Introduction: The term ‘sociology’ was coined by a French social scientist, August Comte in 1838. The term is derived from a combination of two Latin words- ‘socius’ meaning ‘society, association, togetherness or companionship,’ and ‘logos’ meaning ‘study of, or to speak about.’ In simpler words, sociology can be defined as the scientific study of society. Therefore, as a social science, sociology studies-
- The structure of the society and its functioning as a part of a system
- The nature, contents, and complexity of human social behaviour
- Fundamentals of human social life
- Interaction between humans and their external environments
- The indispensable nature of social interactions for the development of human beings
- Impact of the social world on human life . (Doda, 2005)
Sociology is a comparatively new entrant in the family of social sciences. However, since the study of social interactions, relations, and problems has become increasingly important, there has been a rise in its significance and status. As a discipline, sociology has now developed a clearly defined methodology, scope, and approach. (Foundation of Sociology, n.d.)
Sociology “deals with the factually observable subject matter, depends upon empirical research, and attempts to formulate theories and generalizations that will make sense of facts.” In reference to its expository and detective nature, Soroka states that “sociology is a debunking science; that is, it looks for levels of reality other than those presented in official interpretations of society and people’s common sense explanations of the social world. Sociologists are interested in understanding what is and do not make value judgments.” (Foundation of Sociology, n.d.)
The discipline of sociology has been defined in distinct ways by sociologists who, based on their conception, explain the nature and scope of this subject differently.
Ward defined sociology as the “science of the society.”
George Simmel stated that sociology is “a subject which studies human inter-relationships.”
Max Weber claimed that sociology is “a science which attempts an imperative understanding of social actions.”
Sorokin gave a three-part definition to explain sociology. He stated that “sociology is a study of- first, all the relationships and correlations between various classes; second, the relations between the social and non-social aspects of life; third, general characteristics common to all classes of society.”
Ogburn claimed that “Sociology is concerned with the study of social life and its relations to the factors of culture, natural, environment, heredity, and group.”
Durkheim, in terms of defining sociology, said that “it is the science of collective representation.” (Foundation of Sociology, n.d.)
The aim of presenting various definitions is not to overwhelm or confuse, instead, they have been stated in this section so as to facilitate one’s understanding of the different facets of this discipline. Sociologists have defined this discipline differently based on their opinions, experience with the subject, and ideas about what they believe is the central defining point of sociology. As one begins to study this subject, he/she understands how every definition fits in its way and presents a gist of what sociology is.
Subject Matter and Scope of Sociology
The scope of sociology is extremely broad and wide-ranging. From the analysis of an encounter between two individuals on the street to the examination of global social processes- sociology covers both the ends of this spectrum and everything in between.
There are two schools of thought in sociology that help us define its scope-
Former or Specialist School of Thought: Under this school, it is believed that the scope of sociology should not be generalized, instead, it should be confined to studying some aspects of the society. The exponents of this school of thought wish to keep the nature of sociology independent and pure. According to them, sociology should deal with- social relations, social activities, and the processes of socialization. For example,- Max Weber was the chief proponent of this school of thought and he stated that the scope of sociology should be limited to analysis of social behaviours only. Other thinkers like Veir Kandt, Simmel, and Vone Wiese also propagated this school of thought. (Foundation of Sociology, n.d.)
Synthetic School of Thought: The basic premise of this school of thought is that sociology should study the entire society as a whole and not confine itself to studying limited sociological problems. This school of thought believes that in the contemporary days, no discipline can be isolated from the other disciplines, therefore implying that the scope of sociology should be general, not confined. For example- Sorokin was the main proponent of this school of thought and he believed that sociology was, “systematic science with manifold inter-actions, and was concerned with general facts of social life.” Other thinkers like Auguste, Hobb-House, and Durkheim also supported this school of thought. (Foundation of Sociology, n.d.)
The basics of sociology today have been shaped by some of the earliest thinkers and their ideas. Some of these thinkers are-
French Social Philosopher (1798-1857)
Comte had coined the term ‘sociology’ “to apply to the science of human behaviours,” and he was the first to call himself a sociologist. He was one of the most influential philosophers of the 1800s- a time wherein the French monarchy had been disposed of and Napoleon had been unable to conquer Europe. During this time, philosophers and intellectuals were devising ways of improving society and its conditions.
According to Comte, in order to improve society, “the theoretical science of society should be developed and a systematic investigation of behaviour should be
carried.” Comte believed that a systematic study of social behaviours would lead to increased rational interactions between humans. He presented a hierarchy of sciences wherein he placed sociology at the top, claiming that sociology was ‘the queen’ and “its practitioners were scientist-priests.”
