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Sociology, the scientific study of human social relations or group life. Other disciplines within the social sciences—including economics, political science, anthropology, and psychology—are also concerned with topics that fall within the scope of human society. Sociologists examine the ways in which social structures and institutions—such as class, family, community, and power—and social problems—such as crime and abuse—influence society.

Social interaction, or the responses of individuals to each other, is perhaps the basic sociological concept, because such interaction is the elementary component of all relationships and groups that make up human society. Sociologists who concentrate on the details of particular interactions as they occur in everyday life are sometimes called microsociologists; those concerned with the larger patterns of relations among major social sectors, such as the state and the economy, and even with international relations, are called macrosociologists.




As a discipline, or body of systematized knowledge, sociology is of relatively recent origin. The concept of civil society as a realm distinct from the state was expressed in the writings of the 17th century English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and of the later thinkers of the French and Scottish enlightenments (see Age of Enlightenment). Their works anticipated the subsequent focus of sociology, as did the later philosophies of history of the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico and the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel with regard to the study of social change.




Auguste Comte

Auguste Comte’s positive philosophy, or positivism, abandoned speculation about the nature of reality in favor of scientific investigation. According to Comte, knowledge of all subjects, from astronomy to sociology, should come from the correlation of evidence gathered from investigation and observation. This materialistic approach helped to lay the foundations for modern sociology, which Comte first called social physics.

Hulton Deutsch

The first definition of sociology was advanced by the French philosopher Auguste Comte. In 1838 Comte coined the term sociology to describe his vision of a new science that would discover laws of human society resembling the laws of nature by applying the methods of factual investigation that had proved so successful in the physical sciences. The British philosopher Herbert Spencer adopted both Comte's term and his mission.

Several 19th century social philosophers who never called themselves sociologists, are today also counted among the founders of the discipline. The most important among them is Karl Marx, but their number also includes the French aristocrat Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon, the writer and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville and, to a lesser extent, the British philosopher-economist John Stuart Mill. These people were largely speculative thinkers, as were Comte and Spencer and their predecessors in the 17th and 18th centuries. A quite different tradition of empirical reporting of statistics also developed in the 19th century and later became incorporated into academic sociology, especially in the United States.



Developments in Europe

Max Weber

Max Weber, a German economist and sociologist, is considered one of the founders of modern sociological thought. In The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, his most famous work, Weber explored the influence of ethics and religion on the development of capitalism.

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Not until the 1880s and 1890s did sociology begin to be recognized as an academic discipline. In France, Émile Durkheim, the intellectual heir of Saint-Simon and Comte, began teaching sociology at the universities of Bordeaux and Paris. Durkheim founded the first true school of sociological thought. He emphasized the independent reality of social facts (as distinct from the psychological attributes of individuals) and sought to discover interconnections among them. Durkheim and his followers made extensive studies of primitive societies similar to those that were later carried out by social anthropologists.

Émile Durkheim

Émile Durkheim, one of the fathers of sociology, utilized scientific methods to approach the study of society and social groups. Durkheim believed that individuals are products of complex social forces and cannot be considered outside of the context of the society in which they live. He used the conception of the collective conscience to describe the condition of a particular society. According to Durkheim, this collective conscience is something entirely separate from the individual consciences that together form it. He studied various aspects of this conscience in his books. In Suicide, Durkheim studied the reasons why individuals commit suicide and how the rate of such suicides indicates whether or not there are problems in the society in question.


In Germany, sociology was finally recognized as an academic discipline in the first decade of the 20th century, largely because of the efforts of the German economist and historian Max Weber. In contrast with the attempts to model the field after the physical sciences that were dominant in France and in English-speaking countries, German sociology was largely the outgrowth of far-ranging historical scholarship, combined with the influence of Marxism, both of which were central to Weber's work. The influential efforts of the German philosopher Georg Simmel to define sociology as a distinctive discipline emphasized the human-centered focus of German philosophical idealism.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx, along with Friedrich Engels, defined communism. Their most famous work was the Communist Manifesto (1848), in which they argued that the working class should rebel and build a Communist society.


In Britain, sociology was slow to develop; until the 1960s the field was mostly centered in a single institution, the London School of Economics. British sociology combined an interest in large-scale evolutionary social change with a practical concern for problems relevant to the administration of the welfare state.



Developments in the United States

Refugees from Dust Storm

Dorothea Lange’s Refugees from Dust Storm is a memorable example of a social documentary photograph. It captures the difficult experience of the 1936 Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. Photographs such as this one helped Lange establish herself as a pioneer in documentary photography. This type of photography attempted to imbue subjects with a sense of time and place.


Despite its European origins, sociology during the first half of the 20th century became primarily an American subject. After the early interest in the broad evolutionist theories of Comte and Spencer had declined, American sociology emphasized the study of particular social problems such as crime, marital discord, and the acculturation of immigrants.

