sociology

It has been argued that the very origins of the word ‘sociology’, from the latin socius (companion) and the Greek ology (study of), indicate its nature as a hybrid discipline that can never aspire to the status of a social science or a coherent body of knowledge. The discipline itself has an ambivalent genealogy and a controversial recent history as the newest of the social sciences to establish itself in universities in the English-speaking world. In Britain, for example, this did not happen on a large scale until the 1960s, when sociology departments were often accused of instigating student unrest. The difficulty of defining the subject is indicated by the easiest possible form of this entry: namely, a cross-reference to every other entry in the dictionary, which includes theories and concepts from philosophy through to economics. Of all the social sciences it is sociology that most closely scrutinizes change and conflict in the wider society. The range of the discipline, and the importance of the arguments that are disputed within it, still make it the most exciting of the social sciences.
Historically, the word itself was first used by Auguste Comte , although a concern with the nature of society can be found throughout the history of Western thought. However, it was not until the nineteenth century, in the aftermath of industrial revolution and consequent political upheavals, that we see a concern with society as such as a direct object of study. In Comte's work, sociology was to be the highest achievement of science, producing knowledge of the laws of the social world equivalent to our knowledge of the laws of nature. We could then determine, once and for all, what sort of social changes were possible and so alleviate the political chaos that followed the French Revolution. It is often argued that this is a profoundly conservative reaction to the liberal optimism of the Enlightenment: against notions of individual freedom and unlimited social progress , sociology asserts the importance of the community , and the comparatively limited possibilities that exist for social change. Similarly, in his book The Sociological Tradition (1967), Robert Nisbet has argued that much classical sociology reflects a generalized hostility to the industrial and political revolutions of that period. Marxists also maintain that, as the discipline developed during the nineteenth century, it was clearly as a bourgeois social science-a reply and alternative to the increasing political and intellectual influence of historical materialism . At the same time, however, sociology has often been taken up by social reformers: even the positivism of Comte was important in the growth of reform movements during the late nineteenth century. An alternative to this account of the history of sociology is the argument, found most clearly perhaps in the work of Talcott Parsons (see especially The Structure of Social Action, 1937) that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sociology broke free of its earlier ideological shackles and established itself as a science proper, especially in the work of Max Weber and Émile Durkheim . Neither of these histories is adequate, as the recent work of Anthony Giddens has shown, although most sociology courses still point to the achievements of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim (and, in the United States, George Herbert Mead ) in laying the theoretical foundations of the modern discipline.
In its present form, sociology embraces a range of different views concerning both what a social science should comprise, and what might be the proper subject-matter of sociology in particular. The latter provides perhaps the best way of making sense of the discipline. There are three general conceptions of the object of sociological interest-although these are not mutually exclusive. All three can be said to define the study of society but what is meant by society is in each case rather different.
The first states that the proper object for sociology is social structure , in the sense of patterns of relationships which have an independent existence, over and above the individuals or groups that occupy positions in these structures at any particular time: for example, the positions of the nuclear family (mother, father, children) might remain the same from generation to generation and place to place, independently of the specific individuals who fill or do not fill those positions. There are two main versions of this approach: Marxism, which conceptualizes the structures of modes of production , and Parsonsian structural-functionalism which identifies systems, sub-systems, and role structures.
A second perspective deems the proper object of sociology to lie in something that we might call, with Durkheim, collective representations : meanings and ways of cognitively organizing the world which have a continued existence over and above the individuals who are socialized into them. Language itself is the paradigm case: it pre-exists our birth, continues after our death, and as individuals we can alter it little or not at all. Much modern structuralist and post-modernist work (in particular discourse analysis) can be seen as part of this tradition.
Finally, there are those for whom the proper object of sociological attention is meaningful social action, in the sense intended by Max Weber. The implicit or explicit assumption behind this approach is that there is no such thing as society: merely individuals and groups entering into social relationships with each other. There are widely differing ways in which such interaction can be studied, including Weber's own concerns with rational action and the relationships between beliefs and actions; the symbolic interactionist concern with the production, maintenance, and transformation of meanings in face-to-face interaction; and the ethnomethodological study of the construction of social reality through linguistic practices.
A moment's reflection will confirm that, between them, these three possible candidates for sociological study almost exhaust the range of what one is likely to meet during the course of social relationships. It is no surprise, then, that sociology is sometimes seen (at least by sociologists) as a queen of the social sciences, bringing together and extending the knowledge and insights of all the other (conceptually more restricted) adjacent disciplines. This claim is perhaps less true now than during the period when it was expanding rapidly, but despite inevitable specialization among its practitioners there is still a strong totalizing tendency in the discipline, as a perusal of the work of Anthony Giddens or Jeffrey Alexander will establish. Indeed, Giddens himself argues that sociology emerged as an attempt to make sense of the profound social transformation between traditional and modern societies, and as that change continues and gathers pace so the attempt to understand it becomes more important.
Hence sociology is, and is likely to remain, both an attractive and internally divided discipline, and a discipline which attracts a great deal of criticism, especially from those who-for whatever reason-are most resistant to social change. See also cultural studies ; exchange theory ; social action ; social order ; social integration and system integration .

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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