What is sociology?

by Professor Alan Warde FBA

12 Feb 2020

Sociology is about people living together. Its analytic tools describe, explain and evaluate how the activities of diverse people are coordinated. Its fundamental premise is that people are interdependent and therefore require collective arrangements and joint activity for their coexistence. Interdependence has multiple dimensions and facets; sociology is thus very diverse in its concerns and in its interpretations. Interdependence is apparent, for example, in divisions of labour, interpersonal relationships of friendship and kinship, senses of identity and well-being, and the conditions for emotional security.

Sociology explores the meaningful patterns of activity associated with interrelated positions like prisoners and warders, doctors and patients, mothers and daughters, bosses and workers, citizens and migrants. It analyses people as members of socio-demographic groupings like class, religion, gender, generation and ethnic group, also explaining how individuals come to inhabit these positions. People sharing particular social characteristics have different experiences – some categories of person are systematically privileged or disadvantaged in respect of material possessions, reputation or respect. Women are paid less than men. Those in working class occupations live shorter lives than those in higher classes. Black ethnic groups are disproportionately incarcerated. Sociologists seek to understand why.

Residents of a nursing home in Berlin, Germany sit with carers. Photo by Florian Gaertner / Photothek via Getty Images
Residents of a nursing home sit with carers in a common room in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Florian Gaertner / Photothek via Getty Images.

Sociology is also interested in interpersonal connection and contact, face-to-face and at a distance. The web of dependencies of each individual is dense, fluid and very consequential. Personal autonomy is restricted and conditional. Engagements with others, over a lifetime, mould dispositions and steer conduct. Personal reputation and sense of worth, as well as capacity for action, are subject to the constraints and judgments of other people. Management of interpersonal social situations requires mutual understandings of the kind of behaviour that is acceptable and appropriate to a particular type of encounter and its participants. Such intersubjective understanding is facilitated by shared social norms and accomplished through negotiated interaction, although harmonious outcomes are never guaranteed.

Through its focus on contexts, positions and situations, sociology encompasses a multitude of intersecting activities, interpersonal networks and interorganisational connections. Social interdependence produces conflict and agreement, competition and cooperation, violence and sympathy, antagonism and solidarity, hierarchy and mutuality. These general forms of social relation dictate the institutions that sociology studies: democracy and autocracy, religious and secular authority, familial relationships, class and caste, clans and nations, bureaucracies and markets, and patriarchal and racial domination.

Sociologists apply their knowledge in the hope of minimising social damage, learning from the comparison of collective arrangements what might produce least suffering and maximum happiness and justice.

Sociology is an empirical discipline with a range of theoretical traditions and an ambition to understand systematically the nature and consequences of social relations. Evidence collected in many different ways, including observation, interviews, surveys and documents, is used to critically evaluate common sense understandings of the causes and consequences of institutional contexts, differential social positions and social encounters.

The primary focus when examining social relations used to be the nation-state, but the globalisation of economic and cultural activity has destabilised the concept of ‘society’.  Significant aspects of collective fate, once localised, are now determined without reference to national boundaries. However, the concepts and understandings honed over the last two centuries to comprehend change and continuity in the character of social relations remain central, namely social groups, class, gender and ethnic divisions, norms, institutions, ideology, power and domination. One special remit is collective arrangements and collective action in civil society. People act collectively in unison through the channels of social movements, organisational behaviour, community participation, occupational associations, elections, gangs and cults, all vehicles for purposive action toward common ends. Nevertheless, co-existence in everyday contexts depends mostly on routine, taken-for-granted and impersonal mundane conduct, embedded in a constraining material environment.

Sociology explains the social, cultural and material preconditions for the coordination of complex conduct among millions of otherwise unconnected individuals. The emergent institutional arrangements developing over time shape personal fates and joint futures. Sociologists apply their knowledge in the hope of minimising social damage, learning from the comparison of collective arrangements what might produce least suffering and maximum happiness and justice.

Alan Warde FBA FAcSS is Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester. His research interests include consumption, culture, food and sociological theory.


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