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Sociology is a form of social inquiry that takes wide-ranging forms. As is the case with many disciplines, it is contested and there is no generally accepted definition of what constitutes sociology. But we should not draw the conclusion that the contested and diverse nature of sociology amounts to the absence of any sense of self-understanding and that the discipline has lapsed into irreversible fragmentation. Sociology can be partly defined by citing examples of what sociologists actually do, but it can also be defined by referring to some of the major intellectual statements of the discipline, such as classic works or theoretical and methodological approaches that are characteristically sociological. To begin, it is helpful to look at sociology in terms of its subject matter, its approach, and some of the classical works that have shaped the discipline.
Many disciplines have a clearly defined subject matter, although very often this is due to the absence of methodological scrutiny and uncritical consensus, as in the general view that the past” is the subject domain of historians while political scientists study politics.” Sociologists generally have a tougher time in defending their territory than other disciplines, even though they unhesitatingly take over on the territory of others. Sociology’s subject domain can arguably be said to be the totality of social relations or simply society,” which Durkheim said was a reality sui generis. As a reality in itself the social world is more than the sum of its parts. There has been little agreement on exactly what these parts are, with some positions arguing that the parts are social structures and others claiming that society is simply made up of social actors and thus the subject matter of sociology is social action. The emphasis on the whole being greater than the sum of the parts has led some sociologists to the view that sociology is defined by the study of the relations between the different parts of society. This insight has tended to be reflected in a view of society as a movement or process. It would not be inaccurate to say that sociology is the social science devoted to the study of modern society.
In terms of theory and methodology, sociology is highly diverse. The paradigms that Thomas Kuhn believed to be characteristic of the history of science are more absent from sociology than from other social sciences. Arguably, anthropology and economics have more tightly defined methodological approaches than sociology. As a social science, sociology can be described as evidence-based social inquiry into the social world and informed by conceptual frameworks and established methodological approaches. But what constitutes evidence varies depending on whether quantitative or qualitative approaches are adopted, although such approaches are not distinctively sociological. There is also considerable debate as to the scientific status of sociology, which was founded to be a social science distinct from the natural sciences and distinct from the human sciences. The diversity of positions on sociology today is undoubtedly a matter of where sociology is deemed to stand in relation to the experimental and human sciences. While it is generally accepted that sociology is a third science, there is less consensus on exactly where the limits of this space should be drawn. This is also a question of the relation of sociology to its subject matter: is it part of its object, as in the hermeneutical tradition; is it separate from its object, as in the positivist tradition; or is it a mode of knowledge connected to its object by political practice, as in the radical tradition?
A discipline is often shaped by its founding figures and a canon of classical works. It is generally accepted today that the work of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim has given to sociology a classical framework. However, whether this canon can direct sociological research today is highly questionable and mostly it has been relegated to the history of sociology, although there are attempts to make classics relevant to current social research. Such attempts, however, misunderstand the relation between the history of a discipline and the actual practice of it. Classic works are not of timeless relevance, but offer points of reference for the interpretation of the present and milestones in the history of a discipline. For this reason the canon is not stable and should also not be confused with social theory: it was Parsons in the 1930s who canonized Weber and Durkheim as founding fathers; in the 1970s Marx was added to the list – due not least to the efforts of Giddens – and Spencer has more or less disappeared; in the 1980s Simmel was added and in the present day there is the rise of contemporary classics, such as Bourdieu, Bauman, Luhmann, Habermas, and Foucault, and there are recovered classics, such as Elias. It is apparent from a cursory look at the classics that many figures were only later invented as classical sociologists to suit whatever project was being announced. The word invented” is not too strong here: Marx did not see himself as a sociologist, Weber was an economic historian and rarely referred to sociology as such, and Foucault was a lapsed psychiatrist; all of them operated outside disciplinary boundaries.
The impact of Foucault on sociology today is a reminder that sociology continues to change, absorbing influences from outside the traditional discipline. The range of methodological and theoretical approaches has not led to a great deal of synthesis or consensus on what actually defines sociology. Since the so-called cultural turn in the social sciences, much of sociology takes place outside the discipline itself, in cultural studies, criminology, women’s studies, development studies, demography, human geography, and planning, as well as in the other social and human sciences. This is increasingly the case with the rise of interdisciplinarity and more so with postdisciplinarity, wherein disciplines do not merely relate to each other but disappear altogether. Few social science disciplines have made such an impact on the wider social and human science as sociology, a situation that has led to widespread concern that sociology may be disappearing into those disciplines that it had in part helped to create.
Sociology is the only science specifically devoted to the study of society in the broad sense of the term, meaning the social world and the open field of the social. Like many of the social and human sciences it does not have a clearly defined subject matter. This situation often leads to the assumption of a crisis. Sociology today is often faced with three broad choices. One is the classical vision of a field that is based on the interpretation of the results of other sciences from the perspective of a general science of society guaranteed by a canonized sociological heritage.
Second, those who reject the first as too generalist, parasitic, and lacking a clearly marked out specialized field argue that sociology must confine itself to a narrow territory based on a tightly defined conception of sociological research and disciplinary specialization. Third, those who reject the highly specialized understanding of sociology and resist the generalist understanding of sociology tend to look to postdisciplinarity, whereby sociology is not confined to the traditional discipline and occurs largely outside sociology.
These are false dilemmas, despite the fact that there are major challenges to be faced. Interdisciplinarity is unavoidable today for all the sciences, but it does not have to mean the disappearance of sociology any more than any other discipline. It is also difficult to draw the conclusion that sociology exists only in a post-disciplinary context. However, it is evident that sociology cannot retreat into the classical mold of a general science. Sociology is a versatile and resilient discipline that takes many forms. One of its enduring characteristics is that it brings to bear on the study of the social world a general perspective born of the recognition that the sum is greater than the parts.
- Berger, P. (1966) Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Approach. Penguin, London.
- Bourdieu, P. & Wacquant, L. (1992) An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
- Calhoun, C., Rojek, C., & Turner, B. (eds.) (2005) Handbook of Sociology. Sage, London.
- Clawson, D. (ed.) (1998) Required Reading: Sociology’s Most Influential Books. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA.