Definition of Sociology, and Subject Matter

What is Sociology?

Before attempting to define what sociology is, let us lookat what the popular conceptions of the discipline seem. As may be the case withother sciences, sociology is often misconceived among the populace.

Though many may rightly andgrossly surmise that sociology is about people, some think that it is all about“helping the unfortunate and doing welfare work, while others think thatsociology is the same as socialism and is a means of bringing revolution to ourschools and colleges” (Nobbs, Hine and Flemming, 1978:1).

The first social scientist to usethe term sociology was a Frenchman by the name of Auguste Comtewho lived from 1798-1857. As coined by Comte, the term sociology is acombination of two words. The first part of the term is a Latin, socius–that may variously mean society, association, togetherness orcompanionship.

The other word, logos, isof Greek origin. It literally means to speak about or word.However, the term is generally understood as study or science (Indrani,1998). Thus, the etymological, literal definition of sociology is thatit is the word or speaking about society.

A simple definition here isthat it is the study of society and culture.

A simple definition of sociology

Sociology is the study of society.Although the term “sociology” was first used by the French social philosopheraugust Comte, the discipline was more firmly established by such theorists asEmile Durkheim, Karl Marx and Max Weber (Nobbs, Hine and Flemming, 1978).

Before going any further, let usnote that the concepts “society and “culture” are central in sociology. While eachconcept shall be dealt with later in some detail, it appears to be appropriatehere to help students differentiate between these two important concepts.

Society generally refers to thesocial world with all its structures, institutions, organizations, etc aroundus, and specifically to a group of people who live within some type of boundedterritory and who share a common way of life. This common way of life shared bya group of people is termed as culture (Stockard, 1997).

Distinguishing between society andculture

  • Society: a group of people who live within some type of boundedterritory and who share a common way of life
  • Culture: is common way of life shared by a society or a group.

Now, turning to the definitionalissues, it is important that in addition to this etymological definition of theterm, we need to have other substantive definitions. Thus, sociology may be generallydefined as a social science that studies such kinds of phenomena as:

  • The structure and function of society as a system;
  • The nature, complexity and contents of human socialbehavior;
  • The fundamentals of human social life;
  • Interaction of human beings with their externalenvironment;
  • The indispensability of social interactions for humandevelopment;
  • How the social world affects us, etc.

A more formal definition ofsociology may be that it is a social science which studies the processes andpatterns of human individual and group interaction, the forms of organizationof social groups, the relationship among them, and group influences onindividual behavior, and vice versa, and the interaction between onesocial group and the other (Team of Experts, 2000).

Sociology is the scientific studyof society, which is interested in the study of social relationship between peoplein group context. Sociology is interested in how we as human beings interactwith each other (the pattern of social interaction); the laws and principlesthat govern social relationship and interactions; the influence of the socialworld on the individuals, and vice versa (Ibid.). It dealswith a factually observable subject matter, depends upon empirical research,and involves attempts to formulate theories and generalizations that will makesense of facts (Giddens, 1982).

Regarding the detective andexpository nature the science, Soroka (1992:34) states that “Sociology is a debunkingscience; that is, it looks for levels of reality other than those presented inofficial interpretations of society and people’s common sense explanations ofthe social world. Sociologists are interested in understanding what is and donot make value judgments.”

Brief Historical Overview ofsociology

Sociology and other socialsciences emerged from a common tradition of reflection of social phenomena; interestin the nature of human social behavior and society has probably always existed;however, most people in most past societies saw their culture as a fixed andgod-given entity. This view gradually was replaced by more rationalexplanations beginning from the 17th centuryespecially in Western Europe (Rosenberg, 1987). The sociological issues, questionsand problems had been raised and discussed by the forerunners starting from theancient Greek and Roman philosophers’ and Hebrew prophets’ times.

Sociology as an academic sciencewas thus born in 19th century (itsformal establishment year being 1837) in Great Britainand Western Europe, especially in France and Germany, and it greatly advancedthroughout 19th and 20th centuries.

