Sociology Definition

Sociology is a form of social inquiry that takes wide-ranging forms. As is the case with many disciplines, it is contested and there is no generally accepted definition of what constitutes sociology. But we should not draw the conclusion that the contested and diverse nature of sociology amounts to the absence of any sense of self-understanding and that the discipline has lapsed into irreversible fragmentation. Sociology can be partly defined by citing examples of what sociologists actually do, but it can also be defined by referring to some of the major intellectual statements of the discipline, such as classic works or theoretical and methodological approaches that are characteristically sociological. To begin, it is helpful to look at sociology in terms of its subject matter, its approach, and some of the classical works that have shaped the discipline.

Many disciplines have a clearly defined subject matter, although very often this is due to the absence of methodological scrutiny and uncritical consensus, as in the general view that “the past” is the subject domain of historians while political scientists study “politics.” Sociologists generally have a tougher time in defending their territory than other disciplines, even though they unhesitatingly take over on the territory of others. Sociology's subject domain can arguably be said to be the totality of social relations or simply “society,” which Durkheim said was a reality sui generis. As a reality in itself the social world is more than the sum of its parts. There has been little agreement on exactly what these parts are, with some positions arguing that the parts are social structures and others claiming that society is simply made up of social actors and thus the subject matter of sociology is social action. The emphasis on the whole being greater than the sum of the parts has led some sociologists to the view that sociology is defined by the study of the relations between the different parts of society. This insight has tended to be reflected in a view of society as a movement or process. It would not be inaccurate to say that sociology is the social science devoted to the study of modern society.

In terms of theory and methodology, sociology is highly diverse. The paradigms that Thomas Kuhn believed to be characteristic of the history of science are more absent from sociology than from other social sciences. Arguably, anthropology and economics have more tightly defined methodological approaches than sociology. As a social science, sociology can be described as evidence-based social inquiry into the social world and informed by conceptual frameworks and established methodological approaches. But what constitutes evidence varies depending on whether quantitative or qualitative approaches are adopted, although such approaches are not distinctively sociological. There is also considerable debate as to the scientific status of sociology, which was founded to be a social science distinct from the natural sciences and distinct from the human sciences. The diversity of positions on sociology today is undoubtedly a matter of where sociology is deemed to stand in relation to the experimental and human sciences. While it is generally accepted that sociology is a third science, there is less consensus on exactly where the limits of this space should be drawn. This is also a question of the relation of sociology to its subject matter: is it part of its object, as in the hermeneutical tradition; is it separate from its object, as in the positivist tradition; or is it a mode of knowledge connected to its object by political practice, as in the radical tradition?

A discipline is often shaped by its founding figures and a canon of classical works. It is generally accepted today that the work of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim has given to sociology a classical framework. However, whether this canon can direct sociological research today is highly questionable and mostly it has been relegated to the history of sociology, although there are attempts to make classics relevant to current social research (Shilling & Mellor 2001). Such attempts, however, misunderstand the relation between the history of a discipline and the actual practice of it. Classic works are not of timeless relevance, but offer points of reference for the interpretation of the present and milestones in the history of a discipline. For this reason the canon is not stable and should also not be confused with social theory: it was Parsons in the 1930s who canonized Weber and Durkheim as founding fathers; in the 1970s Marx was added to the list – due not least to the efforts of Giddens – and Spencer has more or less disappeared; in the 1980s Simmel was added and in the present day there is the rise of contemporary classics, such as Bourdieu, Bauman, Luhmann, Habermas, and Foucault, and there are recovered classics, such as Elias. It is apparent from a cursory look at the classics that many figures were only later invented as classical sociologists to suit whatever project was being anounced. The word “invented” is not too strong here: Marx did not see himself as a sociologist, Weber was an economic historian and rarely referred to sociology as such, and Foucault was a lapsed psychiatrist; all of them operated outside disciplinary boundaries.

The impact of Foucault on sociology today is a reminder that sociology continues to change, absorbing influences from outside the traditional discipline. The range of methodological and theoretical approaches has not led to a great deal of synthesis or consensus on what actually defines sociology. Since the so-called cultural turn in the social sciences, much of sociology takes place outside the discipline itself, in cultural studies, criminology, women's studies, development studies, demography, human geography, and planning, as well as in the other social and human sciences. This is increasingly the case with the rise of interdisciplinarity and more so with post-disciplinarity, wherein disciplines do not merely relate to each other but disappear altogether. Few social science disciplines have made such an impact on the wider social and human science as sociology, a situation that has led to widespread concern that sociology may be disappearing into those disciplines that it had in part helped to create (Scott 2005).

Origins, Trajectories, and National Traditions

Sociology today still remains in the shadow of its origin. As Levine (1995) has pointed out, sociology has always continued to return to its history and all the major schools have elaborated trajectories of their own history. So the story of the emergence of sociology is often inseparable from the attempt to define sociology.

