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Sociology is the study of society.[1] It is a social science (with which it is informally synonymous) that uses various methods of empirical investigation[2] and critical analysis[3] to develop and refine a body of knowledge and theory about human social activity, often with the goal of applying such knowledge to the pursuit of social welfare. Subject matter ranges from the micro level of agency and interaction to the macro level of systems and social structures.[4]

Sociology is both topically and methodologically a very broad discipline. Its traditional focuses have included social stratification (i.e., class relations), religion, secularization, modernity, culture and deviance, and its approaches have included both qualitative and quantitative research techniques. As much of what humans do fits under the category of social structure and agency, sociology has gradually expanded its focus to further subjects, such as medical, military and penal institutions, the internet, and even the role of social activity in the development of scientific knowledge. The range of social scientific methods has also broadly expanded. The linguistic and cultural turns of the mid-20th century led to increasingly interpretative, hermeneutic, and philosophic approaches to the analysis of society. Conversely, recent decades have seen the rise of new mathematically and computationally rigorous techniques, such as agent-based modelling and social network analysis.[5][6]





Sociological reasoning pre-dates the foundation of the discipline. Social analysis has origins in the common stock of Western knowledge and philosophy, and has been carried out from at least as early as the time of Plato. There is evidence of early sociology in medieval Islam. It may be said that the first sociologist was Ibn Khaldun, a 14th century Arab scholar from North Africa, whose Muqaddimah was the first work to advance social-scientific theories of social cohesion and social conflict.[7][8][9][10][11]

The word sociology (or "sociologie") is derived from the Latin: socius, "companion"; -ology, "the study of", and Greek λόγος, lógos, "word", "knowledge". It was first coined by Auguste Comte (1798–1857), in 1838.[12] Comte had earlier used the term "social physics", but that had subsequently been appropriated by others, most notably the Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet. Comte endeavoured to unify history, psychology and economics through the scientific understanding of the social realm. Writing shortly after the malaise of the French Revolution, he proposed that social ills could be remedied through sociological positivism, an epistemological approach outlined in The Course in Positive Philosophy [1830–1842] and A General View of Positivism (1844). Comte believed a positivist stage would mark the final era, after conjectural theological and metaphysical phases, in the progression of human understanding.[13]

Foundations of the academic discipline

Though Comte is generally regarded as the "Father of Sociology",[13] the academic subject was formally established by another French thinker, Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), who developed positivism in greater detail. Durkheim set up the first European department of sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 1895, publishing his Rules of the Sociological Method.[14] In 1896, he established the journal L'Année Sociologique.[14] Durkheim's seminal monograph, Suicide (1897), a case study of suicide rates amongst Catholic and Protestant populations, distinguished sociological analysis from psychology or philosophy.[15] It also marked a major contribution to the concept of structural functionalism.

A course entitled "sociology" was taught in the United States at Yale in 1875 by William Graham Sumner, drawing upon the thought of Comte and Herbert Spencer rather than Durkheimian theory.[16] In 1890, the oldest continuing American course in the modern tradition began at the University of Kansas, lectured by Frank Blackmar.[17] The Department of History and Sociology at the University of Kansas was established in 1891.[18] The Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago was established in 1892 by Albion W. Small.[19] George Herbert Mead and Charles Cooley, who had met at the University of Michigan in 1891 (along with John Dewey), would move to Chicago in 1894.[20] Their influence gave rise to social psychology and the symbolic interactionism of the modern Chicago School.[21] The American Journal of Sociology was founded in 1895, followed by the American Sociological Association (ASA) in 1905.[19]

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.[22] In 1909 the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie (German Society for Sociology) was founded by Ferdinand Tönnies and Max Weber, among others. Weber established the first department in Germany at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich in 1919, having presented an influential new antipositivist sociology.[23] In 1920, Florian Znaniecki set up the first department in Poland. The Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt (later to become the Frankfurt School of critical theory) was founded in 1923.[24] International co-operation in sociology began in 1893, when René Worms founded the Institut International de Sociologie, an institution later eclipsed by the much larger International Sociological Association (ISA), founded in 1949.[25]

Sociology evolved as an academic response to the challenges of modernity, such as industrialization, urbanization, secularization, and a perceived process of enveloping rationalization.[26] The field predominated in continental Europe, with British anthropology and statistics generally following on a separate trajectory. By the turn of the 20th century, however, many theorists were active in the Anglo-American world. Few early sociologists were confined strictly to the subject, interacting also with economics, jurisprudence, psychology and philosophy, with theories being appropriated in a variety of different fields. Since its inception, sociological epistemologies, methods, and frames of enquiry, have significantly expanded and diverged.[4]

Durkheim, Karl Marx and Weber are typically cited as the three principal architects of social science.[27] Their thought is central to the modern sociological paradigms of functionalism, conflict theory and anti-positivism respectively. Vilfredo Pareto, Alexis de Tocqueville, Adam Ferguson, Robert Michels, Werner Sombart, Ferdinand Tönnies, Georg Simmel and Karl Mannheim are occasionally included on academic curricula as further founding theorists. Each key figure is associated with a particular theoretical perspective and orientation.[28]

Marx and Engels associated the emergence of modern society above all with the development of capitalism; for Durkheim it was connected in particular with industrialization and the new social division of labour which this brought about; for Weber it had to do with the emergence of a distinctive way of thinking, the rational calculation which he associated with the Protestant Ethic (more or less what Marx and Engels speak of in terms of those 'icy waves of egotistical calculation'). Together the works of these great classical sociologists suggest what Giddens has recently described as 'a multidimensional view of institutions of modernity' and which emphasizes not only capitalism and industrialism as key institutions of modernity, but also 'surveillance' (meaning 'control of information and social supervision') and 'military power' (control of the means of violence in the context of the industrialization of war).

