What is Sociology?

The excitement of sociology lies in the fact that its perspective makes us see in a new light the very world in which we have lived all our lives.  

- Peter L. Berger

Sociology is the scientific study of human interaction. Sociologists measure the communication and relationships among human beings in a social context. They study social situations and institutions that make up society.

Sociology provides insights into social interactions and social structures

Do you want to know why the divorce rate in the United States is ten times higher than the rate in Italy? Ask a sociologist and you will hear about differences in cultural traditions.

Maybe you’re interested in knowing why half of the families living in poverty in the United States have at least one family member who works 40 hours every week. If you want to know why those families live in poverty, ask a sociologist. You will learn about “non-living” wages earned by unskilled and semiskilled workers.

Are you curious about why there are more gun deaths in the United States than there are in Western European countries? Ask a sociologist about this phenomenon and you will learn about traits shared by those who use guns to kill.

Sociology as a scientific discipline

As social scientists, sociologists apply scientific reasoning and methodologies to understanding the array of formidable problems facing our country and our world. Just as the problems never cease, neither does the sociologist’s curiosity or his/her search for answers. Sociology identifies social problems, analyzes the problems, proposes possible solutions, and evaluates the efficacy of social programs. Sociologists help distinguish “what should be” from “what is”. Just as medical scientists use science to help cure diseases like cancer, sociologists use science to help study and alleviate social problems.

The role of theory in Sociology

Sociology has a long and distinguished history of identifying and even anticipating many of the issues that face, and even divide, our society today. Early social scientists and philosophers provided theories of social functioning even before we had the scientific tools with which to study social phenomena. For example, social trends such as the division of labor and increased interdependence among individuals and economies; the increase in the growth of technology and our need to adapt to it; class consciousness and the conflicts it causes among groups in a society; loss of ‘community’ and the increased sense of isolation; and expanded choices for individuals and the conflicts that might arise from increased opportunities were all envisioned as much as one hundred years ago by early sociologists.

Our discipline has been instrumental in providing social models that guide decision-making. In generating these social models we have relied on both a theoretical foundation to understand society and a methodological foundation to collect and analyze data that test our theories.

Institutions and the organization of social activity

Sociologists tend to organize their study of social activity and interaction around five social institutions. These institutions are established by all human societies to meet specific needs for the society. The five main social institutions are:

The Economy – Every society needs some method of exchange, whether it is payment for an individual’s labor or trade between nations. Some sociologists believe that the economy is the institution that directs all other institutional activity. Economic institutions provide society with a monetary base and with the means to produce and distribute goods.

The Family – Other sociologists consider the family as primary, giving direction to the other institutions. Sociologists say that families are responsible for teaching our society’s values to children and for maintaining a stable social structure.                                            
Religion – No known social system has failed to embrace a religion of some sort. Religion’s tasks include reinforcing the family’s effort at instilling society’s values and relieving anxieties that might affect individuals’ social productivity. Sociologists track the social meaning of various religions and the influence of religions on societies.

Politics – Our political system shapes and guides our legal affairs and political decision-making. Political institutions inform us about types of authority, and provide leadership and laws governing behavior. It is within these institutions that societies make decisions that affect their communities and social lives.

Education – Education is expected to prepare citizens to contribute to the needs of the economy and to be personally successful by teaching them how to be productive and intelligent members of society. The educational needs of society vary from generation-to-generation and reflect changes in economic, religious, and political institutions.
Introductory level courses in Sociology at Framingham State College expose students to the broad range of subfields of our discipline and provide a comprehensive overview of Sociology. Upper level courses enable students to focus on, and gain a more in depth understanding of, those specific subfields.

For more information:

  • Careers in Sociology
    (for information on subfields, career preparation, career prospects and opportunities, and graduate training)

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