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What Is Sociology?

An Introduction To Sociology

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Mint Images/David Arky

What Is Sociology?

Sociology, in the broadest sense, is the study of society. Sociology is a very broad discipline that examines how humans interact with each other and how human behavior is shaped by social structures (groups, communities, organizations), social categories (age, sex, class, race, etc.), and social institutions (politics, religion, education, etc.). The basic foundation of sociology is the belief that a person's attitudes, actions, and opportunities are shaped by all of these aspects of society. The sociological perspective is fourfold: Individuals belong to groups; groups influence our behavior; groups take on characteristics that are independent of their members (i.e. the whole is greater than the sum of its parts); and sociologists focus on behavior patterns of groups, such as differences based on sex, race, age, class, etc.

Origins

Sociology originated from and was influenced by the industrial revolution during the early nineteenth century. There are seven major founders of sociology: August Comte, W.E.B. Du Bois, Emile Durkheim, Harriet Martineau, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, and Max Weber. August Comte is thought of as the "Father of Sociology" as he coined the term sociology in 1838. He believed that society should be understood and studied as it was, rather than what it ought to be. He was the first to recognize that the path to understanding the world and society was based in science. W.E.B. Du Bois was an early American sociologist who laid the groundwork for sociology of race and ethnicity and contributed important analyses of American society in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Marx, Spencer, Durkheim, and Weber helped define and develop sociology as a science and discipline, each contributing important theories and concepts still used and understood in the field today. Harriet Martineau was a British scholar and writer who was also fundamental to establishing the sociological perspective, who wrote prolifically about the relationship between politics, morals, and society, as well as sexism and gender roles.

Current Approaches

Today there are two main approaches to studying sociology. The first is macro-sociology, or the study of society as a whole. This approach emphasizes the analysis of social systems and populations on a large scale and at a high level of theoretical abstraction. Macro-sociology does concern individuals, families, and other aspects of society, but it always does so in relation to the larger social system to which they belong. The second approach is micro-sociology, or the study of small group behavior. This approach focuses on the nature of everyday human social interactions on a small scale. At the micro level, social status and social roles are the most important components of social structure and micro-sociology is based on the ongoing interactions between these social roles. Much contemporary sociological research and theory bridges these two approaches.

Areas Of Sociology

Sociology is a very broad and diverse field. There are many different topics and scopes in the field of sociology, some of which are relatively new. The following are some of the major areas of research and application within the field of sociology. For a full list of sociology disciplines and areas of research, visit the subfields of sociology page.

Globalization. The sociology of globalization focuses on the economic, political, and cultural aspects and implications of a globally integrated society. Many sociologists focus on the way capitalism and consumer goods connect people all over the world, migration flows, and issues of inequality in global society.

Race And Ethnicity. The sociology of race and ethnicity examines the social, political, and economic relations between races and ethnicities at all levels of society. Topics commonly studied include racism, residential segregation, and the differences in social processes between racial and ethnic groups.

Consumption. The sociology of consumption is a subfield of sociology which places consumption at the center of research questions, studies, and social theory. Researchers in this subfield focus on the role of consumer goods in our everyday lives, their relationship to our individual and group identities, in our relationships with other people, in our culture and traditions, and the implications of consumer lifestyles.

Family. The sociology of family examines things such as marriage, divorce, child rearing, and domestic abuse. Specifically, sociologists study how these aspects of the family are defined in different cultures and times and how they affect individuals and institutions.

Social Inequality. The study of social inequality examines the unequal distribution of power, privilege, and prestige in society. These sociologists study differences and inequalities in social class, race, and gender.

Knowledge. The sociology of knowledge is a subfield devoted to researching and theorizing the socially situated processes of knowledge formation and knowing. Sociologists in this subfield focus on how institutions, ideology, and discourse (how we talk and write) shape the process of coming to know the world, and the formation of values, beliefs, common sense, and expectations. Many focus on the connection between power and knowledge.

Demography. Demography refers to a population's composition. Some of the basic concepts explored in demography include birth rate, fertility rate, death rate, infant mortality rate, and migration. Demographers are interested in how and why these demographics vary between societies, groups, and communities.

Health And Illness. Sociologists who study health and illness focus on the social effects of, and societal attitudes towards, illnesses, diseases, disabilities, and the aging process. This is not to be confused with medical sociology, which focuses on medical institutions such as hospitals, clinics, and physician offices as well as the interactions among physicians.

Work And Industry. The sociology of work concerns the implications of technological change, globalization, labor markets, work organization, managerial practices, and employment relations. These sociologists are interested in workforce trends and how they relate to the changing patterns of inequality in modern societies as well as how they affect the experiences of individuals and families.

Education. The sociology of education is the study of how educational institutions determine social structures and experiences. In particular, sociologists might look at how different aspects of educational institutions (teacher attitudes, peer influence, school climate, school resources, etc.) affect learning and other outcomes.

Religion. The sociology of religion concerns the practice, history, development, and roles of religion in society. These sociologists examine religious trends over time, how various religions affect social interactions both within the religion and outside of it, and relations within religious institutions.

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