This article is designed primarily for those who are completely new to sociology and would like some help and guidance as to the exact nature of the subject-matter of sociology. However new you are to sociology it is probable that you have an idea, however vague and general, 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 human sciences and as such it is a subject to be distinguished from the so-called ‘physical sciences’. Sociology is 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, Social Policy, Economics and Social History, amongst others, are all in some sense 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. For all of the aforementioned human sciences are not only about people and humanity but about 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 characterised by the fact that it examines the informal and formal social relationships engaged in by individuals. Sociologists might typically observe and explain types of interactions which take place between individuals. So to include this idea of social interaction in any definition of sociology is helpful. However the inclusion of social interaction does not establish sociology’s distinctiveness when it is considered alongside, for example psychology. Psychology, just like sociology, also involves the study of human interaction.
There may be a way of differentiating sociology. We could suggest that whereas Psychology studies human interaction of individuals; sociology studies the interaction that occurs within and between social groups. In this sense sociology would 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. Psychology on the other hand appears to examine individuals as solitary and somewhat isolated beings.
Indeed one might formalise the differences of approach by suggesting that psychology takes as its starting point the individual whereas sociology begins with the idea of the wider social networks and societies within which individuals are to be found. This idea falls in nicely with the widespread perception of sociology as being a subject which takes ‘the wider context’ or ‘the wider picture’ into account and seeks to place individuals into that wider social framework. We have done well thus far: We have begun to distinguish sociology as a social science, furthermore we have already amassed a number of key terms associated with sociology.