John Harriss The Second Great Transformation? Capitalism at the End of the Twentieth Century 1992, [28]

Positivism and anti-positivism

The methodological approach toward sociology by early theorists was to treat the discipline in broadly the same manner as natural science. An emphasis on empiricism and the scientific method was sought to provide a tested foundation for sociological research, and to distinguish sociology from less empirical fields such as philosophy. This perspective, called positivism, is based on the assumption that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can come only from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific and quantitative methods. Émile Durkheim was a major proponent of theoretically grounded empirical research,[29] seeking correlations between "social facts" to reveal structural laws. His position was informed by an interest in applying sociological findings in the pursuit of social reform and the negation of social "anomie". Accounts of Durkheim's positivism may be vulnerable to exaggeration and oversimplification: Comte was the only major sociological thinker to postulate that the social realm may be subject to scientific analysis in the same way as noble science, whereas Durkheim acknowledged in greater detail the fundamental epistemological limitations.[30][31]

Reactions against social empiricism began when German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel voiced opposition to both empiricism, which he rejected as uncritical, and determinism, which he viewed as overly mechanistic.[32] Karl Marx's methodology borrowed from Hegel dialecticism but also a rejection of positivism in favour of critical analysis, seeking to supplement the empirical acquisition of "facts" with the elimination of illusions.[33] He maintained that appearances need to be critiqued rather than simply documented. Marx rejected Comtean positivism but nonetheless endeavoured to produce a science of society grounded in historical materialism.[33] Hermeneuticians, neo-Kantian philosophers and human scientists, such as Wilhelm Dilthey and Heinrich Rickert, argued that empirical analysis of the social world differs to that of the natural world due to the irreducibly complex aspects of human society, culture, and being.[34]

At the turn of the 20th century the first generation of German sociologists formally introduced methodological antipositivism, proposing that research should concentrate on human cultural norms, values, symbols, and social processes viewed from a resolutely subjective perspective. Max Weber argued that sociology may be loosely described as a science as it is able to identify causal relationships of human "social action"—especially among "ideal types", or hypothetical simplifications of complex social phenomena.[35] As a nonpositivist, however, Weber sought relationships that are not as "ahistorical, invariant, or generalizable"[36] as those pursued by natural scientists. Ferdinand Tönnies theorized on "gemeinschaft and gesellschaft" (lit. community and society) as two "normal types" of social grouping. Tönnies drew a sharp line between the realm of conceptuality and the reality of social action: the first must be treated axiomatically and in a deductive way ("pure sociology"), whereas the second empirically and inductively ("applied sociology").[37]

Max Weber 1894.jpg

[Sociology is ] ... the science whose object is to interpret the meaning of social action and thereby give a causal explanation of the way in which the action proceeds and the effects which it produces. By 'action' in this definition is meant the human behaviour when and to the extent that the agent or agents see it as subjectively meaningful ... the meaning to which we refer may be either (a) the meaning actually intended either by an individual agent on a particular historical occasion or by a number of agents on an approximate average in a given set of cases, or (b) the meaning attributed to the agent or agents, as types, in a pure type constructed in the abstract. In neither case is the 'meaning' to be thought of as somehow objectively 'correct' or 'true' by some metaphysical criterion. This is the difference between the empirical sciences of action, such as sociology and history, and any kind of priori discipline, such as jurisprudence, logic, ethics, or aesthetics whose aim is to extract from their subject-matter 'correct' or 'valid' meaning.

Max Weber The Nature of Social Action 1922, [38]

Both Weber and Georg Simmel pioneered the "Verstehen" (or 'interpretative') method in social science; a systematic process by which an outside observer attempts to relate to a particular cultural group, or indigenous people, on their own terms and from their own point-of-view.[39] Through the work of Simmel, in particular, sociology acquired a possible character beyond positivist data-collection or grand, deterministic systems of structural law. Relatively isolated from the sociological academy throughout his lifetime, Simmel presented idiosyncratic analyses of modernity more reminiscent of the phenomenological and existential writers than of Comte or Durkheim, paying particular concern to the forms of, and possibilities for, social individuality.[40] His sociology engaged in a neo-Kantian critique of the limits of perception, asking 'What is society?' in a direct allusion to Kant's question 'What is nature?'[41]

Simmel 01.JPG

The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life. The antagonism represents the most modern form of the conflict which primitive man must carry on with nature for his own bodily existence. The eighteenth century may have called for liberation from all the ties which grew up historically in politics, in religion, in morality and in economics in order to permit the original natural virtue of man, which is equal in everyone, to develop without inhibition; the nineteenth century may have sought to promote, in addition to man's freedom, his individuality (which is connected with the division of labor) and his achievements which make him unique and indispensable but which at the same time make him so much the more dependent on the complementary activity of others; Nietzsche may have seen the relentless struggle of the individual as the prerequisite for his full development, while socialism found the same thing in the suppression of all competition - but in each of these the same fundamental motive was at work, namely the resistance of the individual to being levelled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism.

