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Background Information

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Sociology (from Latin: socius, "companion"; and the suffix -ology, "the study of", from Greek λόγος, lógos, "knowledge" ) is the scientific or systematic study of society, including patterns of social relationships, social interaction, and culture. Areas studied in sociology can range from the analysis of brief contacts between anonymous individuals on the street to the study of global social interaction. Numerous fields within the discipline concentrate on how and why people are organized in society, either as individuals or as members of associations, groups, and institutions. Sociology is considered a branch of social science.

Sociological research provides educators, planners, lawmakers, administrators, developers, business leaders, and people interested in resolving social problems and formulating public policy with rationales for the actions that they take.


Auguste Comte

Sociology, including economic, political, and cultural systems, has origins in the common stock of human knowledge and philosophy. Social analysis has been carried out by scholars and philosophers at least as early as the time of Plato.

There is evidence of early Greek (e.g. Xenophanes, Xenophon , Polybios) and Muslim sociological contributions, especially by Ibn Khaldun, whose Muqaddimah is viewed as the earliest work dedicated to sociology as a social science. Several other forerunners of sociology, from Giambattista Vico up to Karl Marx, are nowadays considered classical sociologists.

Sociology later emerged as a scientific discipline in the early 19th century as an academic response to the challenges of modernity and modernization, such as industrialization and urbanization. Sociologists hope not only to understand what holds social groups together, but also to develop responses to social disintegration and exploitation.

The term "sociologie" was first used in 1780 by the French essayist Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (1748-1836) in an unpublished manuscript.. The term was used again and popularized by the French thinker Auguste Comte in 1838. Comte had earlier used the term 'social physics', but that term had been appropriated by others, notably Adolphe Quetelet. 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 (theology, metaphysics, positive science) and that, if one could grasp this progress, one could prescribe the remedies for social ills. Sociology was to be the 'queen of positive sciences'. Thus, Comte has come to be viewed as the "Father of Sociology".

"Classical" theorists of sociology from the late 19th and early 20th centuries include Ferdinand Tönnies, Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Vilfredo Pareto, Ludwig Gumplowicz, Georg Simmel and Max Weber. Like Comte, these figures did not consider themselves only "sociologists". Their works addressed religion, education, economics, law, psychology, ethics, philosophy and theology, and their theories have been applied in a variety of academic disciplines. Their influence on sociology was foundational.

Institutionalizing sociology

The discipline was taught by its own name for the first time at the University of Kansas, Lawrence in 1890 by Frank Blackmar, under the course title Elements of Sociology. It remains the oldest continuing sociology course in the United states. The Department of History and Sociology at the University of Kansas was established in 1891 , and the first full-fledged independent university. The department of sociology 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 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) 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.

International cooperation in sociology began in 1893 when René Worms founded the Institut International de Sociologie, which was later eclipsed by the much larger International Sociological Association (ISA), founded in 1949. In 1905, the American Sociological Association, the world's largest association of professional sociologists, was founded, and in 1909 the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie ( German Society for Sociology) was founded by Ferdinand Tönnies and Max Weber, among others.

Positivism and anti-positivism

Articles: Positivism, Sociological positivism, and Antipositivism.

Early theorists' approach to sociology, led by Comte, was to treat it in much 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 such as philosophy. This methodological approach, called positivism assumes that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method.

One push away from positivism was philosophical and political, such as in the dialectical materialism based on Marx' theories. A second push away from scientific positivism was cultural, becoming sociological. 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 because of unique aspects of human society such as meanings, symbols, rules, norms, and values. These elements of society inform 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' cultural values (see also: French Pragmatism).

Twentieth century developments

In the early 20th century, sociology expanded in the United States, including developments in both macrosociology interested in evolution of societies and microsociology. Based on the pragmatic social psychology of George Herbert Mead, Herbert Blumer and others (later Chicago school) inspired sociologists developed symbolic interactionism.

In Europe, in the Interwar period, sociology generally was both attacked by increasingly totalitarian governments and rejected by conservative universities. At the same time, originally in Austria and later in the U.S., Alfred Schütz developed social phenomenology (which would later inform social constructionism). Also, members of the Frankfurt school (most of whom moved to the U.S. to escape Nazi persecution) developed critical theory, integrating critical, idealistic and historical materialistic elements of the dialectical philosophies of Hegel and Marx with the insights of Freud, Max Weber (in theory, if not always in name) and others. In the 1930s in the U.S., Talcott Parsons developed structural-functional theory which integrated the study of social order and "objective" aspects of macro and micro structural factors.

