What Is Sociology? Definition, History, Features, Schools, And Career

What is Sociology? Definition, History, Features, Schools, and Career

What is Sociology?

Sociology is the study of human behavior, interaction, social ties, or social processes by which sociologists attempt to determine how the society (i.e. social institutions) is working and surviving, the growth of society, its practice and structures, what sorts of rules regulations are utilized, sorts of groups and communities, social events/phenomena, etc.

In order words, sociology is the behaviors, relations, activities, and interrelations of human beings in society relating them to each other. It also lays its emphasis on the study of human relations with political, social, cultural, and religious institutions.

Similarly, it incorporates the social changes including poverty, unemployment, murder, social organizations, and social conflicts among many other social problems. Since society is interrelated to its different units, it studies the interrelation and interdependence among them.


Sociology is the youngest member of social science. The term Sociology' was coined by Auguste Comte, a French philosopher in his book 'The course of Positive Philosophy' in 1838.The word 'Sociology' is derived from the Latin word ‘Societus’ means ‘society’, ‘companion’ or’ associate’, and the Greek word ‘Logos’ means `study or science’. Thus, the etymological meaning of sociology is the scientific study of society or the science of society. It is the study of man’s behavior in groups and society as a whole.

Prof. Ginsberg accordingly defines it “as the study of society, which is the web of human interactions and inter-relations.” In other words, it is the scientific study of man’s behavior in groups (family, school, etc.) or the human relationships, social institutions, and the social processes within their environment as the environment greatly determines and influences social interactions and activities. For E.g. people who live near a lake (environment) become fishermen and eat fish (activity) during their socialization ceremonies.

Auguste Comte is considered to be the “father of sociology” not only because he was the first person to use the word ‘sociology’ in print in 1839, but also the one who emphasized and established sociology as a scientific discipline (which means using scientific methods for the study of human society). However, John Stuart Mill, a social thinker, and philosopher of the 19th century proposed the word ‘ethology’ for this new science. But later on, Hebert Spencer developed his systematic study of society and adopted the word ‘Sociology’. With the contribution of Spencer and others, ‘Sociology’ became the permanent name of the new science.

In his famous book, Comte stressed the need for the creation of a distinct science (discipline) to study society. It was indeed the very word ‘science’ used by Comte which became a great attraction for all the great intellectuals, scholars, philosophers, etc. Since then, the practice of applying scientific methods to study and understand society and its problems, actions and reactions, causes, and effects of social events began. In fact, it is the use of scientific methods that has made Sociology of great importance today and is helping us to study and understand society and human actions (activities) systematically and scientifically.

Definition of Sociology

There is no single standard definition of sociology and therefore various scholars have defined it differently. However, some well-established definitions are:

  • Kingsley Davis: “Sociology is the general science of society”.
  • Herbert Spencer: “Sociology is the science of social phenomenon subject to natural and invariable (constant) laws, the discovery of which is the object of investigation”
  • Emile Durkheim: Sociology is the science of social institution.
  • Max Weber: ‘Sociology is the science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action.’
  • R. E. Park and F. W. Burgess: ‘Sociology is the science of collective behavior’
  • W. F. Ogburn: ‘Sociology is a body of learning about society. It is a description of ways to make society better. It is social ethics, a social philosophy. Generally, however, it is defined as a science of society.’

Learn More: Emile Durkheim’s and Max Weber’s Contributions to Sociology

A careful look at the above definitions shows that sociologists differ in their opinions about the subject matter of Sociology. We find the following views:

  • It is a science of society.
  • It is a science of social relationships.
  • It is the study of social life.
  • It is the study of human behavior in groups.
  • It is the study of social action.
  • It is the study of forms of social relationships.
  • It is the study of social groups or social systems.

Characteristics of Sociology

Nature or Features

There is still a debate concerning the real nature of sociology. Some social scientists and social thinkers do not acknowledge sociology to be a science because they believe that sociology does not utilize scientific methodologies. While the other group holds the opinion that sociology is a science.

