Commonly accepted definitions of sociology agree that it is the scientific or systematic study of human society. The focus is on understanding and explaining, and ranges from the individual in social interaction to groups to societies and global social processes. Unique to sociology is its emphasis upon the reciprocal relationship between individuals and societies as they influence and shape each other.

Methods of discovery range from quantitative methodologies patterned after those of natural science with the goals of explanation and prediction to strategies for social reform and service to qualitative methodologies that focus on interpretation and understanding rather than prediction.


As a discipline, sociology arose early in the nineteenth century in response to rapid social change. Major transformations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as rapid industrialization resulting in a large, anonymous workforce with workers spending most of their time away from families and traditions; large-scale urbanization throughout Europe and the industrializing world; and a political revolution of new ideas (individual rights and democracy), directed a spotlight on the nature of societies and social change.

The French social thinker Auguste Comte (17981857) first coined the term sociology to describe a new way of thinking about societies as systems governed by principles of organization and change. Most agree that Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), the French sociologist, made the largest contribution to the emergence of sociology as a social scientific discipline. Both empirical research—collecting and quantifying social data—and abstract conceptions of society were major elements of Durkheim’s research. Durkheim’s work had a major, early impact on the discipline, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries two more of the giants in sociological thought emerged in mainstream German sociology: Max Weber (1864-1920) and Georg Simmel (1858-1918). Additionally, Karl Marx (1818-1883), while on the edge of sociology, had a major impact on German sociology and on the discipline as a whole. Marx was concerned with the oppressiveness that resulted from industrialization and the capitalist system rather than the disorder to which other social thinkers were reacting. Advocating revolution as the only means to end the inequality between the controlling bourgeoisie class and the exploited proletariat class created by the new industrialized society, Marx produced much of his work while in exile from his native Germany (Marx and Engels [1848] 1967). His writing provides a continuous strand of sociological theory, heavily influential in Europe and, at times, in the United States. The importance of Marx’s work in shaping early sociology also lies in how German sociology developed in opposition to Marxist theory (Ritzer 2000).

Weber’s concern with ideas and systems of ideas (particularly religious ideas) and their effect on a capitalist economic system—specifically with Protestantism as a belief system that encouraged its members to embrace change—contrasts with Marx’s reflection of the economy in ideas. Simmel’s influence on sociology, unlike that of Marx and Weber, was through his studies of small-scale social phenomena. Focusing on forms of social interaction and types of actors who interact, his work was most influential on early sociologists at the University of Chicago.

In response to the poverty of immigrants and African Americans in the urban United States, projects of social reform and settlement house movements provided solutions. Much of this work was based in Chicago, where early social reformers and social thinkers combined to conduct field research and organize the first major sociology department at the University of Chicago. The sociology department, founded by Albion Small (who also founded the first sociology journal in the United States, the American Journal ofSociology, in 1895) dominated the discipline for fifty years. American students of sociology had easy access to Simmel’s ideas, which fit with the micro, symbolic interactionist perspective, through his followers (and, in some cases, translators) Small and Robert Park.

During the early years of sociology in the United States, theoretical influences of the period were combined with empirical research and the social reform projects and service conducted in the Chicago area. Trained as a social worker, Jane Addams spoke out about the inhumane treatment of immigrants who were entering the United States at increasingly higher rates. She founded Hull House in Chicago to provide assistance to immigrant families and gathered a community of sociologists and politicians to discuss and act on urban problems. W. E. B. Du Bois, an African American sociologist at Atlanta University, studied similar social problems for the black community in the United States and wrote and spoke out against racial inequality.


Symbolic interactionism, the dominant perspective championed by the philosopher George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) and others influenced by Simmel at the Chicago school, was the first foundation theory in American sociology. Although the symbolic interactionist perspective emphasizes the reciprocal relationship between the individual and society, its critics complain that it overlooks the widespread effects of culture and important sociological factors such as race, class, and gender.

In the 1930s, as the influence of the Chicago school lessened, state universities throughout the midwestern United States began to incorporate sociology departments into their curriculum, with a strong focus on rural sociology. In the 1940s the emphasis in sociology shifted away from the type of descriptive research done at Chicago to sociological theory and empirical inquiry, with the rise of influence from departments at Columbia, Harvard, and other Ivy League universities. European theorists such as Durkheim and Weber were translated and (re)introduced, and their work inspired large growth in sociological theory, particularly structural functionalism, the dominant theory in American sociology until the 1960s.


Another foundation theory within sociology, the structural functional paradigm provides a view of society as a complex system of parts working together to promote both solidarity and stability for society as a whole. This perspective owes much to Comte and his concern for social integration during the rapid social change of the period. While Comte advocated social reform, in Britain the social philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) rejected social reform as intervention in the natural process of the evolution of society. Applying the principle of "the survival of the fittest" to the adaptation of societies rather than of organisms, Spencer’s ideas initially gained a large following throughout England and the United States.

