What is Sociology

There's lots of speculation from people all over the world about what exactly "sociology" is. Many people confuse it with psychology and others tend to conflate it with anthropology. While there are some overlaps across these disciplines to be sure, sociology is a unique field that is rich with history, theory and facts. 

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What is Sociology What is Sociology

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Table of contents

    If you're here to begin your exploration of the subject, we welcome you to the start of your sociological journey!

    What is the definition of ‘sociology’?

    Sociology is a discipline with lots of scope and lots of depth, so it's difficult to encompass it all into a singular definition. However, the main subjects of sociological analysis are what form its most common definition.

    According to Merriam-Webster, sociology is "the systematic study of the development, structure, interaction, and collective behaviour of organised groups of human beings". More briefly, it's the methodical study of the workings of society.

    Sociology operates on several different levels - you might think of them as more or less “zoomed in” on each other. Some theories look at human behaviour and interactions at a very granular level, in small groups, whilst others consider these interactions on the larger scale of communities or even cultures.

    A big part of sociology is examining someone’s life choices and chances based on their social identities (concerning factors like age, gender, ethnicity and social class).

    What are the main theories of sociology?

    What is Sociology, People walking on a crowded street, StudySmarterSociology is primarily based on a system of theories pioneered by influential scholars dating back to the early 19th century. Pexels.com

    Foundational knowledge of the key theories is vital for understanding and analysing sociological concepts - that is, for being able to take what is known as the sociological approach. Let's take a brief look at the main sociological theories and the various ways in which they can be categorised.

    Bear in mind that this article doesn't approach all sociological theories - there are many more to learn from! These are just the main theories that we engage with at the GCSE level.

    You can find more in-depth explanations of these theories in our other modules under "The Sociological Approach"!

    Structuralism vs. interpretivism

    One of the core ways of classifying sociological theories is to separate them into structuralist or interpretivist approaches.


    Structuralism takes a macro approach, as it focuses on large-scale institutions and their impact on collective human behaviour. The key facet of this approach is that it considers society to be a set of structures in which people carry out necessarily roles. In line with this, what's most important are the roles themselves and the actions which constitute them, not the individuals who are pursuing the roles.

    According to structuralists, people have very little control over their thoughts and actions. Rather, we are 'puppets' to society's influence - even if we don't realise it. This is also known as a top-down approach.


    On the other hand, interpretivism takes a micro approach, focusing on the individual first and then expanding their theorisations to broader structures. Interpretivists believe that people are the ones in control, shaping the societies in which we live through our actions and interactions every day. This is also known as a bottom-up approach.

    We have the power to reject the norms, values and labels that are imposed on us and to construct our identities in the ways that we choose.

    We have many labels to choose from, in terms of sex and gender, age, social class, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion and beyond. What matters the most is the meanings that we attach to these labels and how they are incorporated into our individual and collective lives. The sociological theory most affiliated with this approach is called interactionism (or symbolic interactionism).

    Consensus vs. conflict

    Another very common way of classifying sociological theories is to group them into consensus or conflict approaches. The conflict versus consensus debate is a hot topic in sociology.

    Consensus theories

    In sociology, consensus theories are those which see society as functioning based on a system of shared norms and values. Here, all people, institutions and structures share a sense of solidarity in order to create and maintain the social order.

    While there are some other prominent consensus theories to take note of, functionalism is the main one that is affiliated with this paradigm. Functionalism is a very influential theory which suggests that all people, structures and institutions serve a valuable function in society. This idea is based on the fact that all aspects of a society have to work together for it to run smoothly as a whole.

    Conflict theories

    On the other hand, conflict theories are based on the premise that society is characterised by an imbalance of power. They focus on how inequalities are created and sustained on both smaller and larger scales, and how this shapes people's relationships with one another and with society as a whole. Again, there are many influential conflict theories in sociology, but the most important ones to be aware of are Marxism and feminism.

    Marxism is a very important theory that was pioneered by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the mid-1800s. Though it came to prominence more so in the 1900s, Marxism is a popular philosophy among sociologists and non-sociologists to this day. It is based on the idea that society is characterised by a conflict between the rich and the poor.

    Feminism is also a very popular narrative, which has undergone several waves over the years. It is based on the notion that society is patriarchal - in that men are in a position of dominance over women and that this power imbalance impacts the rights, opportunities and livelihoods of women all over the world.

    What is the main purpose of sociology?

    What is Sociology, Stack of books in shelf, StudySmarterIn a nutshell, the main purpose of sociology is to expand our understanding of society using a systematic, research-based approach. Pexels.com

    The sociological approach

    The sociological approach is the name given to the method by which people "do" sociology. This includes the kinds of questions we ask, how we answer those questions and what we do with the answers we find.

    An individual might step out to do their weekly grocery shop and find that there are many people without homes on the streets in their neighbourhood. Taking the sociological approach, this person might ask:

    • Why don't some people have homes? What are the experiences, policies or choices which lead to this way of life?
    • How could we find out? Could we take a look at the local archives and try to understand how the homeless population has changed alongside broader structural changes in society? Or would it be more valuable to speak to people without homes about their life experiences?
    • Could we use these findings to raise awareness and kickstart community action plans? Or could this be taken a step further, to advocate for changes in social policy regarding poverty and housing?