Georg Simmel The Metropolis and Mental Life 1903, [42]

Functionalism and conflict theory

Structural functionalism is a broad paradigm, both in sociology and anthropology, which addresses the social structure in terms of the necessary function of its constituent elements. A common analogy (popularized by Herbert Spencer) is to regard norms, values and institutions as 'organs' that work toward the proper-functioning of the entire 'body' of society.[43] The perspective is implicit in the original sociological positivism of Comte, but was theorized in full by Durkheim, again with respect to observable, structural laws. Although functionalism shares a history and theoretical affinity with the empirical method, later functionalists, such as Bronisław Malinowski and Talcott Parsons, are to some extent antipositivist.[44] Parsons, in fact, came to view the term as descriptive of a particular stage in the methodological development of the social sciences, rather than a specific school of thought.[45] Whilst functionalism shares an affinity with 'grand theory' (e.g. systems theory in the work of Niklas Luhmann), emphasis may be placed on small units of socialization, such as the nuclear family. It is also simplistic to equate the approach directly with conservative ideology.[31] Functionalism has been associated with thinkers as diverse as the post-structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault.[46] In the most basic terms functionalism concerns "the effort to impute, as rigorously as possible, to each feature, custom, or practice, its effect on the functioning of a supposedly stable, cohesive system."[44]

To aim for a civilization beyond that made possible by the nexus of the surrounding environment will result in unloosing sickness into the very society we live in. Collective activity cannot be encouraged beyond the point set by the condition of the social organism without undermining health.

Émile Durkheim The Division of Labor in Society 1883, [47]

Conflict theories, by contrast, are perspectives which critique the overarching socio-political system, which emphasize the inequality of a particular social group, or which otherwise detract from structural functionalism (though they may also be 'structural'). Conflict theories draw attention to power differentials, such as class conflict, and generally contrast traditional or historically-dominant ideologies.[48] The term is most commonly associated with Marxism, but as a reaction to functionalism and the scientific method may be associated with critical theory, feminist theory, queer theory, postmodern theory, post-structural theory, postcolonial theory, and a variety of other perspectives.

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels The Communist Manifesto 1848, [49]

Twentieth-century developments

In the early 20th century, sociology expanded in the U.S., including developments in both macrosociology, concerned with the evolution of societies, and microsociology, concerned with everyday human social interactions. Based on the pragmatic social psychology of George Herbert Mead, Herbert Blumer and, later, the Chicago School, sociologists developed symbolic interactionism. In the 1920s, Georg Lukács' History and Class Consciousness (1923) was released, whilst a number of works by Durkheim and Weber were published posthumously. In the 1930s, Talcott Parsons began to develop action theory, integrating the study of social order with the structural and voluntaristic aspects of macro and micro factors.[50] In Austria and later the U.S., Alfred Schütz developed social phenomenology, which would later inform social constructionism.[51] During the same period members of the Frankfurt school developed critical theory, integrating the historical materialistic elements of Marxism with the insights of Weber, Freud and Gramsci —in theory, if not always in name— often characterizing capitalist modernity as a move away from the central tenets of enlightenment.[52][53]

During the Interwar period sociology was undermined by totalitarian governments for reasons of ostensible political control. After the Russian Revolution, the discipline was "politicized, Bolshevisized and eventually, Stalinized" until it virtually ceased to exist in the Soviet Union.[54] In China, the discipline was banned along with semiotics and comparative linguistics as "Bourgeois pseudoscience" in 1952, not to return until 1979.[55] During the same period, however, sociology was also undermined by conservative universities in the West. This was due, in part, to perceptions of the subject as possessing an inherent tendency, through its own aims and remit, toward liberal or left wing thought. Given that the subject was founded by structural functionalists; concerned with organic cohesion and social solidarity, this view was somewhat groundless (though it was largely Parsons who introduced Durkheim and Weber to American audiences, and his interpretation has been criticized for a latent conservatism).[56]

In the mid-20th century there was a general trend for American sociology to be more scientific in nature, due to the prominence at that time of action theory and other system-theoretical approaches.[57] In 1949, Robert K. Merton released Social Theory and Social Structure, a major text in his functionalist project.[58] Parsons developed the sociology of family[59] and continued his work on action theory within a higher explanatory context of systems theory and cybernetics.[60] By the mid-1950s, new types of quantitative and qualitative research had been developed, and sociological research was increasingly employed as a tool by governments and businesses worldwide.[61]

In 1959, Erving Goffman published The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, whilst C. Wright Mills presented The Sociological Imagination, encouraging humanistic discourse and a rejection of abstracted grand theory.[62] Parallel with the rise of various social movements in the 1960s, particularly in Britain, the cultural turn saw a rise in conflict theories emphasizing social struggle, such as neo-Marxism and second-wave feminism.[48] Ralf Dahrendorf and Ralph Miliband presented politically influential theory on class conflict and industrialized nation states. The sociology of religion saw a renaissance in the decade with new debates on secularisation thesis and the very definition of religious practise.[63] Theorists such as Gerhard Lenski and John Milton Yinger formulated functional definitions of what constitutes a religion, thus analysing new social movements for their religious role.[63] Theorists in the tradition of Western Marxism continued to scrutize consumerism and ideology in analogous terms.[64]