In the most general sense sociology arose as a mode of knowledge concerned with the moral problems of modernity. The origins of sociology go back to the discovery of the existence of the social as a specific reality independent of the state and the private domain of the household. The eighteenth century marks the emergence of social theory as a distinctive form of intellectual inquiry and which gradually becomes distinguished from political theory. The decline of the court society and the rise of civil society suggested the existence of the social as a distinctive object of consciousness and reflection. Until then it was not clear of what “society” consisted other than the official culture of the court society. By the eighteenth century it was evident that there was indeed an objective social domain that could be called “society” with which was associated the public. This coincided with the rise of sociology.

One of the first major works in the emergence of sociology was Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws, which brought about the transformation of political theory into sociology. The central theme in this work, which was published in 1748, was that society is the source of all laws. Society was expressed in the form of conditioning influences on people, shaping different forms of life. Durkheim claimed the notion of an underlying spirit or ethos that pervades social institutions was a resonating theme in modern sociological thought from Montesquieu – a tread that is also present in Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The Spirit of the Laws demonstrated the sociological notion that social laws are socially and historically variable, but not to a point that human societies have nothing in common. According to Montesquieu, who was acutely aware of the diversity of societies, they differ most notably according to geographical factors, which have a conditioning influence in norms, morals, and character. His empirical method demonstrated a connection between climate and social customs and gave great attention to the material condition of life. It was this use of the empirical method to make testable hypotheses that Durkheim admired and which had a lasting influence on French sociology to Bourdieu and beyond.

Although generally regarded as one of the founders of modern political philosophy, Rousseau anticipated many sociological theories. He was one of the first to identify society as the source of social problems. In the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, published in 1755, he argued that inequality is not a natural characteristic, but a socially created one for which individuals themselves are not responsible. The notion of the “general will” – itself based on Montesquieu's “spirit of the laws” – influenced Durkheim's concept of collective representations. The general will signified the external normative and symbolic power of collective beliefs. But Rousseau's enduring legacy is the theory of the social contract, which can be seen as an early notion of community as the basis of society and the state as a political community. In his most famous work, The Social Contract, published in 1762, he postulated the existence of the social contract to describe the social bond that makes society possible.

The discipline of sociology has been strongly influenced by the French sociological tradition, for in France social science – where the term first arose – was more advanced as an officially recognized activity. Auguste Comte coined the term sociology to refer to the science of social order and which he believed to be the “queen of the sciences.” Comte's plea for a positivistic sociology must be seen in the context of the age, where social inquiry was largely associated with the speculative approaches of Enlightenment intellectuals and the officers of the restored ancien régime. Against the negative critiques of the intellectuals, Comte wished sociology to be a positive science based on evidence rather than speculation. But his legacy was his notion of sociology as the queen of the sciences. In this grandiose vision of sociology, the new science of modernity not only encapsulated positivism, but it also stood at the apex of a hierarchy of sciences, providing them with an integrative framework. While few adhered to this vision, the idea that sociology was integrative rather than a specialized science remained influential and has been the basis of the idea of sociology as a science that does not have its own subject matter but interprets the results of other sciences from the perspective of a general science of society. From the nineteenth century this general conception of sociology became linked with the problem of the moral order of society in the era of social and political unrest that followed the French Revolution. This is particularly evident in the sociology of Durkheim, whose major works were responses to the crisis of the moral order. This was most acutely the case with Suicide, which was one of the first works in professional sociology, but was also the central question in the Division of Labour in Society. Thus it could be said that the French tradition reflected a general conception of sociology as the science of the social problems of modern society.

Attention must also be paid to the Scottish origins of sociology, which go back to the moral philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, who can be regarded as early sociologists in that they recognized the objectivity of society (Strydom 2000). This tradition, too, provided a basis for a tradition of sociology as a general social science of modernity. Adam Ferguson's Essay on the Origin of Civil Society, published in 1767, emphasized the role of social conflict and in terms very different from John Hobbes's account of conflict and individual egoism. For Ferguson, conflict between nations produces solidarity and makes civil society as a universal norm possible. He recognized that society is always more than the sum of its parts and can never be reduced to its components. In marked contrast to the prevailing ideas of the age, Ferguson argued that the state of nature is itself a social condition and that sociality is natural. John Millar's Origin of the Distinction of Ranks, published in 1770, contained one of the first discussions of social class and can be seen as a pioneering work in historical sociology. Millar and Ferguson were particularly interested in the historical evolution of society, which they viewed in terms of a model of progress. But it was in the writings of Adam Smith that the notion of progress was most pronounced. Smith developed moral philosophy into a theory of political economy coupled with a theory of progress that was influential for over a century later. Society progresses in four historical stages, he argued, which can be related to stages – hunting, pastoral, agricultural, and commercial – in the development of the means of subsistence. Commercial society is based on private property and the economic pursuit of individual interest. Smith argued, however, that the well-being of commercial society and indeed the very fact of society is due to a collective logic – which he called an “invisible hand” – at work, which ensures that individual actions function to serve collective goals. Although Smith came to personify laissez-faire capitalism, his concerns were largely philosophical and must be understood in the intellectual and political context of the age. Like the other moral philosophers in Scotland, Smith was acutely aware of the contingent nature of the human condition, which could never be explained by natural law. Moral norms and the rules of justice must be devised in ways that function best for the needs of society and in ways that will reduce evil and suffering. In this respect Smith, Ferguson, and Millar established a vision of sociology as a moral science of the social world, the outcome of which was that the social and the natural were separated from each other and sociology became the science of the social.

