Sociology: Scope, Subject Matter, Origin and Modern Trends


Sociology: Scope, Subject Matter, Origin and Modern Trends!

What is sociology? It is a very tricking question. To answer this question in a precise way on which there can be unanimity is very difficult even for a professional sociologist. This is why, at the time of the Ninth World Congress of Sociology (1976), the Mayoress of Uppsala (Sweden) while welcoming the delegates commented on the printed programme that “sociology is everything and everything is sociology”. Common man understands sociology right in this way.

Generally and in a very simple manner, sociology is defined as the study of society (more specifically, human society or societies or human behaviour in societies). But, this definition does not tell us much about sociology. It leaves unanswered a description or definition of the term ‘society’.


We learn about man and society or about human behaviour in psychology, anthropology, economics, political science and many other disciplines. Then, why we study sociology? We study sociology because the perspective of all social sciences that study society is different from one another.

For instance, poverty, a problem of society, is a cultural, political, economic, psychological, historical as well as a sociological problem. Or, in other words, this is a common problem. But, all social sciences view it differently and try to solve it in their own way.

Of all the social sciences, it is sociology that most closely scrutinizes such problems and tries to synthesise different particularistic viewpoints in an attempt to discover universal principles of social behaviour. Thus, sociology may claim to have a broader perspective of social problems or society than all other social sciences.

Sociology and Commonsense:

Many times, sociology is charged with what it studies we have at least a bit of knowledge about it or we have experienced it sometimes in our own lives or we know it through our popular wisdom. This knowledge, while sometimes accurate, is not always reliable, because it rests on commonly held beliefs rather than systematic analysis of facts. It was once considered ‘commonsense’ to accept that the earth was flat.


This question was questioned by Pythagoras and Aristotle. Such notions still remain with us today. For thousands of years people’s commonsense told them that big objects fall faster than small ones, that stone and iron were perfectly solid materials, that colds are caused by chills and wet feet, that the desire for children is instinctive in women, that with the spread of education, the institutions of caste and dowry will automatically wither away, yet today we know that none of these statements is true.

These commonsense statements based on popular wisdom illustrate our point that commonsense knowledge is not always true. Some popular observa­tions may be true but many others are not supported by empirical data.

Many commonsense conclusions are based on guesses, hunches, ignorance, prejudices, mistaken interpretation and haphazard trial and error learning’s. Commonsense can lead us astray when we are studying other societies and also when we are studying our own society.

Like other scientists, sociologists do not accept something as a fact because “everyone knows it”. Instead, each piece of infor­mation must be tested and recorded, then analysed in relationship to other data. Sociology relies on facts gathered scientifi­cally in order to describe, understand and predict about any social phenomenon.

Linguistic Origin of the Word ‘Sociology’:

Etymologically, the word ‘sociology’ has a hybrid origin of two languages—Latin and Greek. The word ‘socius’ is a Latin term meaning friend, companion or associate. The Greek ‘logos’ or ‘logos’ means study of. It also means doctrine, discourse or theory. By combining the words, it can be illustrated in the following form:


socius + logos=sociology (study of human association)

Thus, literally, sociology is the study of companionship, meaning social interaction and its resultant relationship that exists between companions or groups of human beings.

How Dictionaries Define Sociology?

One of the earliest dictionaries of sociology, edited by H.P. Fairchild (1955), defined sociology as “the study of the relationships between man and his human environment”.


The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology (1994) is quite silent about the definition of the word ‘sociology’. It has explained the origin of the word and then thrown light on its historical moorings.

According to the Penguin Dictionary of Sociology (1994), “sociology is the analysis of the structure of social relationships as constituted by social interaction”.

The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology (1995) defines it as: “Sociology is the study of social life and behaviour, especially in relation to social systems, how they work, how they change, the consequences they produce and their complex relation to people’s lives.”

Since the time of Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who coined the word ‘sociology’ and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) who developed it, sociology has been defined variously by various writers. Indeed, there are as many definitions as there are sociologists.


Sociology has been called the study of society, of human societies and their cultures, of human behaviours, of social interactions and relationships, of men in groups, of groups of people, of man’s social life, of the social bond, of social institutions, of social actions, of social structure and social systems, and in various other ways. Sometimes, the word ‘scientific’ is also used before the words “study of”. This clearly means that sociolo­gists have discarded metaphysical speculation and moral judgment in favour of scientific inquiry.

The diversity of points of view about its subject matter as reflected from the textbooks used in the universities of English-speaking countries (especially in America and Britain) is so large that it is not possible to quote and analyse all definitions.

For our convenience, we classify some important definitions into the following five groupings:

1. Sociology as the study of society.

2. Sociology as the study of social groups.

3. Sociology as the study of social actions, interactions or social relationships.

4. Sociology as the study of social institutions.

5. Sociology as the study of social bonds, social processes, social system, social structure, social life, social phenomena and so on.

1. Sociology as the Study of Society:

The writers, who advocated this view, emphasised that sociology need not be the study of any one part; it should be the study of the whole. Its purpose would be to discover how the different institutions (economic, political, religious etc.), which make up a society, are related to one another in different social systems. Giddings, Ward, Odum, Lundberg, Davis, Horton and Hunt and many others have defined sociology as the study of society. Their language may little bit differ but their overall emphasis remains on the study of society. For example:

“Sociology is a science of society.”

