Sociology is the study of groups and group interactions, societies, and social interactions, from small and personal groups to very large groups. A group of people who live in a defined geographic area, who interact with one another, and who share a common culture is what sociologists call a society. Sociologists study all aspects and levels of society, develop theories to explain social events, interactions, and patterns. A theory is a proposed explanation of those social interactions.
The etymology of the word is twofold, deriving from the Latin socius (he who shares some kind of belonging) and from the Greek logos (study). In the proper sense, therefore, sociology designates the study of the relationships between men operating in a society. It generally deals with the conditions and forms of belonging to a community. More rigorously, its particular field of observation is given by the structure of social relations as they give rise to interactions. Even this definition, which privileges the sphere of interactions (communication, relations of consensus, loyalty, recognition, etc.) – rather than emphasizing the analysis of systems, organizational structures or modes of production – could be discussed, especially if not further argued.
No formal definition is in fact fully satisfactory, implying of necessity value judgments. From this point of view, it is useful to state that one of the essential characteristics of sociology and of its research method consists in its interdisciplinary vocation. Sociology, in short, requires constant reference to the teachings and approaches of related disciplines, from the classical ones – history, economics, law – to those more recently developed, such as cultural anthropology, social psychology and social statistics.
In a certain sense, sociology is properly configured as a science of connections, investigating the relationships between phenomena and manifestations of social life, even those apparently distant from each other. It should be added that sociology, as a discipline formally constituted in fairly recent times (mid-nineteenth century) – unlike others that are older or more institutionalized in the scientific and academic sphere, such as natural disciplines and those that are properly historical-humanistic – presents a relatively weak theoretical and methodological statute. It does not have particularly rigid rules and theoretical structures and this, if on the one hand gives it less distinctiveness as an autonomous branch of knowledge, on the other hand allows sociology a greater flexibility of analysis and approach to the vast field of social relations.
Theories have different scales. Macro-level theories, such as structural functionalism and conflict theory, attempt to explain how societies operate as a whole. Micro-level theories, such as symbolic interactionism, focus on interactions between individuals. Sociologists working from the micro-level study small groups and individual interactions, while those using macro-level analysis look at trends among and between large groups and societies. For example, a micro-level study might look at the accepted rules of conversation in various groups such as among teenagers or business professionals. In contrast, a macro-level analysis might research the ways that language use has changed over time or in social media outlets.
The term culture refers to the group’s shared practices, values, and beliefs. Culture encompasses a group’s way of life, from routine, everyday interactions to the most important parts of group members’ lives. It includes everything produced by a society, including all of the social rules. Sociologists often study culture using the sociological imagination, which pioneer sociologist C. Wright Mills described as an awareness of the relationship between a person’s behavior and experience and the wider culture that shaped the person’s choices and perceptions. It’s a way of seeing our own and other people’s behavior in relationship to history and social structure (1959).
All sociologists are interested in the experiences of individuals and how those experiences are shaped by interactions with social groups and society as a whole. To a sociologist, the personal decisions an individual makes do not exist in a vacuum. Cultural patterns and social forces put pressure on people to select one choice over another. Sociologists try to identify these general patterns by examining the behavior of large groups of people living in the same society and experiencing the same societal pressures.
History of sociology
Sociology was developed as a way to study and try to understand the changes to society brought on by the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some of the earliest sociologists thought that societies and individuals’ roles in society could be studied using the same scientific methodologies that were used in the natural sciences, while others believed that is was impossible to predict human behavior scientifically, and still others debated the value of such predictions. Those perspectives continue to be represented within sociology today.
It is possible to trace the antecedents of modern sociology in the reflections on society found in the classical works of Plato and Aristotle. Even the Islamic legal school, at the time of Ibn Khaldūn (14th-15th centuries), developed a sort of proto-sociology, centered on the principles of norm and obligation. The European Enlightenment and, above all, the so-called Scottish School (1707-1830) – suffice it to mention A. Ferguson and J. Millar – proposed a social philosophy that has many points of contact with modern sociology: the importance assigned to observation and the primacy given to experience over dogmatic assertions; the attention to social change and the relativization of ethical values; the perception of the role of technology and the outline of a theory of civilization (based on the concrete observation of the Scottish case).
The word sociology, however, appears only in 1824, in an epistolary correspondence of A. Comte. The French scholar – considered (not without contrasts) the father of modern sociology – belongs to that strand of positivist thinkers, or at least heirs of Enlightenment scientism, convinced that they could isolate and analytically develop the scientific foundations of the study of human societies. Indeed, of that universal human society that reflects the universalistic and pedagogical vocation of nineteenth-century French positivism. In this context of scientistic optimism – not devoid (especially in Comte) of metaphysical and millenarian visions that assign to sociology ambitious tasks of collective education and human promotion – we can place the contributions of C. H. Saint-Simon and, later, of H. Spencer. Common to these authors – and to other minor ones of the same period – is the illusion of finding general laws of social evolution, comparable in rigor and capacity for generalization to Newtonian physics or Darwinian biology.
