Introduction to Sociology/Introduction

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Sociology is the study of human social life. Sociology has many sub-sections of study, ranging from the analysis of conversations to the development of theories to try to understand how the entire world works. This chapter will introduce you to sociology and explain why it is important, how it can change your perspective of the world around you, and give a brief history of the discipline.

What is Sociology?[edit]

Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of Sociology.

Sociology is a branch of the social sciences that uses systematic methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop and refine a body of knowledge about human social structure and activity, sometimes with the goal of applying such knowledge to the pursuit of government policies designed to benefit the general social welfare. Its subject matter ranges from the micro level to the macro level. Microsociology involves the study of people in face-to-face interactions. Macrosociology involves the study of widespread social processes.

Sociology is a broad discipline in terms of both methodology and subject matter. Its traditional focuses have included social relations, social stratification, social interaction, 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 or social activity, sociology has gradually expanded its focus to such far-flung subjects as the study of economic activity, health disparities, and even the role of social activity in the creation of scientific knowledge.[1] The range of social scientific methods has also been broadly expanded. The "cultural turn" of the 1970s and 1980s brought more humanistic interpretive approaches to the study of culture in sociology. Conversely, the same decades saw the rise of new mathematically rigorous approaches, such as social network analysis.

The social world is changing. Some argue it is growing; others say it is shrinking.[2] The important point to grasp is: society does not remain unchanged over time. As will be discussed in more detail below, sociology has its roots in significant societal changes (e.g., the industrial revolution, the creation of empires, and the age of enlightenment of scientific reasoning). Early practitioners developed the discipline as an attempt to understand societal changes.

Some early sociological theorists (e.g., Marx, Weber, and Durkheim) were disturbed by the social processes they believed to be driving the change, such as the quest for solidarity, the attainment of social goals, and the rise and fall of classes, to name a few examples. The founders of sociology were some of the earliest individuals to employ what C. Wright Mills (a prominent mid-20th century American sociologist) labeled the sociological imagination: the ability to situate personal troubles within an informed framework of social issues.[3] Mills proposed that:

"What people need... is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves. The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals."[3]

As Mills saw it, the sociological imagination could help individuals cope with the social world by helping them to step outside of their personal, self-centric view of the world. In employing the sociological imagination, people are able to see the events and social structures that influence behavior, attitudes, and culture.

The sociological imagination goes beyond armchair sociology or common sense. Many people believe they understand the world and the events taking place within it, even though they have not actually engaged in a systematic attempt to understanding the social world, as sociologists do. Humans like to attribute causes to events and attempt to understand what is taking place around them.[4] This is why individuals have been using religious ceremonies for centuries to invoke the will of the gods - because they believed the gods controlled certain elements of the natural world (e.g., the weather). Just as sacrificing two goats to ensure the safe operation of a Boeing 757 (and propitiate Akash Bhairab, the Hindu sky god) is an attempt to influence the natural world without first trying to understand how it works,[5] armchair sociology is an attempt to understand how the social world works without employing scientific methods.

It would be inaccurate to say sociologists never sit around (even sometimes in comfy armchairs) trying to figure out how the world works. But induction is just a first step in understanding the social world. In order to test their theories, sociologists get up from their armchairs and enter the social world. They gather data and evaluate their theories in light of the data they collect (a.k.a. deduction). Sociologists do not just propose theories about how the social world works. Sociologists test their theories about how the world works using the scientific method.

Sociologists, like all humans, have values, beliefs, and even pre-conceived notions of what they might find in doing their research. But, as Peter Berger, a well-known sociologist, has argued, what distinguishes the sociologist from non-scientific researchers is that "[the] sociologist tries to see what is there. He may have hopes or fears concerning what he may find. But he will try to see, regardless of his hopes or fears. It is thus an act of pure perception..."[6]

Sociology, then, is an attempt to understand the social world by situating social events in their corresponding environment (i.e., social structure, culture, history) and trying to understand social phenomena by collecting and analyzing empirical data.