G.A. Lundberg (1939)

“Sociology is the science which studies society.”

— H.W. Odum (1947)

“Sociology attempts to study society scientifically.”

— Horton and Hunt (1964)

“Sociology is an understanding of society.”

— Stewart and Glynn (1991)

2. Sociology as the Study of Social Groups:

A small number of writers like H.M. Johnson, Kimball Young and others have followed this pattern and defined it as under:

“Sociology is the science that deals with social groups, their internal forms or modes of organisation, the processes that tend to maintain or change these forms of organisation and relation between groups.”

— H.M. Johnson (1960)

“Sociology deals with the behaviour of man in groups.”

— Kimball Young (1942)

3. Sociology as the Study of Social Actions, Interactions or Social Relationships:

Early German thinkers like Max Weber, Leopold Von Wieste and Georg Simmel advocated that sociology should exclusively devote itself to the study of social actions, social interactions or social relationships. Among contemporary sociologists, Talcott Parsons (1951) has also followed this line. Some definitions in this category are:

“Sociology is the science which attempts the interpretive under­standing of social action.”

— Max Weber (1949)

“Sociology is about ‘social relationships’, the network of relationships; the network of relationships, we call society.”

— Maclver and Page (1949)

“Sociology may be said to be the study of interactions arising from the association of living beings.”

— Gillin and Gillin (1948)

“Sociology is the synthesising and generalising science of man in all his social relationships.”

— A.W. Green (1952)

“Sociology is the science of human relationships.”

— Merrill and Eldrige (1952)

“The study of social interaction is central to sociologists”

— Gouldner and Gouldner (1963)

“Sociology is the study of systems of action and of their interrelations.”

— Alex Inkeles (1964)

4. Sociology as the Study of Social Institutions:

Some of the writers or thinkers have opined that the distinctive unit of sociological study is not whole society, but specifically the relations between the institutions (family, church, school or political party etc.) which compose it.

They said that society as a whole is already the unit of analysis in the fields of history and anthropology, as such sociology should limit itself with the study of relations of the institutions only. Main champion of this view is Durkheim, who as long ago as 1901, said that sociology “can be defined as the science of institutions” (The Rules of Sociological Method, 1895).

5. Sociology as the study of social bonds, social processes, social system, social structure, social life, social phenomena and so on:

Some writers defined sociology in a very wide perspective using different terminologies such as:

“Sociology is concerned with the study of the social life of man.”

— Ogbum and Nimkoff (1964)

“Sociology is the study of social processes.”

— Reuter and Hart (1933)

“Sociology is the study of human beings within their social contexts.”

— Smith and Preston (1977)

“Sociology is the study of the basic structure of society.”

— Weinberg and Shabat (1956)

“Sociology is the science of social phenomena.”

— E.A. Ross (1901)

“Sociology is the science of the structure and functions of social life”.

— Bennet and Tumin (1946)

“Sociology is the study of human beings with their social contexts.”

— R.W. Smith and F.W. Preston (1977)

“Sociology is a generalising science of socio-cultural phenomena viewed in their generic forms, types, and manifold interconnec­tions.”

— P.A. Sorokin (1947)

How Modern Popular Textbooks Define Sociology?

According to Anthony Giddens {Sociology, 1977), “sociology is the study of human social life, groups and societies”.

Mike O’Donnell (Sociology, 1977) defines it as:

“Sociology is the systematic study of societies (tribal and modern both)………………… sociology studies interaction between the self (or individual) and groups, and interaction between groups.” To conclude, it can be said that a concise definition of sociology that can be agreed upon, at least by most of sociologists, if not by all, has yet to be formulated. Short definitions do not really define it, whereas long definitions are usually cumbersome.

Yet, a definition of some sort is needed. The common idea underlying all above defini­tions is that in a broad sense, sociology is concerned with society, and social life. It encompasses all aspects of knowledge about society— economic, political, psychological and social, their effects and mecha­nisms of action—but most importantly those that are relevant to effective building of social relationships.

Man behaves differently from other animals. Man has unique forms of group life, pursues customs, develops institutions, and creates values. Sociology studies these phenomena in the search of valid and reliable knowledge and for this it applies scientific methods as well as the informal Verstehen method (introspective and inter­pretive understanding). Generally, sociology concentrates itself upon man’s group life and products of group life. The basis of social or group life and social behaviour is the unit social actions and interac­tions in group situation.

These actions and interactions help in building the network of social relationships, which eventually form a structure of society. Thus, sociology, in all its ramifications, is a long discourse about human society, which is based on the edifice of social actions, interactions and the web of interrelationships. Society is rooted in interaction and interaction is based on social action and reciprocal action. Action and interaction are the building blocks of social relationships, which is the core to the formation of society.

In the above proposed model of sociology an attempt has been made to combine all the different viewpoints of various sociologists:

1. Study of social actions—Max Weber

2. Study of interactions—Gillin and Gillin, Gouldner and Gouldner

3. Study of social relationships—Maclver and Page, A.W. Green

4. Study of social groups and social institutions—H.M. Johnson, Durkheim etc.

5. Study of society—Giddings, Ward, Odum etc.

Scope of Sociology:

To understand sociology, we need to know something about its scope and subject matter. Anthony Giddens has written, “The scope of socio­logical study is extremely wide, ranging from the analysis of passing encounters between individuals in the street to the investigation of global social processes”. As with other disciplines the delineation of fields changes over time.