The development of sociology andits current contexts have to be grasped in the contexts of the major changes thathave created the modern world (Giddens, 1986).

Further, sociology originated in18th century philosophy, political economy and culturalhistory (Swingwood, 1991). The major conditions, societal changes, upheavalsand social ferments that gave rise to the emergence and development of sociologyas an academic science include the Industrial Revolution which began in Great Britain,the French Political Revolution of 1789, the Enlightenment and advancesin natural sciences and technology. These revolutions had brought about significantsocietal changes and disorders in the way society lived in the aforementionedcountries. Since sociology was born amidst the great socio-political and economicand technological changes of the western world, it is said to be the science ofmodern society.

The pioneering sociologists werevery much concerned about the great changes that were taking place and they feltthat the exciting sciences could not help understand, explain, analyze and interpretthe fundamental laws that govern the social phenomena. Thus sociology was born outof these revolutionary contexts.

The founders or the pioneeringsociologists are the following (Henslin and Nelson, 1995; Giddens, 1996; Macionis,1997):

Auguste Comte, French SocialPhilosopher (1798- 1857)

Comte was the first socialphilosopher to coin and use the term sociology (Nobbs, Hine and Flemming,1978). He was also the first to regard himself as a sociologist. He definedsociology as the scientific study of social dynamics and social static. Heargued that sociology can and should study society and social phenomena followingthe pattern and procedures of the natural science. Comte believed that atheoretical science of society and the systematic investigation of human behaviorwere needed to improve society. He argued that the new science of society couldand should make a critical contribution towards a new and improved human society.Comte defined sociology as the study of social dynamic and socialstatic, the former signifying the changing, progressing and developmental dimensionsof society, while the latter refers to the social order and those elements ofsociety and social phenomena which tend to persist and relatively permanent,defying change.

Karl Marx (German, 1818-1883)

Marx was a world-renowned socialphilosopher, sociologist and economic historian. He made remarkablecontributions to the development of various social sciences includingsociology. He contributed greatly to sociological ideas. He introduced key conceptsin sociology like social class, social class conflict, social oppression, alienation, etc. Marx,like Comte, argued that people should make active efforts to bring about societalreforms. According to Marx, economic forces are the keys to underestimatingsociety and social change. He believed that the history of human society hasbeen that of class conflict. He dreamed of, and worked hardtowards realizing, a classless society, one in which there will be no exploitationand oppression of one class by another, and wherein all individuals will workaccording to their abilities and receive according to their needs. Marx introducedone of the major perspectives in sociology, called socialconflict theory (Macionis, 1997)

Harriet Martineau, BritishSociologist (1802-1876)

At a time when women were greatlystereotyped and denied access to influential socio-political and academic arena,it is interesting to ha a female academic to be numbered among the pioneeringsociologists. Harriet was interested in social issues and studied both in the UnitedStates and England. She came across with the writings of Comte and read them.She was an active advocate of the abolition of slavery and she wrote on manycrosscutting issues such as racial and gender relations, and she traveledwidely. She helped popularize the ideas and writings of Comte by translatingthem into English (Henslin and Nelson, 1995).

Herbert Spencer, British SocialPhilosopher, (1820-1903)

Spencer was a prominent socialphilosopher of the 19th century. He was famous for the organicanalogy of human society. He viewed society as an organic system, having itsown structure and functioning in ways analogous to the biological system.Spencer’s ideas of the evolution of human society from the lowest (“barbarism”)to highest form (“civilized”) according to fixed laws were famous. Itwas called “Social Darwinism“, which is analogous to the biological evolutionarymodel. Social Darwinism is the attempt to apply by analogy the evolutionarytheories of plant and animal development to the explanation of human society andsocial phenomena (Team of Experts, 2000).

Emile Durkheim, French Sociologist,(1858- 1917)

Durkehiem was the mostinfluential scholar in the academic and theoretical development of sociology.He laid down some of the fundamental principles, methods, concepts and theoriesof sociology; he defined sociology as the study of socialfacts. According to him, there are social facts, which are distinct frombiological and psychological facts. By social facts, he meant the patterns ofbehavior that characterize a social group in a given society. They should bestudied objectively. The job of a sociologist, therefore, is to uncover socialfacts and then to explain them using other social facts. Some regard Durkheimas the first sociologist to apply statistical methods to the study of socialphenomena (Macionis, 1997; Clahoun, et al, 1994).

Max Weber, German Sociologist(1864-1920)

Weber was another prominentsocial scientist. According to him, sociology is the scientific study of human socialaction. Social action refers to any “action oriented to influence or influencedby another person or persons. It is not necessary for more than one person to bephysically present for action to be regarded as social action….” (Team of Experts,2000). It is concerned with the interpretive understanding of human socialaction and the meaning people attach to their own actions and behaviors andthose of others. Weber was a renowned scholar who like Marx, wrote in severalacademic fields. He agreed with much Marxian theses but did not accept his ideathat economic forces are central to social change. Weber argues that we cannotunderstand human behavior by just looking at statistics. Every activity andbehavior of people needs to be interpreted. He argued that a sociologist mustaim at what are called subjective meanings, the ways in which people interprettheir own behavior or the meanings people attach their own behavior (Henslinand Nelson, 1995; Rosneberg, 1987).

Pioneering founders of sociology

  1. August Comte,French, 1798-1857; key concepts: social static and social dynamic
  2. Karl Marx,German, (1818-1883), key concepts: class conflict, alienation, historicalmaterialism, etc
  3. EmileDurkheim, French, 1858-1917; key concept: social fact
  4. Max Weber,German, 1864=1920; key concepts: social action; subjective meanings
  5. HerbertSpencer, British, 1820-1903; key concept: social Darwinism
  6. HarrietMartineau, British, 1802-1876; active advocate of abolition of slavery andgender issues

Scope and Concerns of Sociology

The scope of sociology isextremely wide ranging, from the analysis of passing encounter betweenindividuals on the street up to the investigation of global social processesThe discipline covers an extremely broad range that includes every aspect ofhuman social conditions; all types of human relationships and forms of socialbehavior (Indrani, 1998). Sociologists are primarily interested in human beingsas they appear in social interaction and the effects of this interaction on humanbehavior. Such interaction can range from the first physical contacts of thenew born baby with its mother to a philosophical discussion at an internationalconference, from a casual passing on the street to the most intimate of humanrelationships (World Book Encyclopedia 1994. Vol. 18, PP.564-567). Sociologists are interested to know what processes lead to these interactions,what exactly occurs when they take place, and what their short run and long runconsequences are.

The major systems or units ofinteraction that interest sociologists are social groups such as the family orpeer groups; social relationships, such as social roles and dyadicrelationships, and social organizations such as governments, corporations andschool systems to such territorial organizations as communities and schools (Broomand Selzinki, 1973).

Sociologists are keen tounderstand, explain, and analyze the effect of social world, social environmentand social interaction on our behavior, worldviews, lifestyle, personality,attitudes, decisions, etc., as creative, rational, intelligent members of society;and how we as such create the social reality.

Levels of Sociological Analysis andFields of Specializations inSociology

There are generally two levels ofanalysis in sociology, which may also be regarded as branches of sociology:

micro-sociologyand macro- sociology (Henslin and Nelson, 1995).Micro-sociology is interested in small scale level of the structure andfunctioning of human social groups; whereas macro-sociology studies the large-scaleaspects of society.

Macro-sociology focuses on thebroad features of society. The goal of macro-sociology is to examine the large-scalesocial phenomena that determine how social groups are organized and positionedwithin the social structure. Micro-sociological level ofanalysis focuses on social interaction. It analyzes interpersonal relationships,and on what people do and how they behave when they interact. This level ofanalysis is usually employed by symbolic interactionist perspective.

