A psychology student in class at North Central College.
Understanding the differences and similarities between sociology vs psychology is no easy task. Read on to learn everything you need to know!

Sociology vs. Psychology


Lauren Ford

Feb 19, 2021

Sociology vs. Psychology

If you’re having trouble understanding the differences in sociology vs. psychology, you’re not alone. You may have already completed your online college application and maybe even been accepted, and choosing a major is the next really big decision. Both are important fields that contribute a great deal to our understanding of ourselves and our world, and both look closely at human behavior. While each discipline covers a distinct area, sociology and psychology frequently intersect.

Similarities and differences

First, let’s establish some basic definitions.

Sociology is a social science that focuses on groups of people and their methods of  social interaction – as families, nations, companies, and so on.

Psychology is a social science that concentrates on the thoughts and behaviors of individual people.

“I often tell my students that as a general rule of thumb, psychology studies things inside a person, such as their thoughts, how they process information, how they relate to other people, and their mental health, whereas sociology generally studies groups of people and the social systems that surround them, such as family, race, religion and social class,” explains Leila Azarbad, a psychology professor at North Central College.

Seems pretty straightforward, right?

Well … yes and no. After all, individuals are also members of various social groups. Person A may be part of a family, may work at a company, may be active in a town.

At the same time, every social group is made up of unique individuals. A family can include introverts and some extroverts. A company can employ staff who are hard-working and others who are slackers. A town’s population can be made up of residents who are rich and others who are poor.

So while there are differences between sociology and psychology, the two fields are closely intertwined.

If you think you may be interested in pursuing either of these fields, read on.

Degree in Sociology Overview

The American Sociological Association defines sociology as the “study of social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human behavior.” As a sociology student, you’re likely to develop insights and abilities that help you better understand important large-scale issues like social change and justice. Immersing yourself in this field can be an excellent way to become an engaged and informed citizen.

Sociology: What you might study

Why study sociology? As a sociology undergraduate, your coursework is likely to cover social phenomena (i.e. social behavior, social institutions, social problems, social structures) as well as research methods. “Sociology is distinct because it uses theoretical frameworks and empirical research methods to study social life, social change, and the causes and consequences of human behavior in a wide variety of social contexts. Once students develop a sociological lens, they see the familiar world in strikingly new ways—from relationships, to family, to work, to crime, to social mobility and on,” says Lou Corsino, sociology professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at North Central College.
 
Sociology students may also complete research practica and internships. At North Central, students can pursue community-engaged learning projects and volunteer opportunities with organizations like WorldRelief, Circle K and North Central’s Cardinals in Action. They can also concentrate in an area like criminal justice or community studies, or combine their interests by major or minor in anthropology or sociology.

Below are some course topics that you might choose from.

  • Community and city life
  • Crime, law and society
  • Criminal justice system
  • Families and intimate relationships
  • Gender inequality  
  • Health, illness and care
  • Human society
  • Policing and corrections
  • Power-based personal violence
  • Qualitative methods
  • Quantitative methods
  • Race and ethnicity inequalities
  • Religion, spirituality and community
  • Schools and society
  • Social class inequalities  
  • Social life
  • Social mobility
  • Social theory
  • Sport and Society
  • Youth justice

If you make the decision to pursue a master’s or doctoral sociology degree, you may specialize in an area that interests you. Some common sociology subfields include:

  • Applied sociology
  • Collective behavior
  • Community
  • Comparative sociology
  • Crime and delinquency
  • Cultural sociology
  • Demography
  • Deviant behavior
  • Formal and complex organizations
  • Human ecology
  • Industrial sociology
  • Law and society
  • Marriage and Family
  • Medical sociology
  • Military sociology
  • Political sociology
  • Rural sociology
  • Social control
  • Social movements
  • Social psychology
  • Sociology of education
  • Sociological theory
  • Sociology of religion
  • Urban sociology

 

Find out more about North Central College

Degree in Psychology Overview

“Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior,” according to the American Psychological Association. As an undergraduate psychology major, you’ll likely spend much of your time exploring the mental processes of the human mind, individual behavior, and neurological disorders.

