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Sociology as an Academic Discipline

Economics was the first social science. It grew out of the practical application of gathering factual information for business and taxation during the 1700s. In the early 1800s, history developed as an academic discipline. Psychology then grew out of medicine, philosophy, and pedagogy. Anthropology developed from the European discoveries of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Sociology is one of the youngest academic disciplines, established as a distinct field of study in Europe only during the 1800s. It was at first indistinguishable from political science, and most early sociologists wrote about political issues outside of academics (Collins 1994, 30–32).

The earliest sociologists discussed throughout this book came to sociology from a variety of disciplines. Emile Durkheim and Max Weber had studied law. Charles Horton Cooley (1864–1929) was an economist. Lester Ward (1841–1913) was a biologist. Georg Simmel (1858–1918) was a philosopher. Even today, sociologists come to the discipline from varying backgrounds, such as Andrew M. Greeley (1928–).

The U.S. growth of academic sociology coincided with the establishment and upgrading of many universities that were including a new focus on graduate departments and curricula on “modern subjects” (Collins 1994, 41). In 1876, Yale University’s William Graham Sumner (1840–1910) taught the first course identified as “sociology” in the United States. The University of Chicago established the first graduate department of sociology in the United States in 1892. By 1910, most colleges and universities were offering sociology courses, although not in separate departments. Thirty years later, most of these schools had established sociology departments (Bloom 2002, 25–37). Sociology was first taught in high schools in 1911–12 (Grier 1971; cited in DeCesare 2002, 303).

Sociology was also growing in Germany and France during this period. Britain was later in developing sociology as core academic area. However, the discipline in Europe suffered great setbacks as a result of World Wars I and II. The “Nazis hated sociology,” and many sociologists were killed or fled Germany and France between 1933 and the end of World War II (Collins 1994, 46). As Erwin Scheuch notes, it is “easier to name sociologists who did not emigrate as the Nazi regime came to power than to list the émigrés” (2000, 1075). After World War II, sociologists returned to Germany influenced by their studies in America. The result was that American sociologists became the world leaders in theory and research for many years.

The 1970s saw a “vigorous expansion” in British and European academic circles (Collins 1994), as well as in sociology around the world. For example, most German universities now offer sociology degrees up to doctorate level, and there are a variety of institutes for academic, market, and social research (Scheuch 2000). Sociology in Japan was first taught in the late 1800s, largely as a German import. Since the 1960s, American sociology has been influential there (Sasaki 2000). Indian sociology derives from work of British civil servants and missionaries that were interested in understanding people to better conduct business and evangelization activities. Predating sociology, Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), a clergyman and political economist profiled in chapter 8, was a professor at the East India Company’s college. Formal teaching of sociology started in India in the early 1900s. Sociology is now a core subject at many colleges and universities there, and several Indian research institutes now exist (Shah 2000).

Sociology has grown into a diverse and dynamic discipline, experiencing a proliferation of specialty areas. The American Sociological Association (ASA) was formed as the American Sociological Society in 1905 with 115 members (Rhoades 1981). By the end of 2004, it had grown to almost 14,000 members and more than 40 “sections” covering specific areas of interest. Many other countries also have large national sociology organizations. The International Sociological Association (ISA) boasted more than 3,300 members in 2004 from 91 different countries. The ISA sponsored research committees covering more than 50 different areas of interest, covering topics as diverse as children, aging, families, law, emotions, sexuality, religion, mental health, peace and war, and work. There is even a fast-growing subfield of sociology that focuses on the relationships between humans and other animals (e.g., Alger and Alger 2003, Arluke and Sanders, 1996, Irvine, 2004). Additionally, courses on animals and society are increasingly being included in college and university offerings.

Social Science Discipline
Discipline Focus
Shared Interests with Sociology
Differential Focus taken by Sociology
Economics
Structure of meterial goods, financial markets, and transactions
Social consequences of production and distribution
Focuses beyond a single structure
History
Context of past events/relationships
Establishing social contexts
Focuses on the present
Political Science
Group competition for powerand scarce resources in the context of politics or government
Patterns and consequences of government
Focuses beond a single structure
Anthropology
Variations between cultures
Patternsof culture, types and consequences of interactions and communication
Focuses on industrialized rather than pre-industrial societies
Psychology
Individualistic perspective
Adjustments to life situations
Influences externalto the individual

Table 1: The Sociological Focus as Compared with Other Social Sciences
Source: Henslin (2001c, 11–12).

Sociology grew out of, and overlaps with, many disciplines. However, it also extends the boundaries of many traditional disciplines. As shown in table 1, sociologist James M. Henslin (2001c: 11–12) contrasts sociology with the other social sciences.

Many concepts that originated in sociology have been adopted by other disciplines. Sociologists have, likewise, adopted concepts from other disciplines. For example, Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), one of the earliest sociologists used the concept of structure that is now used in anthropology and political science (Dogan 2000). Sociologists also work with specialists in other disciplines. Sociology provides much of the theory and research applied by social workers in their practice. The field of social psychology has even developed that combines the individualistic perspective of psychology and the focus on interaction and social influence of sociology.

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KATHY S. STOLLEY 
(The Basics of Sociology) - ISBN 0-313-32387-9

 

 
 
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