Since World War II, sociology has been revived in Europe, although during the Stalin and Mao eras it was suppressed in the communist countries. In the mid-20th century, there was a general (but not universal) trend for US-American sociology to be more scientific in nature, due partly to the prominent influence at that time of structural functionalism. Sociologists developed new types of quantitative and qualitative research methods. In the second half of the 20th century, sociological research has been increasingly employed as a tool by governments and businesses. Parallel with the rise of various social movements in the 1960s, theories emphasizing social struggle, including conflict theory (which sought to counter structural functionalism) and neomarxist theories, began to receive more attention.

In the late 20th century, some sociologists embraced postmodern and poststructuralist philosophies. Increasingly, many sociologists have used qualitative and ethnographic methods and become critical of the positivism in some social scientific approaches. Much like cultural studies, some contemporary sociological studies have been influenced by the cultural changes of the 1960s, 20th century Continental philosophy, literary studies, and interpretivism. Others have maintained more objective empirical perspectives, such as by articulating neofunctionalism, social psychology, and rational choice theory. Others began to debate the nature of globalization and the changing nature of social institutions. These developments have led some to reconceptualize basic sociological categories and theories. For instance, inspired by the thought of Michel Foucault, power may be studied as dispersed throughout society in a wide variety of disciplinary cultural practices. In political sociology, the power of the nation state may be seen as transforming due to the globalization of trade (and cultural exchanges) and the expanding influence of international organizations (Nash 2000:1-4).

However, the positivist tradition is still alive and influential in sociology. In the U.S., the most commonly cited journals, including the American Journal of Sociology and American Sociological Review, primarily publish research in the positivist tradition. There is also a minor revival for a more independent, empirical sociology in the spirit of C Wright Mills, and his studies of the Power Elite in the USA, according to Stanley Aronowitz.

Social network analysis is an example of a new paradigm in this tradition which can go beyond the traditional micro vs. macro or agency vs. structure debates. The influence of social network analysis is pervasive in many sociological subfields such as economic sociology (see the work of J. Clyde Mitchell, Harrison White, or Mark Granovetter for example), organizational behaviour, historical sociology, political sociology, or the sociology of education.

Throughout the development of sociology, controversies have raged about how to emphasize or integrate concerns with subjectivity, objectivity, intersubjectivity and practicality in theory and research. The extent to which sociology may be characterized as a 'science' has remained an area of considerable debate, which has addressed basic ontological and epistemological philosophical questions. One outcome of such disputes has been the ongoing formation of multidimensional theories of society, such as the continuing development of various types of critical theory. Another outcome has been the formation of public sociology, which emphasizes the usefulness of sociological analysis to various social groups.

Scope and topics of sociology

Selected general topics: Discrimination, Deviance and social control, Migration, Power Elite , Social action, Social change, Social class, Social justice/ injustice, Social order, Social status, Social stratification, Socialization, Society, Sociological imagination, Structure and agency, Subfields of sociology
Social interactions and their pros and cons are studied in sociology.

Sociologists study society and social action by examining the groups and social institutions people form, as well as various social, religious, political, and business organizations. They also study the social interactions of people and groups, trace the origin and growth of social processes, and analyze the influence of group activities on individual members and vice versa. The results of sociological research aid educators, lawmakers, administrators, and others interested in resolving social problems, working for social justice and formulating public policy.

Sociologists research macro- structures and processes that organize or affect society, such as, but is not limited to race or ethnicity, gender, globalization, and social class stratification. They study institutions such as the family and social processes that represent deviation from, or the breakdown of, social structures, including crime and divorce. And, they research micro-processes such as interpersonal interactions and the socialization of individuals. Sociologists are also concerned with the effect of social traits such as sex, age, or race on a person’s daily life.

Most sociologists work in one or more specialties, such as, but is not limited to social stratification, social organization, and social mobility; ethnic and race relations; education; family; social psychology; urban, rural, political, and comparative sociology; sex roles and relationships; demography; gerontology; criminology; and sociological practice. In short, sociologists study the many dimensions of society.

Although sociology was informed by Comte's conviction that sociology would sit at the apex of all the sciences, sociology today is identified as one of many social sciences (such as anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, etc.). At times, sociology does integrate the insights of various disciplines, as do other social sciences. Initially, the discipline was concerned particularly with the organization of complex industrial societies. In the past, anthropology had methods that would have helped to study cultural issues in a "more acute" way than sociologists. Recent sociologists, taking cues from anthropologists, have noted the " Western emphasis" of the field. In response, sociology departments around the world are encouraging the study of many cultures and multi-national studies.

