Most Sociologists and Sociology students have been asked at one point, What is Sociology? It can be awkward to not have a ready response, and really this sort of question comes with the territory. A Mathematician is unlikely to be asked ‘What is Maths?’ As fewer people get to engage with Sociology than Maths, more people have a general understanding of the workings of a Maths lesson, than a Sociology lesson. Therefore, Sociologists and students of the subject have to spend more time, not only debating this question amongst themselves but with people first coming into contact with the subject. So, this article will look into what Sociology is, not what they do, just what the discipline ‘is’.
One definition is, Sociology is the scientific study of society, including the patterns of social relationships, social interaction, and culture (Calhoun, 2002) this makes it seem so simple. It has evolved from the discipline envisioned and founded by academic Auguste Comte during the 19th century enlightenment. Like many other Social theorists, the enlightenment fuelled his desire to see and analyse the world differently. Comte thought Sociology would aid moral progress and complete the sciences. The sciences being Mathematics, Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Sociology. Although Comte was an influential man, he was reportedly self-centered and whilst he gained a following (Barnes & Fletcher, 2017), his ideas received little notice until decades later after World War 1 (Bourdeau, 2018).
The work of Sociology was subsequently picked up by French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim moved away from Comte’s notions of egoism, Comte’s belief that egotistic tendencies were the main drivers of human behaviour (Bourdeau, 2018), to more structural theories. He believed society should be examined as to how it functions. A great analogy is a body. The heart pumps blood around the body, the lungs take in oxygen, the vocal cords aid communication, and so on. Crime and poverty are, therefore, a natural part of the system. For Durkheim, Sociology was ‘the science of the genesis and functioning of institutions, a fundamental element of this science is the sociological method’ (Carls, 2007).
His theories and texts including, The Division of Labor in Society, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Oxford World’s Classics) and, On Suicide (Penguin Classics). Provided the necessary groundworks to explore cultures and institutions. Other notable theories, anomie, organic solidarity and mechanical solidarity are still utilised and developed by sociologists today. Durkheim opened the first university department which taught Sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 1887 and went on to influence other functionalist sociologists such as Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton.
Though at no point he called himself a Sociologist, writing from the early 19th century to 1883, Karl Marx paved the way for the development of Marxist Sociology. Marx didn’t write extensively on Comte, but Engels discusses him in a letter sent on the 24th of January 1895, he states Comte’s ‘positive philosophy’, his brilliant mind, but narrow philistine way of thinking (Engels & Marx, 1975).
Marxist Sociology emerged from the thoughts and theories of Karl Marx. Unlike Durkheim, Marx created a grand theory about society, whereby society evolves through epochs (time periods) through Feudal to Communism (Engels & Marx, 1888). In the current epoch (Capitalist), society is split into the proletariat and Bourgeousie. With the Bourgeoisie, not only owning the means of production (Businesses, Factories, etc). but also exploiting the working class through low wages and long hours (Engel & Marx, 1888).
Karl Marx lived quite an exciting life, he was expelled from France and Germany before residing and dying in London, England. Although he believed society would naturally move towards communism he wasn’t against revolution (Engels & Marx, 1888). Which only adds to the controversy surrounding him. According to Crossman (2018), Marxist sociology is a way of practicing sociology that draws methodology and analytic insights from the work of Karl Marx. Research conducted and theory produced from the Marxist perspective focuses on the key issues that concerned Marx; the politics of economic class, relations between labour and capital, relations between culture, social life, economy, economic exploitation, inequality, the connections between wealth and power, and the connections between critical consciousness and progressive social change.
The Marxist sociology definition is the most developed of the past definitions read, it reads more like a descriptive of a perspective because that is what it is, a definition. In describing the complexity of the perspective Crossman has to use way more words than Calhoun’s simplistic definition of Sociology as a whole. But therein lies the answer to the question. What is Sociology? It depends how much time you have for an answer, one answer can attempt to draw in every area of research whilst another will try and make the subject as easy to comprehend in a few words. Neither is wrong or right. Though it may be an issue of those outside of the discipline, I believe that the flexibility provided to the subject by not having a well agreed on working definition allows for greater freedom in the field of research.
In 1987, Sydie attempted to categorise sociology into one of three approaches 1) Positivist, whereby society is rational so society can be easily studied 2) Evolutionist, society is slowly (or more revolutionary if you’re Marx) moving towards a (generally) more ideal situation 3) Functionalists, society is like a body, each part with a function (Sydie, 1987). But not enough space is allocated to conflict theories.
Due to the all encompassing nature of Sociology, deriving one definition has been quite difficult for theorists and academics. The discipline is still young, especially when compared to other disciplines. Biology emerged as a coherent field post-enlightenment but can be traced back to Ancient Egyptian medicine. The real reason Sociology is so difficult to define is largely due to everything it’s studying ‘the problem it proposes are not usually clear-cut. It is still in the stage of system-building and philosophical syntheses. Instead of attempting to cast light on a limited portion of the social field’ (Durkheim, 2005, xxxiii).
By Shaneka Knight
Barnes, E.H., & Fletcher, R. (2017). Auguste Comte. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.
Bourdeau, M. (2018). Auguste Comte. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.
Carls, P. (2007). Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://www.iep.utm.edu/
Crossman, A. (2018). All things Marxist. ThoughtCo. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.
Durkheim, E. (2005). Suicide: A study in Sociology. London: Routledge.
Engels, F., & Marx, K. (1975). Selected Correspondence. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Engels, F., & Marx, K. (1888). The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin Books.
(2002) Dictionary of the Social Sciences. Eds Craig Calhoun. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sydie, R. A. (1987). Natural Women Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective on Sociological Theory. Toronto: Methuen.