Degree in Psychology: What you might study

“Psychology is a science,” says Azarbad. “The major involves coursework on human thought and behavior, as well as research methods and statistics. Students that enjoy science as it relates to studying human behavior will probably find that psychology is a great fit for them.”

Students in North Central’s psychology and neuroscience department get practical experience in both off-campus internships and on-campus labs. They collect and evaluate data in the College’s Schwab Psychology Research Center as well as its treadmill and sleep labs. Plus, they frequently present their research findings at regional and national psychology conferences.

Courses you might take as a psychology major include:

  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Child Development
  • Child Psychopathology
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Cultural Psychology
  • Drugs and Behavior
  • Health Psychology
  • Industrial/Organizational Psychology
  • Learning
  • Lifespan Development
  • Personality
  • Psychological Assessment
  • Psychology of Adolescence
  • Psychology of Adulthood and Aging
  • Research Design and Experimentation
  • Social Psychology
  • Social/Cultural Diversity
  • Sociological imagination
  • Sociological storytelling
  • Statistics

If you make the decision to pursue an advanced psychology degree, you might concentrate in one of these common psychology subfields:

  • Clinical psychology
  • Cognitive and perceptual psychology
  • Community psychology
  • Counseling psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Educational psychology
  • Engineering psychology
  • Environmental psychology
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Experimental psychology
  • Forensic psychology
  • Health psychology
  • Industrial/organizational psychology
  • Neuropsychology
  • Quantitative and measurement psychology
  • Rehabilitation psychology
  • School psychology
  • Social psychology
  • Sport psychology

Careers

Both sociology and psychology tend to attract people who are interested in those around them — how they behave and why, what environmental or social factors influence their thoughts and individual behavior, and so on. As a result, it’s not unusual to find both a sociologist and psychologist working in the same organization, such as a mental health clinic. You may also pursue advanced degrees in law, social work, public policy, political science, theology, and administration (e.g. public, business, fine arts).

Sociology careers

“The broad range of topics and interests in sociology allows students to find their own pathways to careers that best suit their interests and abilities—from social service, to criminal justice, to community outreach, to ministry, to social activism, to higher education administration, to urban planning and on,” says Corsino.

In other words, as someone holding a sociology degree, you may find yourself working almost anywhere. Why? Because you’ve developed the skills that virtually every employer values. As the ASA puts it, “Studying sociology fosters creativity, innovation, critical thinking, analytic problem solving and communication skills. Sociology challenges you to see the world through the lens of different cultures and communities.”

A sociology graduate can often go on to hold jobs as an ...

  • Admissions counselor
  • Community liaison
  • Educator
  • Guidance counselor
  • Health facilities evaluator
  • Health statisticians or planner
  • Journalist
  • Juvenile counselor
  • Market research analyst
  • Police officers  
  • Policy or program analyst
  • Public education coordinator
  • Public health worker
  • Public relations professional
  • Public relations specialist
  • Social caseworker
  • Social service agency administrator
  • Social service provider
  • Urban planner

For more on what you can do after graduating with a sociology major, see our article answering the question, "What can I do with a sociology degree?".

Psychology careers

Many psychology majors move on to attend graduate school and conduct research. They may also pursue careers that involve working with individual people to help them in some way. Their positions may include:

  • Art therapist
  • Career counselor
  • Caseworker
  • Childcare worker
  • Clinical psychologist
  • Correctional officer
  • Probation or parole officer
  • Social psychologist
  • Special agent
  • Youth worker

However, it’s important to remember that your options are virtually limitless when you’re interested in human behavior. “One misconception that students often have is that a psychology degree will only prepare them for a career directly in the field of psychology, and that's not the case,” explains Azarbad. “Psychology is a broad field that teaches students critical thinking, research methods, and the science of human thought and behavior; these skills can transfer to a variety of areas, such as education, business, healthcare, and much more. In fact, many students who study psychology go on to careers that are not directly within the field of psychology.”

Whichever of these social sciences you decide to explore, you can count on North Central College to help you discover the path that’s right for you, both as a student and after graduation.

For more information about the connections between sociology and anthropology, see Anthropology vs Sociology.

An award-winning writer, Lauren Ford runs her own communications firm, which serves not-for-profit organizations across the United States. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College and her master’s from the University of Chicago.