Sociology is a relatively new academic discipline. It emerged in the early 19th century in response to the challenges of modernity. Increasing mobility and technological advances resulted in the increasing exposure of people to cultures and societies different from their own. The impact of this exposure was varied, but for some people included the breakdown of traditional norms and customs and warranted a revised understanding of how the world works. Sociologists responded to these changes by trying to understand what holds social groups together and also exploring possible solutions to the breakdown of social solidarity.

Auguste Comte and Other Founders[edit]

Auguste Comte, who coined the term sociology

The term sociology was recoined by Auguste Comte (1798-1857) in 1838 from the Latin term socius (companion, associate) and the Greek term logia (study of, speech). Comte hoped to unify all the sciences under sociology; he believed sociology held the potential to improve society and direct human activity, including the other sciences.

While it is no longer a theory employed in Sociology, Comte argued for an understanding of society he labeled The Law of Three Stages. Comte, not unlike other enlightenment thinkers, believed society developed in stages. The first was the theological stage where people took a religious view of society. The second was the metaphysical stage where people understood society as natural (not supernatural). Comte's final stage was the scientific or positivist stage, which he believed to be the pinnacle of social development. In the scientific stage, society would be governed by reliable knowledge and would be understood in light of the knowledge produced by science, primarily sociology. While vague connections between Comte's Law and human history can be seen, it is generally understood in Sociology today that Comte's approach is a highly simplified and ill-founded approach to understand social development (see instead demographic transition theory and Ecological-Evolutionary Theory).

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. As pioneers in Sociology, most of the early sociological thinkers were trained in other academic disciplines, including history, philosophy, and economics. The diversity of their trainings is reflected in the topics they researched, including religion, education, economics, psychology, ethics, philosophy, and theology. Perhaps 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.

The Development of the Discipline[edit]

The first book with the term sociology in its title was written in the mid-19th century by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer. In the United States, the first Sociology course was taught at the University of Kansas, Lawrence in 1890 under the title Elements of Sociology (the oldest continuing sociology course in America). The first full fledged university department of sociology in the United States was established in 1892 at the University of Chicago by Albion W. Small, who in 1895 founded the American Journal of Sociology. The first European department of sociology was founded in 1895 at the University of Bordeaux by Emile Durkheim, founder of L'Année Sociologique (1896). In 1919 a sociology department was established in Germany at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich by Max Weber and in 1920 in Poland by Florian Znaniecki. The first sociology departments in the United Kingdom were founded after the Second World War.

International cooperation in sociology began in 1893 when Rene Worms founded the small Institut International de Sociologie that was eclipsed by the much larger International Sociologist Association starting in 1949. In 1905 the American Sociological Association, the world's largest association of professional sociologists, was founded.

Early Sociological Studies[edit]

Early sociological studies considered the field to be similar to the natural sciences, like physics or biology. As a result, many researchers argued that the methodology used in the natural sciences was perfectly suited for use in the social sciences. The effect of employing the scientific method and stressing empiricism was the distinction of sociology from theology, philosophy, and metaphysics. This also resulted in sociology being recognized as an empirical science. This early sociological approach, supported by August Comte, led to positivism, a methodological approach based on sociological naturalism. The goal of positivism, like the natural sciences, is prediction. But in the case of sociology, it is prediction of human behavior, which is a complicated proposition.

The goal of predicting human behavior was quickly realized to be a bit lofty. Scientists like Wilhelm Dilthey and Heinrich Rickert argued that the natural world differs from the social world, as human society has culture, unlike the societies of most other animals (e.g., the behavior of ants, wolves, etc. is primarily based on genetic instructions and is not passed from generation to generation through socialization). As a result, an additional goal was proposed for sociology. Max Weber[7] and Wilhelm Dilthey[8] introduced the concept of verstehen.[9] The goal of verstehen is less to predict behavior than it is to understand behavior. Outside observers of a culture relate to an indigenous people on both the observer's and the observeds' own terms in order to comprehend the cultural conditions. While arriving at a verstehen-like understanding of a culture employs systematic methodologies like the positivistic approach of predicting human behavior, it is often a more subjective process.