The older terrains of synthetic sociology (Comte and Durkheim) and formal sociology (Simmel, Tonnies, Von Wiese etc.) have now been transformed and broadened into various fields and sub-fields. Whether the nature of sociology is synthetic (generalistic) or formalistic (specialistic), this controversy does not exist in contemporary sociology. We even do not find any reference about this controversy in the modern standard textbooks of sociology. What was that controversy? We shall mention here in brief in the following lines.

Almost all earlier sociologists agreed on this view that the proper subject matter and scope of sociology is the study of social interactions and social relationships. But their approach of study has led them to form into groups. They have distinguished two major approaches of sociology to study society, viz.,

(1) formal or specialist sociology,

(2) synthetic or general sociology.

1. Formal or Specialistic Sociology:

There is a group of German sociologists who have distinguished the forms and content of social relationships. They insist that sociologists should delimit their study of the forms of social relationships (compe­tition, assimilation, conflict, cooperation etc.).

The contents of relationships should be left to be studied by other social sciences. For example, competition may be viewed as a relationship with distinct formal characteristics, no matter what the setting—whether occurs in the market place, on the sports field, or in the political arena.

Basically, it is a process having many expressions as the struggle between plants for space and food and light, animals for food and shelter, businessmen for customers, athletes for a place on the team, politicians for votes, and so on. Sociologists study only the formal characteristics of competition.

Its different manifestations, i.e., competition in the market place (field of economics), in the political arena (field of political science) etc., is left to be studied by other sciences. As such, sociology would be a specialistic science dealing only about the forms of social relationships.

To illustrate the difference between form and content a simile can be given. A glass or plastic bottle can be seen from two angles— form and content. The shape of the bottle—round, square, triangular or octangular—is its form and the water, wine, fruit juice or anything else can be its content that is filled in the bottle. If we fill round shaped bottle with water, it will not turn into wine, nor the water will change the shape of the bottle.

The contents of the bottle do not change the form of the bottle. Form and content of the bottle remain unaffected by each other. Similarly, the forms of relationships (cooperation, conflict, adjustment or accommodation etc.) do not affect the types (content) of relationships (politics, family, education, religion, industry etc.). Forms of social relationships do not change with the change in the content of social relationships. For example, the study of co-operation (of conflict)—a form of social relationship—will not make any difference whether we study it in the field of religion or politics or economics.

Sociology has been compared with geometry which only studies about the forms of physical things—triangular, rectangular, square or circular. Thus, according to formalistic school, sociology studies one specific aspect of social relationships, i.e., their forms in their abstract nature and not in any concrete situation.

Georg Simmel is known to be the main champion of formal sociology. Formal sociology is an attempt to determine the basic forms of social interaction that underlie more complex forms and contexts of social behaviour. Simmel suggested that one could isolate the form of interactions from the content, so that apparently very different interactions (with different contents) could be shown to have, the same form.

For instance, the relationship between the aristocrat and writer in the eighteenth century England and the relationship between a peasant and his landlord in the twentieth century India are apparently different reactions. However, they do have the same form, in that they are both examples of patronage relationships. Other followers of this view are F. Tonnies, Von Wiese, Vierkandt and Max Weber. Some American writers like Robert Park, Albion Small and E.A. Ross have also favoured this view.

2. Synthetic or General Sociology:

As against the views of formal sociologists, who wanted to shape sociology as a specialistic science like economics, political science, psychology etc., the other school of thought, which is known as synthetic sociology, wants that sociology should study both the forms and content of relationships. Not only this, sociology should also study such issues and subjects, which do not come under the purview of any other discipline.

The followers of this school of thought are Comte, Durkheim, Sorokin, Hobhouse, Ginsberg etc. In their view, sociology is a generalising and synthesising science. Comte, the pioneer of sociology, proposed a synthetic view that could unite all knowledge about human activity and society. Like Comte, Durkheim, attempted to establish sociology as a distinctive science of social facts. It is a distinctive discipline in the sense that it integrates the findings of economics, political science and psychology, since the ‘social’ is not an autonomous datum but is constituted by the inter­section of economics, politics, geography, history and psychology.

To conclude this discussion about the formalistic and synthetic nature of sociology, it can be said that sociology is a special and general science both. To be clear enough, it is a specialistic science not in the sense of economics, political science or psychology, which studies only the partial reality of society. It is a special science in the sense that its holistic, synthesising or generalising view of looking at the society is quite different from all other social sciences. This point of view can be termed as ‘sociological perspective’ which distin­guishes it from all other social sciences. Huntington Carins aptly remarked, “sociology deals with social phenomena that are in part dealt with other social sciences, but no social science except sociology studies all of them, and no other social science approaches any of them solely from the point of view of a sociologist”.

Subject Matter of Sociology:

Auguste Comte (1798-1857):

Auguste Comte who invented the word sociology, did not specify in detail the sub-fields of sociology, but he did propose to divide the sociology into two major groupings:

1. Social Statics:

Study of social structure, functions, social system, social relationships etc.