Functionalists, following Durkheim, emphasized the study of social order and how social reforms could provide remedies for social disorder. Social structures (relatively stable patterns of social behavior) function together to preserve society. In the United States, Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) at Harvard was the primary proponent of the structural functionalism theory that dominated American sociology until the 1960s. A student of Parsons’s, Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) distinguished between manifest and latent functions of social structures, while allowing that there are also societal social dysfunctions for some. The influence of structural functionalism has declined since the 1960s with criticism for its focus on stability and static structures, its inability to deal with social change, and its failure to acknowledge how inequalities based on social class, race and ethnicity, and gender may lead to tension and conflict.

Following World War II the strong influence of sociological theory championed by Parsons and others concerned with the prestige of the discipline continued. Quantitative data methods were seen as the best way of making the discipline more professional and increasing prestige. Demography and survey research became more important with the availability of governmental funds for financing large research projects. Major advances in quantitative research eventually led to a variety of formal analyses for survey data, including multivariate statistics, path analysis, multiple regression, and complex causal models. In the late 1950s, however, traditional sociology came under attack for its preoccupation with theory and empiricism. The 1960s also brought challenges from field researchers and reformers to focus more on social problems.


Social conflict theory is, in many ways, a reaction to the structural functionalist perspective. The social inequality pervasive in society and ignored by structural functionalists is seen as a source of conflict and change. Conflict theory examines how society is stratified along class, race and ethnicity, gender, and age categories, and how these categories are linked to the unequal distribution of resources. Patterns of social interaction are inherent with benefits for some and deprivations for others. The goal for conflict theory is to understand the conflict between the advantaged and the disadvantaged while also taking action to reduce inequality. The perspective is certainly influenced by Marx, although critics complain that it does not have a firm enough grounding in Marxism, which was well developed in European sociology but lacked support and understanding in the United States. Critics of the social conflict perspective also complain that its pursuit of political goals shows a lack of scientific objectivity—although this theory had significant influence on contemporary theories, such as feminist theory, which emphasize the importance of political goals.

Sociology since the 1960s has expanded its emphasis to focus more on questions of race and ethnicity and gender. There has also been an incorporation of professional fields such as criminology, industrial relations, and evaluation research. In the 1990s and 2000s a variety of new areas and topics achieved prominence in American sociology: economic sociology; nongovernmental organizations having to do with justice, human rights, the arts, and the environment; immigration and ethnic identities; inequality; the growth and influence of science and technology; and social capital as resources for social mobility, citizenship, and community participation.


Micro and macro refer to the level of analysis or the area of theoretical concern. Microsociology is the study of group dynamics and interaction, whereas macrosociology focuses on large-scale social systems and institutional arrangements. One controversy about the level of analysis was often phrased as a discussion of whether phenomena could be reduced to individual level properties or whether, instead, phenomena must be viewed in terms of their "emergent" properties that do not coincide with simply aggregating the individual level. While some formulations still allude to this controversy, it is common for researchers to attempt linkages between the micro and macro by viewing the effects of one on the other.

Macrosociology At the macro level sociologists ask, what are the broad patterns of interaction that shape society as a whole, and how does this influence take place? The most common institutions, found in most societies and most often studied by sociologists, are the following five:

The family, which meets the needs of societal replenishment and the care and socialization of children. At the macrolevel, sociologists ask how the definition of family is changing and how that affects the larger society.

Education, which meets the need for the transmission of culture and social and job skills. Sociologists ask how the educational system varies across cultures and nations, how it both mirrors and perpetuates the inequality in society.

Religion, a third institution, which meets the need for explanations of the unknown. Sociologists are concerned with why religions take various forms and how religious activity affects society.

The economy, which organizes the distribution of goods and services and is a focus for sociology because it determines who—individuals, organizations, nations—gets what—resources and access to resources in nations and globally.

Politics (or "the polity," or government), which is also a participant in the distribution of power as well as the maintenance of order. Sociology looks at how the world’s political systems vary, who has power and why, and whether there is a global political system.

Both within and outside the context of social institutions, sociologists explore why stratification (systems of ranking into power and prestige hierarchies) exists and how it determines individual societal outcomes. How do social class divisions (based on economic position in society) affect culture, opportunities, and social mobility? What is poverty and who are the poor? Why does inequality exist and how might it be overcome?

A current trend in sociological thought has to do with the process of globalization. Rapid changes in communication and transportation have transformed perceptions of time and space so that the world of personal experience is a global one. Sociologists ask how economic change has taken place, what is a global economy, and what are the implications of globalization? How is economic globalization connected to political development? As political boundaries change, how are cultural boundaries affected? How do local cultures conflict with an emerging global culture and what is the place of women and people of color in that relationship?

Microsociology Many different areas are investigated within microsociology from different perspectives using different methodologies. Microsociology can be broadly conceptualized as considering issues related to self and identity, status and power, cooperation and competition, exchange, legitimation, and justice.