Some writers also add a thirdlevel of analysis called meso-level analysis, which analyzes human social phenomena inbetween the micro- and macro-levels.

Reflecting their particularacademic interest sociologists may prefer one form of analysis to the other;but all levels of analysis are useful and necessary for a fuller understandingof social life in society.

Levels of analysis in sociology

  • Micro-sociology: Analyzing small scale social phenomena
  • Macro-sociology: analyzing large-scale social phenomena
  • Meso-sociology: analysis of social phenomena in betweenthe micro- and macro- levels.

Within these general frameworks,sociology may be divided into specific sub-fields on the basis of certain criteria.The most importantfields of sociology can be grouped into six areas (WorldBook Encyclopedia, 1994: Vol. 18; Pp. 564-568).

  • The Field of Social Organization and Theory of SocialOrder: focuses on institutions and groups, their formation and change, mannerof functioning, relation to individuals and to each other.
  • Social Control: Focuses on the ways in which membersof a society influence one another so as to maintain social order.
  • Social Change: Focuses on the way society and institutions changeover time through technical inventions, cultural diffusion and culturalconflict, and social movements, among others.
  • Social Processes: Focuses on the pattern in whichsocial change takes place, and the modes of such processes.
  • Social Groups: Focuses on how social groups are formed, structured,and how they function and change.
  • Social Problems: Focuses on the social conditionswhich cause difficulties for a large number of persons and which the society isseeking to eliminate. Some of the problems may include: juvenile delinquency,crime, chronic alcoholism, suicide, narcotics addiction, racial prejudice,ethnic conflict, war, industrial conflict, slum, areas, urban poverty,prostitution, child abuse, problem of older persons, marital conflicts, etc.

Currently, sociology has gotquite several specific subdivisions or fields of specialization in it: some ofthese include the following: criminology; demography; human ecology; politicalsociology; medical sociology; sociology of the family; sociology of sports; sociology of development;social psychology; socio- linguistics; sociology of education; sociology of religion;sociology of knowledge; sociology of art; sociology of scienceand technology; sociology of law; urban sociology; rural sociology;economic sociology; and industrial sociology.

Major Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology

Sociology as science employsperspectives or theories to understand, explain, analyze and interpret social phenomena.To interpret social facts, they must be subjected to a theoretical framework. Atheory may be defined as a general statement about how some parts of the worldfit together and how they work (Macionis, 1997). Scupin and DeCorse (1995)define a theory as a set of interconnected hypotheses that offer generalexplanations for natural or social phenomena.

It should also be noted that theterms “perspectives” and “schools of thought” are often used interchangeablywith the term “theory”.

There are three major theoreticalperspectives in sociology that have provided an overall framework for sociologicalstudies. These are structural functionalism, social conflicttheory and symbolic interactionism. There are also theories that haveemerged challenging these major ones (see below).

The Structural-Functionalist Theory

This is one of the dominanttheories both in anthropology and sociology. It is sometimes called functionalism.The theory tries to explain how the relationships among the parts of societyare created and how these parts are functional (meaning having beneficial consequencesto the individual and the society) and dysfunctional (meaning having negative consequences).It focuses on consensus, social order, structure and function in society.

The structural-functionalisttheory sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarityand stability; it states that our social lives are guided by socialstructure, which are relatively stable patterns of social behavior (Macionis,1997). Social structure is understood in terms of socialfunction, which are consequences for the operations of society.

All social structure contributesto the operation of society. The major terms and concepts developed by anthropologistsand sociologists in this theory include (or the theory focuses on): order,structure, function (manifest or direct functions and latent or hidden, indirectfunctions), and equilibrium.

Those hold this view ask suchquestions as: what hold society together? What keeps it steady? The Structuralfunctionalist theory pays considerable attention to the persistence of shared ideasin society. The functional aspect in the structural-functionalist theorystresses the role played by each component part in the social system, whereasthe structural perspective suggests an image of society wherein individuals areconstrained by the social forces, social backgrounds and by group memberships.