In the 1970s so-called post-structuralist and postmodernist theory, drawing upon structuralism and phenomenology as much as classical social science, made a considerable impact on frames of sociological enquiry.[65] Often understood simply as a cultural style 'after-Modernism' marked by intertextuality, pastiche and irony, sociological analyses of postmodernity have presented a distinct era relating to (1) the dissolution of metanarratives (particularly in the work of Lyotard), and (2) commodity fetishism and the 'mirroring' of identity with consumption in late capitalist society (Debord; Baudrillard; Jameson).[66] Postmodernism has also been associated with the rejection of enlightenment conceptions of the human subject by thinkers such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, and, to a lesser extent, in Louis Althusser's anti-humanist defence of Marxism.[67] [68] Most theorists associated with the movement actively refused the label, preferring to accept postmodernity as a historical phenomenon rather than a method of analysis, if at all. Nevertheless, self-consciously postmodern pieces continue to emerge within the social and political sciences in general.[65]

In the 1980s, theorists outside of France tended to focus on globalization, communication, and reflexivity in terms of a 'second' phase of modernity, rather than a distinct new era per se. Jürgen Habermas established communicative action as a reaction to postmodern challenges to the discourse of modernity, informed both by critical theory and pragmatism.[69] Fellow German sociologist, Ulrich Beck, presented The Risk Society (1992) as an account of the manner in which the modern nation state has become organized. In Britain, Anthony Giddens set out to reconcile recurrent theoretical dichotomies through structuration theory.[70] During the 1990s, Giddens developed work on the challenges of "high modernity", as well as a new 'third way' politics that would greatly influence New Labour in U.K. and the Clinton administration in the U.S.[71][72] Leading Polish sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, wrote extensively on the concepts of modernity and postmodernity, particularly with reference to the Holocaust and consumerism.[73] Pierre Bourdieu gained both academic and critical acclaim for his work on the forms of cultural capital.[74]

Functionalist-structuralist systems theorists such as Niklas Luhmann remained dominant forces in sociology up to the end of the century. In 1994, Robert K. Merton won the National Medal of Science for his contributions to the sociology of science.[75] The positivist tradition is popular to this day, particularly in the United States.[76] The discipline's two most widely cited journals, the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review, primarily publish research in the positivist tradition, with ASR exhibiting greater diversity (the British Journal of Sociology, on the other hand, publishes primarily non-positivist articles).[76] The 1990s gave rise to improvements in quantitative methodologies. Longitudinal studies were employed to follow populations over the course of years and decades, enabling researchers to study long-term phenomena and gain greater reliability. Increases in the size of data sets was facilitated by new statistical computer software packages such as SAS, Stata, or SPSS. Social network analysis is an example of a new paradigm in the positivist tradition. The method, pioneered by theorists such as Harrison White, J. Clyde Mitchell, and Mark Granovetter, is now common in various subfields, as well as other related disciplines. There has also been a minor revival of a more independent, empirical sociology in the spirit of C. Wright Mills and his studies of the Power Elite in the United States, according to Stanley Aronowitz.[77]



Social interactions and their consequences are studied in sociology.

Sociological research methods may be divided into two broad categories:

  • Quantitative designs attempt to reduce social phenomena to quantifiable data which can then be statistically analyzed, focusing on the links and attributes across several cases.
  • Qualitative designs which emphasize personal experiences, interpretation, and self-knowledge over quantification, are concerned with understanding the meaning of social phenomena, and focus on links and attributes across relatively few cases.

Sociologists are divided into camps of support for particular research techniques. These disputes relate to the historical core of social theory (positivism and antipositivism; structure and agency). While very different in many aspects, both qualitative and quantitative approaches involve a systematic interaction between theory and data.[78] The choice of method often depends largely on what the researcher intends to investigate. For example, a researcher concerned with drawing a statistical generalization across an entire population may administer a survey questionnaire to a representitive sample population. By contrast, a researcher who seeks full contextual understanding of an individuals' social actions may choose ethnographic participant observation or open-ended interviews. Studies will commonly combine, or 'triangulate', quantitative and qualitative methods as part of a 'multi-strategy' design. For instance, a quantitative study may be performed to gain statistical patterns or a target sample, and then combined with a qualitative interview to determine the play of agency.[78]


Typically a population is very large, making a census or a complete enumeration of all the values in that population infeasible. A 'sample' thus forms a manageable subset of a population. In positivist research, statistics derived from a sample are analysed in order to draw inferences regarding the population as a whole. The process of collecting information from a sample is referred to as 'sampling'. Sampling methods may be either 'random' (random sampling, systematic sampling, stratified sampling, cluster sampling) or non-random/nonprobability (convenience sampling, purposive sampling, snowball sampling).[78] The most common reason for sampling is to obtain information about a population. Sampling is quicker and cheaper than a complete census of a population.

Types of method

The following list of research methods is neither exclusive nor exhaustive:

  • Archival research or the Historical method: draws upon the secondary data located in historical archives and records, such as biographies, memoirs, journals, and so on.
  • Content analysis: The content of interviews and other texts are systematically analysed. Often data is 'coded' as a part of the 'grounded theory' approach using qualitative data analysis (QDA) software, such as NVivo.[79]
  • Experimental research: The researcher isolates a single social process or social phenomena and uses the data to either confirm or construct social theory. Participants (also referred to as "subjects") are randomly assigned to various conditions or "treatments", and then analyzes are made between groups. Randomization allows the researcher to be sure that the treatment is having the effect on group differences and not any extraneous factors.
  • Survey research: The researcher produces data using interviews, questionnaires, or similar feedback from a set of people chosen (including random selection) to represent a particular population of interest. Survey items from an interview or questionnaire may be open-ended or closed-ended. Quantitative data may be tested using statistical software such as PASW (SPSS). Web-based survery research has become widespread in our society and is routine for reserach in academic fields inclduing healthcare research, politics and market research.
  • Life history (also known as oral history): A study of the personal life experiences and trajectories of a participant. Through semi-structured interviews, the researcher may probe into the decisive moments or various influences in their life.
  • Longitudinal study: An extensive examination of a specific person or group over a long period of time.
  • Observation: Using data from the senses, the researcher records information about social phenomenon or behavior. Observation techniques can be either participant observation or non-participant observation. In participant observation, the researcher goes into the field (such as a community or a place of work), and participates in the activities of the field for a prolonged period of time in order acquire a deep understanding of it. Data acquired through these techniques may be analyzed either quantitatively or qualitatively.

