What is Sociology?
Jul 17, 2023
What is sociology?
It’s college application season—a time when you begin zeroing in on where they might want to continue your education. It’s also a time when the question of what to study in college feels urgent.
Some of your peers and friends may have a ready answer, but it’s okay if you don’t. There are many paths you can pursue in college.
One field of study you may wonder about is sociology. If you’ve enjoyed your social studies and history classes in high school—perhaps even gotten an introduction to social science by taking psychology—then you might want to consider sociology. It is important to remember that there are several different aspects to sociology vs. psychology.
So, here are three questions to ask yourself:
- Are you interested in understanding the wider context and underlying reasons behind issues and tensions in our nation and our world right now?
- Do you think often about inequality and unfairness in society?
- Would you be curious to pull back the curtain and examine the social forces and principles that impact dynamics among different individuals, social groups, countries, and institutions today?
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, sociology might be for you.
WHAT IS THE MAIN CONCEPT OF SOCIOLOGY?
According to the American Sociological Association (ASA), sociology is “the study of social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human behavior.” The main concept of sociology is that because human beings are inherently social, all of us are impacted and influenced by the groups we belong to as well as each aspect of history and institution that has shaped us.
Louis Corsino, professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at North Central, explains that sociology is more than a discipline. It’s a way of thinking—of looking at the world and how we interact with others. Unlike anthropology, which emphasizes life in pre-industrialized nations, sociology looks at contemporary human society, specifically social relationships, social structure, and the intersection of race/ethnicity, social class, gender, and sexual preference.
“The goal,” he says, “is to have (the student) broaden their perspective. We try to help them see how attitudes, actions, and experiences aren’t just a product of our own personal history and biography. They’re also a reflection of age, sex, class, and race as well as politics, religion, and education.”
WHO IS THE FATHER OF SOCIOLOGY?
Writing on ThoughtCo., sociologist Ashley Crossman lists seven major founders of sociology, with French philosopher Auguste Comte being called the “father” of the discipline. Living in the wake of the French Revolution and at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, he coined the term “sociology” to describe his philosophy for a new social order. He also proposed that the scientific method should be utilized when studying human society and human social behavior.
Women have also made their mark on the field. Harriet Martineau—a British contemporary of, and translator for, Comte—is referred to as the “mother of sociology.” She wrote extensively about the relationship between politics, morals, and society, as well as sexism and gender roles. In an article for Sociology Group, researcher Sukanya Maity details other notable women, including social reformer Jane Addams. Addams pioneered the introduction of sociology as an academic discipline in the United States, and she was the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Also considered the founder of social work as a profession, Addams co-founded Hull-House in Chicago, which became a model for welcoming and supporting immigrants as they adapted to their new country.
HOW IS SOCIOLOGY RELEVANT TODAY?
So, why study sociology, in particular right now? Corsino says sociology can help explain many of the challenges we face as a modern society. Citing Émile Durkheim, a French sociologist, who referred to the “the collective conscience,” he explains: “It’s the shared set of emotions that hold us together and enable us to have a civil society, where (we) can talk among one another with a sense of decency. There’s an infrastructure that we agree on—a civility and ways of having conversations. When that’s broken—when we don’t share common ideas anymore—then that undoes the ability to talk to one another and solve problems. Shared trust is uncertain today in the current political process and public arena.”
There are various types of sociology, enabling you to pursue an area that aligns with your interests. According to Crossman, areas of sociological research and application develop as society does, and many are relatively new. She provides these examples:
- Race and Ethnicity
- Social Inequality
- Health and Illness
- Work and Industry
To the list, Corsino would add Social Class, Gender, Urban/Community, and Criminology.
Reflecting how relevant sociology is today, an ASA press release written by Preeti Vasishtha, ASA director of communications, lists topics addressed at the association’s 2022 annual meeting. Each topic is timely: gun violence, policing, housing insecurity, abortion rights, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
WHAT IS A SOCIOLOGY DEGREE?
While every school is different, there are commonalities in the paths that lead to a sociology degree. For example, you can expect research to be important. To see what that could entail, it may be helpful to get an overview of 10 sociology topics to research and important research methods in sociology.
Schools can vary in their approach to teaching sociology, so it’s important to compare course sequences at different institutions. For example, at North Central, Corsino says students who major in sociology can expect the curriculum to progress as follows:
- Initial courses will introduce you to the sociological imagination and what sociology is.
- Coursework next emphasizes the different ways to collect and apply sociological data, as well as the study of sociological theory.
- Finally, upper-level courses focus on exposure to issues of social inequality and social justice. At this point, you can choose areas of interest to pursue, such as family dynamics, crime, race, religion, and social mobility.
At each step, the coursework emphasizes collaborative learning, original data collection, and real-world problem solving in settings as nearby as Chicago or as far away as Guatemala and Japan. If gaining a global perspective is important to you, then a sociology program like North Central’s might be appealing.
WHAT CAN YOU DO WITH A SOCIOLOGY DEGREE?
What about career pathways? When Corsino meets with current and prospective students about declaring a sociology major, they often ask: What can I do with a sociology degree? He points out that unlike a major that has a clear and narrow career pathway, earning a sociology degree at North Central opens up a wide array of options.
Corsino sees that as a positive thing. Whether you go to graduate school or right into the workforce after graduation, the research and skills gained by studying sociology can prepare you for many fields. Among them are healthcare, law enforcement, politics, advocacy, social work, the environment, community relations, education, law, research, teaching, and nonprofit leadership.
Your next step in your personal and professional journey is just that … your next step. Rather than be anxious or overwhelmed, embrace the opportunity to pave your own path, starting with determining which school, and area of scientific study, is the best fit for you. If you feel you need more time to consider your options, listen to your inner voice and search for additional information. Application deadlines can cause stress, but some schools, like North Central, accept online application submissions on a rolling basis, all year long.
Ultimately, what matters most is that you end up where you feel a sense of well-being and belonging—and feel challenged and excited about the path you are on.
Kim MacGregor is the editorial director and executive speechwriter in the North Central College Office of Communication. She has decades of experience as a communication strategist and writer for journalism, marketing, and nonprofit advancement. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Marquette University.
Updated on July 17, 2023.
American Sociological Association. https://www.asanet.org
Crossman, Ashley. "Introduction to Sociology." ThoughtCo, Oct. 9, 2021, https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-sociology-3026639.
Maity, Sukanya. “10 Great Women Sociologists and Their Contributions.” Sociology Group. https://www.sociologygroup.com/woman-sociologists-contributions/.