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What is Sociology

Sociology in its broadest sense denotes the study of society. In answering this question, however, it is necessary to unpack the different concepts and bodies of thought incorporated within the subject and to ask exactly what sociology involves. It should be considered whether sociology is one broad church of ideas and to what extent it can be called a ‘science’. The methods used to research areas will be analysed, as well as the idea of the ‘Sociological Imagination’ (Mills, 1970).

One of the strongest sociological themes has been the idea that human beings are not genetically programmed to behave in any particular way but are socialised into the norms and values of the society they are born into. Research has shown that cultural beliefs vary greatly from society to society. For example, historically in Australia, female infanticide has been rife in times of famine (Giddens, 1993).

Edward Hall has shown on a more general level that the manner in which individuals greet each other will depend on the cultural norms of that society, for example, Northern Americans advance on greeting while Southern Americans retreat (Hall, 1959). The importance of comparative sociology can have practical uses in giving us a better understanding of how other societies operate in relation to our own and can be useful in tracking trends and predicting lifestyle patterns, for example.

Radical right-wing American sociologist Charles Murray has hypothesised that as Britain’s economy and welfare system continues to emulate that of the US, as will a growth in the British ‘underclass’ (Murray, 1990). As well as comparing different cultures and institutions, sociologists track changes in trends in life chances and lifestyles over time. Research shows that there have been dramatic improvements in life expectancy and educational opportunities in the past one hundred years, (although some sociologists have argued that these improvements have not been felt equally across class, race and gender).

Philippe Aries, specialising in the sociology of the family, argued that childhood as we know it only emerged in the early eighteenth century and that its discovery was closely linked to the emergence of the ‘modern’ or conjugal family. This theory stated that around this time parents private relationships with their children came to be more important ‘than the honour of a line the integrity of an inheritance of the age and permanence of a name’ (Aries, 1973).

Other sociologists have supported the idea that changes in the social structure as well as economic and demographic change have led to familial changes (Shorter, 1976; Stone 1981). Studies carried out on religion and society point to the secularisation of society over time and the growing general belief that action is no longer based on a religious conviction. The 1851 consensus of religion showed that around 40% of the adult population attended church every week and by 1950 this had reduced to 20%. In recent years an average of 10-12% attended church each Sunday (Haralambous, 1991).

Sociologists have taken great pains to try to explain this change. Bryan Wilson argued that religion has become less and less important due to the rationalisation of societal beliefs, greater knowledge and accepted faith in science and the development of organisations which solve problems practically (Wilson, 1966). This being said, other sociologists have argued that pre-industrial society may not have considered religion as important as attendance records at church have suggested. A question, which divides sociologists themselves, is whether sociology represents a single body of thought.

It is useful to look at the work of the forefathers of sociology to see the different strands of thought within sociology and how these have affected the different areas today. One of the first main contributors to Sociology, August Comte, and later Durkheim felt that the best way of studying society was to look at statistics and trends in society to explain why an individual carries out a particular act (Comte, 1986). Following on from this, Durkheim, in his study of suicide, suggested that suicide rates were dependent on social factors (Durkheim, 1970).

Another strong contributor to Sociology was Marx who felt that the economic power struggles inherent in society should be the mainstay of study as economic dynamics are by far the biggest factor in determining social change (and not the other way around – Marx, 1963). Most importantly to Marx were his ideas on capitalism and that the overthrow of the ‘regime’ would result in socialism (Marx, 1970). Weber was particularly interested in the distinctiveness of Western society and culture compared to that of other major civilisations.

He produced extensive studies of the traditional Chinese and Indian empires to illustrate these comparisons (Weber 1951, 1958), and in the course of this research made major contributions to the sociology of religion and developed the concept of bureaucratisation of society. There have been, many different sociological bodies of thought, producing different modern day theories, e. g. Parsons on functionalism (Parsons, 1952) and following on from this Saussure on structuralism (Saussure, 1974).

