Sociology, the scientific study of the development, structure, and function of human society. Other disciplines within the social sciences—including economics, political science, anthropology, and psychology—are also concerned with topics that fall within the scope of sociology. Sociologists examine the ways in which social structures and institutions—such as class, family, community, and power—and social problems—such as crime—influence society.

Sociological thinking rests on the notion that human beings act according to cultural and historical influences, not their own freely made decisions. They also act and behave according to the wishes and expectations of others. Therefore, social interaction, or the responses of individuals to each other, is perhaps the basic sociological concept, because such interaction is the elementary component of all relationships and groups that make up human society. Sociologists who concentrate on the details of particular interactions as they occur in everyday life are sometimes called micro-sociologists; those concerned with the larger patterns of relations among major social sectors, such as the State and the economy, and even with international relations, are called macro-sociologists.


As a discipline, or body of systematized knowledge, sociology is of relatively recent origin. The concept of civil society as a realm distinct from the State was expressed in the writings of the 17th-century English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and of the later thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment (in France and Scotland). Their works anticipated the subsequent focus of sociology, as did the later philosophies of history of the Italian philosopher Giovanni Battista Vico and the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel with regard to the study of social change.

A Origins

The first definition of sociology was advanced by the French philosopher Auguste Comte. In 1838 Comte coined the term sociology to describe his vision of a new science that would discover laws of human society resembling the laws of nature by applying the methods of factual investigation that had proved so successful in the physical sciences. The British philosopher Herbert Spencer adopted both Comte’s term and his mission.

Several 19th-century social philosophers who never called themselves sociologists are today also counted among the founders of the discipline. The most widely influential among them is Karl Marx, but their number also includes the French aristocrat Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, the writer and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville and, the British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill. These people were largely speculative thinkers, as were Comte and Spencer and their predecessors in the 17th and 18th centuries. A quite different tradition of empirical reporting of statistics also developed in the 19th century, and later became incorporated into academic sociology.

B Developments

Not until the 1880s and 1890s did sociology begin to be recognized as an academic discipline. In France, Émile Durkheim, the intellectual heir of Saint-Simon and Comte, began teaching sociology at the universities of Bordeaux and Paris. Durkheim founded the first true school of sociological thought. He emphasized the independent reality of social facts (as distinct from the psychological attributes of individuals) and sought to discover interconnections among these facts. Durkheim and his followers made extensive studies of non-industrial societies similar to those that were later carried out by social anthropologists.

In Germany, sociology was formally recognized as an academic discipline in the first decade of the 20th century, largely because of the efforts of the German economist and historian Max Weber. In contrast with the attempts to model the field after the physical sciences, which were dominant in France and in English-speaking countries, German sociology was largely the outgrowth of far-ranging historical scholarship, combined with the influence of Marxism, both of which were central to Weber’s work. The influential efforts of the German philosopher Georg Simmel to define sociology as a distinctive discipline emphasized the human-centered focus of German philosophical idealism.

In Great Britain, sociology was relatively slow to develop; until the 1960s the field was mostly centred on a single academic institution, the London School of Economics, part of the University of London. British sociology combined an interest in large-scale evolutionary social change with a practical concern for problems relevant to the administration of the welfare state.

In the second half of the 20th century, after the early interest in the broad evolutionist theories of Comte and Spencer had declined, sociology emphasized the study of particular social phenomena such as crime, marital discord, and the acculturation of immigrants.

The most notable centre of sociological study before World War II (1939-1945) was the University of Chicago, in the United States. There, the American philosopher George Herbert Mead, who had studied in Germany, stressed in his writings the origins of the mind, the self, and society in the actions and interactions of people. This approach, later known as symbolic interactionism, was largely micro sociological and social psychological in emphasis. In 1937, the American sociologist Talcott Parsons introduced the ideas of Durkheim, Weber, and the Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto in his major work The Structure of Social Action, which eventually overcame the narrow, limited outlook of American sociology. Leadership in the field passed to Columbia University, where the American social scientist Robert Merton attempted to unite theory with rigorous empirical (data-gathering) research.

To a growing extent in both the United States and Western Europe, the three dominating figures of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber were recognized as the pre-eminent classical thinkers of the sociological tradition; and their work continues to influence contemporary sociologists.


