Sociology is the study of the social lives of humans, 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.
Main Article: History of sociology
Sociology is a relatively new academic discipline among other social sciences including economics, political science, anthropology, 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.
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.
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 first full fledged 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 . The first European department of sociology was founded in 1895 at the University of Bordeaux by Emile Durkheim, founder of L'Année Sociologique (1896). 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. The first sociology departments in the United Kingdom were founded after the Second World War.
International cooperation in sociology began in 1893 when Rene Worms founded the small Institut International de Sociologie that was eclipsed by the much larger International Sociologist Association starting in 1949. 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, Emile Durkheim, Vilfredo Pareto, and Max Weber. Like Comte, none of these sociologists thought of themselves as just "sociologists". In particular, their works address religion, education, economics, psychology, ethics, philosophy, and theology. With the exception of Marx, their most enduring influence has been on sociology, and it is in this field that their theories are still considered most applicable.
Early sociological studies considered the field to be similar to the natural sciences like physics or biology. As a result, many researchers argued that the methods and methodology used in the 'hard' sciences were perfectly suited for use in the study of sociology. The effect of employing the scientific method and stressing empiricism was the distinction of sociology from theology, philosophy, and metaphysics. This also resulted in sociology being recognized as an empirical science. This early sociological approach, supported by August Comte, led to positivism, a methodological approach based on sociological naturalism.
However, 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 antipositivist (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.
The science of sociology
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 macro-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.
Arguably the most scientific work in the history of the discipline is that published by Donald Black, whose work not only reinvents sociology in nearly every regard but even explains why sociology is, in the main, not scientific.
Main article: social theory
Social theory is often considered a branch of sociology that is less concerned with explaining patterns of social life using the scientific method and more concerned with analyzing macro social structures using theoretical frameworks. Because of this, social theorists are often suspicious or critical of sociologists who model their work off of the successful “objective“ natural sciences like physics or chemistry.
Often, however, science-based research can and will complement an underlying social theory. For instance, statistical research grounded in the scientific method that shows a severe income disparity between women and men performing the same occupation can complement a social theory such as either feminism or patriarchy.
Extremely critical theorists , such as deconstructionists or postmodernists, may argue that any type of research or method is inherently flawed while other theorists prefer to describe themselves as social theorists because they are either critical of the sociological community or were not trained as sociologists.
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.
Sociology and the Internet
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 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.
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, by most in the discipline, its ideas are considered verboten. 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 is often influenced by sociological theories.
Last updated: 10-22-2005 12:27:25