In order to have a better understanding of the definitions of sociology and its subject-matter, it is essential to discuss its scope. Opinion differs on the scope of sociology but there are mainly two important schools of thought about it namely, formalistic school and synthetic school.
The first school is led by the German sociologist, George Simmel, Vierkandt, Max Weber and others, where as the second is inspired by the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, the English sociologist, Hobhouse, P. Sorokin are their followers.
1. Formalistic or Specialistic School
The sociologists who belong to the formalistic of specialistics school believe that sociology deals with various forms of human or social relations. They regard sociology as a pure and independent branch of knowledge distinct from all social sciences.
George Simmel, a leading German sociologist considers social science. He feels that it should describe, classify, analyse and explain the several forms of social relationship.
It should not be concerned with their contents which are dealt with by other social sciences. He makes a distinction between the forms of social relationships and their contents and subject matter.
In his view sociology should confine itself to the study of formal behaviour and avoid the examination of actual behaviour.
It means that the different forms of social relationship and not the relationships between themselves, should be the subject of sociology. This view-point turns sociology into a science dealing with the same topics as other social sciences, but the topics are judged from a different angle namely, the angle of different forms of social relationships.
George Simmel has referred to the several forms of -social relationships such as competition, domination, subordination, division of labour etc.
They have an important role to play in different spheres of social life. The spheres-being economic, political, religious and the like. It is an important function of sociology to separate these relationships from one another and study them in abstraction.
Vierkandt, another leading sociologist holds more or fess similar view-point about the scope of sociology. He maintains that sociology is an independent social science or a special branch of knowledge. It should concern itself with the ultimate forms of social or mental relationships which bind people to one another in society.
Sociology should not study concrete societies in detail like history. It should study the irreducible categories of science which are nothing but ultimate forms of social or mental psychic relationships.
These relationships consist in love and hate, attitude of respect, submission, shame, co-operation, competition, the approval of others etc, which bind individuals into groups.
Max Weber an eminent German sociologist expresses his own view-point on the scope of sociology. He says that the scope of sociology consists in interpreting or “understanding” social behaviour. For him social behaviour does not refer to entire field of human relation.
He means by social behaviour what we call social activity or social action. It is related to the behaviour of others and is determined by them.
For instance, a bicycle accident is merely a natural phenomenon, the way in which the bicyclists behave with each other after the accident in the form of avoiding or using the language reflects their true social behaviour. Sociology is thus concerned with fundamental types of social behaviour.
In other words, sociology should aim at analysing and classifying the various types of social behaviour or social relationships.
Tonnies, Von Wiese and Small:
There are sociologists like Ferdinand Tonnies, Von Wiese and Small who have similar views on the scope of sociology. Tonnies agrees with other sociologists when he says that sociology is an independent and pure social science but he has distinguished society from community on the basis of forms of relationships.
Von Wiese is of the opinion that sociology should confine itself to the study of the various forms of social relationships. He has divided these social relationships into different kinds.
Small says that sociology should study all activities of society. It should study the genetic forms of social relationship, behaviour, activities etc.
Thus, we can safely conclude that the specialists or formalists school demands that sociology should be social science dealing with the different forms of social relationships. The sociologist who belongs to this school what the scope of sociology should be delimited.
Criticisms of the formalistic school:
Attempts have been made by sociologists to define the scope of sociology. These attempts are really praise worthy. All the same the formalistic school is subject to criticism on the following grounds.
(i) The formalistic school has extremely narrowed down the scope of sociology. It states that sociology should study the forms of social relationships. In fact sociology should study not only the forms but also the contents of social life.
(ii) Abstract forms cannot be studied in isolation forms of concrete relations. They should be studied together but the formalistic school makes a distinction between the abstract forms and concrete contents. It states that sociology should not go beyond the study of abstract forms.
It should always be bore in mind that abstract forms and concrete relations must be studied together. In reality, social forms cannot be isolated at all from the content, because social forms keep on changing like the contents. No social “form” can exist independent of content.
P. Sorokin says that it is impossible to think of a social institution whose form remains unchanged when its content has already changed. In other words he emphasised on the points that the forms and the contents change at the same time.
We cannot say anything without knowing their concrete contents. For instance the study of competition will be of little profit, if competition is not thoroughly examined in concrete form in relation to economic life.
(iii) The conception of sociology as a pure and independent social science is to say the least not practicable at all. No sociologist has so far succeeded in contracting sociology as a pure and independent social science.
It is not difficult to see that no social science is completely independent of other social sciences. All social sciences are interdependent and inter-related. Therefore, the conception of pure and independent sociology is not practicable.
(iv) All social sciences study the forms of social relationship, but the formalistic school contents that it is sociology which alone studies the forms of social relationships. This contention is wrong.
(2) Synthetic School :
The synthetic school of thought holds the view that sociology is a synthesis of all social sciences. Sociology is the science of science. It embraces all social sciences within its scope.
In other words, it synthesizes them all. There are some modern sociologists like Emile Durkheim, Hob house, P. Sorokin and others who share this view.
Emile Durkheim, an eminent French sociologist divides sociology into three principal parts, namely social morphology, social physiology and general sociology. Social morphology has direct reference ,to all those objects which are basically or fundamentally geographical or territorial in nature.
These objects are of many kinds such as the problems of population, its size, density and local distribution and the like. Social morphology not only analyses the size and quality of population but also examines how population affects the quality of social relationship and social groups.
It also studies the main forms of social groups, institutions and- their classifications. Social physiology is very complex and it covers all subjects studied by particular social sciences like religion, economy, language, morals, laws, etc.
It is seen that social sciences like physiology has a number of branches such as sociology of religion, sociology of economic life, sociology of language, sociology of morals and sociology of law. All these branches are regarded as special sociologies.
These sociologists to have subject of their own for example, the sociology of religion studies language and so on and so forth. It should not be forgotten that each branch of social physiology is related to a set of social facts which is nothing but activities of social groups.
Emile Durkheim is of opinion that general sociology is the philosophical part of sociology. The function of general sociology is to discover the general character of these social facts. It should discover general, social law of which the different law established by the special social sciences are particular expressions”.
Hobhouse an English sociologist, holds some what a similar view on the scope of sociology. According to him, sociology should be a synthesis of numerous social sciences. It should include other sciences in its scope.
In his opinion all aspects of social life are inter-connected and therefore, the study of one aspect of social life cannot be adequate for an understanding of the entire social fact. Owing to this reason, sociology should study social life as a whole in a very systematic way.
PSorokin has also expressed his view on the subject-matter of sociology. According to him, sociology should aim at studying the relationship that exists between the different aspects of social phenomena and between the social and non-social phenomenas. It should study the general features of social phenomena as well.
From the foregoing discussions on the scope of sociology it can be conveniently concluded that the range of this science is very wide. Sociology is regarded as a general science as well as a special science. Like all other sciences, the subject-matter of sociology is society.
Each of these sciences, as mentioned already, deals with only one particular aspects of social life. But it is sociology which not only studies social relationships but also studies society in its entirety.
It aims at standing all aspects of society. At this stage of its development it is neither essential nor possible to determine the scope of sociology. As sociology is a developing science it is not easy to delimit what exactly cannot be studied by sociological method.