According to Robert Bierstedt, “Sociology is a social science and not a natural science because it deals with human beings and social phenomena, not the natural phenomena. It is a categorical (or positive) and non-normative science because it studies social phenomena as it is and not as they ought to be i.e. no value judgment. Robert Bierstedt, in his book ‘The Social Order’, has mentioned some characteristics (i.e. nature) of sociology:

Sociology is an independent science: It is an independent science as it has its own subject matter, and research domain for investigation and it has developed its own tools and techniques for research.

It is a Social Science and not a Physical Science: It belongs to the family of social sciences and not physical science. As a social science, it concentrates its attention on man as a social being, his social behavior, social activities, and social life.

As a member of the family of social sciences, it is intimately related to other social sciences like history, political science, economics, psychology, anthropology, etc. The fact that sociology deals with the Social universe distinguish it from astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, mathematics, and other physical sciences.

It is a categorical (group) and not a normative discipline: It is a scientific discipline that adopts a realistic approach to the study of society which means that it can arrange the social data in categories (groups) such as rich and poor but it does not suggest normative forms i.e. it does not offer value judgment like rich is better and poor is worse. It is ethically neutral in such a thing. So, sociology does not judge social events as good or evil, right or wrong, moral or immoral.


It is a Pure Science and not an Applied Science: It is concerned with the acquisition of knowledge about human society and it is not bothered about the use of that knowledge. But applied science is concerned with the use of the acquired knowledge in life to deal with problems or issues.

However, each pure science may have its own applied field. It is true that sociologists do not apply their knowledge to life and use it as a matter of their profession but their findings can be useful in the field of administration, diplomacy, social work, teaching, etc. Sociologist study about causes and effects of poverty but does not attempt to end poverty through donation.

It is relatively an Abstract Science and not a Concrete Science: It studies social interactions and relationships which are abstract entities but does not study concrete or material objects like a house, human as a physical body. This proves that sociology is an abstract, not a concrete science.

It is a Generalizing and not a Particularizing Science: As sociologists can’t study every event that takes place in society, they are concerned with finding out general principles of human groups and societies based on the study of some selected social events.

It is a General Science and not a Special Social Science: The area of inquiry in sociology is vague and wide. It studies social interaction and inter-relations in general.

While other social sciences like political science, history, economics, etc., also study society and human interaction, they focus on specific aspects of society as economics specializes itself in the study of economic activities such as production, distribution, and consumption, political science concentrates on political activities such as power, ruling system, psychology concentrate on the human mind.

It is Both Rational and Empirical Science: There are two approaches to obtaining scientific knowledge. One is Empiricism and the other is rationalism. Empiricism emphasizes experience and the facts that come from observation and experimentation and rationalism stresses reasons and theories that come from logical inference.

The empiricist collects facts and the rationalist coordinates and arranges them logically to construct a theory. Both the facts and theories are required in the construction of knowledge. So, just like all other modern sciences, sociology also claims itself as being an empirical and rational science.

In conclusion, it is clear from the above that, sociology is independent, social, categorical, pure, abstract, generalizing, both a rational and an empirical, and general social science.


Every Science has its scope i.e. own areas of study or field of inquiry. Here the scope of sociology does not mean the possible area of jobs after getting a degree in sociology but rather scope means, its area of study or its subject matter. In this regard, the scope of Sociology is broad and wider.

It becomes difficult for anyone to use science systematically unless its boundaries are fixed and its scope determined precisely. But there is controversy (differences in views) among the sociologist about its scope (area of study). A group of sociologists tries to limit its area where the other group of sociologists deny it or are against it. There are two main schools of thought (i.e. groups with different opinions) regarding the scope of sociology, and they are:

Schools of Thoughts of Sociology

  • The Specialistic or Formalistic School of Thought
  • The Synthetic School of Thought

Specialistic or Formalistic School of Sociology

According to this school, Sociology should be studied only in the form of social interactions and relationships, its content and matter. George Simmel is the founder of this thought. Other sociologists such as Max Weber, Van Wise, Tonnies, and VierKandt also advocated this thought.

Criticism of formal school: Formalistic school has been criticized by many scholars.

