Sociology is the study of the social lives of humans, groups and societies. 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.
Sociology is a relatively new scientific discipline among other social sciences including economics, political science, anthropology, and psychology. It has, however, a long history and can trace its origins to a mixture of common human knowledge, works of art 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 is becoming smaller and more integrated, people's experience of the world is 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 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 books with term 'sociology' in their title were written in 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 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, eclipsed by much larger International Sociologist Association from 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. 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. 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 sociology studies have considered it to be similar to natural sciences like physics or biology. Therefore many researchers argued that methods and methodology used in those sciences are perfectly suited to be used in the study of sociology without any changes. The positive effects of this attitude, like the use of scientific method and stress on empiricism, allowed sociology to be distinguished from theology and metaphysics and be recognized as a true science. Those early views, supported by August Comte, led to methodologies known as positivism and based on the view of philosophical naturalism.
Even in the 19th century positivism and naturalism have been questioned by scientists like Wilhelm Dilthey and Heinrich Rickert, who argued that the world of nature is not the same as the world of society, as human society have unique aspects like meanings, symbols, rules, norms, values - all that can be described as the culture. This view was further developed by Max Weber, who introduced the antipositivism, or humanistic sociology. According to this view, sociology research must concentrate on humans and their cultural values. This has lead to some controversion on how one can draw the line between subjective and objective research, and influenced the hermeneutics studies.
The science of sociology
Although the discipline 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 social sciences. Instead, it came to be another of them, with its own particular emphases, subject matter, and methods. Today, sociology studies humankind's organizations and social institutions, largely by a comparative method. It has concentrated particularly on the organization of complex 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.
Today sociologists research macro-structures that organize society, such as race or ethnicity, social class and gender role, 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 it. 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.
Main article: social theory
The term social theory is sometimes applied to all work produced without the use of the scientific method. 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.
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, 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.
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.
Major branches and specialised areas
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 (http://www.ucm.es/info/isa/rc.htm) 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 (http://www.asanet.org/sections/general.html) lists sections covering many of the same topics, as well as others.
Below are some of these areas and topics, with links to relevant Wikipedia articles.
- John J. Macionis, Sociology (10th Edition), Prentice Hall, 2004, ISBN 0131849182
- Piotr Sztompka, Socjologia, Znak, 2002, ISBN 8324002189