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What is Sociology?

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There is many different definitions for the meaning of sociology but when it comes down to it sociology’s main interest is in the relationship between the individual and society. Anthony Giddens(1986:p9) defines sociology as ‘ a social science, having as its main focus the study of the social institutions brought into being by the industrial transformations of the past two or three centuries.’ Whereas Sociologist; Bauman (1990:p8) claims that ‘Sociology is…first and foremost a way of thinking about the human world.

’ As you can see there is many different sociologists with different opinions/theories of what sociology actual is and throughout this essay I shall discuss and explain a few different theories such as Marxism.

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The 3 main sociological concerns that all sociologist study is social order, social change and social divisions and inequality. These 3 main concerns cover an endless number of specific topics that many different sociologist have theories on. In order to get into the ‘sociological way of thinking’ many sociologist talk about a concept called ‘defamiliarisation’.

This is used to describe the act of escaping from the constraints of everyday practices and everyday thinking. Berger (1963:p3) argues that ‘the first wisdom of sociology is this: things are not what they seem.’ Therefore what Berger is saying is that sociology rests on the assumption that social reality has different levels of meanings. Another concept when it comes to learning to think sociologically is ‘The sociological imagination’, sociologist C. Wright Mills came up with this concept.

The sociological imagination is a way of looking at the world in a certain way that can see connections between the seemingly private problems of the individual and important social issues. Mills argues for a humanist sociology is connecting the social, personal, and historical dimensions of our lives. ‘Perhaps the most fruitful distinction with which the sociological imagination works is between the personal troubles of milieu and the public issues of social structure. This distinction is an essential tool of the sociological and a feature of all the classic work in social science.’ (Mills 1963) This for example would include unemployment, war, marriage and suicide because not only is it a personal trouble to an individual but it is also a public issues for the government I.e. suicide rates, divorce statistics and so on. Many early sociologists believed sociology should use the logic and methods of the natural sciences. They believed that society could be studied just like the natural sciences could be, these sociologists are called positivists. Comte argued that sociology was the ‘queen’ of the social sciences and that society could be studied using direct observation and precise measurement of phenomena.

He argued that it was important for the researcher to remain detached and cut off from the object being studied. Comte also stated that sociological research could identify ‘casual explanations’ that can be used to generate universal laws. However can society really be studied like inanimate objects, can human beings that have feelings and connections with interactions really truly be studied like a plant? Weber argued that sociologist should adopt the concept of ‘verstehen’ which means understanding; putting yourself in the other persons shoe if you like. Weber argued this was the proper way of studying social phenomena. Sociology emerged after three key revolutions when modern society came into being. These three key revolutions was the enlightenment (intellectual) which happened in the mid-17th century and the 18th century, the French revolution (political) which took place in 1789 and the industrial revolution (economic) which came about in the 18th and 19th century. These revolutions are what forced a complete break from the past and tradition society which established sociology as a discipline. The Enlightenment was a philosophy that challenged the idea of an abstract higher authority which was normally religious ideology because it focused on logic, criticism and the freedom of thought. Throughout this revolution it was thought that human life could be improved by education and the application of reason. The French revolution was one of the most significant political events in history. Political and social privilege of the old regime was the main target of this revolution. This was the first time in history that a complete social order was defeated by a movement guided by non-religious ideals i.e. equality and liberty. The industrial revolution was the process of a society moving away from the agricultural base to an economy that is dominated by manufacturing.

Hobsbawn stated that ‘it means that sometime in the 1780s,and for the first time in human history, the shackles were taken off the productive power of human societies which henceforth became capable of the constant, rapid and up to the present limitless multiplication of men, goods and services.’ (Hobsbawn, 1962:p45) This also caused urbanisation because more people where now moving into towns and cities to find work. All these changed within society sparked the Sociological response of many different sociologist such as Comte who believe that society could be studied like a natural science and the 3 founding fathers to sociology: Marx, Weber and Durkheim. Comte identified three stages of development: the theological stage; when the world is understood in religious terms. The metaphysical stage; this was the abstract philosophical explanations and the scientific/positivist stage; this is how society followed constant laws that could be uncovered through the use of scientific methods. Comte insisted that sociology was one of the 5 fundamental sciences. Karl Marx was concerned with the 19th century capitalism, Marx believed that the social world is characterised by conflict and change. Marx argue that one of the main key features of capitalism was the exploitation of one group of people by another i.e. the bourgeoisie exploiting the proletariat through the means of production. He also argued that contradictions and tensions within the systems would lead to a revolutionary change. Max weber was greatly concerned with the growth of rationality which happened after the transition from tradition society to modern society.

He argued that motivation for people’s actions changes as societies change, but he also categorised four different styles of action; Traditional action, affective action, value oriented action and rational action. Weber also came up with the concept of ‘The disenchantment of the world’, Bureaucracy and McDonaldisation. Emile Durkheim argued that society had dominance over the individual, he believed that individuals were socialised into a set of shared norms, values and behaviour; ‘a common culture’. Durkheim placed great importance on the moral basis of social order and seen society operating as a constraining force. ‘ Society commands us because it is exterior and superior to us, the moral distance between it and us makes it an authority before which our wills defer’ (Durkheim). The key ideas in Durkheim’s study of society are system, structure and function. Other concepts/issues that are important in his work are ‘Social solidarity’, ‘Anomie’, ‘social facts’ and ‘conscience collective and collective representations’. So to conclude sociology is in the relationship between the individual and society, in order to get into the way of sociologically thinking you must defamiliarise yourself from the everyday way of thinking and adopt to the sociological imagination. Some sociologist believed that sociology could be studied like a natural science-‘positivists’. Sociology came into existence because of three revolutions that brought about modern society. The 3 founding fathers of sociology are Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim.


• Giddens, A. SOCIOLOGY: A BRIEF BUT CRITICAL INTRODUCTION. (2nd Edition) London: Macmillan 1986 • Bauman, Z. Thinking sociologically. (2nd edition) Oxford: Blackwell publishers 2011 • Berger, P. Invitation to sociology: a humanistic perspective. Harmondsworth: Penguin 1966 • http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072817186/student_view0/chapter4/chapter_summary.html • Hobsbawm, E. The age of Revolution: Europe: 1789-1848. Cleveland, Ohio: World publishing company 1962.

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What is Sociology?. (2016, Dec 24). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/what-is-sociology-3/

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