  • The formal school has been criticized for narrowing down the scope (field) of sociology to merely social relationships leaving their contents of whole social life.
  • Critics claim this view is impractical because no social sciences can be studied in isolation from other social sciences. So, more emphasis is to be given to the inter-disciplinary than the close interdisciplinary approach.
  • Sociology is not the only science that studies social relationships but some other social sciences like economics, political science, etc. also study social relations.

Synthetic School of Sociology

According to this school, sociology is a synthesis (combination) of the social sciences (i.e. combination of economics, psychology, anthropology, political science, etc.) because this school opines that several aspects of social life such as economy, the human mind, polity, religion, etc. are inter-related.

Hence, we cannot understand society with the study of only one aspect that is why Sociology should attempt to study social life as a whole. The scope (area of study) of sociology should not be limited to only forms of social relationships but should study overall society and social life. This thought is advocated by Emile Durkheim, Morris, Gins berg, P.A. Sorokin, L.T. Hobhouse, Karl Mannheim, and Alex lnkeles.

Different scholars have given their opinion about the scope of sociology which is described below:

Emile Durkheim: The chief exponent of the synthetic school of thought Emile Durkheim opines that the scope of sociology has three main divisions or fields of study as follows

  • Social Morphology – includes all those subjects which are basically geographic such as population its size, quality, density, distribution, mobility, etc. as much as it affects the qualities of social relationships and social groups.
  • Social Physiology – includes branches or subjects which are studied by particular social sciences such as sociology of law, sociology of religion, etc. which are regarded as special sociologists.
  • General Sociology – includes the philosophical part that aims at discovering the general character of social facts and formulating general social laws.

L.T. Hobhouse: Famous English Sociologist L.T. Hobhouse holds a similar view to Durkheim about the scope of Sociology. According to him,

  • A sociologist must pursue study in a particular part of social life.
  • The study must interconnect the result with different social sciences.
  • The study should interpret social life as a whole.

P.A. Sorokin: According to him the scope of sociology includes:

  • The study of the relationship between the various aspects of social phenomena/events.
  • The studies of the relationship between the social and non-social.
  • The study of general features of social phenomena.

Morris Ginsberg: Ginsberg divides the scope of Sociology into four main divisions as follows:

  • Social Morphology – includes the study of the quality and quantity of population, social group, social structure, and social institutions.
  • Social control – includes the study of control mechanisms (i.e. both formal and informal) by which society controls the behavior of its members for which society uses tradition, culture, religion, morals, beliefs, norms, laws, etc.
  • Social process – includes the study of different types of interaction like cooperation, competition, integration, differences, conflict, etc.
  • Social Pathology – includes the study of social problems such as poverty, population, crime, unemployment, prostitution, illiteracy, etc.

Karl Mannheim: Karl Mannheim divides the scope of sociology into two main divisions:

  • Systematic and general sociology explain the main factors of living together.
  • Historical sociology studies the historical variety and actuality of the general forms of society.

Alex Inkeles: Inkeles, who is the modern advocate of synthetic school opines that the scope of sociology includes:

  • Social analysis
  • Primary units/concepts of social life
  • Basic social institutions
  • Social processes

Thus, it is concluded that the scope of sociology is very wide. It is both a general (synthetic) science and special science. It means that sociology as being general science synthesizes all special sciences. At the end of the day, society is the subject matter of all social sciences.

Careers in Sociology

A student interested in Sociology may wonder what possibilities it holds for a career. A combination of courses that form the undergraduate major or minor in sociology may not be sufficient enough to prepare a student for a professional career as a sociologist but is certainly useful as background preparation for other careers as follows:

In social work, the better jobs demand a graduate degree, and a strong undergraduate major in sociology is usually recommended.

In professions such as management, medicine, law, engineering, and computer science it has been found that undergraduate social science courses are useful.

Secondary schools have some demand for sociology teachers.

Civil service positions often include undergraduate sociology among the acceptable educational qualifications for a wide variety of positions.

Sociologists are employed in small numbers by industry, trade associations, trade unions, foundations, and in fairly large numbers by research organizations in a wide variety of positions, very often in the administration and conduct of research.

Newly emerging careers have developed in recent years in action programs such as local human relations councils, affirmative action programs, economic opportunity programs, foreign aid programs, community development programs, and many others.

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