Sociology was long identified primarily with broad evolutionary reconstructions of historical change in Western societies, as well as with the exploration of relationships and interdependencies among their more specialized institutions and aspects of social life, such as the economy, the State, the family, and religion. Sociology, therefore, was thought of as a synthesizing field that attempted to integrate the findings acquired from other social sciences. Although such concepts concerning the scope and task of sociology are still prevalent, they now tend to be regarded as the province of sociological theory, which is only a part of the entire discipline of sociology.

The sociological theory also includes the discussion and analysis of basic concepts that are common to all the different spheres of social life studied by sociologists. An emphasis on empirical investigations carried out by standardized and often statistical research methods directed the attention of sociologists away from the abstract visions of 19th-century scholars towards more focused and concrete areas of social reality. These areas became the subfields and specialities of sociology that are today the subjects of academic courses, textbooks, and specialized journals. Much of the scholarly and scientific work of sociologists falls clearly within one of the many subfields into which the discipline is divided. In addition to basic concepts, research techniques are shared by most subfields; thus, sociological theory and research methods are both usually compulsory subjects for all who study sociology.

A Subfields

The oldest subfields in the discipline of sociology are those that concentrate on social phenomena that have not previously been adopted as objects of study by other of the social sciences. These include marriage and the family, social inequality and social stratification, ethnic relations, “deviant” behaviour, urban communities, and complex or formal organizations. Subfields of more recent origin examine the social aspects of gerontology and the sociology of sex and gender roles.

Because nearly all human activities involve social relations, another major source of specialization within sociology is the study of the social structure of areas of human activity. These areas of teaching and research include the sociology of politics, law, religion, education, the military, occupations and professions, governmental bureaucracies, industry, the arts, science, language (or sociolinguistics), medicine, mass communications, and sport. These subfields differ widely in the extent to which they have accumulated a substantial body of research and attracted large numbers of practitioners. Some, such as the sociology of sport, are recent fields, whereas others, such as the sociology of religion and of law, have their roots in the earliest sociological studies. Certain subfields have achieved brief popularity, only to be later incorporated into a more comprehensive area. Industrial sociology, for example, was a flourishing field in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s, but later it was largely absorbed into the study of complex organizations; in Great Britain, however, industrial sociology has remained a separate area of research. A more common sociological phenomenon is the splitting of a recognized subfield into narrower subdivisions; the sociology of knowledge, for instance, has increasingly been divided into individual sociologies of science, art, literature, popular culture, and language.

At least two subfields, demography, and criminology, were distinct areas of study long before the formal field of sociology existed. In the past, they were associated primarily with other disciplines. Demography (the study of the size, growth, and distribution of human populations) retains close links to economics in some countries, but in most of the Western world, it is considered a subdivision of sociology. Criminology has in recent decades been affected by general sociological concepts and perspectives, becoming more and more linked with the wider study of deviance, which is defined as any form of behaviour that is different from that considered socially acceptable or “normal”, and includes forms of behaviour that do not involve violations of the law.

B Interdisciplinary Fields

The oldest interdisciplinary subfield of sociology is social psychology. It has often been considered virtually a separate discipline, drawing practitioners from both sociology and psychology. Whereas sociologists primarily concern themselves with social “norms”, roles, institutions, and the structure of groups, social psychologists concentrate on the impact of these various areas of individual personality. Social psychologists trained in sociology have pioneered studies of interaction in small informal groups; the distribution of beliefs and attitudes in a population; and the formation of character and outlook under the influence of the family, the school, the peer group, and other socializing agencies. To a certain extent, psychoanalytic ideas, derived from the work of Sigmund Freud and later psychoanalysts, have also been significant in this last area of social psychology.

Comparative historical sociology, often strongly influenced by the ideas of both Marx and Weber, has shown much growth in recent years. Many historians have been guided by concepts borrowed from sociology; at the same time, some sociologists have carried out large-scale historical-comparative studies. The once-firm barriers between history and sociology have crumbled, especially in such areas as social history, demographic change, economic and political development, and the sociology of revolutions and protest movements.


Sociologists use nearly all the methods of acquiring information that is used in the other social sciences and the humanities, from advanced mathematical statistics to the interpretation of texts. They also rely heavily on primary statistical information regularly collected by governments, such as censuses and vital statistics reports, and records of unemployment, immigration, the frequency of crime, and other phenomena.

