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History · Social theory


Comparative sociology · Cultural sociology
Economic sociology · Industrial sociology
Political sociology · Rural sociology
Sociology of deviance · Sociology of education
Sociology of knowledge · Sociology of law
Sociology of religion · Urban sociology


Conflict theory · Critical theory
Positivism · Social constructionism

Related Areas

Demography · Social movements
Social psychology · Sociobiology

Sociology is an academic and applied discipline that studies society and human social interaction. Sociological research ranges from the analysis of short contacts between anonymous individuals on the street to the study of global social processes. Numerous fields within the discipline focus on how and why people are organized in society, either as individuals or as members of associations, groups, and institutions. As an academic discipline, sociology is typically considered a 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. Sociology also studies social status and the social structures of society, social change, social movements, and the breakdown of society through crime and revolution. Seeking to understand how human beings live in and are affected by society, sociology is a key area in advancing human understanding of how to establish a world of peace and harmony.


Sociology comes from Latin: Socius, "companion;" and the suffix -ology, "the study of," from Greek λόγος, lógos, "knowledge."

Sociology is a cluster of disciplines which seek to explain the dimensions of society and the dynamics that societies operate upon. Some of these disciplines which reflect current fields of Sociology are demography, which studies changes in a population size or type; criminology, which studies criminal behavior and deviance; social stratification, which studies inequality and class structure; political sociology which studies government and laws; sociology of race and sociology of gender, which examine the social construction of race and gender as well as race and gender inequality. New sociological fields and sub-fields—such as network analysis and environmental sociology—continue to evolve; many of them are very cross-disciplinary in nature.

The field of social anthropology has considerable similarities to sociology. The differences are mainly historical, in that they came out of two different disciplines. Cultural anthropology began with the study of cultures characterized at the time as "primitive." Sociology began with the study of contemporary societies in the developed world. However, their subject matter has tended more and more to overlap, particularly as social anthropologists have become increasingly interested in contemporary cultures.


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, works of art and philosophy.

Precursors and foundations

Sociological reasoning can be traced back to ancient Greece (Xenophanes' remark: "If horses would adore gods, these gods would resemble horses").

There is evidence of early Muslim sociology from the fourteenth century: Ibn Khaldun, in his Muqaddimah (later translated as Prolegomena in Latin), the introduction to a seven volume analysis of universal history, was the first to advance social philosophy in formulating theories of social cohesion and social conflict.[1]

Max Weber

Sociology as a scientific discipline emerged in the early nineteenth 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 and exploitation.

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 nineteenth 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.

"Classical" theorists of sociology from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries include Ferdinand Tönnies, Émile Durkheim, Vilfredo Pareto, Ludwig Gumplovicz, 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.

Early works

Lester Frank Ward

The first books with the term "sociology" in the title were A Treatise on Sociology, Theoretical and Practical, by the North-American lawyer Henry Hughes, and Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society, by the North-American lawyer George Fitzhugh. Both books were published in 1854, in the context of the debate over slavery in the antebellum U.S. The Study of Sociology by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer appeared in 1874. Lester Frank Ward, described by some as the father of American sociology, published Dynamic Sociology in 1883.

Institutionalizing sociology

The discipline was taught by its own name for the first time at the University of Kansas, Lawrence in February 1890, by Frank Blackmar, under the course title, Elements of Sociology. Blackmar headed the department of sociology there for almost 30 years. He regarded the purpose of sociology as "first, to understand society, then to enable us to formulate a scientific program of social betterment."[2] and the first full fledged independent university 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 in France by Émile 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 Sociological Association from 1949. In 1905, the American Sociological Association, the world's largest association of professional sociologists, was founded, and Lester F. Ward was selected to serve as the first President of the new society.

Positivism and anti-positivism

Early theorists' approach to sociology, led by Auguste 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, became a source of contention between sociologists and other scientists, and eventually a point of divergence within the field itself.

While most sciences evolved from deterministic, Newtonian models to probabilistic models which accept and even incorporate uncertainty, sociology began to cleave into those who believed in a deterministic approach (attributing variation to structure, interactions, or other forces) and those who rejected the very possibility of explanation and prediction. One push away from positivism was philosophical and political, such as in the dialectical materialism based on Marx's theories.

A second push away from scientific positivism was cultural, even sociological. As early as the nineteenth 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. This has led to some controversy on how one can draw the line between subjective and objective research and has also influenced hermeneutical studies. Similar disputes, especially in the era of the Internet, have led to variations in sociology such as public sociology, which emphasizes the usefulness of sociological expertise to abstracted audiences.

