Sociology is one of the youngest social sciences. It was institutionalized only in the 19th century and remains to clear out ambiguities in some of its structural concepts till date. During the 19th and 20th centuries there was much debate around what should be the content of this discipline and whether or not it was required to carve out a separate field for this social science. Sociology, being a general social science, overlapped with its older disciplines like anthropology, history, philosophy, political science, economics, psychology and every other already institutionalized area in the realm of the social sciences. It was a challenge for early sociologists to prove what was unique about the subject so as to be a separate discipline. To this date, if you tell someone your major is sociology, it is likely the reaction you will get is, “Isn’t that like psychology?” or “How is that any different from common sense?” This is the question I will be addressing in this article and explaining why sociology isn’t common sense and requires specialized training in the tools of the discipline.
Whether a study is sociological, is defined not by its content, but by its lens of viewing the world. If a sociologist is asked the boundaries of the subjects he studies there will be no boundaries in terms of people, happenings, phenomena. The boundaries are drawn by the aspect of these phenomena that is studied– the social. Sociology is the science of society that decodes the complexity of social groups, social relationships, social institutions and social procedures. It studies all activities of man from the point of view of man as a social animal. It has many sub-disciplines under it like economic sociology, social psychology, political sociology, sociology of religion, social anthropology, etc. Adding the word ‘social’ to these social sciences changes the purview of the study.
For example, economics as a discipline studies man as an economic animal, as a seller and buyer. Economic sociology on the other hand focuses on how socio-cultural factors influence buying decisions or how social groups and communities come into being to serve economic livelihood purposes. Similarly, psychology studies man as an individual cognitive animal. Social psychology studies man’s cognition whilst he is in groups, how groups influence his thinking and behavior. Theology is concerned with studying religious texts and institutionalized religion. Sociology of religion on the other hand is focused on not what is prescribed, but what is practiced. A sociologist studying religion will not study merely the scriptures, he will have to observe ground reality to see how religion in actuality is practiced in daily life.
Aside from the fact that Sociology is concerned with groups, it is also contextual. While conducting a sociological research all knowledge gleaned is for that particular temporal and geographic context and cannot be generalized to other contexts without a tedious verification through empirical means. This brings me to the next disciplinary characteristic, which is empiricism. Sociological analysis can never be speculations or intuition. The methodology of sociological studies is scientific, it is cause-effect hypotheses which need to be verified objectively. Objectivity is aspired for and there is an effort to derive some general laws which can be to applied in every situation in a context. For the purpose of making laws, sociology has its own concepts which are different from other social sciences since the attributes sociology has to study of the same situation are different.
Sociology is a categorical and not a normative discipline. This means that sociologists never pass value judgments. Nothing in sociology is characterized as “moral” or “immoral”, everything is amoral. Sociology is never concerned with particular incidents for their own sake and a sociological study can never be carried out on a single incident either. It is concerned with patterns, with lines and structures of power, with periodicity and with uncovering the rationale that leads to cultural practices.
There is a misconception that sociology studies groups as collections of individuals. This is completely false. Yes, pragmatically, groups consist of individuals. But sociology studies neither individual problems nor individualistic solutions. It studies social systems that have minds and patterns of their own in which although individuals have volition, but limited volition. Social problems like poverty, beggary, racism, gender-inequality, rape cannot be reformed by changing the mindset or circumstances of people one person at a time. Social problems cannot have individualistic solutions. For instance, a sociologist would not study a family lifestyle purely as a product of the “choices” they have exercised, psychology would have emphasized them as individual actors. Sociology would view how their behavior is constrained by their agrarian economy, or the system of rank prevalent in the area or the social processes of urbanization occurring.
Sociology now has significant literature and a field of its own, though it still needs more people to recognize the value of its unique methodology.
Picture Courtesy- Discover Sociology