A Direct Observation

First-hand observations of some aspect of society have a long history in sociological research. Sociologists have obtained information through participant observation—that is, by temporarily becoming or by pretending to become members of the group being studied. Sociologists also obtain first-hand information by relying on knowledgeable informants from the group. Both methods have also been used by social anthropologists.

In recent years, detailed first-hand observation has been applied to smaller-scale settings, such as hospital wards, religious and political meetings, bars and casinos, and classrooms. The work of the Canadian-born American sociologist Erving Goffman has provided both models and a theoretical rationale for such studies. Goffman is one of the several sociologists who insist that everyday life is the foundation of social reality, underlying all statistical and conceptual abstractions. This emphasis has encouraged intensive micro-sociological investigations using tape recorders and video cameras in natural rather than artificially contrived “experimental” social situations.

Sociologists, like historians, also make extensive use of second-hand source materials. These generally include life histories, personal documents, and clinical records.

Although popular stereotypes have sometimes pictured sociologists as people who bypass qualitative (direct) observation of human experiences by reducing them to quantitative (statistical) summaries, these have never been accurate. Even where quantitative social research has been admired and sociology has distanced itself from the humanistic disciplines of philosophy, history, and law, qualitative research has always had a strong tradition.

B Quantitative Methods

Increasingly refined and adapted to computer technology, quantitative methods continue to play a central role in the discipline of sociology. Quantitative sociology includes the presentation of large numbers of descriptive statistical data, sampling techniques, and the use of advanced mathematical models and computer simulations of social processes. Quantitative analysis has become popular in recent years as a means of revealing possible causal relations, especially in research on social mobility and status attainment.

C Survey Research

The term survey research means the collection and analysis of responses of large samples of people to polls and questionnaires designed to elicit their opinions, attitudes, and sentiments about a specific topic. For a time in the 1940s and 1950s, the construction and administration of surveys, and statistical methods for tabulating and interpreting their results were widely regarded as the major sociological research technique. Opinion surveys, especially in the form of pre-election polling and market research, were first used in the 1930s; today they are standard tools of politicians and of numerous organizations and business firms concerned with a mass public opinion.

Sociologists use surveys for scholarly or scientific purposes in nearly all subfields of the discipline, although surveys have most often been used in the study of voting behaviour, ethnic prejudice, responses to mass communications, and other areas in which the probing of subjective attitudes is appropriate. Although surveys are an important sociological research tool, their suitability for many types of investigation has been widely criticized. Direct observation of social behaviour cannot be replaced by verbal answers to an interviewer’s standard list of questions, even if such answers lend themselves easily to statistical tabulation and manipulation. Observation enables a sociologist to obtain in-depth information about a certain group; the sample survey, on the other hand, allows the sociologist to secure uniform but superficial information about a much larger portion of the population. Survey research usually does not take into account the complex structure of relations and interactions among individuals that shape their social behaviour.


Sociology expanded enormously in both Europe and the United States in the 1960s and thereafter. In addition to theoretical diversification, new subfields came into beings, such as the sociology of gender (spurred especially by feminist movements), which includes analysis of gender-based social roles and inequalities, and the study of emotions, ageing, and the life course. Older subfields, such as historical and comparative sociology, were revitalized, as was the broad movement towards sociological practice, which encompasses applied sociology, and policy analysis. Sociological practitioners apply their knowledge through their roles as consultants, planners, educators, researchers, and managers in local and national government, in non-profit-making organizations, and in business—especially in the fields of marketing, advertising, insurance, human resources, and organizational analysis.

Since the 1960s sociologists have made greater use both of traditional research methods associated with other disciplines, such as the analysis of historical source materials, and of more sophisticated statistical and mathematical techniques adapted to the study of social phenomena. Development of increasingly complex computers and other devices for handling and storing information has facilitated the processing of sociological data.

Because of the wide diversity of research methods and theoretical approaches, sociologists working in a particular subfield often have more in common with workers in a complementary discipline than with sociologists specializing in other subfields. A sociologist of art, for example, stands much closer in interests and methods to an art historian or art critic than to a sociologist who constructs mathematical models of occupational mobility. In theory, methods, and subject matter, no single school of thought or topic dominates sociology today.

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