The inability of sociology and other social sciences to perfectly predict the behavior of humans or to fully comprehend a different culture has led to the social sciences being labeled "soft sciences." While some might consider this label derogatory, in a sense it can be seen as an admission of the remarkable complexity of humans as social animals. Any animal as complex as humans is bound to be difficult to fully comprehend. What's more, humans, human society, and human culture are all constantly changing, which means the social sciences will constantly be works in progress.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Sociology[edit]

The contrast between positivist sociology and the verstehen approach has been reformulated in modern sociology as a distinction between quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches, respectively. Quantitative sociology is generally a numerical approach to understanding human behavior. Surveys with large numbers of participants are aggregated into data sets and analyzed using statistics, allowing researchers to discern patterns in human behavior. Qualitative sociology generally opts for depth over breadth. The qualitative approach uses in-depth interviews, focus groups, or analysis of content sources (books, magazines, journals, TV shows, etc.) as the data source. These sources are then analyzed systematically to discern patterns and to arrive at a better understanding of human behavior.

Drawing a hard and fast distinction between quantitative and qualitative sociology is a bit misleading. The first step in all sciences is the development of a theory and the generation of testable hypotheses. While there are some individuals who begin analyzing data without a theoretical orientation to guide their analysis,[10] most begin with a theoretical idea or question and gather data to test that theory. The second step is the collection of data. This is really where the two approaches differ. Quantitative sociology focuses on numerical representations of the research subjects (e.g., Do conservative Christian fathers spend more time in child care than secular fathers, when measured in hours?[11]). Qualitative sociology focuses on the ideas found within the discourse and rhetoric of the research subjects (e.g., What is the narrative homosexual men use to explain their continued participation in religions that condemn their sexual orientation?[12]). The goal of both approaches is to answer a question and/or test a theory.

Sociology and Other Social Sciences[edit]

The social sciences comprise the application of scientific methods to the study of the human aspects of the world. Psychology studies the human mind and micro-level (or individual) behavior; sociology examines human society; political science studies the governing of groups and countries; communication studies the flow of discourse via various media; economics concerns itself with the production and allocation of wealth in society; and social work is the application of social scientific knowledge in society. Social sciences diverge from the humanities in that many in the social sciences emphasize the scientific method or other rigorous standards of evidence in the study of humanity.

The Development of Social Science[edit]

In ancient philosophy, there was no difference between the liberal arts of mathematics and the study of history, poetry or politics. Only with the development of mathematical proof did there gradually arise a perceived difference between scientific disciplines and the humanities or liberal arts. Thus, Aristotle studied planetary motion and poetry with the same methods; Plato mixed geometrical proofs with his demonstration on the state of intrinsic knowledge.

This unity of science as descriptive remained, for example, in the time of Thomas Hobbes, who argued that deductive reasoning from axioms created a scientific framework. His book, Leviathan, was a scientific description of a political commonwealth. Within decades of Hobbes' work a revolution took place in what constituted science, particularly with the work of Isaac Newton in physics. Newton, by revolutionizing what was then called natural philosophy, changed the basic framework by which individuals understood what was scientific.

While Newton was merely the archetype of an accelerating trend, the important distinction is that for Newton the mathematical flowed from a presumed reality independent of the observer and it worked by its own rules. For philosophers of the same period, mathematical expression of philosophical ideals were taken to be symbolic of natural human relationships as well: the same laws moved physical and spiritual reality. For examples see Blaise Pascal, Gottfried Leibniz and Johannes Kepler, each of whom took mathematical examples as models for human behavior directly. In Pascal's case, the famous wager; for Leibniz, the invention of binary computation; and for Kepler, the intervention of angels to guide the planets.