Computational sociology

A social network diagram consisting of individuals (or 'nodes') connected by one or more specific types of interdependency.

Sociologists increasingly draw upon computationally-intensive methods to analyze and model social phenomena.[80] Using computer simulations, artificial intelligence, complex statistical methods, and new analytic approaches like social network analysis, computational sociology develops and tests theories of complex social processes through bottom-up modeling of social interactions.[81] Although the subject matter and methodologies in social science differ from those in natural science or computer science, several of the approaches used in contemporary social simulation originated from fields such as physics and artificial intelligence.[82][83] By the same token, some of the approaches that originated in computational sociology have been imported into the natural sciences, such as measures of network centrality from the fields of social network analysis and network science. In relevant literature, computational sociology is often related to the study of social complexity.[84] Social complexity concepts such as complex systems, non-linear interconnection among macro and micro process, and emergence, have entered the vocabulary of computational sociology.[85] A practical and well-known example is the construction of a computational model in the form of an "artificial society," by which researchers can analyze the structure of a social system.[86][87]

Practical applications

Social research informs politicians and policy makers, educators, planners, lawmakers, administrators, developers, business magnates, managers, social workers, non-governmental organizations, non-profit organizations, and people interested in resolving social issues in general. There is often a great deal of crossover between social research, market research, and other statistical fields.

Epistemology and ontology

The extent to which the discipline should be conducted scientifically remains a salient issue with respect to basic ontological and epistemological questions. Controversies continue to rage on how to emphasize or integrate subjectivity, objectivity, intersubjectivity and pragmatism in the conduct of theory and research. While a number of major theorists since the early 20th century have argued that social science is not "science" in the modern sense of the word, the ability to determine causal relationships invokes the same fundamental discussions held in science meta-theory. Whereas positivism has sometimes met with caricature as a breed of naive empiricism, the word has a rich history of applications stretching from Comte to the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle and beyond. By the same token, successful positivism would be open to many of the same critiques set forth in the philosophy of science by thinkers such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn.[88][89] One notable critique of social science is found in Peter Winch's Wittgensteinian text The Idea of Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy (1958). Despite meta-theoretical criticisms of positivism, statistical quantitative methods remain extremely common in practise. Michael Burawoy has contrasted public sociology, emphasising strict practical applications, with academic or professional sociology, which largely concerns dialogue amongst other social/political scientists and philosophers.[90]

Early German hermeneuticians such as Wilhelm Dilthey pioneered the distinction between natural and social science ('Geisteswissenschaft'). This tradition greatly informed Weber and Simmel's antipositivism, and continued with critical theory.[91] Since the 1960s a general weakening of deductivist accounts of science has grown side-by-side with critiques of "scientism", or science as ideology.[92] Jürgen Habermas argues, in his On the Logic of the Social Sciences (1967), that "the positivist thesis of unified science, which assimilates all the sciences to a natural-scientific model, fails because of the intimate relationship between the social sciences and history, and the fact that they are based on a situation-specific understanding of meaning that can be explicated only hermeneutically ... access to a symbolically prestructured reality cannot be gained by observation alone."[93] Verstehende social theory has been the concern of phenomenological works, such as Alfred Schütz' Phenomenology of the Social World (1932) and Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method (1960).[94] Phenomenology would later prove influential in the subject-centred theory of the post-structuralists. The mid-20th century linguistic turn turn led to a rise in highly abstract sociology in general, as well as so-called "postmodern" perspectives on the social acquisition of knowledge.[95] Michel Foucault provides a potent critique in his archaeology of the human sciences, though Habermas and Richard Rorty have both argued that Foucault merely replaces one such system of thought with another.[96][97]

Structure and agency forms an enduring debate in social theory: "Do social structures determine an individual's behaviour or does human agency?" In this context 'agency' refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and make free choices, whereas 'structure' refers to factors which limit or affect the choices and actions of individuals (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, and so on). Discussions over the primacy of either structure and agency relate to the core of social ontology ("What is the social world made of?", "What is a cause in the social world, and what is an effect?").[98] One attempt to reconcile postmodern critiques with the overarching project of social science has been the development, particularly in Britain, of critical realism. For critical realists such as Roy Bhaskar, traditional positivism commits an 'epistemic fallacy' by failing to address the ontological conditions which make science possible: that is, structure and agency itself.[99] A general outcome of incredulity toward structural or agential thought has been the development of multidimensional theories, most notably the Action Theory of Talcott Parsons and Anthony Giddens's Theory of Structuration.[50][70]

Scope and topics


Members of the Frankfurt school: Max Horkheimer (left) and Theodor Adorno (right), in Heidelberg, Germany, 1965.