2. Social Dynamics:

Study of social change, development, transfor­mation and revolutions etc.

This basic sub-division in the subject matter of sociology still persists in some or the other forms and guises in the history of its field. Comte believed that this new science could produce knowledge of society based on scientific evidence. He argued that sociology should contribute to the welfare of the humanity by using science to understand and to control human behaviour.

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917):

Another pioneer French sociologist, Emile Durkheim grouped the subject matter of sociology as under:

1. Social Morphology:

Study of social forms and structures.

2. Social Physiology:

Study of social processes.

3. General Sociology:

Study of social problems etc.

Durkheim has had a more lasting impact on modem sociology than those of Comte. For Durkheim, sociology must study social facts, aspects of social life that shape our actions as individuals.

Georg Simmel (1858-1918):

A contemporary of Durkheim and the champion of formal sociology, German sociologist Georg Simmel proposed three major areas of sociological study:

1. General Sociology, which studies the whole of historically developed life in so far as it is formed societally. This area includes the study of rhythms, stages and patterns of devel­opment, particularly processes of growth and decline.

2. Formal Sociology, which studies societal forms or forms of inter­action such as competition, conflict, subordination and super-ordination etc..

3. Philosophical Sociology, which he defines as the epistemology of the social sciences.

In his later works, Simmel has given much attention to the analysis of conflict especially positive functions of conflict, e.g., in relieving tensions, in providing a motivation to action or in leading to a reaffirmation of group solidarity.

Max Weber (1864-1920):

Another architect of sociology, Max Weber’s conceptualisation of the subject matter of sociology revolves round the study of social action—the primary unit of social relationships which makes the social structure of society.

According to Weber, the proper object of social science (sociology) is social action: action directed towards significant others to which we attach meaning. Sociology attempts an interpretative account of such action using an ideal-type method­ology.

According to a last mid-20th century text (What is Sociology, 1965), written by Alex Inkeles, sociology may be seen as a collection of sub-disciplines dealing with institutions and social processes not claimed by more specialised disciplines. He argued that societies, institutions, social relationships and social processes such as differen­tiation, cooperation, evaluation and competition are the main foci of sociological studies.

Inkeles has divided the subject matter into/our major areas:

1. Sociological Analysis:

Study of human culture and society.

2. Primary Units of Social Life: Study of social acts and social relationships, individual personality, social groups, commu­nities, associations and populations.

3. Basic Social Institutions:

Study of family and kinship; economic, political, legal, religious, educational and scientific institutions; recreational, welfare, aesthetic and expressive activities.

4. Fundamental Social Processes:

Study of differentiation and strati­fication, cooperation, accommodation, assimilation, social conflict, socialisation and indoctrination, communication; social values, social control and deviation; social integration and social change.

What should be the proper subject matter of sociology?

Answering this question, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology (1994) tried to synthesise the views of classical and modern thinkers.

It states the proper objects of sociological interest are:

1. Study of Social Structure:

It is studied in the sense of patterns of relationships, which have an independent existence over and above the individuals or groups.

There are two versions of this approach:

(i) Marxism, which conceptualises the structures of modes of production, and

(ii) Parsonian structural-functionalism, which identifies systems, sub-systems and role-structures.

2. Study of Durkheim’s Perspective of Collective Representations:

It includes meanings and ways of cognitively organising the world which have a continued existence over and above individuals who are socialised into them. Much modern structuralist and post-modernist work can be seen as part of this tradition.

3. Study of Meaningful Social Action:

This is Weberian approach of studying sociology. For Weber, the proper object of sociology is social action. The implicit or explicit assumption behind this approach is that there is no such thing as society: merely individuals and groups entering into social relationships with each other.

There are widely differing ways in which such inter­action can be studied:

(i) Weber’s perspective of studying rational, traditional and affective action;

(ii) Symbolic inter­action perspective of studying production, maintenance, and transformation of meanings in face-to-fact interaction; and

(iii) Ethno methodological perspective which places emphasis on the study of construction of social reality through linguistic practices.

Since Second World War, the subject matter of sociology has become highly diversified. It is now no more limited to a few subjects—social morphology, social physiology, collective represen­tations, social dynamics, and so on. These subjects were used to be discussed at the time of its inception. Not only this, the perspective, methodologies and the images of sociology have also undergone sea change, but the fundamental questions, such as, what is the structure of society, how it operates or functions and how and why it changes, have not much changed.

Even classical sociologists, like Weber, Durkheim and Marx, have also anticipated and were seeking to explain the transition from traditional to modern. Recently, one of the leading Indian sociologist Andre Beteille in his article ‘Sociology and Current Affairs’ (Sociological Bulletin, 2006) also suggested, “sociologists main task is to explain how the society or an institution works, what is its impact on the people. His main concern is to enhance the critical understanding about the phenomenon he studies”.

The main agenda of modern sociology is understanding the impact of modernity and globalisation on society. This has changed the boundaries of ‘society’. Nineteenth century issues, when sociology originated, are now no more much relevant. If sociology is to be created anew, which can keep pace with the time, the issues like family and gender, cultural dimensions of class, ethnicity, community and the emergence, maintenance of a legitimate nation-state and so on shall have to be investigated in a new context—a global context.

