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 of the problems faced by human beings. First, the post-Newtonian physical sciences had promised comprehensive explanations of the Earth and its place in the universe.

The post-Darwinian natural sciences presented explanations of life on Earth with the theory of evolution and the origin of the species. Finally, it was anticipated that the social sciences would extend this 'enlightenment project' into explanations of the collective activities and relationships of human beings. In fact, 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.

The 'classical sociologists' of the nineteenth century were European and mainly from 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.

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 major 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 training, geography and environmental science and the newer sports and health sciences.

Modern Sociology

From its original purpose as the 'science of society', sociology has moved on to more reflexive attempts to understand how society works. It seeks to provide insights into the many forms of relationship, both formal and informal, between people. Such relationships are considered to be the 'fabric' of society. Smaller scale relationships are connected to larger scale relationships and the totality of this is society itself. Human beings have wants, needs and desires but the form that these take is related to attachments to social groupings and participation in social institutions. The latter are patterns of human interaction which become 'instituted' 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 and whether we refer to societies in the plural or to one human society, there are clearly huge spatial connections. It is a development referred to as globalisation but it does not detract from temporal connections in terms of how the present form of human society relates to past forms and to likely forms in the future.

Another way of putting all of this is to summarise the principles of sociology 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 various combinations of these are normal.
  • patterns of human relationship become institutionalised in the course of their reproduction over time and may therefore be referred to as ´social institutions´.
  • the reproduction of social institutions has increasingly incorporated global influences and exchanges but local influences remain important. The outcome is a process of interchange between the global and the local.
  • in order to participate in society human beings maintain an understanding of their relationships with others and of the institutions in which they participate, whatever the scale.
  • the task for sociologists, therefore, is to capture this understanding in a more systematic way and provide substantive explanations which nevertheless are understandable in terms of everyday life.