Twentieth century developments

In the early twentieth century, sociology expanded in 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 other later Chicago school inspired sociologists developed symbolic interactionism. Symbolic interactionism is the idea that people are shaped by their environments. In this theory, people internalize how they believe others in their world feel about the world, making this opinion their own. Blumer laid out three basic tenets of the theory:

  • Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things
  • The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society
  • These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters
Max Horkheimer (front left), Theodor Adorno (front right), and Jürgen Habermas in the background, right, in 1965 at Heidelberg.

In Europe, in the inter-war 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 (some 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 twentieth century, there was a general (but not universal) trend for 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 research and qualitative research methods. In the second half of the twentieth 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. Conflict theory dates back to thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes but is usually seen as an offshoot of Marxist thought. Conflict theorists believe that separate groups within families, organizations, or societies are constantly fighting one another for control of resources. The theory assumes that there are competition and inequality in society and that people being aware of these facts fight for their own survival. While sounding dramatic, the conflicts involved in conflict theory can range from children vying for their parents' attention to countries warring over the rights to a piece of land. The theory has tremendous flexibility in the type of conflicts to which it is applicable.

In the late twentieth 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, twentieth century Continental philosophy, literary studies, and interpretivism. Others have maintained more objective empirical perspectives, such as by articulating neofunctionalism and pure sociology. 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.

However, the positivist tradition is still alive and influential in sociology, as evidenced by the rise of social networks as both a new paradigm that suggests paths to go beyond the traditional micro vs. macro or agency vs. structure debates and a new methodology. The influence of social network analysis is pervasive in many sociological subfields such as economic sociology (as in the work of Harrison White or Mark Granovetter, for example), organizational behavior, or historical sociology.

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

Social interactions and their consequences 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 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 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 faces 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 (which include anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, among others). 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, anthropologists had methods that would have helped to study cultural issues in a "more acute" way than sociologists.[3] 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 social 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 behavior. 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.

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 (such as 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 today

Sociology is still a relatively young discipline in comparison with other social sciences, but has gained a place of acceptance within academia. Like other social sciences, sociology is becoming increasingly fragmented as practitioners specialize in more obscure topics. The days of the great theorists such as Comte, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim may be past, but the field is utterly vibrant with diversity. Sociologists use the tools of their trade to study any and everything they come across. There exist sub-disciplines for traditional fields like economic and political sociology, but many sociologists study fields such as gender relations, social psychology, religion, health, and so forth.

Sociology has also gained entrance into institutions from which it had previously been barred. The U.S. Army employs anthropologists and sociologists in war zones and many businesses hire sociologists with specialties in organizational studies to help increase efficiency, communication, and morale.[4]


  1. H. Mowlana, "Information in the Arab World," Cooperation South Journal 1(2001).
  2. Jan M. Fritz, Notes from the History of American Sociology: Frank Blackmar's Last Years at the University of Kansas Mid-American Review of Sociology 14(1/2), Centennial Edition (Winter 1990): 13-26. Retrieved December 29, 2022.
  3. Marc Abélès, How the Anthropology of France Has Changed Anthropology in France: Assessing New Directions in the Field Cultural Anthropology 14(3) (August 1999): 404-408. Retrieved December 29, 2022.
  4. Scott Peterson, US Army's Strategy in Afghanistan: Better Anthropology Christian Science Monitor, September 7, 2007. Retrieved December 29, 2022.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aby, Stephen H. Sociology: A Guide to Reference and Information Sources, 3rd edn. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited Inc., 2005. ISBN 1563089475
  • Babbie, Earl R. The Practice of Social Research, 10th edition. Wadsworth, Thomson Learning Inc., 2003. ISBN 0534620299
  • Collins, Randall. Four Sociological Traditions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0195082081
  • Giddens, Anthony. Sociology, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Polity, 2002. ISBN 978-0745624402
  • Levine, Donald N. Visions of the Sociological Tradition. University Of Chicago Press, 1995. ISBN 0226475476
  • Macionis, John J. Sociology, 10th edition. Prentice Hall, 2004. ISBN 0131849182
  • Merton, Robert K. Social Theory and Social Structure. Toward the Codification of Theory and Research. Free Press, 1969. ISBN 978-0029211304
  • Nisbet, Robert A. The Sociological Tradition. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1967. ISBN 1560006676
  • Ritzer, George, and Jeffrey N. Stepnisky. Sociological Theory, 11th edition. SAGE Publications, 2021. ISBN 978-1071832349
  • Wallace, Ruth A., and Alison Wolf. Contemporary Sociological Theory: Continuing the Classical Tradition, 4th edition. Prentice-Hall, 1995. ISBN 013036245X.
  • White, Harrison. Identity and Control: A Structural Theory of Social Action. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992. ISBN 978-0691003986.
  • Willis, Evan. The Sociological Quest: An Introduction to the Study of Social Life. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996. ISBN 0813523672.

External links

All links retrieved January 30, 2023.

General subfields of the Social Sciences
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Linguistics | Law | Psychology | Social work | Sociology


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