What do Sociologists do?

Sociology is the one social science which embraces the whole range of human activities and this makes it a very wide field of study. As a result, it offers many opportunities for specialisation and these are reflected in the work of sociologists (see our Study Groups).

Students of sociology normally follow courses which offer a choice of specialisations as well as a grounding in the central tenets of the discipline. The following are some examples of specialisation:

Economy, Work and Organisation

In order to survive human beings must extract materials from their environment. Generically this is referred to as production. People in societies have devised forms of organisation and methods of technology which facilitate and potentiate the process.

In fact those societies which have proceeded furthest with this have reached the point where the majority of people are employed in the provision of services and relatively less in the extraction and processing of commodities. However, from a broad viewpoint work is nowadays organised on a global scale and whilst some societies get the most out of this others provide increasing amounts of cheap industrial labour. Yet others are left out of arrangements altogether and depend largely upon subsistence agriculture.

Even within these arrangements, as the technology of production and the global organisation of work has become increasingly effective, many people have been rendered unemployed and without much hope of employment in the foreseeable future. 

The Conjunction of Biological and Social Relationships: the Family and Gender

Biological and social relationships come together in the family but this exists in a wide variety of forms. Additionally the process of industrialisation and technological change has wrought enormous changes on both family and household.

Industrialisation normally means the separation of home from workplace and the development of specifically work related roles which nevertheless pervade the whole of society. This has hugely influenced the development of relationships between people based on class background and the social construction of gender differences.

Its effects may also be readily perceived in issues of race, age, disability and so on. It is only relatively recently that these have become the subject of comprehensive and sustained examination and sociology has played a central role in this. 

Social Identity: Age, Class, Gender and Race

In living and communicating with each other human beings develop personal identities but these are clearly influenced by the reproduction of social institutions and the resulting structure of society. For the individual human being there may be family, friendship and community or alternatively these may be to a varying extent lacking.

There may also be religion, education, work, opportunities for recreation, etc. All are forms of social organisation. In all societies the young face the problem of developing their identity whilst the forms of social organisation offered by society attract or repel them. Alongside ´culture´ there are ´subcultures´ and other reactions which take a variety of forms. 

Social Inequality

Inasmuch as human beings must extract from the environment in order to survive, inasmuch as they devise forms of organisation and technology to facilitate this, inequalities are formed.

Inequality exists in all forms of society and there is no convincing evidence that social equality is achievable. Nevertheless, human enlightenment has involved the pursuit of equality as one of its central principles.

The two great revolutions of the eighteenth century, the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution both declared the right of the individual to be treated equally with others.

There is not much evidence of the achievement of this principle despite huge increases in wealth made possible by industrialised production and this only makes it more important to examine why. 

Social Norms and Deviance

In all societies there is a requirement to respect norms of behaviour and various forms of sanction are developed as attempts to enforce this. All human groupings involve normative patterns and in larger scale societies these become developed to some extent as legal systems.

Practices however do not always conform to established principles. Sociological approaches therefore have attempted to avoid the acceptance of the normal and instead have sought to examine the basis for distinctions between norms and patterns of deviancy.

There is also the need to examine the distinction between types of behaviour that are regarded as criminal and other forms of unacceptable behaviour. Ideas of conformity and deviancy are of course social constructions par excellence and the study of them has lent itself readily to the appraisal of conceptual and theoretical developments in sociology. 

Religion and Belief Systems

All societies incorporate belief systems but the application of science and technology has tended to make so-called rational explanations preferable to spiritual or mystical ones. However, some systems of belief such as Christianity and Islam were developed as ´world religions´ and these in particular have survived industrialisation to some extent.

At the same time developments during the twentieth century such as world wars and environmental damage have tended to undermine confidence in science and technology with the result that there has been a search for alternative beliefs.

Very early on sociology established that any belief system constitutes an attempt by people in society to order that which is considered desirable and separate it from that which is not. However, it is important to understand the forms of social organisation, i.e. religions, which are created in the process and the outcomes in terms of empowerment and submission. 

Organisations and Bureaucracy

We are surrounded by bureaucratic organisations to such an extent that, at any point in the life-cycle, the individual is dealing with a range of different examples. Schools, clinics, factories, offices, shops, hospitals, firms of accountants and almost all other ´formal´ activities are organised as bureaucratic hierarchies.

All aspects of social life are organised but bureaucracy forms a particular category of social organisation and it is one that has received much attention from sociologists. This has provided a conjunction between the work of sociology departments and business schools, one of the major areas in which the study of sociology forms part of another programme of education.

Understanding organisations sociologically can work to improve their efficiency either through changing their ways of working or by ameliorating working conditions and organisational practices. 

Society and the Environment

The relationship between people and the environment is largely and significantly a production relationship. Developments in organisation and technology devised by human beings for the production process have however reversed the relationship in an important sense. Whereas human beings were previously subject to natural forces, subsequently the natural environment has been increasingly made subject to forces created by human beings.

Simple developments such as the clearing of forests for food production have been augmented by the industrialisation of agriculture and increasingly people live in a created environment. Only relatively recently, during say the past three decades, have people begun to take seriously the damage wrought by the industrialisation of production and all the forms that takes.

Sociology seeks to examine in particular the awareness that people have of their own lifestyles and the damage which indirectly these cause to the environment which is of course not only inhabited by human beings but by the other species too.

People, Health and the Sociology of the Body

Healthcare is an area of concern to people which has drawn in significantly sociological ideas and practices. As with other aspects of society the adoption of science and technology, whilst offering much of benefit to human beings, has also produced new forms of injury and illness. People are becoming increasingly aware of factors such as diet, exercise, travel and working conditions in relation to their health and general well-being.

Sociology is concerned with examining how people perceive health and illness particularly in relation to their lifestyles. Equally there is the need to examine the effects of medical attention on the people which they are intended to benefit.

Beyond the simple achievement of health some people seek access to medical techniques which alter the form of the human body. Plastic surgery is available for cosmetic reasons as well as for the treatment of injuries. It can be used to change appearances and even to change sex so that in a very real sense people can plan their own bodies.