seems to have noticed early on how America was changing from a country of "self made men" to people who depended on far more powerful combinations for their existence and who for this reason looked to others for their "cues": another member of this group of "theorists" was David Reisman, who originated the phrase, and book, The Lonely Crowd, to describe the resulting phenomena.
The way in which a social theorist like Mills is "confirmed", or refuted, occurs over several years. Mills seems to have been confirmed because certainly today, "white collar" and other Americans are in fact far more dependent on large employers. But his confirmation involves acceptance of a complex view of contemporary society which other people simply do not share.
It is true that "social theory" is very different from "sociology" insofar as the sociologist looks for neat, predetermined problems to which she can apply equally neat methodologies, while the theorist gets rather flustered by the brute fact of human suffering.
But as Pierre Bourdieu shows in The Weight of the World, social theory can be very empirical, in fact far more than spreadsheets, as long as we believe that there are True Stories to be told, and that listening is a profoundly empirical act. In The Weight of the World, Bourdieu as a theorist goes beyond polls which show that native French people dislike Arabs to find that their dislike contains envy of the communitarian structures of Arabs by French people isolated in housing projects, whose children live far away.
Dislike/envy complicates the software but nonetheless exists if we believe the narrative.
But for the "mainstream" scientific sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu becomes a sort of high-class Studs Terkel, listening to Tales of Woe with a tape recorder that remain anecdotal. The totalized fact may, in fact, be Panglossian, and (as Voltaire's professor "proved") this may be "the best of all possible worlds".
But let's give the social theorist the last word in her very own section of this article. Dr. Pangloss was in fact theorizing, and the scientific sociologist who deals in "everyday" language assumes without much argument (much "theory") that "everyday" language, and not the language, let us say, of crazed bag ladies, is the best way to talk about the world.
- International Sociological Association
- The Sociolog. Comprehensive Guide to Sociology
- Resources for methods in social research
- Analysing and Overcoming the Sociological Fragmentation in Europe
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