Sociological research

The basic goal of sociological research is to understand the social world in its many forms. Quantitative methods and qualitative methods are two main types of sociological research methods. Sociologists often use quantitative methods -- such as social statistics or network analysis - to investigate the structure of a social process or describe patterns in social relationships. Sociologists also often use qualitative methods - such as focused interviews, group discussions and ethnographic methods - to investigate social processes. Sociologists also use applied research methods such as evaluation research and assessment.

Methods of sociological inquiry

Sociologists use many types of social research methods, including:

  • Archival research - Facts or factual evidences from a variety of records are compiled.
  • Content Analysis - The contents of books and mass media are analyzed to study how people communicate and the messages people talk or write about.
  • Historical Method - This involves a continuous and systematic search for the information and knowledge about past events related to the life of a person, a group, society, or the world.
  • Experimental Research - The researcher isolates a single social process or social phenomena and uses the data to either confirm or construct social theory. The experiment is the best method for testing theory due to its extremely high internal validity. Participants, or subjects, are randomly assigned to various conditions or 'treatments', and then analyses are made between groups. Randomization allows the researcher to be sure that the treatment is having the effect on group differences and not some other extraneous factor.
  • Survey Research - The researcher obtains data from interviews, questionnaires, or similar feedback from a set of persons chosen (including random selection) to represent a particular population of interest. Survey items may be open-ended or closed-ended.
  • Life History - This is the study of the personal life trajectories. Through a series of interviews, the researcher can probe into the decisive moments in their life or the various influences on their life.
  • Longitudinal study - This is an extensive examination of a specific group over a long period of time.
  • Observation - Using data from the senses, one records information about social phenomenon or behaviour. Qualitative research relies heavily on observation, although it is in a highly disciplined form.
  • Participant Observation - As the name implies, the researcher goes to the field (usually a community), lives with the people for some time, and participates in their activities in order to know and feel their culture.

The choice of a method in part often depends on the researcher's epistemological approach to research. For example, those researchers who are concerned with statistical generalizability to a population will most likely administer structured interviews with a survey questionnaire to a carefully selected probability sample. By contrast, those sociologists, especially ethnographers, who are more interested in having a full contextual understanding of group members lives will choose participant observation, observation, and open-ended interviews. Many studies combine several of these methodologies.

The relative merits of these research methodologies is a topic of much professional debate among practicing sociologists.

The Sociologist Theoretical Approach to building theory Sociologists use three basic theoretical approaches: 1. The structural-functional approach, 2. The social-conflict approach, and 3. The symbolic-interaction approach.

Combining research methods

In practice, some sociologists combine different research methods and approaches, since different methods produce different types of findings that correspond to different aspects of societies. For example, the quantitative methods may help describe social patterns, while qualitative approaches could help to understand how individuals understand those patterns.

An example of using multiple types of research methods is in the study of the Internet. The Internet is of interest for sociologists in various 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, organizational change catalyzed through new media like the Internet, and social change at-large in the transformation from industrial to informational society (or to information society). Online communities can be studied statistically through network analysis and at the same time interpreted qualitatively, such as though virtual ethnography. Social change can be studied through statistical demographics or through the interpretation of changing messages and symbols in online media studies.

Sociology and other social sciences

Sociology shares deep ties with a wide array of other disciplines that also deal with the study of society. The fields of economics, psychology, and anthropology have influenced and have been influenced by sociology and these fields share a great amount of history and common research interests.

Today sociology and the other sciences are better contrasted according to methodology rather than objects of study. Additionally, unlike sociology, psychology and anthropology have forensic components within these disciplines that deal with anatomy and other types of laboratory research.

Sociobiology is the study of how social behaviour and organization has been influenced by evolution and other biological processes. The field blends sociology with a number other sciences, such as anthropology, biology, zoology, and others. Although the field once rapidly gained acceptance, it has remained highly controversial within the sociological academy. Sociologists often criticize the study for depending too greatly on the effects of genes in defining behaviour. Sociobiologists often respond by citing a complex relationship between nature and nurture.

Sociology is also widely used in management science, especially in the field of organizational behaviour.

Related theories, methods and fields of inquiry include:


Main lists: List of basic sociology topics and List of sociology topics
  • Subfields of sociology
  • Timeline of sociology
  • List of sociologists
  • List of scientific journals in sociology
  • List of important publications in sociology
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