Many of the great early foundingsociologists such as August Comte, Emile Durkheim and Herbert Spencer and laterAmerican sociologists like Talkot Parsons and Robert K Merton. Structural-functionalist theorists in modern sociology are more likely to follow in the traditionof the writings of particularly Emile Durkheim, who is regarded as thepioneering proponent of this perspective (Hensiln and Nelson, 1995).

After dominating sociology andanthropology for a long time, this theory was challenged by its main critics, notablythose who proposed the social –conflict theory (see below). The theorywas attacked for its emphasis on stability and order while neglecting conflictand changes which so vital in any society.

The Social Conflict Theory

This theory is also calledMarxism; to indicate that the main impetus to the theory derives from thewritings of Karl Marx This theory sees society in a framework of classconflicts and focuses on the struggle for scarce resources by different groupsin a given society. It asks such questions as what pulls society apart. Howdoes society change? The theory holds that the most important aspect of socialorder is the domination of some group by others, that actual or potentialconflicts are always present in society. The writings of Karl Marx aregenerally in the spirit of conflict theory, and Marxism influences most ofconflict theorists in modern sociology.

The theory is useful inexplaining how the dominant groups use their power to exploit the less powerfulgroups in society. Key concepts developed in this perspective include: conflict,complementation, struggle, power, inequality, and exploitation.

Although this theory gained famein recent decades, it came under sharp criticism, for its overemphasis on inequalityand division, for neglecting the fact of how shared values and interdependencegenerate unity among members of society; it is also criticized for its explicitpolitical goals. Another critique, which equally applies also to structuralfunctionalism, is that it sees society in very broad terms, neglectingmicro-level social realities (Macionis 1997).

Symbolic Interactionism

This theory was advanced by suchAmerican sociologists as Charles Horton Cooley (1864 -1929) William I Thomas(1863-1947) and George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) in early 20th century. This perspectiveviews symbols as the basis of social life.

Symbols are things to which weattach meanings. The theory stresses the analysis of how our behaviors dependon how we define others and ourselves. It concentrates on process, rather thanstructure, and keeps the individual actor at the center. According to symbolicinteractionism, the essence of social life and social reality is the activehuman being trying to make sense of social situations. In short, this theorycalls attention to the detailed, person-oriented processes that take placewithin the larger units of social life (Calhoun et al, 1994; Henslin andNelson, 1996; Soroka, 1995).

As indicated above, there arecontemporary sociological theories that have emerged in recent decades thathave heavily influenced sociological and anthropological thinking. Theseinclude the following


This theory takes as its centraltheme the place and facts of women’s underprivileged status and their exploitationin a patriarchally dominated society. Feminist sociology focuses on theparticular disadvantages, including oppression and exploitation faced by womenin society. This theory ranges from liberal feminism, which recognizes inequalities butbelieves that reform can take place without a fundamental restructuring of thesocial system, to radical feminism, which advocates the fundamental needfor societal change (Marcus and Ducklin, 1998: 32)

Social Exchange Theory

This theory focuses on “the costsand benefits which people obtain in social interaction, including money, goods,and status. It is based on the principle that people always act to maximizebenefit. However, to receive benefits, there must always be an exchange processwith others” (Marcus and Ducklin, 1996: 26)

Public Choice Theory:

This theory states thatcollective organizations such as political parties act rationally to maximizetheir own benefits. It argues that individual differences are best resolved bycollective involvement within organizations. The role of the state is importantin arbitrating between large-scale interests (Ibid, same page).

Rational Choice Theory:

This theory assumes that individualswill operate in rational way and will seek to benefit themselves in the lifechoices they make (ibid).


This theory denies any basis forhumans being active, since human consciousness is no longer seen as the basisof meaning in language. Structuralism differs from the mainstream traditionaltheories in that it rejects objective social facts and a concept of society asan objective, external entity. It defines social reality in terms of therelations between events, not in terms of things and social facts. Its basicprinciple is that the observable is meaningful only in so far as it can berelated to an underlying structure or order (Swingwood, 1984).