The antipositivistic reaction that developed, especially in Germany, at the end of the 19th century suggested a less naive reflection on the foundations and methods of the new social sciences, assigning to sociology less ambitious tasks, but certainly more critically oriented and more effectively pursued by researchers. In particular, M. Weber deepens the meaning of social action, placing it at the basis of his sociology and harshly contesting any metaphysical temptation. In this way, Weber tries to reconcile the systematic reasons of sociology with the critical demands of historicism, which emphasizes the unrepeatability and uniqueness of individual existential conditions and collective events (methodological individualism). His theory of the ideal type – an extensible model derived from historical-comparative observation, but which does not propose itself as a law of universal validity – represents an example of this sociology.
In the same period (beginning of the XX century), E. Durkheim interprets the “mission” of sociology, judged as the most suitable instrument to understand the invisible reasons of the repetition of institutions, norms and beliefs in distant spatial and temporal contexts, as if to demonstrate the possibility of subjecting the condition of men in society to universal rules. Durkheim’s optimism and his proud claim of the autonomy of sociological method – as opposed to the psychologism of G. Tarde – risk, however, to lose the interdisciplinary vocation of sociology and to re-propose an identity, ideological in its own way, as a superscience capable of identifying and then suggesting the rules of collective behavior and the forms of social and political change. This type of claim would confirm, according to some critics, the matrix of sociology as a tendentially conservative response – insofar as primarily concerned with the restoration of social order – to the upheavals produced in Europe with the French Revolution and industrialization.
On the other hand, the development of sociology at the end of the nineteenth century can be traced back to the influence of the historical materialism of K. Marx and F. Engels, with their tireless research on social structures, classes and their becoming, change and its “objective” conditions, or even interpreted as the critical legacy of romanticism, with the conciliation of the human condition and collective historical becoming. The fact is that the political, cultural and philosophical roots of sociology are multiple and it would be futile to attempt to forcibly reduce them to unity or to some complacent synthesis.
A number of schools of thought emerged in the 20th century. The U.S. structural-functionalist school, which sought to represent society as an interaction of roles, functions, and structures; the Chicago school, which sought quantitative methods to describe society; the Frankfurt school of M. Horkheimer and T.W. Adorno, which preached a political approach to sociology, aimed primarily at highlighting capitalist society’s use of technology and consumerism as tools for dominating the masses. The 1970s and 1980s saw the emergence of multiple approaches and theories and above all a disciplinary shattering of sociology with the birth of many sub-disciplines. In even more recent times, the methodological paradigms and branches within sociology have become even more numerous. In addition, a preference for applied research and a loss of acceptance of approaches based on the elaboration of general theories have emerged.
Sociology of mass communications
Analyzes the contents of the message transmitted by the major media – especially the most widespread and powerful, television – also trying to verify the actual ability to influence opinions and behavior of the masses (important are the studies dedicated to advertising or political propaganda, which have greatly reduced the old theories on the omnipotence of the television message). There is also a tradition of research on the professionalism of media operators (journalists, radio and television personalities, “hidden persuaders”, managers and entrepreneurs in the image market) and a line of analysis centered on the audience as a significant portion of public opinion.
Sociology of knowledge
K. Marx and, later, K. Mannheim are considered its ideal precursors, who – through their analysis on ideology and on the influence of the economic condition and of the social context in the formation of ideas – have reproposed an ancient philosophical theme and, at the same time, opened the way to a more original sociological approach. The analysis of the relationship between knowledge and social structure has been developed in various ways and is also the object of a radical critique by hermeneutic scholars. Sociology is also the main theoretical reference of specialized approaches, such as the sociology of literature or science.
Sociology of law
The sociology of law is concerned with the social conditions that govern the development or transformation of a legal system. The question most acutely debated by sociology concerns the relationship with the economic structure. The classic Marxist thesis of the law as a function of the interests of the ruling classes is contrasted by sociology inspired by H. Kelsen and Weber, which maintains the need for every complex society to have a body of rules placed above the conflict between the social partners. A heterodox strand of studies poses the problem of the reasons for obedience, rather than the causes of the formation of law.
Sociology of education
A discipline developed in the English context around the 1960s, its main focus is the effects of schooling on social mobility and professional success. Since the 1970s, on the other hand, ethnographic comparisons of socialization models have been used more often and the role of education as a means of reproducing the cultural values of a society has been studied in depth. Another strand mainly investigates the relationship between social condition and school selection practices.
Sociology of the family
The sociology of the family studies the strategies and methods of assigning roles – both familial and sexual – in the context of the family as the primary agency of socialization and community integration. Originally, it focused mainly on the effects of industrialization in the transformation of the family institution. Subsequently, also thanks to the impulse of Anglo-Saxon feminist research, a particular attention was developed on the family as a place of reproduction of inequalities and principles of domination within the wider society.