From its early origins in Enlightenment thought, sociology emerged along with the wider institutionalization of the social sciences from the end of the nineteenth century. In France, as already noted, it was most advanced and the Durkheimian tradition established a firm foundation for modern French sociology, which was based on a strong tradition of empirical inquiry. In Germany, where sociology emerged later, it was more closely tied to the humanities. While in France sociology had become relatively independent of philosophy, in Germany a tradition of humanistic sociology developed on the one side from the neo-Kantian philosophy and on the other from Hegelian Marxism. While Weber broke the connection with psychology that was so much a feature of the neo-Kantian tradition, German sociology remained strongly interpretive and preoccupied with issues of culture and history. Weber himself was an economic historian primarily concerned with the problem of bureaucracy, but increasingly came to be interested in comparative analysis of the world religions and the relation between cultural and moral meaning with economic activity. His work was testimony to the belief that social inquiry can shed light on moral values that are constitutive of the social condition. Where German sociology as represented by Weber was concerned with the problem of subjective meaning, French sociology was animated by the concern with social morality. For this reason it is plausible to argue, as Fuller (1998) claims, that sociology has been a kind of secular theology. Underlying both the German and French traditions has been a vision of sociology – distilled of Comtean positivism – as a general social science of modern society.

According to Talcott Parsons in one of the classic works of modern sociology, The Structure of Social Action (1949), Hobbes and Locke articulated the basic themes of sociology, namely the problem of social order. But we cannot speak of a British sociological tradition before the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers mentioned above. Hobbes and Locke have been claimed by political theory and were not influential in sociological thought. Modern British sociology initially emerged from the work of such Victorian liberal reformers as J. S. Mill and Herbert Spencer. Although Spencer broke from Mill's utilitarianism, his biological evolutionism led to a restrictive approach that has now been largely discredited. British sociology has on the whole been shaped by a vision of sociology as a social science concerned with specific issues. By far the dominant trend has been a view of sociology concerned with class and social structure. The social relations and associated social institutions – class mobility, work and industry, education, poverty, and social problems – that defined sociology for several decades were of course closely linked to industrial society and the kind of political values it cultivated. Modern British sociology was strongly influenced by Marxism. Another significant British tradition in sociology was one allied to social policy, as reflected in the tradition associated with Hobhouse and the London School of Economics, where sociology and social policy were closely related. To this tradition belongs T. H. Marshall and what broadly can be called policy-relevant social science. In the British tradition the continental European vision of sociology as a general social science has mostly been absent. However, it must be noted that much of modern British sociology was the product of continental European traditions that had come to Britain since the 1930s. Sociologists such as Norbert Elias and Karl Mannheim who came from Germany and John Rex from South Africa gave to British sociology a varied character that was not encapsulated in a specific tradition. In addition, of course, there was the Marxist tradition, beginning with Marx himself in exile in London. Nevertheless, British sociology tended to reflect a view of sociology as in part having a special subject matter: class and social structure.

There is little doubt that the international prestige of sociology in the twentieth century would not have been possible were it not for the tremendous expansion and institutionalization of the discipline in the US. American sociology arose out of economics and was professionalized relatively early, with the foundation of the American Sociological Society by Albion Small and others in 1905. The Society, renamed American Sociological Association in 1959, in fact was a break-away movement from the American Economic Association. Small, Charles Horton Cooley, and William Thomas were the most influential figures in shaping American sociology, which was closely related to the American philosophical tradition of pragmatism at least until the 1940s. Comparable to the British reformist concern with social policy, pragmatism reflected a belief in the public role of social science. Early American sociology was thus shaped in the spirit of scientific knowledge assisting in solving social problems (Lynd 1939). The twentieth century, however, saw a growing professionalization of American sociology, which shed its reformist origins. On the one side, a strong tradition of empirical sociology developed and which was largely quantitative and often value-free to a point it ceased to be anything more than hypothesis testing. On the other side, a tradition of grand theory associated with Parsons developed, but it rarely intersected with the empirical tradition. Existing outside these traditions was the remnant of the early pragmatist tradition in the sociology of symbolic interactionism, stemming from George Herbert Mead.