Comte also used the terms ‘social dynamic’ and ‘social static’ to define sociology. The former referring to the changing, developing, and progressing dimensions of the society and the latter referring to social order, and elements of social phenomena that persist and are relatively permanent to change. . (Doda, 2005) (Foundation of Sociology, n.d.)
German Thinker (1818-1883)
Marx is a world-renowned economic historian, sociologist, and social philosopher. He was a revolutionary and spent most of his life in exile. His ideas were heavily influenced by Friedrich Engels.
In his analysis, Marx divided the entire society into two classes- Bourgeoise (owners of the means of production) and Proletariats (workers) In his work, he stated that the primary reason for conflict in society was the opposing needs of these two classes and the dominance of one over the other. He believed that the history of human society has been that of class conflict. Marx believed that in the capitalist society, labour undergoes four forms of alienation- alienation from the product, from the process of production, from oneself and others.
Marx’s idea of socialism aimed at bringing about a classless society- one where there was no exploitation or oppression, where individuals worked according to their abilities and received awards accordingly.
Marx also argued that the economic forces in society are the keys to bringing about social change. He stated that the economic forces formed the base; and the culture, religion, tradition, and other social factors formed the superstructure. A change in the base would lead to a change in the superstructure.
Marx introduced one of the most important sociological theories- social conflict theory.
Even today, a large number of individuals are influenced by Marx and his writings. (Doda, 2005) (Foundation of Sociology, n.d.)
French Sociologist (1858- 1917)
Considered to be one of the founding fathers of sociology, Durkheim made pioneering contributions to the discipline of sociology. He was the son of a rabbi and received his education in France and Germany, after which he became one of the first professors of sociology in France. (Doda, 2005)
He introduced the concept of ‘social facts’ that are “patterns of behaviour that characterize a social group in a given society.” He believed that all social facts should be studied objectively and the main objective of a sociologist was to uncover these social facts and then explain them. Durkheim was the first to apply statistical methods for understanding social phenomena. (Foundation of Sociology, n.d.)
His work on ‘Suicide’ stated that there were 4 types of suicide in the society that were not based on individual acts instead they had been shaped by the relationship between an actor and his society. This included- Egoistic suicide (being cut off from the society), altruistic suicide (being highly integrated into the society), anomic suicide (under-regulation of society), and fatalistic suicide (overregulation of society).
Durkheim also introduced concepts of solidarity and studied the concept of religion in depth.
German Sociologist (1864-1920)
According to Weber, sociology was “the study of human social action.” He believed that the subject matter of sociology was based on the interpretation of “human social action and the meanings people attach to those actions.” Therefore, he emphasized the concept of subjective interpretations. One of his most prominent works is, ‘The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.’ (Foundation of Sociology, n.d.)
Marx, Durkheim, and Weber are known as the founding fathers of Sociology.
Also known as structural functionalism, this perspective is based on the assumption that society is a stable and orderly system wherein each part of the society has a function that contributes to its overall stability. Therefore, functionalism views society as a “system of interrelated parts.” These parts can be social institutions, interactions, traditions, social behaviour or any other aspect of social life. Therefore, Functionalism propagates that if a particular aspect of social life or society does not contribute to its stability and maintenance, it will not be passed down from one generation to the next. Talcott Parsons was the key figure that helped in the development of this perspective.
For example, if we analyze the institution of marriage through the lens of the functionalist perspective, it would state that marriage provides emotional connections, economic support, and social networks that are essential for an individual and his positionality in society. Therefore, marriage exists since it contributes to societal stability.
Another example could be that of prostitution. According to functionalists, prostitution allows the needs of individuals to be satisfied that may not otherwise be through courtship and marriage. Therefore, the ‘buyer’ receives sexual pleasure without any form of accountability, emotional attachment, and responsibility for procreation, whereas, the ‘seller’ gains a livelihood. Thereby, prostitution performs certain functions that are needed by society. This does, however, in no way prescribe the legitimacy or illegitimacy of prostitution, it simply states that prostitution exists because it serves specific functions in society.
The functionalist perspective is a macro-level theory.
An important concept under functionalism is that of ‘manifest’ and ‘latent’ functions. Manifest functions are those that are intended and known the participants whereas latent functions are those that are unintended and unknown to the participants. For example, the manifest function of education is the transmission of knowledge and the latent function is the establishment of social networks. (Foundation of Sociology, n.d.)