The center of U.S. sociological study before World War II (1939-1945) was the University of Chicago. There, the American philosopher George Herbert Mead, who had studied in Germany, stressed in his writings the origins of the mind, the self, and society in the actions and interactions of people. This approach, later known as symbolic interactionism, was largely microsociological and social psychological (see Social Psychology) in emphasis. In 1937, the American sociologist Talcott Parsons introduced the ideas of Durkheim, Weber, and the Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto in his major work The Structure of Social Action, which eventually overcame the narrow, limited outlook of American sociology. Leadership in the field passed for a time from Chicago to Harvard University and then to Columbia University, where the American social scientist Robert Merton attempted to unite theory with rigorous empirical (data-gathering) research.

After 1945 both American scholarship and a resurgence of Marxist thought increasingly penetrated European sociology, which expanded considerably. To a growing extent in both the United States and Western Europe, the three dominating figures of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber were recognized as the preeminent classical thinkers of the sociological tradition. Their work continues to influence contemporary sociologists.




Sociology was long identified primarily with broad evolutionary reconstructions of historical change in Western societies, as well as with the exploration of relationships and interdependencies among their more specialized institutions and aspects of social life, such as the economy, the state, the family, and religion. Sociology, therefore, was thought of as a synthesizing field that attempted to integrate the findings acquired from other social sciences. Although such concepts concerning the scope and task of sociology are still prevalent, they now tend to be regarded as the province of sociological theory, which is only a part of the entire discipline.

Sociological theory also includes the discussion and analysis of basic concepts that are common to all the different spheres of social life studied by sociologists. An emphasis on empirical investigations carried out by standardized and often statistical research methods directed the attention of sociologists away from the abstract visions of 19th-century scholars toward more focused and concrete areas of social reality. These areas became the subfields and specialties of sociology that are today the subjects of college courses, textbooks, and specialized journals. Much of the scholarly and scientific work of sociologists falls clearly within one of the many subfields into which the discipline is divided. In addition to basic concepts, research techniques are shared by most subfields; thus, sociological theory and research methods are both usually required subjects for all who study sociology.




The oldest subfields in the discipline are those that concentrate on social phenomena that have not previously been adopted as objects of study by other social science disciplines. These include marriage and the family, social inequality and social stratification, ethnic relations, deviant behavior, urban communities, and complex or formal organizations. Subfields of more recent origin examine the social aspects of gerontology and the sociology of sex and gender roles.

Because nearly all human activities involve social relations, another major source of specialization within sociology is the study of the social structure of areas of human activity. These areas of teaching and research include sociologies of politics, law, religion, education, the military, occupations and professions, governmental bureaucracies, industry, the arts, science, language (or sociolinguistics), medicine, mass communications, and sports. These subfields differ widely in the extent to which they have accumulated a substantial body of research and attracted large numbers of practitioners. Some, such as the sociology of sports, are recent fields, whereas others, such as the sociologies of religion and of law, have their roots in the earliest studies of sociologists. Certain subfields have achieved brief popularity, only to be later incorporated into a more comprehensive area. Industrial sociology, for example, was a flourishing field in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s, but later it was largely absorbed into the study of complex organizations; in Britain, however, industrial sociology has remained a separate area of research. A more common sociological phenomenon is the splitting of a recognized subfield into narrower subdivisions; the sociology of knowledge, for instance, has increasingly been divided into individual sociologies of science, art, literature, popular culture, and language.

At least two subfields, demography and criminology, were distinct areas of study long before the formal field of sociology existed. In the past, they were associated primarily with other disciplines. Demography (the study of the size, growth, and distribution of human populations) retains close links to economics in some countries, but in most of the Western world, and particularly in the United States, it is considered a subdivision of sociology (see Population). Criminology has in recent decades been affected by general sociological concepts and perspectives, becoming more and more linked with the study of deviant behavior, including those forms that do not involve violations of the law.



Interdisciplinary Fields

The oldest and most important interdisciplinary subfield of sociology is social psychology. It has often been considered virtually a separate discipline, drawing practitioners from both sociology and psychology. Sociologists primarily concern themselves with social norms, roles, institutions, and the structure of groups, while social psychologists concentrate on the impact of these various areas on individual personality. Social psychologists trained in sociology have pioneered studies of interaction in small informal groups; the distribution of beliefs and attitudes in a population (see Public Opinion); the formation of character and outlook under the influence of the family, the school, the peer group, and other socializing agencies. Psychoanalytic ideas derived from the work of Sigmund Freud and later psychoanalysts have been particularly important in this last area of social psychology.

Comparative historical sociology, often strongly influenced by the ideas of both Marx and Weber, has shown much growth in recent years. Many historians have been guided by concepts borrowed from sociology; at the same time, some sociologists have carried out large-scale historical-comparative studies. The once firm barriers between history and sociology have crumbled, especially in such areas as social history, demographic change, economic and political development, and the sociology of revolutions and protest movements.




Sociologists use nearly all the methods of acquiring information that are used in the other social sciences and the humanities, from advanced mathematical statistics to the interpretation of texts. They also rely heavily on primary statistical information regularly collected by governments, such as censuses (see Census) and vital statistics reports, and records of unemployment, immigration, the frequency of crime, and other phenomena.