This short survey of some of the major national histories of sociology tells us that no one national tradition has prevailed and within all these national traditions are rival traditions. This has led some critics to complain that sociology has somehow failed. Horowitz (1993) complains that sociology is in crisis due to its specialization and also due to its over-politicization. Sociology is decomposing because it has lost its way. The great classical visions of sociology no longer prevail and the discipline has lost its integrity. Much of what is called sociology is merely untheoretical empirical case studies, he argues. Such pessimistic views often depend on whether one believes sociology is based on a single method or vision that can provide a foundation for the discipline. But this may be too much to demand. It is certainly the case that a single school or method has not emerged to define the discipline, but this could also be said to be the case for much of the social and human sciences. It would be an over-simplification to characterize the history of sociology as a process of decomposition or fragmentation of an inner unity guaranteed by a discipline. The classical tradition was not a unified one and much of this has been reflexively constituted by a discipline that changes in response to changes in the nature of society.

Institutionalization of Sociology

Sociology has been shaped in three major phases: the pre-institutional period prior to the early twentieth century, the era of institutionalization and disciplinary specialization, and the current period of post-disciplinarity. As discussed, sociology arose out of different national traditions of social science. In the nineteenth century only Comte, Spencer, and later Durkheim used the term sociology to describe their particular mode of social inquiry. Even with Durkheim this was a pre-institutional period. Durkheim's chair was in educational thought and much of early sociology was a development out of economics, psychology, philosophy, law, or history. In this early phase the disciplinary identity of sociology was formed to a large extent by the question of its scientific status. Durkheim's Rules of the Sociological Method, published in 1895, provided the first systematic outline of sociology as a scientific inquiry. Weber's essay “Objectivity in Social Science and Social Policy,” published in 1904–5, provided an additional statement of what social scientific objectivity consists (Weber 1949). In these accounts, despite their different perspectives and backgrounds, sociology was established as an empirical science based on objective factual knowledge. Both accounts (perhaps Weber more so) were aware that the scientific status of sociology was a limited one, as is apparent from Weber's neo-Kantian styled attempt to qualify the limits of objectivity. But social science could nonetheless attain objective knowledge. This was a debate that continued up to the 1960s, when the neo-positivist philosophies of science espoused by Carl Hempel and Ernst Nagel provided new justifications for sociology to claim scientific status. The result of some of these efforts was to reduce the scope of sociology to testable hypotheses in order to uncover the laws of society (Adorno et al. 1976). While sociology was pulled in the direction of the natural or experimental sciences, on the one side, on the other it remained allied with the human sciences. This bifurcation of sociology led to an uncertain relation to social and public policy, with the result that sociology tended to enter the period of instutionalization relatively depoliticized.

The institutionalization of sociology coincided with the formation of disciplines in the twentieth century. As a profession, one of the early statements was Weber's address “Science as a Vocation” in 1918, which although addressed to the wider question of a commitment to science as a different order of commitment than to politics, has been recognized as one of the major expressions of the professionalization of sociology (Weber 1970). The notion of beruf invoked referred to both the idea of sociology as a profession and as a vocation whose calling required certain sacrifices, one of which was not to seek in science answers to fundamental moral questions. As a science, sociology is concerned with providing explanations about social phenomena and in Weber's view it also has a role to play in guiding social policy.

In its formative period sociology had to compete with the natural sciences. As social science gained general acceptability as an area distinct from both the human sciences and the natural sciences, sociology found that its greatest challenges came in fact from the more established of the social sciences (Lepenies 1988). In Britain the prestige of anthropology overshadowed sociology. The older disciplines, geography and economics, as well as political science tended to command greater prestige than sociology, which never held the same degree of reliance to the mission of the national state. It must be borne in mind that much of social science owned its existence to its relation to the state: it was the science of the social institutions of the modern state.

The institutionalization of sociology did not fully commence until the period following World War II, when the discipline expanded along with the rise of mass higher education. The professionalization and institutionalization of sociology was marked by the foundation of academic journals such as the American Journal of Sociology, founded in 1895, and the later American Sociological Review. Professional associations such as the American Sociological Association and the British Sociological Association, founded in 1951, greatly enhanced the professionalization of sociology as a discipline, which subsequently underwent a process of internal differentiation with new subfields emerging, ranging from urban sociology and industrial sociology to political sociology, historical sociology, and cultural sociology. By the 1960s sociology became increasingly taught in secondary schools and in the 1970s it became an A-level subject in British schools. The 1960s and 1970s saw a tremendous expansion in the discipline in terms of student enrollments and teaching and research careers. In this period sociology became recognized by governments as a major social science and many chairs were created. Sociological research became recognized by the principal national research foundations and acquired prestige within the university system. In the US there are over 200 sociology journals, a professional associational membership of some 14,000, and more students major in sociology (25,000) annually than in history and economics (Burawoy 2005a). As sociology became one of the major social sciences in universities throughout the world, it became increasingly seen as the most comprehensive science of society. This was viewed by some as a source of the strength and relevance of sociology, but in the view of others it was in danger of becoming a pseudo-science, lacking subject specialization, since when sociologists specialize they cease to be sociologists. Neo-positivist philosophies attempted to check the dangers of over-generalization, while the growing politicization of the discipline that came with its widening social base led to fears that sociology was too closely linked to radical causes, such as Marxism.