Changing Sociological Agendas (Subject Matter):

How subjects of study changed from time to time and what is the contemporary concern of sociology is well exemplified in a recent textbook Introductory Sociology, written by Tony Bilton, Adrew Webster and others (1996), as under:

Some key concerns of classical sociology:

1. The growth and impact of industrialisation.

2. The development of capitalism and class conflict.

3. The emergence and legitimacy of the nation-state.

4. The growing complexity and differentiation of social institu­tions.

5. The congruence between ‘society” and ‘nation’.

6. The importance of class-based sources of protest and change.

Some Key Concerns of Contemporary Sociology:

1. The emergence of global industrialisation.

2. Capitalism as a world economy.

3. The growth of transnational economic and political structures.

4. The compression of time and space.

5. The legitimacy and role of nation-bound political institutions.

6. The origins and impact of (non-class) social movements.

Origin and Development of Sociology:

Sociology is the newest of the social sciences to establish itself in the western universities of the English-speaking world (in 1876 Yale University, United States, in 1889 France and in 1907 England). In Asia, the formal teaching of sociology began in 1893 in Tokyo University and in India in 1919 in Bombay University. Men have always reflected upon the societies in which they lived, yet sociology as a modem science developed only in 19th century, largely out of concern about the changes wrought by the industrial revolution.

Historically, the word sociology was invented by Auguste Comte, although a concern with the nature of society can be found throughout the Western (Plato and Aristotle’s Greek philosophy and the works of European and Scottish Enlightenment thinkers) and Eastern (Hindu societal writings of Manu and Kautilya and Islamic jurisprudence of Ibn Khaldun) thought.

However, it was not until the middle of the 19th century, in the aftermath of industrial revolution and the consequent upheavals, that we find a concern with society and thus the need for a “science of society” was recognised. These conditions gave impetus to French philosopher Saint Simon and his secretary-colleague Comte to think about human society on scientific lines. They believed that positivism can provide a scientific basis for the study of society.

The new science—sociology—would discover the laws of the social world equivalent to our knowledge of the laws of nature. We could then determine the general laws of social change similar to those found in Newtonian physics or Darwinian biology. These optimistic beliefs of these early thinkers were overly ambitions.

In his most celebrated work, The Structure of Social Action (1937), Talcott Parsons has written that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sociology broke free of its earlier ideological shackles and establishes itself as a science proper, especially in the works of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim.

However, the subject was also deeply influenced by Karl Marx in his analysis of social structure, class and social change. Although these three thinkers have much influence over modern sociology, yet the philosophical and political inheri­tance of sociology is complex and no single tradition can be regarded as entirely dominant and also responsible for the development of the subject in its present form.

What the Founding Fathers Say?

In this section, we will briefly examine the views and main contribu­tions of founding fathers of sociology—Comte, Spencer, Durkheim, Marx and Weber, who had a major and lasting impact (especially the last three thinkers) on the discipline of sociology. An understanding of the origins of sociology helps us to grasp of what the discipline is today.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857):

As written earlier, the term ‘sociology’ is usually credited to 19th century social philosopher Auguste Comte. He is considered as the father of sociology. He originally used the phrase ‘social physics’ for his new science of society but he had to drop this after sometime because his intel­lectual rival the Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet used this as the title of his book in 1835.

Comte wanted to distin­guish his own views from early thinkers of society, so he coined the word ‘sociology’ in 1838 to describe the subject he wished to establish. He regarded sociology as the last science to develop in the chain of sciences—Mathematics, Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Sociology—but as the most significant and complex of all the sciences.

For Comte, sociology is the study of the fundamental laws of social phenomena in accordance with the methods of the positive sciences. He believed that this new science could produce knowledge of society based on scientific laws.

Sociology, he argued, should contribute to the welfare of the community by using the canons of science to understand, predict and control of human behaviour. He also propounded a new religion of humanity based on scientific knowledge.

Although Comte did not specify in detail the sub-fields of sociology, he did propose to divide sociology into two main parts: social statics and social dynamics. The former is concerned with the anatomy of society and the latter is related with natural progress of mankind towards scientific rationality.

Comte saw society in organismic terms, as an entity made up of interde­pendent parts, which are in balance with each other and create an integrated whole. Against the trend of intellectual differentiation prevailing in his time, Comte wanted sociology to be a synthetic science, which attempts to integrate political, economic and social phenomena.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903):

Another early great social theorist of society Herbert Spencer accepted the word ‘sociology’ without any hesitation in 1877 and titled one of his books as Principles of Sociology. He defined this new science as a science of societies. He was much more precise than Comte in speci­fying the topics or special fields of sociology.

The subject matter of sociology, according to Spencer includes family, politics, religion, social control and industry or work. In addition, Spencer also included study of associations, commu­nities, the division of labour, social differentiation or social stratification and many other topics in the domain of sociology. He clearly mentioned that sociology should accept the whole society as its unit of analysis.

Spencer is also known for introducing Darwin’s theory of scien­tific evolution in sociology. Another significant contribution that Spencer made is the so-called organic analogy in which society is compared with human organism, but did not describe society as an organism.

