In a nutshell, sociology is the scientific study of society. Sociologists use the tools and methods of science to understand how and why humans behave the way they do when they interact together in groups. Though social groups – or societies – are made up of individual people, sociology is the study of the group rather than of the individual. When it comes to understanding how the individual human mind works, sociologists largely leave that up to psychologists.
Most people who call themselves “sociologists” work in universities and colleges, where they teach sociology and conduct sociological research. They ask a variety of questions about society, sometimes wanting answers just for the sake of curiosity; however, many times their findings are used to inform decisions by policymakers, executives, and other individuals. Many people who study sociology go on to conduct sociological research outside of academia, working for government agencies, think tanks, or private corporations. Accurate, systematic study of society is in one way or another useful to just about everyone.
Studying sociology, whether or not you call yourself a “sociologist,” means taking a particular view of the world: a view that sociologist C. Wright Mills called “the sociological imagination.” You have to be willing to set aside your ideas about how the social world should work so that you can see how it actually works. That doesn’t mean that sociologists don’t have personal values and opinions about the social world; they believe that to change the world, you first need to understand it.
Sociology is considered one of the social sciences – along with economics, psychology, anthropology, geography, and political science (among others). The social sciences were born in the 18th and 19th centuries, as people began applying the scientific method to human life and behavior. The world was changing dramatically and quickly as industrial production replaced agriculture, as democratic republics replaced monarchies, and as city life replaced country life. Realizing how many great insights science had lent regarding the natural world, people decided to try to use the same method to understand the social world.
Among the social sciences, sociology has always been unique in its ambition to understand the entire social world – considering all its aspects in combination rather than in isolation. It’s a daunting task, and one that sociologists are still struggling with today.
The most important early sociologists had clear ideas about how to study and understand society; these ideas still form the basis for much sociological investigation and discussion today. Karl Marx emphasized the importance of physical resources and the material world; he believed that conflict over resources is at the heart of social life. Emile Durkheim emphasized cooperation rather than conflict: He was interested in the shared norms and values that make cooperative social life possible. Max Weber took ideas from both Marx and Durkheim and argued that both conflict and cooperation, both material resources and cultural values are essential to social life.
Over the past century, sociologists have continued to debate the early sociologists’ ideas and have applied them to specific societies all over the world. Thanks in large part to the influence of “the Chicago School” of sociologists in the early 20th century, sociologists today pay close attention to small groups and person-to-person interaction as well as to the grand sweep of social history. Today, sociologists appreciate that the big questions and the little questions regarding society are interlinked, and that you can’t understand the macro (the big) without also understanding the micro (the little).