What is Sociology?

Nineteenth Century Origins

During both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries advances in science and technology encouraged people to believe that there could be a rational explanation for everything and that scientific study could lead to the solving of all the problems faced by human beings.

The post-Newtonian physical sciences had promised comprehensive understanding of the Earth and its place in the universe, in the form of scientific laws. In the wake of this, Auguste Comte, who gave the name to sociology, confidently expected that it would provide the highest level of scientific explanation in establishing laws of human society itself. Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer developed alternative comprehensive sociological accounts of societal development. The post-Darwinian natural sciences presented explanations of life on Earth with the theory of evolution and the origin of the species. As a result, there was increased public interest in developmental accounts of human society, and it was anticipated that the social sciences would extend this 'enlightenment project' into explanations for the collective activities and relationships of human beings, explanations that could provide the basis for political action.

The 'classical sociologists' of the nineteenth century were European – mainly from Britain, France and Germany – but the great expansion of the discipline took place in the USA during the mid-twentieth century. Whereas the contribution from Europe was mainly theoretical, North Americans were determined to exploit its practical potential through investment in empirical research projects connected with the continuing development of their society and its enormous economic potential. This led to the development of a range of new theoretical approaches and methodologies, both quantitative and qualitative.

Modern Sociology

Sociology was first taught in Britain at the beginning of the 20th century but the expansion here took place much more recently and was at first greatly influenced by US sociology. During the 1960s, especially, it became a key social science subject, taught in universities and colleges, and with the development of the sociology ´A´ level during the 1970s it became a major subject in schools too. Now, as well as being an academic subject in its own right, sociology forms part of many other programmes such as business studies, medical and nursing education, geography and environmental science, as well as sports science.  Listen to author and journalist, Lynsey Hanley, tell the story of sociology in Britain, from its beginnings in the slums of Liverpool and London to its rise in the post-war era as the brave, new ‘science of society’.

Sociology seeks to provide insights into, and evidence about, the many forms of relationship among people, both formal and informal. Such relationships are considered to be the 'fabric' of society. Smaller-scale relationships are connected to larger-scale patterns of connection among organisations and institutional sectors, and the totality of this is society itself.

Human beings have wants, needs and desires but the forms that these take are related to attachments to social groupings and participation in social institutions. The latter are patterns of human interaction which become established over time. People therefore recognise them and orientate their actions towards them. Alternatively, people may react against social institutions. Either way, it is the actions of people that serve both to reproduce society and to effect the changes that are a constant feature of the process.

Developments in communication have accelerated over the past few decades, leading to what is often referred to as globalisation. These wide interconnections must be taken into account in any explanations for social behaviour, but so too must how the present form of human society relates to past forms, and to likely forms in the future.

The principles of sociology can be summarised as follows:

  • by definition, human society involves people entering into forms of relationship with each other. Such relationships take many forms and may – for instance – be described as predominantly cultural, economic or political; although most relationships combine these various aspects to varying degrees.
  • patterns of human relationship become institutionalised in the course of their reproduction over time and may therefore be referred to as ´social institutions’ – these are a major focus for sociological investigation.
  • the reproduction of social institutions has increasingly incorporated global influences and exchanges, but local factors remain important. The outcome is a process of interchange between the global and the local.
  • in participating in society human beings develop understandings of their relationships with one another, and of the institutions these generate, and these understandings shape relationships and institutions in the future.
  • the task for sociologists, therefore, is to develop this understanding in a more systematic and rigorous fashion, and to provide substantive explanations for events, actions, patterns of relationship, and institutions.