Mead’s theory of symbolic interactionism (Mead, 1934) suggests that sociologists should be interested in the way that individuals interact on a personal level and the meanings and assumptions they give to a range of actions. So sociology, then, is a way of looking at society both on a macro and micro level. While those supporting the macro theory would suggest we look at society as a whole and the groups which make up communities and institutions, others believe that it is more useful to study interaction on an individual level, which therefore have opened opportunities for exploring the subject in different ways.

One of the main questions that the title to the essay raises is whether sociology could be considered a ‘science’. As sociology developed in Europe in the nineteenth century and science became an accepted and rational approach to academic study, early sociologists attempted to study society in traditional scientific ways. Over time, however, the study has taken on the realisation that while this approach is useful, people and communities are very different types of subject matter than that found in natural science and therefore sociology should consider a range of methodologies and approaches in order to study society to the fullest.

It has been argued by Kuhn that, in any case, traditional science has developed in terms of shifting paradigms (Kuhn, 1962) in that scientific thinking and practice has historically changed over time as thoughts and ideas have gained a critical mass in the minds of scientists, a theory which raises serious doubts over the traditional view of science as rational and objective. While functionalists see value in analysing society on a large scale using methodologies such as large-scale questionnaires, social interactionists use small-scale studies to describe and interpret social phenomena.

As sociology has developed, it has become increasingly likely for a researcher to combine the two strands of methodology to gain a well-rounded view of a situation. Yet it is generally regarded that sociology is a science because it involves systematic methods of research and draws conclusions from this research. Perhaps another question which could be asked about sociology other than what it is, is what does it seeks to do.

Much work has been done to suggest that those with a particular interest in a subject or with particular views of a topic have a tendency to find conclusions to findings to match these ideas, although of course scientific researchers could be accused of the same. It is important to consider, however, that as Giddens suggests, sociology can help the individual understand the reasons for some actions at both the institutional and the interpersonal level.

One of the main purposes of sociology is to help challenge taken for granted assumptions about human behaviour. ‘Sociological research both helps to identify the limitations of our social judgements and at the same time ‘feeds back’ into our knowledge of ourselves and the social environment’ (Giddens, 1993: p18). Giddens goes onto say that to some extent actions are like bricks in a building and that repetition of certain actions for structures. Mills termed the sociological analysis of actions the ‘sociological imagination’ (Mills, 1970).

This involves being able to think outside the box of taken for granted assumptions and look at actions in a new way, based on the reasons behind actions, for example what is the ‘symbolic value’ of a particular action and what could the social and economic reason be for carrying it out. From this, a sociologist develops a social conscience and cannot, as Giddens suggests, ‘be unaware of the inequalities that exist in the world today…It would be strange if sociologists did not take sides on practical issues’ (Giddens, 1993: p23). To conclude, Sociology is the study of society. Sociology is as broad and intricate as society itself.

Sociology was originally developed to help understand the major social changes which were happening at the time of industrialisation. Sociology gives us tools to be able to carry out comparisons of different societies and track changes in lifestyles and life chances within those societies. We have seen that there is no one body of thought as to the methodology behind studying social phenomena and that there is even debate about whether the subject can be considered a science (although generally it is accepted that sociology is a science because it uses systematic methods, but that it can’t be modelled on the natural sciences).

However, as Sociology involves the study of human behaviour and societies, it is little surprise that there would be divergence on what to study and differences in opinion as to how to approach these subjects. Certainly it could be said that to carry out any forms of research and study, you have to think freely and forget any taken for granted assumption and preconceived ideas about individuals or groups and their actions. Sociology can be a very powerful subject by drawing attention to particular issues facing society. This is certainly true for the studies carried out on individuals and groups from different ethnic minorities and for women.

The uses of Sociology are many and varied; as a tool for self knowledge, to create more awareness of different people and social groups, as a vehicle for social reform in the sense of research, or use by social pressure groups and for governmental use. Whichever side of the fence you sit on sociology offers insight into the workings of society and helps us realise that all of us as individuals have roles to play in creating society. The next stage after enlightenment is changing our social actions for the better and that is up to you.

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