According to the conflict perspective, various groups in the society are immersed in a continuous “power struggle for scarce resources.” Given the conditions and exploitative nature of capitalism, Marx stated that a power struggle between the classes is inevitable. Various sociologists expanded Marx’s concept to explain that the struggle and conflict in society were not just limited to classes, instead, conflict was a part of everyday life. Therefore, through the lens of conflict theory, sociologists are interested in understanding who benefits and who suffers when we look at a particular culture, social group, or organization. This conflict model is viewed as being ‘activist’ and ‘radial’ because of its emphasis on the redistribution of resources to tackle inequality and bring about social change.
The most important contribution of conflict theory is that it has allowed sociologists to view society from the point of view of those who are not usually involved in the process of decision making. For example- conflict theorists study the struggle between the white and the black community and analyze the role of institutions (such as government, family, media) in preserving the privileges of some groups and providing a subservient position to others.
The feminist theory is built upon the conflict theory and analyses the subjugation of one group (women) by the other group (men). Just like functionalism, conflict theory is also a macro-level theory. (Foundation of Sociology, n.d.)
Unlike the functionalist and conflict theory, the interactionist perspective is a micro-level theory that aims at building an understanding of society by examining it in terms of social interaction. This perspective views human beings as residing in a world of ‘meaningful objects’ such as actions, relations, material things, and even symbols. The analysis of everyday behaviour and interaction allows for a better understanding of society as a whole.
George Herbert Mead is claimed to the key figure that developed the interactionist perspective. He was interested in observing the minutest forms of interaction- smiles, frowns, nods, to understand how these individual interactions were shaped by the larger context of society.
Therefore, all interactions emphasize on symbols that convey larger meanings about the culture and traditions of a society. For example, to portray suicide, different societies use different gestures. The people in the USA point a finger to their head in the form of a gun, the people in Japan bring a fist against their stomach to indicate stabbing and people in Papua New Guinea clench their hands on their throat to depict hanging/suffocating.
Erving Goffman played a significant role in popularizing this theory by introducing the ‘dramaturgical approach’ under it. The dramaturgical approach views human life and society like an actor placed on stage- with definite roles, costumes, and props. This approach states that different situations bring about different personalities of humans. For example, the clothing and behaviour of an individual going for an interview will be different from his/her behaviour when going for a party, therefore, the individual is an actor assuming different roles. (Foundation of Sociology, n.d.)
A sociologist called C. Wright Mills introduced the concept of ‘sociological imagination’ which implies, “the ability to see the relationship between individual experiences and the larger society.” Therefore, the concept of sociological imagination compels us to find the linkages between our personal experiences and the social context they take place in.
The key element of this concept is to view one’s society as an outsider, rather than from the “limited perspective of personal experiences and cultural biases.” Therefore, sociological imagination allows us to go beyond our individual experiences and allows us to understand public issues. For example, unemployment can be seen as a personal setback in one’s life, however, the sociological imagination allows us to understand that the problem of unemployment is faced by hundreds of people and therefore question the structuring of society. (Foundation of Sociology, n.d.)
Significance of Sociology
After going through the basic concepts of sociology, one might still wonder why they should consider studying sociology. C. W. Mills has listed some practical applications of sociology as a discipline, that help us understand its significance in our lives. These are-
- Awareness of Cultural Differences
The different sociological perspectives allow us to understand the lives of other groups and gain a better idea about their problems and conditions. For example- policies regarding tribal development can only succeed if we can understand the livelihood and conditions of tribals and model the solutions in a way that is fitted to their needs and requirements. (Foundation of Sociology, n.d.)
- Assessment of Policies
Sociological knowledge and research play an important role in analyzing the needs of the people and shaping policies in a way that the needs are addressed. Therefore, sociology acts as a link between understanding the societal needs of people and catering to these needs through appropriate and effective policies.
Sociology plays an important role in understanding ourselves and others. When we delve deeper into the discipline, studying social interactions, groups (such as primary and secondary) culture and other topics allows us to gain knowledge about the society we live in and the positionality of us and those around us.
Therefore, the discipline of sociology plays an important role in understanding how we as placed in the society and how we can, with the help of sociological tools and knowledge, make sense of the world we create and live in.
Foundation of Sociology. [Ebook]. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/8025161/SOCIOLOGY_PAPER_-I_FOUNDATION_OF_SOCIOLOGY_2_1_SOCIOLOGY_AS_A_DISCIPLINE
Doda, Z. (2005). Introduction to Sociology [Ebook]. Debub University.