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917):

The first French academic sociologist Emile Durkheim, who is widely known as a ‘founding father’ of modern sociology, has attempted to define its subject matter and establish sociology as a separate discipline stud5ang society. He had a more lasting impact on modern sociology than those of Comte. Vine (1954) has made an interesting observation about him: “While Comte laid the foundation of sociology, it is Durkheim who cemented it.”

He is long acknowledged as the founding figure of functionalism, a perspective which permeates through almost all social sciences but more recently hailed by leading author­ities on structuralism, socio-linguistics and post-modernism. He adopted collectivist perspective throughout his sociological analysis.

To Durkheim, sociology is the study of social facts (aspects of social life) that have distinctive social characteristics and determi­nants. They shape our actions as individuals. He defined social facts as “every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint”. They include such things as folkways, customs, laws, and the general rules of behaviour that people accept without question. In this connection, he said that social facts should be studied as things.

By this he meant that social life can be analysed as rigorously as objects or events in nature. Social facts are exterior to individuals and cannot be reduced to psychological data. They are characterised by their potentiality for constraint or coercion relative to individual. They can be tested empirically. The outstanding example of this approach in Durkheim’s work is his study of suicide.

Durkheim was of the view that sociology should concern itself with a wide range of institutions—their development and functioning and social processes as its subject matter. Like Spencer, Durkheim also spoke of sociology as the “science of societies”, and repeatedly emphasised the importance of studying different types of society comparatively. This must be done by analysing institutions in different types of society at comparable stages of evolution.

Durkheim’s main contributions are:

1. Durkheim attempted to establish sociology as an autonomous and distinctive science of social phenomena.

2. For Durkheim, the main domain of sociology is the study of social facts and not individuals. He believed both that societies had their own realities which could not simply be reduced to the actions and motives of individuals and those individuals were molded and constrained by their social environments. The reality of society for Durkheim lay in its values, ideas and beliefs.

3. The central theme of Durkheim’s sociology is the idea of moral comparison and normative constraint.

4. He saw social norms as regulating people’s behaviour by means of institutionalised values which the individual internalised rather than society simply acting as an external constraint.

5. Durkheim has explained the universal function of religious systems for the continuity of society as such.

6. He argued for guild socialism as a means of rebuilding cohesive and solidary social communities.

7. He developed concepts of collective conscience, collective repre­sentation, organic and mechanical solidarity and many others in various contexts.

8. In spite of empirical orientation, Durkheim was very much concerned with the problem of making value judgments and believed that sociologists should be able to say what ought to be or to make diagnosis of social ills.

For Durkheim, the raison d’etre of science was to help men live a more satisfying life. In this connection, he argued that criminality as a general charac­teristic is normal to all societies and as such its presence is not a sign of pathology. Durkheim wished to apply sociological knowledge to social intervention by the state in order to recreate social harmony.

Max Weber (1864-1920):

After Durkheim, in the galaxy of sociologists, the German social scientist Max Weber is the second prominent and most dominant figure who influenced the course of sociology. His influence still persists in various special fields of sociology. Ritzer wrote, “Weber was a prolific writer and a complicated thinker…. His work is provocative and rich in insight”. Sociology, according to Weber, “is a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects” (1947).

In other words, it is the search for the causes of social action. Action is behaviour to which the individual attaches meaning and social action is meaningful in that it takes into account the behaviour of others. Weber believed that sociologists must study not just social facts and social structures, but also social actions, the external objective behaviours as Well as the internalised values, motives and subjective meanings that individuals attach to their behaviours and to the behaviour of others. This view clearly suggests that Weber regarded the ‘social act’ or the ‘social relationship’ as the particular subject matter of sociology.

He distinguished four types of social action:

(1) Tradi­tional,

(2) Affectual,

(3) Zweckrational (instrumental action), and

(4) (Value rationality).

Weber contended that social actions should be studied through qualitative (subjective methods) as well as objective and quantitative techniques. In this respect, he developed a sociological perspective that balanced two views. On the one hand, he advocated that social scientists should study the subjective values and meanings that individuals attach to their own behaviour and that of others.

At the same time, he believed that social scientists should study these values and meanings of actions objectively, remaining morally neutral or value-free. The goal, Weber believed, was to achieve a “sympathetic understanding” of the minds of others. He called this approach verstehen, i.e., understanding human action by examining the subjective meaning that people attach to their behaviour and to the behaviours of others.

His approach to sociology, however, has probably been as influ­ential as his ideas. His predecessors considered societies in terms of their large structures, social divisions and social movements. Spencer based his studies on the belief that societies evolved like organisms, Marx considered society in terms of class conflicts, and Durkheim was concerned with the institutional arrangements that maintain the cohesion of social structures. These theorists assumed that society, although composed of individuals, existed apart from them.

The main contributions of Max Weber may be summarised as under:

1. For Weber, sociology should concern itself with the meaning of social action and the uniqueness of historical events. He developed a coherent philosophy of social science (sociology), which aimed at the understanding of the meaning of action.

2. Weber denied that sociology could

(a) Discover universal laws of human behaviour comparable with those of natural science;

(b) Confirm any evolutionary progress in human societies; and

(c) Provide any evaluation of, or moral justification for, any existing or future state of affairs.

3. Weber attempted to explain the basic characteristics of a modern, industrial civilisation (bureaucracy).

4. He emphasised on value neutrality in the subjective interpre­tation of action. The findings of sociologists should be open to academic scrutiny and criticism.

