Sociology as a Social Science

Sociology is one of the core disciplines of the social sciences, along with anthropology, political science, economics, and psychology. Social science is the branch of science devoted to the study of societies, relationships, and the manner in which people behave and influence the world around us.

The social sciences consist of all those disciplines that apply scientific methods to the study of human behavior. Although there is some overlap each of the social sciences has its own area of investigation. It is helpful to understand each social science and examine sociology’s relationship with them.

Psychology

Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and how it dictates and influences our behaviour, from communication and memory to thought and emotion.

The study of individual behavior and mental processes is part of psychology; the field is concerned with such issues as motivation, perception, cognition, creativity, mental disorders, and personality. More than any other social science, psychology uses laboratory experiments.

Psychology and sociology overlap in a subdivision of each field known as social psychology—the study of how human behavior is influenced and shaped by various social situations. Social psychologists study such issues as how individuals in a group solve problems and reach a consensus or what factors might produce nonconformity in a group situation. Generally, however, psychology studies the individual, and sociology studies groups of individuals as well as society’s institutions.

The sociologist’s perspective on social issues is broader than that of the psychologist, as in the case of alcoholism, for example. The psychologist might view alcoholism as a personal problem that has the potential to destroy an individual’s physical and emotional health as well as his or her marriage, career, and friendships.

The sociologist, however, would look for patterns in alcoholism. Although each alcoholic makes the decision to take each drink— and each suffers the pain of addiction—the sociologist would remind us to look beyond the personal characteristics and to think about the broader aspects of alcoholism.

Sociologists want to know what types of people drink excessively when they drink, where they drink, and under what conditions they drink. They are also interested in the social costs of chronic drinking—costs in terms of families torn apart, jobs lost, children severely abused and neglected; costs in terms of highway accidents and deaths; costs in terms of drunken quarrels leading to violence and to murder.

Noting the rapid rise of chronic alcoholism among women, sociologists might ask what forces are at work to account for these patterns.

Economics

Economics is a social science concerned with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. Economists have developed techniques for measuring such things as prices, supply, and demand, money supplies, rates of inflation, and employment. This study of the creation, distribution, and consumption of goods and services is known as economics.

The economy, however, is just one part of society, and each individual in society decides whether to buy an American car or a Japanese import, whether she or he is able to handle the mortgage payment on a dream house, and so on.

Whereas economists study price and availability factors, sociologists are interested in the social factors that influence a person’s economic decisions. Does peer pressure result in buying a large flashy car, or does concern about gas mileage lead to the purchase of a fuel-efficient or hybrid vehicle?

What social and cultural factors contribute to the differences in the portion of income saved by the average wage earner in different societies? What
effect does the unequal allocation of resources have on social interaction? These are examples of the questions sociologists seek to answer.

Political Science

Political Science is a social science that focuses on government institutions and political behavior. Political science is the study of three major areas: political theory, the actual operation of government, and, in recent years, political behavior. This emphasis on political behavior overlaps with sociology.

The primary distinction between the two disciplines is that sociology focuses on how the political system affects other institutions in society, whereas political science devotes more attention to the forces that shape political systems and the theories for understanding these forces.

However, both disciplines share an interest in why people vote the way they do, why they join political movements, and how the mass media are changing political events.

Cultural Anthropology

Cultural anthropology deals with the origins, history, and development of human culture. The social science most closely related to sociology is cultural anthropology. The two share many theories and concepts and often overlap. The main difference is in the groups they study and the research methods they use.

Sociologists tend to study groups and institutions within large, often modern, industrial societies, using research methods that enable them rather quickly to gather specific information about large numbers of people.

In contrast, cultural anthropologists often immerse themselves in another society for a long period of time, trying to learn as much as possible about that society and the relationships among its people.

Thus, anthropologists tend to focus on the culture of small, preindustrial societies because they are less complex and more manageable using this
method of study.

Social Work

Social work is a profession that is primarily concerned with supporting and helping people in a variety of situations and settings.

In the early days of sociology, women were often unable to attend graduate sociology programs and chose social work studies instead, which may explain why the disciplines of sociology and social work are still often confused with each other. Much of the theory and many of the research methods of social work are drawn from sociology and psychology, but social work focuses on a much greater degree of application and problem-solving.

The main goal of social work is to help people solve their problems, whereas the aim of sociology is to understand why the problems exist. Social workers provide help for individuals and families who have emotional and psychological problems or who experience difficulties that
stem from poverty or other ongoing problems rooted in the structure of society.

Social workers also organize community groups to tackle local issues such as housing problems and try to influence policy-making bodies and legislation.

Sociologists provide many of the theories and ideas used to help others. Although sociology is not social work, it is a useful area of academic concentration for those interested in entering the helping professions.

History

Although not exactly a social science, history shares certain attributes with sociology. The study of history involves looking at the past to learn what happened when it happened, and why it happened.

Sociology also looks at historical events within their social contexts to discover why things happened and, more important, to assess what their social significance was and is.

Historians provide a narrative of the sequence of events during a certain period and might use sociological research methods to learn how social forces have shaped historical events.

Sociologists examine historical events to see how they influenced later social situations. Historians focus on individual events—the American Revolution or slavery, for instance—and sociologists generally, focus on phenomena such as revolutions or the patterns of dominance and subordination that exist in slavery.

They try to understand the common conditions that contribute to revolutions or slavery wherever they occur. Consider the subject of slavery in the United States. Traditionally, historians might focus on when the first slaves arrived, how many slaves existed in 1700 or 1850, and the conditions under which they lived.

Sociologists and modern social historians would use these data to ask many questions: What social and economic forces shaped the institution of slavery in the United States? How did the industrial revolution aff ect slavery? How has the experience of slavery aff ected the black family?

Although history and sociology have been moving toward each other over the past few decades, each discipline still retains a somewhat different focus: sociology on the present, history on the past.

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