Cultural sociology involves a critical analysis of the words, artifacts and symbols which interact with forms of social life, whether within subcultures or societies at large. For Simmel, culture referred to "the cultivation of individuals through the agency of external forms which have been objectified in the course of history".[40] Culture was a prevalent object of historical materialist analysis for members of the Frankfurt School, such as Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. Loosely-distinct to culture as a general object of sociological inquiry is the discipline of Cultural Studies.[66] Birmingham School cultural theorists such as Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams emphasized the reciprocity in how mass-produced cultural texts are used, questioning the valorized division between 'producers' and 'consumers' evident in earlier neo-Marxist theory. Cultural Studies aims to examine its subject matter in terms of cultural practices and their relation to power. For example, a study of a subculture (such as white working class youth in London) would consider the social practices of the youth as they relate to the dominant classes.

Criminality and deviance

Criminologists analyse the nature, causes, and control of criminal activity, drawing upon methods across sociology, psychology, and the behavioral sciences. The sociology of deviance focuses on actions or behaviors that violate norms, including both formally-enacted rules (e.g., crime) and informal violations of cultural norms. It is the remit of sociologists to study why these norms exist; how they change over time; and how they are enforced. The concept of deviance is central in contemporary structural functionalism and systems theory. Robert K. Merton produced a typology of deviance, and also established the terms "role model", "unintended consequences", and "self-fulfilling prophecy".[100]

Economic sociology

The term "economic sociology" was first used by William Stanley Jevons in 1879, later to be coined in the works of Durkheim, Weber and Simmel between 1890 and 1920.[101] Economic sociology arose as a new approach to the analysis of economic phenomena, emphasising class relations and modernity as a philosophical concept. The relationship between capitalism and modernity is a salient issue, perhaps best demonstrated in Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) and Simmel's The Philosophy of Money (1900). Economic sociology may be said to have begun with Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835-40) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856).[101] Marx's historical materialism would attempt to demonstrate how economic forces influence the structure of society on a fundamental level. Emile Durkheim's The Division of Labour in Society and Max Weber's Economy and Society were published in 1922. Economic sociology is sometimes synonymous with socioeconomics. In most cases, however, socioeconomists focus on the social impact of very specific economic changes, such as the closing of a factory, market manipulation, and so on.


Environmental sociology is the study of societal-environmental interactions, typically placing emphasis on the social factors that cause environmental problems, the impacts of those issues, and the efforts to resolve them. Attention is paid to the processes by which environmental conditions become defined and known to a society. (See also: sociology of disaster; human ecology)


The sociology of education is the study of how educational institutions determine social structures, experiences, and other outcomes. It is particularly concerned with the schooling systems of modern industrial societies, including the expansion of higher, further, adult, and continuing education.[102]

Family and childhood

The sociology of the family examines the family unit by means of various theoretical perspectives, particularly with regard to the modern historical emergence of the nuclear family and its distinct gender roles. The concept of motherhood forms a central topic in the feminist sociology of Nancy Chodorow and Jessie Bernard.

Gender and sexuality

Sociological analyses of gender and sexuality observe and critique these categories, particularly with respect to power and inequality, both at the level of small-scale interaction and in terms of the broader social structure. At the historical core of such work is feminist theory and the concern for patriarchy: the systematic oppression of women apparent in many societies. Feminist thought may be divided into three 'waves' relating to (1) the initial democratic Suffrage movement of the late-19th century, (2) the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and the development of increasingly complex academic theory, and (3) the current, 'third wave', which has tended to do-away with all generalizations regarding sex and gender and is closely linked with postmodernism, antihumanism, posthumanism and queer theory. Marxist feminism and black feminism are also important perspectives. Studies of gender and sexuality developed side-by-side with sociology rather than strictly within it. As the great majority of universities do not possess a distinct school dedicated to the area, however, it is most commonly taught from within sociology departments.

Health and illness

The sociology of health and illness focuses on the social effects of, and public attitudes toward, illnesses, diseases, disabilities and the ageing process. Medical sociology, by contrast, focuses on the inner-workings of medical organizations and clinical institutions. In Britain, sociology was introduced into the medical curriculum following the Goodenough Report (1944).[103]


The Internet is of interest to sociologists in various ways; most practically as a tool for research and as a discussion platform.[104] The sociology of the Internet in the broad sense regards the analysis of online communities (e.g. newsgroups, social networking sites) and virtual worlds. Online communities may be studied statistically through network analysis or interpreted qualitatively through virtual ethnography. Organizational change is catalysed through new media, thereby influencing social change at-large, perhaps forming the framework for a transformation from an industrial to an informational society. One notable text is Manuel Castells' The Internet Galaxy - the title of which forms an intertextual reference to Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy.[105]


The sociology of knowledge is the study of the relationship between human thought and the social context within which it arises, and of the effects prevailing ideas have on societies. The term first came into widespread use in the 1920s, when a number of German-speaking theorists, most notably Max Scheler, and Karl Mannheim, wrote extensively on it. With the dominance of functionalism through the middle years of the 20th century, the sociology of knowledge tended to remain on the periphery of mainstream sociological thought. It was largely reinvented and applied much more closely to everyday life in the 1960s, particularly by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in The Social Construction of Reality (1966) and is still central for methods dealing with qualitative understanding of human society (compare socially constructed reality). The "archaeological" and "genealogical" studies of Michel Foucault are of considerable contemporary influence. The sociology of knowledge has laid important groundwork for social constructionist work on the sociology of social problems, on the sociology of scientific knowledge, and on the sociology of culture. It has also influenced science and technology studies.