In the realm of other disciplines, this created a pressure to express ideas in the form of mathematical relationships. Such relationships, called Laws after the usage of the time (see philosophy of science) became the model that other disciplines would emulate. In the late 19th century, attempts to apply equations to statements about human behavior became increasingly common. Among the first were the Laws of philology, which attempted to map the change overtime of sounds in a language. In the early 20th century, a wave of change came to science. Statistics and probability theory were sufficiently developed to be considered "scientific", resulting in the widespread use of statistics in the social sciences (they are also widely used in most other sciences as well, including biology).

The first thinkers to attempt to combine scientific inquiry with the exploration of human relationships were Emile Durkheim in France and William James in the United States. Durkheim's sociological theories and James' work on experimental psychology had an enormous impact on those who followed.

One of the most persuasive advocates for the view of scientific treatment of philosophy is John Dewey (1859-1952). He began, as Marx did, in an attempt to weld Hegelian idealism and logic to experimental science, for example in his Psychology of 1887. However, it is when he abandoned Hegelian constructs and joined the movement in America called Pragmatism that he began to formulate his basic doctrine on the three phases of the process of inquiry:

  1. problematic situation, where the typical response is inadequate
  2. isolation of data or subject matter
  3. reflective, which is tested empirically

With the rise of the idea of quantitative measurement in the physical sciences (see, for example Lord Rutherford's famous maxim that any knowledge that one cannot measure numerically "is a poor sort of knowledge"), the stage was set for the division of the study of humanity into the humanities and the social sciences.

Sociology Today[edit]

Although sociology emerged from Comte's vision of a discipline that would subsume all other areas of scientific inquiry, that was not to be the future of sociology. Far from replacing the other sciences, sociology has taken its place as a particular perspective for investigating human social life.

In the past, sociological research focused on the organization of complex, industrial societies and their influence on individuals. Today, sociologists study a broad range of topics. For instance, some sociologists research macro-structures that organize society, such as race or ethnicity, social class, gender roles, and institutions such as the family. Other sociologists study social processes that represent the breakdown of macro-structures, including deviance, crime, and divorce. Additionally, some sociologists study micro-processes such as interpersonal interactions and the socialization of individuals. It should also be noted that recent sociologists, taking cues from anthropologists, have realized the Western emphasis of the discipline. In response, many sociology departments around the world are now encouraging multi-cultural research.

The next two chapters in this book will introduce the reader to more extensive discussions of the methods and theory employed in sociology. The remaining chapters are examinations of current areas of research in the discipline.


  1. Moore, Kelly. 2008. Disrupting Science: Social Movements, American Scientists, and the Politics of the Military, 1945-1975. Princeton University Press.
  2. Putnam, Robert D. 2001. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. 1st ed. Simon & Schuster.
  3. a b Mills, C. Wright. 2000. The Sociological Imagination. 40th ed. Oxford University Press, USA.
  4. Boyer, Pascal. 2002. Religion Explained. Basic Books.
  5. Tierney, John. 2008. “Appeasing the Gods, With Insurance.” The International Herald Tribune, May 7 (Accessed August 17, 2008).
  6. Berger, Peter L. 1963. Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective. 1st ed. Anchor. ISBN 0385065299
  7. Weber, Max. 1997. The Theory Of Social And Economic Organization. Free Press.
  8. Dilthey, W. 1978. Descriptive Psychology and Historical Understanding. 1st ed. Springer.
  9. Glass, John E. 2005. “Visceral Verstehen.” Electronic Journal of Sociology.
  10. Denzin, Norman K., and Yvonna S. Lincoln. 2007. Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials. Third Edition. Sage Publications, Inc.
  11. Civettini, Nicole H. W., and Jennifer Glass. 2008. “The Impact of Religious Conservativism on Men's Work and Family Involvement.” Gender & Society 22:172-193.
  12. Loseke, Donileen R., and James C. Cavendish. 2001. “Producing Institutional Selves: Rhetorically Constructing the Dignity of Sexually Marginalized Catholics..” Social Psychology Quarterly 64:347-362.

External links[edit]

Sociological Methods