Many influential sociologists openly questioned the institutionalization of sociology. If the first era was one of the struggle for the institutionalization the discipline, the phase that drew to a close in the 1970s was one that was marked by calls for the political engagement of sociology with everyday life. Gouldner (1970) argued sociology needs to be reoriented to be of relevance to society. In his view, sociology went through four main phases: sociological positivism in nineteenth-century France, Marxism, classical European sociology, and finally American structural functionalism as represented by Parsons. Contemporary sociology must articulate a new vision based on a completely different sense of its moral purpose. For Gouldner, this had to be a reflexive sociology and one that was radical in its project to connect sociology to people's lives. The purpose of sociology is to enable people to make sense of society and to connect their own lives with the wider context of society.

This turn to a reflexive understanding of sociology had been implicit in C. Wright Mills's Sociological Imagination, which was published in 1959 and was widely read in the 1960s and 1970s. Sociologists such as Mills and Gouldner were opposed to the depoliticized kind of sociology that was emerging in the US. They wanted to recover the moral purpose of sociology that had become lost with its institutionalization in specialist subfields. Mills provided a definition of sociology that continues to be relevant: “The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That is its task and promise” (Mills 1970: 12). This conception of sociology was as much opposed to general theory as it was to administrative social research. Mills was primarily inspired by the American pragmatic tradition, which predisposed him to be critical of social science that was cut off from the practical purposes of improving social well-being.

The vision of sociology articulated by Mills was not too far removed from the continental European conception of sociology as a diagnosis of the age. In this tradition, which was represented by a broad range of sociologists, such as the Frankfurt School and the humanistic tradition of western Marxism, sociology was connected to social renewal and was primarily a critical endeavor. As represented in the programmatic thought of Theodor Adorno, sociology must recover its mission in philosophical thought as a mode of critical thinking. For Adorno, the rise of neo-positivism had a detrimental effect on sociology, which had the promise to become the leading critical science of what Daniel Bell and Alain Touraine in their respective works called the “post-industrial society.” Habermas (1978) outlined the basis of a view of sociology as concerned with critical knowledge tied to an interest in human emancipation.

Since the 1970s, which saw the expansion and institutionalization of sociology as a discipline, the question of the scientific status of sociology became less important. Although major methodological differences continued to divide quantitatively oriented sociologists from those in the humanistic tradition, sociology had become too broad to unite under a common method. With the consolidation of the discipline, sociology developed in many directions. The large-scale entry of women into sociology in the 1980s inevitably led to different concerns and feminist approaches emerged around new research fields, which on the whole tended to orient sociology in the direction of cultural issues concerning identity, gender, and biographies. The shift from industrial to post-industrial societies and the growing impact of globalization has led to a series of shifts in the subject matter of sociology. Without a common method, a cumulative theoretical tradition, the result has been that sociology has been drawn in different directions. While this has led to some weaknesses, it is also a source of strength. Today, sociology has many different approaches which together constitute an influential body of methodologies and theories that have made considerable impact on the wider social and human sciences.

As a discipline acutely aware of the overall reality of society and the historical context, sociology has been more versatile than many sciences. This has been especially the case with regard to the “cultural turn” of which postmodernism has been one expression. Sociologists have been very prominent in developing new frameworks that have greatly advanced the scientific understanding of the social world. One only has to consider the influence of sociologists such as Ulrich Beck on the idea of the risk society, Pierre Bourdieu on the habitus and the forms of capital, Anthony Giddens on structure and agency, Jürgen Habermas on modernity and the theory of communicative action, Edward Soja on space, Bruno Latour on science and technology, Niklas Luhmann on systems theory, Manuel Castells on the information society, Roland Robertson on globalization, and Bryan Turner on citizenship. Sociology, in particular social theory, played a leading role in the reorientation of human geography around space. Much of urban geography today is simply the rediscovery of sociological approaches to the city. The shift in anthropology from the study of primitive societies to modern western societies has made it more or less indistinguishable from sociology. Anthropology, which enjoyed greater prestige in the past, has suffered a far greater crisis in its self-understanding than sociology. In this context the rise of cultural and contemporary history as well as cultural studies can be mentioned as relatively new interdisciplinary subject areas that have been closely linked to sociology.