    Sociology, psychology and journalism

    As mentioned, sociology is often confused with other disciplines from the social sciences. For instance, sociology, psychology and journalism might appear quite similar to some. The key differences to take note of are that:

    • sociology studies collective human life and behaviour,

    • psychology studies human life and behaviour at the individual level, and

    • journalism researches social issues, but in less depth than sociologists, often due to time constraints.

    Answering questions through research

    Now that we've got a grasp of what type of information we're seeking in sociology, another important question to ask is how we're going to obtain that information. The answer: research.

    As is the case in other social sciences, a rigorous research process is what allows scholars to get to the bottom of various social and sociological problems. Usually, researchers choose which methods to use based on the following factors:

    • their theoretical orientations,

    • the research goals,

    • practical considerations (like time and money), and

    • ethical concerns.

    Positivism and interpretivism

    Positivism and interpretivism are two distinct theoretical and methodological alignments that influence a scholar's choice of research methods:

    • Positivists are numerically-oriented, preferring quantitative sources of data like close-ended questionnaires or official statistics. This preference is based on the belief that human behaviour can be objectively and scientifically studied and understood.

    • Interpretivists tend to seek in-depth explanations of social phenomena and are therefore inclined to use qualitative sources of data, like unstructured interviews or written histories.

    The research process

    While you're sure to learn (and re-learn) about the research process in a great deal of data all throughout your sociological learning experience, let's take a quick look at the important steps that need to be carried out to conduct research well.

    1. Identify a social problem that you wish to study or examine.

    2. Review the existing literature on your topic of interest to further your understanding of it.

    3. Formulate a hypothesis or research question based on your general observation and study of previous research.

    4. Choose a suitable research method to address your sociological problem.

    5. Carry out a pilot study on a small sample to identify potential room for improvement.

    6. Select and recruit a sample.

    7. Collect and analyse the data.

    8. Evaluate your research.

    What are the main characteristics of sociology?

    The key characteristics of sociology are its theories and the social phenomena which they seek to explain.

    Social problems vs. sociological problems

    A social problem is an observation about the real world which may or may not require a more critical understanding.

    A sociological problem is a sociological question about a social problem, which is constructed to gain a better understanding of a particular issue or phenomenon.

    A social problem would be that there is a very large homeless population in a particular neighbourhood of a particular country.

    The sociological problem might ask what the demographics of that homeless population look like, perhaps in terms of their ethnicity, gender or levels of education.

    Key topics in sociology

    It would be impossible to make a definitive list of topics that sociologists incorporate into their studies, but some of the most common ones include:

    • health and illness,

    • the media,

    • crime,

    • education,

    • family,

    • religion,

    • work, and

    • poverty and wealth.

    These and many more topics are examined by taking the sociological approach, which you can learn more about in this module.

    What are examples of sociology studies?

    What is Sociology, Open textbook on table, StudySmarterWhat is Sociology, Open textbook on table, StudySmarterSociology is a rather old discipline and that's just one of the reasons why it's incredibly rich. Pexels.com

    There has been a lot of wide and deep inquiry into social issues in the field of sociology, with many studies becoming very influential both within and outside of the field. Though we're going to engage with many of these studies throughout your time learning sociology, there are a few famous examples that would be good to know about before diving in.

    Famous sociological studies

    1. Max Weber | The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930)A close examination of the protestant work ethic and early capitalism, and how this has transformed into the ethos of capitalism that is pervasive in the West today.

    2. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels | The Communist Manifesto (1948)One of the most influential sociological works of all time in which Marx and Engels report their exploration of capitalism through the social, political and ideological paradigm of the class struggle.

    3. Émile Durkheim | Suicide: A Study in Sociology (1897)A pioneering, seminal work which makes the case for structuralism, in which Durkheim explores the social factors affecting one's likelihood of committing suicide - an act previously considered only private and personal.

    What is Sociology - Key takeaways

    • Sociology is the systematic study of collective human behaviour, interactions and institutions.
    • Structuralism is a macro, top-down approach to understanding society, while interpretivism is a micro, bottom-up approach to understanding society.
    • Sociological theories can be classified as characterising society in terms of either consensus or conflict.
    • The sociological approach is the method of 'doing' sociology, in terms of identifying social and solving sociological problems.
    • Sociology covers a vast number of topics, such as crime, the media, education, the family and many more.


    Frequently Asked Questions about What is Sociology

    What is sociology about? 

    Sociology is the study of society - it investigates collective human behaviour based on a set of theories and research methodologies. 

    What is the difference between sociology and psychology? 

    While psychology is the study of individual human behaviour, sociology is an examination of broad social structures, processes and issues that take place in society. 

    What is the main concept of sociology? 

    There are many concepts that we discuss in sociology, including social structures, institutions, theories, processes and issues. 

    What is a sociological approach in sociology? 

    Sociology is a discipline which incorporates many perspectives and theories. These perspectives are also called 'approaches' - they are a particular way of understanding social issues and phenomena. Examples of key sociological approaches are Marxism, functionalism and interactionism.

    What is sociology's importance? 

    Sociology is an important discipline because it encourages us to question the social order in which we all exist. Sociologists pay close attention to the social structures and institutions which govern our behaviour and this is very important because it helps us analyse the inner-most workings of society. 

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