The equivalent of structuralismin anthropology, advanced by its famous French structuralist anthropologist,Claude Levi-Strauss, states that “the origin of universal principles that orderthe ways in which we behave and think about the world is to be found in thestructure of human thought.”(Howard and Dunaif- Hattis, 1992:373). The problemwith this theory is that they view societies as static and do not help verymuch in explaining variation among societies. The theory treats culture as agiven order and fails to explain the adaptive dimensions of culture.

Post-Structuralism and Post-modernism:

Post–structuralism: focuses onthe power of language in constructing knowledge and identity. The writers in thisfield have emphasized the role of language in human life, how language dictatesthe thoughts we have, and how it constructs meanings for us. Poststructuralistsargue that humans cannot arrive anything they can confidently call the(universal) truth. There is no link between the words (language) ideas, and thereal world. It denies the sociological idea that our concepts have somerelationship to the real world. It is not possible to arrive at a sociologicaltruth, and such attempts are dangerous (Bliton, et al. 1996; Kirby, etal. 2000).

Post-modernism: The basis ofpost-modernism was post-structuralism. Post-modernism is defined as a culturaland aesthetic phenomenon which mainly rejects order and progress, objective anduniversal truth; and supports the need for recognizing and tolerating differentforms of reality. It tends to celebrate chaos and disorder, diversity andfragmentation in the modern global society rather than wanting to achieveorder. This theory maintains that there is no ultimate reason in human life andexistence (Bliton, et al. 1996; Kirby, et al. 2000). Postmodernistsargue, “Power has become decentralized and fragmented in contemporary societies“(Torres and Mitchel, 1998). The theorists of post- structuralism share a lostwith post-modernists.

A note on applying sociological theories tohealth, culture and society may be important here. Each of the abovesociological theories may have its own views on medicine and society. But forthe sake of brevity, I would just focus on the three major theories:

  1. Structural functionalism: the versionof this theory as applied to medicine ad society may be termed as the “medicalecological approach. The structural functionalist theory views medicine and thesystems of health care as important social institutions; and it focuses on thefunctions and roles played by the institution in maintaining odder andstability in society. The medical institutions whether scientific ortraditional and the various practitioners exist to meet the needs ofindividuals and society (Henslin and Nelson, 1995).
  2. Symbolic interactionist theory: This theoryas applied to medicine and society may be termed as the”culturalinterpretationist approach. This approach focuses on the social and cultural constructionsof health, illness and disease. According to this theory, illnesses and healthare not just things that exist “out there”; they are productions of the complexsocial interactions; and health and illness are highly shaped by the manner inwhich people as actors give meanings to them and how the actors respond to themin socio-culturally sanctioned ways.
  3. Conflict theory: The equivalent of this theory inmedical sociology and anthropology may be termed as “the critical” or “radicalpolitical economy” approach. It is an approach which stresses on thesocio-economic inequality in power and wealth which in turn significantly affectsthe health status and access to health care facilities. Individuals, groups,communities and even nations thus tend to have unbalanced share of healthresources; and these often leads to the unequal distribution of morbidity and mortalitypatterns among a given society; those in power and dominance enjoy betterhealth and the marginalized groups suffer from the burden of diseases (Turner,1987).


  1. Whatis sociology? Explain it using your own words.
  2. Howcan we differentiate sociology from other social sciences,which also study society and humanculture?
  3. Discussthe main sociopolitical and economic factors behindthe emergence of sociology.
  4. Mentionat least five issues of sociological relevance in the contemporary society of Ethiopia.
  5. Discussthe personal and professional benefits of learningsociology.
  6. Consider the issue ofstudents’ sexual behavior in your University.Discuss those aspects that would beinteresting to studyfor a sociologist. What aspects might not beinteresting sociologically? Why?

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