What is Sociology?
"It would be a curious reading of the history of thought to suggest that the absence of disagreement testifies to a developing discipline"
Robert K. Merton (1910 - 2003)
Defending internal differences within the field of sociology.
The New York Times, "Now the Case for Sociology"
Sociology is the scientific study of the nature and development of society and social behaviour, the study of human social life. Because human social life is so expansive, 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.
The word sociology itself actually derives from the Latin word socius (companion) and the Greek word logos (study of ). Thus, sociology is most literally the study of companionship (Abercrombie, Hill, and Turner 2000, 333). A textbook definition often expands that literal definition of sociology to read something close to the scientific study of the development, structure, interaction, and collective behavior of social relationships. But so what? What does that definition actually mean? Why is sociology important? Why should anyone study sociology? What does sociology offer to us in our personal lives? And what does it offer to wider society?
The social world is changing. Some argue it is growing; others say it is shrinking. 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 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. While details of the theories that these individuals developed are discussed later in this Chapter, it is important to note at this point that the founders of sociology were some of the earliest individuals to employ what C. Wright Mills (1959) labeled the sociological imagination: the ability to situate personal troubles within an informed framework of social issues.
Mills proposed that "[w]hat the [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" (Mills 1959). As Mills saw it, the sociological imagination could help individuals cope with the social world by helping them to step outside of their personal worldview and thus seeing the events and social structure that influence their behavior, attitudes, and culture.
The sociological imagination goes beyond armchair sociology or common sense. Most people believe they understand the world and the events taking place within it. Humans like to attribute causes to events and attempt to understand what is taking place around them. 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 the rain dance is an attempt to understand how the weather works without using empirical analysis, armchair sociology is an attempt to understand how the social world works without employing scientific methods.
It would be dishonest to say sociologists never sit around (even sometimes in comfy armchairs) trying to figure out how the world works. But 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. 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. ##Who are some famous sociologists who use statistical methods to test theories?##
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 (1963) 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..." (Berger 1963).
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.