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​What is Sociology?

Sarah Best

4th October 2016

I am often asked this very question, usually at open evenings from inquisitive students and parents. And even after nearly ten years of teaching, I still find myself a little surprised by the genuine uncertainty from some of those asking. I know that this is naivety and ignorance on my part; I had no idea what sociology was when I was selecting my A-Levels many years ago, but I guess my thinking as a teacher stems from that this question wouldn’t be asked of those who teach Physics or Art and Design for example.

I do have a standard response to that very question that seems to have helped me through those open evenings and introductory lessons at the start of the new academic year: Sociology is the study of society. But it is perhaps better to look at that question by considering the application of Sociology, as that is where stuff gets real.

Here are some questions that a sociologist may attempt to address:

  • Why are some political parties more likely to be in power than others?
  • Why do we have schools?
  • Is there one ‘typical or normal’ family type?
  • Why are certain groups of people more likely to commit crimes than others?
  • Does your gender determine how much you get paid in a job?

And what is apparent just from these questions is that one thing links them all: people. And of course, people make up society. Societies are interconnected with a complex system of institutions such as the family, police, government, the education sector, media and so on.

One way to think about the structure of a society is like a body. One sociological perspective, functionalism asserts that society works like a human body (they call this the body/organic analogy). The various institutions don’t exist independent of one another rather; they are actively working together towards common goals. Although not all sociologists are in agreement with the use of the body analogy to describe society, I do believe that it provides a good foundation of how to start thinking about the subject of Sociology itself.

Sociology as a discipline has developed over thousands of years, although its ‘introduction’ as a subject like Biology or History is relatively recent. Auguste Comte (1798-1857) coined the term ‘sociology’ and believed that humans have laws that govern behaviour as much as there are laws that govern science.

Sociology helps provide an understanding of these ‘human laws’. An example of a human law could be applied to behaviour, for example, be polite, don’t hurt others and so on. But these things do happen… and quite regularly! So, it’s important to remember that just because of these ‘laws’ or norms, it doesn’t mean that everybody follows them. Also, if we try to apply certain laws or rules to humans, we are at risk of reducing human behaviour to simple parts and processes. And if these parts/processes don’t fit into a neat tick box then they might be seen as ‘abnormal’.

Early sociologists like Karl Marx (1818-1883), Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and Max Weber (1864-1920) are often referred to as the ‘founding fathers’ of sociology, as they established significant theories that attempted to understand society. More recent theories focus on the limitations of those early ideas and argue that society has changed significantly over the past 150 years. Would Karl Marx find today’s society unrecognisable? Or would he see similar structures in place as when he was writing during the European Industrial Revolution?

However, at its heart Sociology remains the same. It attempts to explain complex social phenomena by investigating the interactions between people and the institutions and societies they inhabit. And therefore the study of Sociology is for everyone.

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Sarah Best

Sarah is a passionate full-time Head of Sociology and Psychology and has worked in a variety in schools in the UK, and she is currently working in a British international school. She is keen to develop and boost the profile of both subjects.

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