Fundamental to most areas within microsociology is the insight that individuals define themselves, based in large part on how others see and interact with them. Because interaction is central to the self, different identities are developed and projected. Research in the general area of identity and self includes both qualitative and quantitative investigations of topics such as role taking, role making, altercasting, identity disruptions or deflections, and self-referent behavior.

Much of microsociology is related to the general area of group dynamics. This area had early ties with psychology, which fashioned much of its approach including the acceptance and use of experiments as a research tool. Status and power have been consistently important areas of work within microsociology. One of the most important insights from this line of research is that status is relative to the group; that is, while people might possess the same characteristic from one setting to another, these characteristics might have very different salience in different settings.

Other group-dynamics research included a wide range of studies that could be characterized as examining cooperation and competition. While many of these examined dyads and interaction between one group and another, others examined social dilemmas—settings in which there is some degree of conflict between individual and group interests. Once resources and incentives are under consideration, exchange becomes central. Exchange formulations, some more akin to economics and others more akin to psychology, developed and took on a distinctly sociological focus by examining how the type of exchange affected both the behavior and emotion of the exchange participants. The allocation of different resources is studied within exchange formulations, and the resulting assessments, behavior, and feelings of fairness are the focus of justice and equity formulations. Related to assessment of justice is the degree of acceptance of particular institutional arrangements or legitimation.

Ethnomethodology, or method of the people, is a type of microsociology that focuses upon the everyday practices in which people engage. This field differs from most other microsociologies by eschewing the use of abstraction to summarize observations.


Reacting against the dominant paradigm that seemed to take a male, Western European, heterosexual model of the actor as representative of all actors, various critiques developed within sociology. These critiques are extremely varied both in their focus and methodology, but perhaps the most well known were feminist critiques. Although there had been early sociological analysis of the subordination of women (Ward 1883), most of the feminist analyses of sex and gender coincided with what is usually called the second wave of feminism, dating from the 1960s. During this period there was also increased attention to race and ethnicity.

Many of the sociological feminist writings emphasized the subordination of women and the institutional-ization of patriarchy. Some of this work questioned the sex and gender association and sexual categorizations as well. One branch of this developed into "queer theory," a critique of heterosexual assumptions and power.

For the most part, feminist and other critical approaches did not question the fundamental approaches to the study of sociological phenomena. Rather, the feminist literature emphasized substantive issues that centered on societal power differentials that lead to a wide variety of life experiences that constrain almost every aspect of women’s lives. Another literature emphasized how "taken for granted" assumptions of gender and sex affected what observers saw and how they interpreted it. However, there was another group of feminists who challenged traditional epistemologies and argued that who the observer was determined what could be known. This is a radical claim because it violates a traditionally accepted tenet of most sciences that intersubjectivity can be obtained: that different people can be taught to see what others can see.

Postmodernism Sometimes closely aligned with feminist critiques are postmodern critiques. These critiques emerged in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. Postmodernism is a set of sensitizing concepts and ideas rather than a well-developed and agreed-upon set of premises. These concepts challenge traditional views associated with the Enlightenment. In particular, the concepts of objectivity, the transparency of language, and the separation between science and politics are questioned. Postmodern critique has been important across most of the social sciences and the humanities, alerting sociologists to how the political becomes enmeshed in the way questions are asked and subsequently answered. Along with this is attention to grand "narratives," or ways of telling particular types of stories. From this perspective, science is one type of narrative and does not necessarily have a status different from other types of narratives such as folklore. The emphasis is upon how scientists come to believe what they believe. Some particularly radical versions of postmodernism suggest that empirical reality has little effect upon the development and testing of theories.


There is a continuing debate within sociology about the proper role of sociologists. This debate echoes questions that have always been associated with sociology: Are sociologists scientists? Are sociologists advocates and reformers? Are sociologists scholars who practice a social science, whose methodology differs from that of the natural sciences?

Because sociologists vary in their orientation, their perceived and expressed views also vary. There are some who steadfastly claim that sociologists should not become involved in political agendas or arguments lest they jeopardize their dedication and reputation for being oriented toward the truth rather than toward advocacy. There are others who argue that the subject matter of sociology dictates that sociologists become involved in providing information that reflects upon different policy initiatives. This approach separates advocacy for a particular position from provision of information. Still others argue that sociologists should be advocates for particular policies, given sociological evidence. An example of such advocacy was the American Sociological Association’s filing of a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the University of Michigan Law School and the Student Intervenors in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003). In this case, the Association argued that sociological research clearly and consistently documented the pervasiveness of race in life experience such that universities cannot adequately assess candidates or their potential without considering it.

Decisions about the role of sociologists are frequently contested among sociologists themselves—a clear indication that perspectives, methods, and approaches vary considerably. However, because these contestations are often in public sociological forums, it is also a demonstration of the tolerance, or at least acceptance, of the variability within the discipline.

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