Chapter 1: An Introduction | Chapter 2: The Social Dimension of Society | Chapter 3: Basic Sociological Terms and Concepts


Chapter 1: An Introduction

However new you are to the formal study of social life, it is probable that you have an idea regarding what sociology is supposed to be about. It may be that you have an idea that sociology is  'about' people. And you would be right to think so. We might start then by noting that sociology is one of the social sciences and as such it is a subject to be distinguished from the so-called 'physical sciences'.


   Sociology is in some sense the study of humanity. However this description of sociology is only partially correct. To say that sociology is about people and humanity is not enough to distinguish it from the other subjects in the human sciences. For it is equally the case that Psychology, Political Science, Economics and History are all in some sense also about people and humanity. Thus the fact that sociology is about people and humanity gets us only part way along the road to a full definition of the subject. We might also suggest that sociology is 'about' society. This helps in so far as it adds another component to our full definition. But again it is not enough to fully define the subject because, again, all the human sciences deal with society too. Sociology is also concerned with human culture. A provisional definition of culture used by sociologists is that of ' a way of life'. Sociology has always concerned itself with the study of culture and this would fit in with what we already know about sociology; namely it the study of people in society.

   Many have suggested that we can define sociology as the subject that deals with and explains social interaction. Here sociology is characterized by the fact that it examines the informal and formal social relationships engaged in by individuals. Sociologists observe and explain types of interactions that take place between individuals within and between social groups.  In this sense, it can be  described as a subject that places individuals in their social context as members of social groups, communities and as members of social institutions, such as work or their place within a family or again their position within an educational institution

    Better still, sociology can perhaps best be defined as the 'study of

social order', since it is a subject made up of competing theories on society. And all the differing theories within sociology are basically involved in describing and explaining 'social order'. In other words, sociology has always sought to understand how the components of society, the social relationships and the social institutions, contribute to or detract from the continued existence of 'society'. And for this very reason, it pays considerable attention to phenomena contributing to social conflict and social change. In short, sociology deals with the study of social behavior and human groups and examines the various ways humans interact within societys institutions.  Human groups include families, crowds, gangs, cults and formal institutions.  All of these groups influence the behavior of their members and of other groups with which they come in contact.


   It can be argued that the formal study of society began in the wake of two significant events that occurred in 18th century Europe. The first of these is known as  'The Enlightenment', a revolution in ideas promoted by philosophers and social theorists of the period striving to better understand humanity through rational thinking and empirically based sciences.  The second great event was the French Revolution whose repercussions intensified the pace of social change.  The term sociology is coined by a man named Auguste De Comte who set about devising a science of society based on Enlightenment principles.

   However, Sociology was not institutionalized as a professional discipline until the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. And this was the result of an extremely uneven and gradual process that began in France and Germany largely through the efforts of such so-called founding fathers of sociology as Emile Durkheim and Max Weber.  But, even then, this new subject of sociology was challenged by another type of explanation of society embodied in the theory of Marxism. Karl Marx had earlier in the 19th century developed a rigorous social theory of human society that rejected many notions developed by his rivals.  Even so, over the past decades Sociology has flourished as a tool to analyze contemporary society, concentrating on the social forces and processes that occur within groups of humans.