This, however, comes at a price. Much of sociology today is outside of sociology. As sociology becomes more specialized, on the one side, and on the other more influential, the result is that it easily loses a specific identity. Thus, the sociology of crime has influenced criminology where most specialized research on crime now occurs and which is not essentially sociological but interdisciplinary. Norbert Elias in 1970 complained of “pseudo-specialization” and the retreat of sociologists into sub-areas; but he noted what was occurring in sociology was something that had already happened in other disciplines. It would only be a matter of time, he wrote, before the “fortress will be complete, the drawbridges raised.” Like many continental European sociologists, Elias held to the Comtean vision of sociology having the distinctive feature of a general science. Despite Elias's resistance to specialization, sociology did undergo specialization and it may be suggested that social theory took over the general conception of sociology (Delanty 2005b). But the resulting kind of specialization that sociology underwent led to fears that sociology cannot in fact be a specialized science, since what it does is merely to open up the ground for specialized interdisciplinary areas elsewhere. Thus, specialized sociological research occurs only outside the actual discipline – it is a question of sociologists without sociology. While some see this as the end of sociology, others see it is a new opportunity for a post-disciplinary sociology, which should not retreat into the false security of a discipline. John Urry (1981), for instance, argues that sociology does not have a specific disciplinary area in terms of a method or subject matter and it has often been (and necessarily so) “parasitic” on other sciences. Consequently, it should cease to think of itself as a science of society and enter the diffuse territory of post-disciplinarity (Urry 2000). This is a contentious position and there have been several recent defenses of sociology, such as the notion of a public sociology advocated by Ben Agger (2000) and Michael Burawoy (2005a, 2005b) and the various attempts of John Scott (2005) and Steve Fuller (2006) to revive the sociological imagination. On the other side, there is a position advocated by John Goldthorpe (2002) that confines sociology to a narrow methodologically grounded science. Is it a choice of “disciplinary parochialism” or “imperialism,” as Andrew Sayer (2000) asks?

Current Challenges

It is evident that the challenges facing sociology are no longer those that it faced a century ago; it is no longer a question of the scientific status of the discipline and the need to demarcate a space between the natural sciences, on one side, and on the other the human sciences. Some of the major debates of the second half of the twentieth century will continue to be important, but will not define the field of sociology, such as the micro-macro link, agency and structure, quantitative versus qualitative methods, the nature of theory and its relation to empirical research, the question of normative critique, the status of evidence and the limits of explanation, etc. Three major debates have emerged in recent times and which capture the current situation of sociology more fully than these methodological and theoretical issues: the question of the subject matter of sociology in light of globalization; the question of disciplinarity; and the debate about the public function of sociology.

As the science of society, sociology has always been a contested inquiry. Many of the major disputes have been about the nature of method and the scope of social science more generally. The debate about the subject matter of sociology has mostly resolved around issues of the knowability of the social world. In recent years an additional challenge has emerged around the very conception of the social (Gane 2004). To a large degree this has been due to major changes in the very definition of society. While much of classical sociology on the whole took society to be the society of the nation-state, this is less the case today. It should be pointed out that while the equation of classical sociology with national societies has been exaggerated, there is little doubt that sociology arose as the science of the modern industrial nation-state. The comparative tradition in sociological analysis, Weber's historical sociology, and much of Marxist sociology is a reminder of the global concerns of sociology. However, as an institutionalized social science, sociology has mostly been conducted within national parameters. By far the greatest concentration of sociological research in the second half of the twentieth century has been in the US, where sociology has been the science of social order and national consensus. While the national institutional frameworks continue to be primary in terms of professional accreditation, teaching, funding, and research, the global dimension is coming more to the fore. International sociological associations such as the International Sociological Association and the European Sociological Association now offer rival contexts for sociological research.

It is true too that much of what might be called global sociology is merely the continuation of the comparative tradition, which can be located within an “international” view of sociology. But this would be to neglect a deeper transformation which is also a reflection of the transformation of the social itself. While many social theorists (e.g., Urry 2000) have argued that the social is in decline and others that the social does not coincide with the notion of society, conceived of a spatially bounded entity, it is evident that notwithstanding some of these far-reaching claims the social world is undergoing major transformation and the notion of society is in need of considerable reevaluation (Smelser 1997). Exactly how new such developments are will continue to be debated. A strong case can be made for seeing current developments as part of a long-term process of civilizational shifts and transformation in the nature of modernity. It is no longer possible to see the social world merely in terms of national structures impacting on the lives of individuals. Such forces are global and they interact with the local in complex ways. The turn to globality in contemporary sociology is not in any way an invalidation of sociology, even if some of the classical approaches are inadequate to the demands of the present day. Indeed, of all the social and human sciences, sociology – with its rich tradition of theory and methodology – is particularly suited to the current global context. Just one point can be made to highlight the relevance of sociology. If globalization entails the intensification of social relations across the globe, the core concern of sociology with the construction and contestability of the social world has a considerable application and relevance.

