What is Sociology?

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The study of sociology originated in the late nineteenth century when Emile Durkheim decided there should be a place for the scientific study of societies. He published a number of ground-breaking works. The first was “De la division du travail social” (The Division of Labor in Society) in 1893 in which he examined the concept of “anomie” relating to the breakdown of social norms. “The Rules of Sociological Method” followed in 1895. Durkheim is probably most famous for his ground-breaking study of suicide. In his 1897 “Le Suicide: étude de sociologie” (Suicide : A Study in Sociology), Durkeim demonstrated the value of empirical research to social sciences. He examined how the suicide rate varied across different cultures and in different religious groups. A detailed biography of Emile Durkheim can be found at Emile Durkheim.com

Max Weber is considered to be the second founding father of sociology, and is most recognised for his study on the influence of religion on the development of capitalism. His ground-breaking work was “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”

Sociology is primarily concerned with how society is composed, and how societies function. It is one of the social sciences, and may overlap with other social sciences including economics, psychology, anthropology, social psychology, and criminology. 

Sociology examines the role of social norms as a means of social control. It may examine how these social norms are established and how they change over time. Social norms include the identification of the types of behaviour that are considered normal and those that are considered to be deviant. Deviant behaviour and the loss of social norms is something that preoccupied Durkheim in The Division of Labour. 

Culture is closely related to the role of norms and the importance of norms in a particular society. 

The concept of social role is important, and individuals are seen to play a number of diverse social roles in their interaction with society at large. 

One area that has played an important role in sociology and related research is social stratification. How are social classes defined, and how does social class influence health, education, and behaviour?

Research in sociology is often of a statistical nature. Much can be gleaned by statistical research. However, there are other approaches that include acting as a participant observer. 

Influences on sociological theory include Marx, especially his analysis of social class. Marx’s study of Alienation is analysed from a social rather than a psychological stance and fits comfortably into the sociological framework. 

During the twentieth century, the “Frankfurt School” acquired an influential status in the fields of sociology and psychology. Amongst these were Eric Fromm, Max Horkeimer, and Theodor Adorno. They combined elements of Marxian thought (using a neo-Marxist approach) with ideas gleaned from psychoanalysis and existential philosophy.

Following the philosophical approach of phenomenological philosophy, Harold Garfinkel established the ethnomethodology approach. This approach challenges the foundations of sociological research, questioning its very epistemological foundation. Ethnomethodology focuses on the formation of society itself and how that society is constantly re-formed through everyday activities. 

Ethnomethodology is somewhat difficult to understand and is beset with problems. For instance, it uses the analysis of conversations and everyday activities as part of the way of analysing how society constantly defines itself.  

Conventional sociology is somewhat simpler to follow and deals with more tangible issues.


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