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Sociological Perspective

What Is Sociology?

Defining Sociology

Sociology is the scientific study of social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human behavior.

The word social refers to society or things pertaining to the public, group, or collective. The social sciences are academic disciplines concerned with the study of human society and social relationships. Sociology is the study of social behavior, including social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human behavior.

Sociology uses systematic methods of investigation, data collection, and critical analysis to gather knowledge about social structures and activities. Sociologists analyze this information to understand social phenomena, including gender, race, culture, social class, social networks, and historical change.

One focus of sociology is the set of social institutions that shape the actions of a society. A social institution is a complex set of interdependent social forces that meet basic needs and serve to reproduce patterns of behavior. For example, the media is a social institution that influences the way information is presented. The law and politics are social institutions that impact the definitions of what is right and moral. The social institutions of the economy and education affect social status, career, and wealth. Family is a social institution that shapes ideas about gender, sex, partnership, work, marriage, and child-rearing. Other social institutions include medicine and religion. Social institutions shape society and impact the lived experience of individuals.

Sociology is an academic field but is also used in a number of nonacademic professions. Some sociologists are researchers and teachers. Their focus is theoretical sociology, the study and analysis of society, social groups, and social behaviors. Politicians, government workers, marketers, and others often use sociological research in their work. Social workers apply this research in order to address social problems. They practice applied sociology, the use of research about social behavior to create solutions to specific social issues or for specific client needs, such as food, housing, and health care.

Study of Social Behavior

Sociology examines social, not individual, behavior, and analyzes the structures and dynamics of societies, communities, and groups.

Sociology is not concerned with the behavior or motivation of specific individuals. Individual behavior is the province of psychology. Sociology considers societies and social behavior, including the structure, behavior, and dynamics of groups, communities, cultures, and societies.

Some sociologists work to examine how social behavior arises and to understand why it exists. French philosopher Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) was one of the first sociologists. He was interested in how societies create or fail to create social cohesion, a sense shared by members of society of being bound together as a group. He proposed a theory about the development of societies, arguing that a society is created by the linking of individuals, who understand themselves as connected. He identified two types of solidarity, a feeling of togetherness or unity. Mechanical solidarity is the sense of unity between people who share ties, values, and beliefs, leading to cooperation. Durkheim saw small, premodern societies as characterized by this type of solidarity. He identified organic solidarity, social unity that develops when individuals depend on one another for labor and services, as a key facet of more complex and modern societies.

Durkheim's Mechanical versus Organic Solidarity
Mechanical Solidarity Organic Solidarity
  • Small or premodern societies
  • Ties mostly formed through kinship
  • Sense of togetherness results from people doing similar work and having similar ideas
  • Solidarity is a result of "sameness"
  • Larger, modern and postmodern, industrial societies
  • People do specialized work and depend on others to do other tasks
  • Sense of connections results from interdependence
  • Solidarity is necessary for the society to function