This leads directly to the second challenge, the question of disciplinarity. According to the Gulbenkian Commission for the Restructuring of the Social Sciences: “To be sociological is not the exclusive purview of persons called sociologists. It is an obligation of all social scientists” (Mudimbe 1996: 98). Does this mean the end of sociology? Clearly, many have taken this view and see sociology disappearing into new interdisciplinary areas and that it can no longer command disciplinary specialization due to its highly general nature. This is too pessimistic, since the Gulbenkian Commission report also points out that the same situation applies to other sciences: history is not the exclusive domain of historians and economic issues are not the exclusive purview of economists. In the era of growing interdisciplinarity, sociology is not alone in having to reorient itself beyond the narrow confines of disciplinarity. Political scientists hardly have a monopoly over politics. Sociology now exists in part within other disciplines, in particular in new post-disciplinary areas which it helped to create, but it also exists in its own terms as a post-disciplinary social science. In the present day it is evident that sociology takes disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and post-disciplinary forms.

While much of sociology has migrated from sociology to the other sciences, sociology today is also increasingly absorbing influences from other sciences. A survey of the discipline's most influential works noted that a large number have been written by non-sociologists (Clawson 1998). This is nothing new: from the very beginning sociology incorporated other disciplines into itself. Of course, this is not without contestation, as in the debate about the influence of cultural studies – itself partly a creation of sociology – on sociology (Rojek & Turner 2001). Sociology is well positioned to engage with other sciences and much of modern sociology has been based on a view of sociology as a science that incorporates the specialized results of other sciences into its framework. As Fuller (2006) argues, today this engagement with other sciences must include biology, which can now explain much of social life. Sociology must engage with some of the claims of biology to explain the social world and offer different accounts. In this respect, then, interdisciplinarity and post-disciplinarity need not be seen as the end of a sociology, but a window of opportunity for sociology to address new issues.

One such issue is the public function of sociology. The specialization of sociological research by professional sociology has led to a marginalization of its public role. Michael Burawoy argued this in his presidential address to the ASA in 2004 and opened up a major debate on the future of sociology (Burawoy 2005a, 2005b; Calhoun 2005). Public sociology and professional sociology have become divorced and need to be reconnected, he argues. Public sociology concerns in part bringing professional society to wider publics and in shaping public debates and it may lead to a reorientation in professional sociology as new issues arise. However, as Burawoy argues, there is no public sociology without a professional sociology that supplies it with tested methods and theoretical approaches, conceptual frameworks and accumulated bodies of knowledge. Public sociology is close to policy-relevant sociology, which is a more specific application of sociology to problems set by the state and other public bodies. Public sociology is wider and more discursive and takes place in the public sphere. Burawoy also clarifies the distinction between public and critical sociology. The latter concerns a mode of self-reflection on professional sociology and is largely conducted for the benefit of sociology, in contrast to public sociology. Critical sociology has a normative role to play for the discipline. While critical and professional sociology exist for peers, public and policy sociology exist for wider audiences. Of course, many of these roles overlap, as is apparent in the connection between critical and public sociology.

According to many views, one of the functions of sociology is to raise social self-understanding. Adorno (2000), for instance, held that while sociology may be the study of society in some general sense, society as such is not a given or a clearly defined domain that can be reduced to a set of “social facts” in Durkheim's sense. Rather, society consists of different processes and conflicting interpretations. Sociology might be defined in terms of the critical analysis of these discourses in a way that facilitates wider public self-reflection. This is a view of sociology reiterated by Mills (1970) and Habermas (1978). In different ways it is present in Scott's (2005) and Fuller's (2006) cautious defense of a disciplinary sociology. This means that sociology must be relevant; it must be able to address major public issues (Agger 2000). Inescapably, this means sociology must be able to ask big questions. The success of sociology until now has been in no small part due to its undoubted capacity to address major questions, in particular those that pertain to everyday life.


Sociology is the only science specifically devoted to the study of society in the broad sense of the term, meaning the social world and the open field of the social. Like many of the social and human sciences it does not have a clearly defined subject matter. This situation often leads to the assumption of a crisis. Sociology today is often faced with three broad choices. One is the classical vision of a field that is based on the interpretation of the results of other sciences from the perspective of a general science of society guaranteed by a canonized sociological heritage. Second, those who reject the first as too generalist, parasitic, and lacking a clearly marked out specialized field argue that sociology must confine itself to a narrow territory based on a tightly defined conception of sociological research and disciplinary specialization. Third, those who reject the highly specialized understanding of sociology and resist the generalist understanding of sociology tend to look to post-disciplinarity, whereby sociology is not confined to the traditional discipline and occurs largely outside sociology.