Sociology of politics
A discipline that has not yet fully freed itself from the influences of political history and institutionalist theories, in its investigation of political phenomena it claims the primacy of society over institutions and legal forms, privileged by related and more theoretically consolidated disciplines. However, sociology has gradually identified its own specific areas of research in the study of international relations, the role of the state in social change and in its government, leaders, political parties and movements. An important line of research also concerns political participation in mass democracies and the perception of authority and power roles by citizens.
Sociology of ethnic relations
Born as a discipline that focuses on relationships – often difficult – between communities divided by ethnic, linguistic, cultural or religious fractures, it has gradually emancipated itself from its original ethnological imprint, concentrating on certain themes specific to the relational systems involved. These include the analysis of racial prejudice and of the socio-economic background of racism, as well as its effects on the labor market; the study of ethnic condition as a factor of social stratification and of the social mobility of minorities; the reconstruction of the ideologies and practices of colonialism and anticolonialism. The recent growth of immigration from the Third World is producing a first season of Italian research on the subject.
Sociology of gender relations
Analyzes how biological differences between the sexes are mediated and reworked by different social and cultural contexts, generally producing a hierarchy of sex roles that penalizes women. Among its central themes is the location of the “sex condition” (or gender) in the general problematic of social stratification and division of roles, or the claim of its absolute irreducibility to the classical dimensions of conflict.
Sociology of religion
At the origin of sociology as a specialized discipline there is the reflection on the functions of religion as a possible instrument of social order, which refers to the analysis of the relationship between religion, the social system and the economic structure of a community. From this point of view, great importance has been given to research on the phenomena of secularization, of the crisis of devotional religiosity, but also of the resurgence of the sacred – in the form of magic, messianic sectarianism, charismatic practices, etc. – in technically advanced societies. – in technically advanced societies.
Sociology of health
Arises as a scientific denunciation of the political and social character of the issue of health – and therefore the quality of life, some fundamental individual rights, etc.. – against the “medicalization” and the delegation to health specialists of problems of great social and existential impact, has gradually specialized in some areas of research. These include the condition of the sick person and the relationship between illness and identity, as well as the phenomena of “social alarm” connected to the material and symbolic perception of illness. Even issues of dramatic current events and of great ethical importance – from euthanasia to the right to abortion, to the application of eugenics – are the object of interest of sociology. In many countries, a specific sociology of medicine has also been developed, aimed at developing in medical students and health professionals in general a valuable sensitivity to the social background of the users.
Sociology of development
It is particularly interested in the social effects of the processes of industrialization and modernization in the Third World. The functionalist theses, supporters of the inevitability and intrinsic positivity of the accelerated social change that was – especially in the Sixties of the last century – homologating the backward areas to the more economically developed areas of the industrial world, encountered opposition from Marxist and radical analyses. According to these lines of thought, the development of backward areas would have represented a false and destructive process of growth, with catastrophic effects on the social fabric, the natural environment and, in the end, on the very availability of material resources.
Urban and rural sociology
It deals with ecology as a social discipline, in the footsteps of the Chicago School, which between the two wars – thanks to the work of E. W. Burgess, R. Mackenzie, R. E. Park and L. Wirth – produced a large amount of research on the urban phenomenon, considered for the first time as a complex environment with its own rules and dynamics. Central is the idea of interdependence between parts and functions of the territory. But, over time, sociology has been the ground for the elaboration of radically alternative approaches, centered on theories of conflict and the use of space as a symbolic and material resource of power.
Sociology of Art
After the appearance, in the fifties, of the fundamental texts of the “founding fathers” of the sociology of art (F. Antal, F. Klingender, A. Hauser), all inspired – in a more or less orthodox way – by the Marxist strand of studies and oriented towards the main theme of the relationship between socio-economic structure and artistic production, studies along these lines have not had the development that could be expected, despite the fact that the need to analyze the connection between the history of art and the history of society was becoming increasingly evident. Only at the beginning of the seventies of the last century were new proposals put forward for a “social history” of art, aimed above all at delineating an enlargement of the field of relations in which artistic production could be placed.
A distinction was primarily created between a “sociology” of art, which moves over short periods of time and focuses its interest on the analysis of the social function of artistic events and of the operators in the field (the social role of the artist and the critic, the functions of galleries and museums, the art market, etc.), and a “social history” of art, which moves over long periods of time and tends to reconstruct the complex web of relations that binds works of art to social structures (material conditions of production, public commissions, conservation or destruction of works, etc.). Studies have focused on periods (such as the industrial revolution or the historical avant-gardes) or typologies (clients, institutions) or problems (image strategy, public perception habits) that are particularly suited to the clarification of links such as production-distribution-consumption of works of art, or institutional structure-culture of the time-personality of the artist. The basic problem remains whether it is possible to trace a “social history of style”, that is, to find a way of reading works of art through the approach of social history.