Law and punishment

The sociology of law refers to both a sub-discipline of sociology and an approach within the field of legal studies. Sociology of law is a diverse field of study which examines the interaction of law with other aspects of society, such as the effect of legal institutions, doctrines, and practices on other social phenomena and vice versa. Some of its areas of inquiry include the social development of legal institutions, the social construction of legal issues, and the relation of law to social change. Sociology of law also intersects with the fields of jurisprudence, economic analysis of law and more specialized subjects such as criminology.[106] A law is formal and therefore not the same as a 'norm'. The sociology of deviance, by contrast, examines both formal and informal deviations from normality; both crime and purely cultural forms of deviance. The sociology of punishment examines, without normative or moral judgements, the nature of punitive actions.


As with cultural studies, media studies is a distinct discipline which owes to the convergence of sociology and other social sciences and humanities, in particular, literary criticism and critical theory. Though the production process or the critique of aesthetic forms is not in the remit of sociologists, analyses of socializing factors, such as ideological effects and audience reception, stem from sociological theory and method. Thus the 'sociology of the media' is not a subdiscipline per se, but the media is a common and often-indespensible topic.


Military sociology aims toward the systematic study of the military as a social group rather than as an organization. It is a highly specialized subfield which examines issues related to service personnel as a distinct group with coerced collective action based on shared interests linked to survival in vocation and combat, with purposes and values that are more defined and narrow than within civil society. Military sociology also concerns civilian-military relations and interactions between other groups or governmental agencies. See also: sociology of terrorism. Topics include:

  1. the dominant assumptions held by those in the military,
  2. changes in military members' willingness to fight,
  3. military unionization,
  4. military professionalism,
  5. the increased utilization of women,
  6. the military industrial-academic complex,
  7. the military's dependence on research, and
  8. the institutional and organizational structure of military.[107]

Political sociology

Political sociology is the study of the relations between state and society.[108] The discipline draws on comparative history to analyze socio-political trends. A typical research question in this area might be: "Why do so few American citizens choose to vote?"[109] Political sociology also concerns the play of power and personality, for instance, the impact of globalization upon identity: "The fragmentation and pluralization of values and life-styles, with the growth of mass media and consumerism and decline of stable occupations and communities, all means that previously taken for granted social identities have become politicized."[110] The field developed from the work of Max Weber and Moisey Ostrogorsky,[111] whilst contemporary theorists include Robert A. Dahl, Seymour Martin Lipset, Theda Skocpol, Luc Boltanski and Nicos Poulantzas.

There are four main areas of research focus in contemporary political sociology:

  1. The socio-political formation of the modern state.
  2. "Who rules"? How social inequality between groups (class, race, gender, etc.) influences politics.
  3. How public personalities, social movements and trends outside of the formal institutions of political power affect politics, and
  4. Power relationships within and between social groups (e.g. families, workplaces, bureaucracy, media, etc).[108]

Race and ethnic relations

Race and ethnic relations is the area of sociology that studies the social, political, and economic relations between ethnicities at all levels of society. It encompasses the study of race and racism, and of complex political interactions between members of different groups. At the level of immigration policy, the issue is usually discussed in terms of either assimilationism or multiculturalism. Anti-racism and postcolonialism are also integral concepts. Major theorists include Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, John Rex and Tariq Modood.


The sociology of religion concerns the practices, historical backgrounds, developments, universal themes and roles of religion in society.[112] There is particular emphasis on the recurring role of religion in all societies and throughout recorded history. Crucially, the sociology of religion does not involve an assessment of the truth-claims particular to a religion, although the process of comparing multiple conflicting dogmas may require what Peter L. Berger has described as inherent "methodological atheism".[113] Sociologists of religion attempt to explain the effects of society on religion and the effects of religion on society; in other words, their 'dialectical' relationship. It may be said that the modern formal discipline of sociology began with the analysis of religion in Durkheim's 1897 study of suicide rates amongst Catholic and Protestant populations. Max Weber published four major texts on religion in a context of economic sociology and his rationalization thesis: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism (1915), The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism (1915), and Ancient Judaism (1920). Contemporary debates often centre on topics such as secularization, civil religion, and the role of religion in a context of globalization and multiculturalism.

Scientific knowledge and institutions

Sociologist of science, Bruno Latour

The sociology of science involves the study of science as a social activity, especially dealing "with the social conditions and effects of science, and with the social structures and processes of scientific activity."[114] Theorists include Gaston Bachelard, Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, Thomas Kuhn, Martin Kusch, Bruno Latour, Robert K. Merton, Michel Foucault, Anselm Strauss, Lucy Suchman, Sal Restivo, Karin Knorr-Cetina, Randall Collins, Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Harry Collins, and Steve Fuller.

Social psychology

Sociological social psychology, also known as psychological sociology, is a specialist discipline which focuses on micro-scale social interactions. Theory in this area may be described as adhering to "sociological miniaturism", examining the nature of societies through the study of individual thought processes and emotional behaviours.[115] Social psychology is closely allied with symbolic interactionism and the work of George Herbert Mead.[116] A separate strand of social psychology is taught with psychological emphasis.