These are false dilemmas, despite the fact that there are major challenges to be faced. Interdisciplinarity is unavoidable today for all the sciences, but it does not have to mean the disappearance of sociology any more than any other discipline. It is also difficult to draw the conclusion that sociology exists only in a post-disciplinary context. However, it is evident that sociology cannot retreat into the classical mold of a general science. Sociology is a versatile and resilient discipline that takes many forms. One of its enduring characteristics is that it brings to bear on the study of the social world a general perspective born of the recognition that the sum is greater than the parts.

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Sociology in Medicine

Sociology in medicine is the label given to the collaborative work between sociologists and medical or health personnel within medical institutions or health care organizations. This distinction represents the applied work of medical sociologists in the pure versus applied dichotomy of the social sciences. In its most extreme form, sociology in medicine encompasses sociological work aimed at the provision of technical skills and problem solving for the medical community while neglecting contributions to the parent discipline.

Medical sociology, like its parent discipline, experienced dual roles early in its institutionalization. The distinction between applied and pure work in medical sociology arose in conjunction with the desire for a communication network that would identify the activities and affiliations of medical sociologists in the United States. Sociology in medicine and sociology of medicine were the names designated for applied and pure work, respectively, by Robert Straus in 1957. Sociology in medicine represents the thrust toward reform, advocacy, and application, with which medical sociologists responded to the call for inclusion of clinical research in the social components of health and illness. During the 1950s and 1960s, the roles of the social sciences in health care organizations experienced significant increases due to expansion of medical schools, increased private and public supports for medical research and training programs, and significant proportions of funds granted for establishment of social science units within schools of medicine, public health, and nursing. The primary aim of medical sociology during this time was to serve medicine, with a large majority of medical sociologists employed by health science schools, and only 30 percent holding appointments in traditional sociology departments. The ascendancy of sociology in medicine was short lived, however, as the effects of the Cold War, which equated sociology with socialism, decreased the influence of sociology on public health issues and policy. The role of the medical sociologist in medicine decreased, while academic work in medical sociology, or sociology of medicine, began to increase. During the 1980s, increasing opportunities for nonacademic sociology applications were recognized by the American Sociological Association. Sociology in medicine again became an exciting career choice for medical sociologists, although they were now competing with other health-related researchers for funding in medical institutions.

The work of the sociologist in medicine is intended to be directly applicable to health issues, and consists of teaching and research activities focusing on disease processes or factors influencing patients' responses to illness, with the goal of improving diagnosis and treatment. Sociology in medicine may examine doctor–patient relationships, various therapeutic situations, or social factors that affect and are affected by specific health disorders. The sociologist in medicine may also have responsibilities of educating health science students in the sociology of health and illness. The major contributions of sociology in medicine have been to medical education, social epidemiology, and knowledge of utilization and compliance. Sociologists in medicine seek to answer questions of interest to their sponsors and institutions rather than to the discipline of sociology.

Sociology in medicine, then, treats sociology as a supporting discipline to medicine, which involves achieving the goals of medicine while neglecting those of sociology. For this reason, sociology in medicine has been severely criticized since its inception. Sociologists in medicine are less compelled to defend the significance of their work, theoretical or otherwise, to the academic community than are conventional sociologists. The demands placed upon the sociologist in medicine are for practical applications rather than sociological significance. Therefore, sociology in medicine has consistently battled with the question of whether or not it is real sociology. Aside from the criticisms of its parent discipline, sociology in medicine has historically faced problems within its working environment as well. Communication, status, and relationship issues have surrounded sociology in medicine since the first tenure-track position was created for a sociologist in a medical school in 1953. Howard Freeman and Leo Reeder, as early as 1957, point out the difficulty the sociologist in medicine has in attaining co-worker status with the physician, stating that all PhDs working with MDs face a continual threat of relegation to subordinate status. Communication and understanding have been problematic as well, as neither the sociologist nor the physician would freely discard discipline-specific, esoteric rhetoric to adopt that of the other.

When the distinction was made between pure and applied work of medical sociologists, the predominant opinion of sociologists was that the two were incompatible. Academic sociologists believed sociologists in medicine showed more loyalty to the medical institution than to their parent discipline, and did not contribute to the discipline. Those working in medicine, however, considered themselves to be quite practical sociologists, as their work was directly applicable to human health, and they had less restricted access to research funds than did conventional sociologists. The opinion of incompatibility has changed dramatically and will continue to change in the future. Robert Straus, who as we saw named the distinction in 1957, wrote in 1999 that it is possible for the medical sociologist to do both pure and applied work at the same time. Many medical sociologists consider the structural position of the scholar to be irrelevant today, and have called for a renaming of the work of medical sociologists. Rather than distinguishing between sociology in medicine and sociology of medicine, the work of medical sociologists may be aptly called sociology with medicine.


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  • Straus, R. (1999) Medical Sociology: A Personal Fifty Year Perspective. Journal of Health and Social Behavior (40) : 103–10.


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