5. Weber rejected as unwarranted the claims of positivism. He did not believe that sociology could be a natural science, as positivists claim. Instead, he devoted his efforts to historical analysis.

6. Weber implicitly presented rationalisation as the master trend of Western capitalist society. He regarded capitalist society as having a logic which operated independently of the subjective attitudes of social actors.

7. Weber also contributed to the sociology of comparative religion and through his study of “The Protestant Ethic and the Sprit of Capitalism” tried to establish that economic phenomena themselves are governed by cultural ethos, particularly religion.

8. Weber constructed a typology of social action—rational, tradi­tional, affective and evaluative.

9. Weber analysed authority, which has stimulated a great deal of empirical research, particularly in the field of bureaucracy.

His typology of authority is:

(1) Rational,

(2) Legal,

(3) Traditional, and

(4) Charismatic.

Karl Marx (1818-1883):

Along with Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, Karl Marx is generally regarded as one of the key figures in the development of sociological thinking. Like Comte and Durkheim, he sought to explain the changes in society that took place at the time of the industrial revolution. It is said that Marx was not a sociologist (he never claimed himself to be a sociologist), but there is sociology in his all writings.

His writings covered a diversity of areas. Much of his writings revolve round economic issues. His views about the relationship between economic life and social institutions attracted sociologists to study him deeply. He regarded all sciences, including sociology, as emancipatory. Marx has been a major influence on the development of sociology, as often a subject of criticism as of inspiration.

Marx’s main contributions are:

1. The whole ideas of Marx are founded on what he called the materialistic conception of history. According to this view, it is not the ideas or values human beings hold that are the main sources of social change. Rather, social change is prompted primarily by economic influences. Marx sees the structure of economic relations as the most basic and important element in society as a whole.

2. Marx is best known for his views on the relationship between economic life and other social institutions. On the basis of his ideas, it is often said that he was an economic determinist, believing that the nature of a society is determined by the manner in which economy is owned and organised.

3. In his early work Marx-was interested in the concept of alien­ation—a theme that was to run through all his subsequent contributions. He used this concept in the sense of alienated labour—the work which is imposed on the labour. Marx’s basic analytic concern was with the structures of capitalism that cause this alienation.

4. Marx analysed societies on the basis of social classes, which are organised in relation of production in the economic system. For him, those who own and control the means of production from one class—capitalist (bourgeois) and those depend on their own labour constitute another class—industrial labour (prole­tariat).

5. Marx believed that there has always been a conflict or contradic­tions between the classes. This conflict is inevitable because of their different relationship to the means of production. There has always a dominant and a subordinate class. For example, capitalists within a capitalist society effectively exploit workers by appropriating the product of their labour. He argued that history could be understood in dialectical terms as record of the inevitable conflicts between economic classes. In Marx’s words, all human history thus far is the history of class struggles.

6. Marx argued that this class conflict or class struggle is the ‘motor of history’. It provides the motivation for historical development which suggests a theory of social change. He believed that change does not follow automatically from changes in the economic structure; class struggle as the active intervention of human beings is necessary.

7. Marx was pre-eminently a theorist of capitalist society. He developed the economic mechanism of capitalist society, labour theory of value, the theory of capital accumulation, the concepts of historical materialism, commodity fetishism and predicted the possibility of the collapse of capitalist society—ushered by a classless socialistic society.

8. For Marx, the key to understanding a particular society is its predominant mode of production which consists of the tools and techniques (forces of production) and the compatible relations of production (class relations).

Modern Trends in Sociology:

Sociology, as we know it today, draws upon the firm foundation developed by Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and Karl Marx. The trio has been seen by some sociologists as epitomising modem sociology. However, the discipline has not remained stagnant over the last century. Sociologists have gained new insights which have helped them to better understand the workings of society.

Contemporary sociology reflects the diverse contributions of earlier theorists like G.H. Mead (1863-1931), C.H. Cooley (1864-1929), Talcott Parsons (1902-1979), Robert Merton (1910-2003) and many others speaking through the pages of current research. Sociologists expect the 21st century to be perhaps the most exciting and critical period in the history of the discipline because of a growing recognition that social problems must be addressed in the near future.

The far going long description and analysis about the nature, perspective, scope, and subject matter will be incomplete if we do not reflect on the modem trends in sociology. It is a fact that during the last quarter of the 20th century, many new thinkers who were (most of them) not trained as sociologist, have entered into the arena of sociology, notable among them are Michel Foucault (1926-1984), Jurgen Habermas (1929- ), Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), Jacques Derrida (1930- ) and Anthony Giddens (1938-). They have in some way or the other amply influenced the course of sociology, especially the methods of investigation.

This new generation of sociologists has invented or used many concepts as tools of sociological research such as Habitus (Bourdieu), Deconstruction (Derrida), Structuration (Giddens), etc. With their efforts new perspectives have developed such as post-industrialism, post-structuralism, post-modernism, neo-functionalism, neo-Marxism, etc.

