Sociology is the study of society. It involves studying social groups, such as men and women, different social classes and different ethnic, religious and age groups. Often sociology highlights differences and inequalities between these groups and tries to explain these inequalities.
It is also concerned with studying social problems such as racism, gender inequality, crime and poverty, including where they stem from and how they affect people’s chances in life.
Furthermore, sociology looks at social institutions, which are the organised social arrangements which are found in all societies. Examples of social institutions that make up society include the family, the education system, work and religious institutions. Sociology tries to understand how these social institutions work and what their functions are. For example, some sociologists believe that a major function of the education system is the passing on of attitudes, knowledge and skills from one generation to the next. Sociologists also look at how these institutions relate to one another, for example the way in which the family may influence how well children perform in the education system.
Many sociologists suggest that people’s behaviour is learned as opposed to wholly determined by biology (genetic predispositions). Thus when trying to understand why a person commits a crime a sociologist would tend to look at their upbringing/socialisation, which is influenced by factors such as social class and gender, as opposed to, for example, trying to identify a criminal gene as a scientist or a psychologist might do. Thus many sociologists see nurture as more important in explaining behaviour than nature.
Importantly sociology is made up of theories or perspectives which try to explain how society works and is organised. The main sociological theories are functionalism, Marxism, feminism, social action theory and postmodernist theory and you will be learning about these very shortly.
Sociology and research
Often people outside sociology mistakenly think sociology is just common sense. However sociological research has demonstrated that many common sense assumptions we hold are simply false. For example, some people mistakenly think that there is no poverty in Britain or that everyone has an equal opportunity to get a high status job, when in fact this is not the case.
Sociologists actually do research into society and social issues and then look at the evidence collected in order to understand and explain trends, problems or phenomena. For example, they may look at suicide statistics in order to discover trends relating to suicide and then conduct their own interviews to try and explain what predisposes some people to commit suicide. A sociologist will never make assertions about society without proper evidence obtained from research. Sociologists argue about the extent to which it is both possible and desirable to maintain objectivity and value freedom in their work. In doing so they are asking a fundamental question about the nature of the subject, which is also a philosophical question.