German politician and sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf

Social stratification is the hierarchical arrangement of individuals into social classes, castes, and divisions within a society. In modern Western societies stratification traditionally relates to cultural and economic classes comprising of three main layers: upper class, middle class, and lower class, but each class may be further subdivided into smaller classes (e.g. occupational).[117] Social stratification is interpreted in radically different ways within sociology. Proponents of structural functionalism suggest that, since social stratification exists in most state societies, hierarchy must be beneficial in helping to stabilize their existence. Conflict theorists, by contrast, critique the inaccessibility of resources and lack of social mobility in stratified societies. Karl Marx distinguished social classes by their connection to the means of production in the capitalist system: the bourgeoisie own the means, but this effectively includes the proletariat itself as the workers can only sell their own labour power (forming the material base of the cultural superstructure). Max Weber critiqued Marxist economic determinism, noting that social stratification is not based purely on economic inequalities, but on other status and power differentials (e.g. patriarchy). He showed that there are areas other than social class that have a major impact of peoples' lives. [Weber also came up with the idea of the three P's of stratification, which are: Property (class), Prestige (status), and Power (political party).] Pierre Bourdieu provides a modern example in the concepts of cultural and symbolic capital. Theorists such as Ralf Dahrendorf have noted the tendency toward an enlarged middle-class in modern Western societies, particularly in relation to the necessity of an educated work force in technological or service-based economies.[118] Perspectives concerning globalization, such as dependency theory, suggest this effect owes to the shift of workers to the third world.[119]

Urban and rural spaces

Urban sociology, involves the analysis of social life and human interaction in metropolitan areas. It is a normative discipline, seeking to provide advice for planning and policy making. After the industrial revolution, works such as Georg Simmel's The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903) focused on urbanization and the effect it had on alienation and anonymity. In the 1920s and 1930s The Chicago School produced a major body of theory on the nature of the city, important to both urban sociology and criminology, utilising symbolic interactionism as a method of field research. Contemporary research is commonly placed in a context of globalization, for instance, in Saskia Sassen's study of the "Global city".[120] Rural sociology, by contrast, is the analysis of non-metropolitan areas.

Work and industry

The sociology of work, or industrial sociology, examines "the direction and implications of trends in technological change, globalization, labour markets, work organization, managerial practices and employment relations to the extent to which these trends are intimately related to changing patterns of inequality in modern societies and to the changing experiences of individuals and families the ways in which workers challenge, resist and make their own contributions to the patterning of work and shaping of work institutions."[121]

Sociology and other academic disciplines

Sociology overlaps with a variety of disciplines that study society; in particular, political science, economics, and social philosophy. Many comparatively new social sciences, such as communication studies, cultural studies, demography, film studies, media studies, and literary theory, draw upon methods that originated in classical sociology. The distinct field of social psychology emerged from the many intersections of sociological and psychological interests, and is further distinguished in terms of sociological or psychological emphasis.[122]

Social anthropology is the branch of anthropology that studies how contemporary living human beings behave in social groups. Practitioners of social anthropology, like sociologists, investigate various facets of social organization. Traditionally, social anthropologists analysed non-industrial and non-Western societies, whereas sociologists focused on industrialized societies in the Western world. In recent years, however, social anthropology has expanded its focus to modern Western societies, meaning that the two disciplines increasingly converge.[123][124]

Sociobiology is the study of how social behavior and organization have been influenced by evolution and other biological process. The field blends sociology with a number of other sciences, such as anthropology, biology, zoology, and others. Sociobiology has generated controversy within the sociological academy for giving too much attention to gene expression over socialization and environmental factors in general (see 'nature or nurture'). Entomologist E. O. Wilson is credited as having originally developed and described Sociobiology.[125]

Irving Louis Horowitz, in his The Decomposition of Sociology (1994), has argued that the discipline, whilst arriving from a "distinguished lineage and tradition", is in decline due to deeply ideological theory and a lack of relevance to policy making: "The decomposition of sociology began when this great tradition became subject to ideological thinking, and an inferior tradition surfaced in the wake of totalitarian triumphs."[126] Furthermore: "A problem yet unmentioned is that sociology's malaise has left all the social sciences vulnerable to pure positivism - to an empiricism lacking any theoretical basis. Talented individuals who might, in an earlier time, have gone into sociology are seeking intellectual stimulation in business, law, the natural sciences, and even creative writing; this drains sociology of much needed potential."[126] Horowitz cites the lack of a 'core discipline' as exacerbating the problem. Randall Collins, the president of the American Sociological Association has voiced similar sentiments: "we have lost all coherence as a discipline, we are breaking up into a conglomerate of specialities, each going on its own way and with none too high regard for each other."[127]

In 2007, The Times Higher Education Guide published a list of 'The most cited authors of books in the Humanities' (including philosophy and psychology). Seven of the top ten are listed as sociologists: Michel Foucault (1), Pierre Bourdieu (2), Anthony Giddens (5), Erving Goffman (6), Jürgen Habermas (7), Max Weber (8), and Bruno Latour (10).[128]

See also

Related fields of inquiry


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  • Aby, Stephen H. Sociology: A Guide to Reference and Information Sources, 3rd edn. Littleton, CO, Libraries Unlimited Inc., 2005, ISBN 1-56308-947-5 . OCLC 57475961. 
  • Calhoun, Craig (ed) Dictionary of the Social Sciences, Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0-19-512371-5. OCLC 45505995. 
  • Macionis, John J. 2004. Sociology (10th Edition). Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-184918-2. OCLC 52846261. 
  • Nash, Kate. 2000. Contemporary Political Sociology: Globalization, Politics, and Power. Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-20660-4 . OCLC 41445647. 
  • Scott, John & Marshall, Gordon (eds) A Dictionary of Sociology (3rd Ed). Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-19-860986-8, . OCLC 60370982. 

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