The types of questions the classical thinkers—Comte, Durkheim, Marx and Weber sought to answer—what is human nature? Why is society so structured? Why and how do societies change? What direc­tions will change take in the future?—are the same questions modem thinkers try to answer today but their approaches are different. Our modem world is radically different from the past and this has an impact on the development of sociology also. Now, it is the task of sociology to help us understand the rapidly changing world in which we live and reflect about the nature of the future world.

What the Modern Thinkers Say?

Pierre Bourdieu (1930- ):

For Bourdieu, the objective of sociology is to unveil the hidden culture of the society. For achieving this objective, sociologists should study cultural practices of the masses rather than classes. As such, sociology should take up cultural analysis as their primary concern to uncover the political uses of science, the authority of science— physical or economic science, not to mention the biology or sociology, of the advanced forms of racism. Being a neo-Marxist, he emphasised on the culture of the proletariat to which he calls ‘coun­ter-culture’ (a culture which is against the established culture).

What should be the shape of sociology? Answering this question, Bourdieu in his later works, The Logic of Practice, (1990) and Craft of Sociology (1991) observed that the subjective and objective aspects of social life are inescapably bound together as such there is no fun in the dualism of macro versus micro and structure versus agency. Instead, he calls for a constructivist approach to sociology, transcending both essentialism and all ideas taken for granted in everyday life.

Jurgen Habermas (1929– ):

Jurgen Habermas is perhaps the most influential social thinker today with an explicit allegiance to Marxist thought. He is known as a best spokesman of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Habermas has severely criticised positivism. In his opinion, it has limited our understanding of natural and the social world.

He focused particularly on three major contributions which have become prominent in the 1960s:

(1) the phenomenological sociology,

(2) Anthropological extension of Wittgenstein’s notion of language games, and

(3) Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics.

He has been a severe critique of capitalist societies in which, according to him, change is ever present tend to destroy the moral order on which they in fact depend. We live in a social order where economic growth tends to take precedence over all else but this situation creates a back of meaning in everyday life.

Jacques Derrida (1930-):

French philosopher and post-modernist, who himself decried to be called as sociologist, but who has definitely made imprint on the modem sociology is Jacques Derrida. His ideas are developed primarily from linguistics. Through his most popular concept— deconstruction, he has pleaded for the deconstruction of sociological texts (texts of founding fathers—Comte, Durkheim, Weber, Marx and modern sociologists—Parsons, Merton etc.).

In his opinion, these texts demystified the social reality. They do not always unveil the truth of society. By deconstruction, Derrida means that the textual reading is not always correct; it does not lead us to know the reality of society.

Deconstruction brings out what the texts exclude by showing what it includes. It highlights what remains in-decidable and what operates as an in-decidable in the texts itself. It is the task of sociology to deconstruct the narratives of the texts through the explicit and implicit analyses.

Some Other Renowned Theorists of Twentieth Century:

French sociologist Alain Touraine (1929- ), who specialised in the study of social movements, proposed that sociology of society be replaced with the sociology of actors (The Return of the Actor, 1988). His purpose has been to overcome what he sees as a false division in sociology between objective and subjective or system and action approaches. Touraine’s method of intervention not only treats social movements as one of the most fundamental forms of citizen action, but also requires that sociologists join the action not just to study but to encourage it.

Recently, Jeffrey Alexander (1947- ) in his four-volume study Theoretical Logic in Sociology (1984) argues for multidimensional sociology, bringing together the metaphysical and empirical, individual volition and collective domination, and normative and instrumental action. He opined that grand theorist Talcott Parsons tried to achieve this synthesis than did any other sociological theorist.

Inventor of the theory of ‘structuration’, Anthony Giddens (1938- ) argues that sociology emerged in an attempt to make sense of the profound social transformation between traditional and modern societies, and as that change continues and gathers pace so the attempt to understand it becomes more important. The changes involved are not just large-scale ones. Major shifts have also occurred in the most intimate and personal characteristics of people’s lives. Take as an example the transformations taking place affecting marriage, sexuality and the family.

Fields of Sociology in the Twenty-First Century:

Contemporary sociology has been divided and sub-divided into a wide range of specialised fields of research and theory.

The prominent fields of research now-a-days are:

1. Interpersonal relations

2. Rural and urban life

3. Marriage and family

4. Social differentiation, stratification and inequality

5. Caste (especially in India)

6. Gender

7. Population and demography

8. Subaltern people (Dalits)

9. Economic sociology

10. Political sociology

11. Educational sociology

12. Formal sociology

13. Race and ethnicity

14. Formal organisations

15. Linguistics

16. Criminology

17. Gerontology

18. Social change, modernity and post-modernity

19. Globalisation and world system

20. Other important branches are:

Sociologies of Religion, Knowledge, Law Science, Work and Occupation, Professions, Industry, Architecture, Art, Music, Literature, Health, Illness and Medicine, Development and Welfare, Leisure, Sports and Tourism, Popular Culture, Militarism, Sexuality, Body, Deviance and many other subjects along with sociology of sociology and sociological methodology.

In a recent edition (Fifth edition) of a popular textbook written by Haralambos and Holborn (Sociology, 2000) the following subject matter of sociology has been suggested:

1. Culture and society

2. Socialization

3. Norms and Values

4. Feminism

5. Interactionism (concept of self and construction of meaning)

6. Postmodernism

7. Positivism

8. Social Action Perspective

9. Phenomenology

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