Took courses, got A's, still not sure what it is.
September 11, 2007 5:57 PM   Subscribe

When I was younger, I read a sociology textbook trying to find out why sociology was treated as a separate discipline and how it differs fundamentally from the other social sciences. I learned a lot about Weber and Durkheim, but I still don't get it. Can you help?

I took an introductory sociology course later, attempting to understand. It felt like it didn't differ materially from anthropology. I thought it might be the instructor, so I took another one, "Sociology of Technology" which could have been taught by a history professor with no change in the syllabus. I thought "there has to be something I'm missing", but what sort of research does a sociologist do, that a political scientist, or for certain topics a psychologist, for example, is not trained to? How are culturally-focused sociology and cultural anthropology, for instance, effectively different?
posted by StrikeTheViol to Education (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I tend to think of sociology as a much more quantitative discipline (statistics, categories), and anthropology as much more qualitative (context, not written in stone).
posted by raztaj at 6:14 PM on September 11, 2007

Best answer: This isn't a problem unique to sociology -- see the old joke about how biology is applied chemistry is applied physics is applied math, etc.

There's similarly a lot of overlap in the social sciences, especially now. But even when Comte "fathered" sociology in the 1830s (quite late for an academic discipline, note) he was hoping to combine the social sciences. The plan at the time was essentially prescriptive: if only we could understand Society, then we could solve all social problems, just like how psychology is trying to solve the problems of the individual! So if you raised Comte from the dead and asked him how sociology was different from psychology, he'd tell you it was a superset.

Unfortunately, that's really only meaningful historically. Modern sociologists don't consider it a superset of the older disciplines.

Essentially -- probably too essentially -- sociologists study how societies organize. It's probably clear how that differs from psychology, which is "self"-centred, and from political science, which is how the polity organizes, and from economics, which is how economies organize.

Anthropology is trickier. There's probably some truth to the idea that sociology is the anthropology of Europe, but that oversimplifies a bit much. Anthropology is essentially comparative and culturally relative. Sociology does concentrate primarily on developed societies and anthropology on more primitive societies, but that's a generalization.


Psychology studies the individual, and relationships in terms of the individual, while sociology studies the collective, and the relationships on their own terms. Anthropology studies the collectives comparatively. Economics studies the collective of economic man. Political science studies the state rather than the collective. History studies the past, where the rest of those fields are primarily involved in the present.

Clearly those all interrelate, and therefore so do the fields.

Alternatively: Psychology studies social problems, while psychology studies the problems of the individual, and political science the problems of the state. Anthropology compares the social problems of different cultures, and history compares the individual, social, and political problems of the past with the present.

Your last question is slightly different than your main question, though: culturally-focused sociology ("cultural studies", I'd say) and cultural anthropology are effectively different because the former is practiced by sociologists who have been trained to think primarily in the frame of reference of (non-"cultural") sociologists, and the latter by anthropologists who have been trained to think in the frame of reference of (non-"cultural") anthropologists, just like physicists and chemists would approach one problem from two different ways.
posted by mendel at 6:33 PM on September 11, 2007 [10 favorites]

There doesn't have to be a fundamental, real reason why sociology is separate from other social sciences. It just is, because of its history.

This is common in social sciences. I do political science. There's no fundamental reason to have political science departments -- almost everything we do, there are economists, sociologists, and psychologists doing too.

It's likely to be a matter of biases, with sociology more biased towards the quantitative and formally theoretical than anthro is, and more concerned with larger social units than psychology is, and less concerned with formal power structures than political science is.

The differences are probably larger than you think. Another factor common to social sciences is that undergraduate education in them fairly commonly has little to do with the discipline as it's practiced. So an intro anthro course might look a lot like an intro soc course, and a sociology of technology course might look like a history of technology course. If you want to see the differences, don't look at undergraduate courses, look at the research journals.

But even then, you'll see political sociology that could have been done by a political scientist (and vice versa), and stuff that's based in theories of cognition that could have been done by a psychologist, and straightforward, direct papers on statistical theory that could have been written by a statistician. It's all part of the fun of working in social science.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:39 PM on September 11, 2007

Sociology is simply the study of people in groups.
posted by konolia at 8:03 PM on September 11, 2007

mendel here is saying "Psychology studies the individual ... sociology studies the collective" -- so is there a way that sociology, or its emphases, differs from social psychology?
posted by amtho at 8:29 PM on September 11, 2007

social psych describes the way people act in groups; sociology describes the way groups express themselves in people.

interesting question.
posted by macinchik at 12:38 AM on September 12, 2007

oh and just to note (get more confusing) that lots of sociology has been subsumed by sections of business schools as well in that there's a lot of sociology type stuff that goes on in management studies, and these often involve collaboration with people like economists and accountants...
posted by singingfish at 12:49 AM on September 12, 2007

I'm a grad student in social psychology (social neuroscience actually, but that only complicates the issue) and my best mate is a grad student in sociology and we discuss this all the time.

I would start by saying that I disagree, albeit only weakly, with mendel. Social psychology, while historically has overwhelmingly focused on how interpersonal relationships affect the self and vice versa, nevertheless there's been a surge of interest in the psychological effects of culture (traditionally the realm of anthropology) and society (traditionally the realm of sociology) on social cognition, identity... You could check out Marilyn Brewer's work on applying social identity theory (which stems from sociology) to social psychological studies of self-construal.

Anyhow, In my mind what differentiates the disciplines best is their level of analysis and their methodologies. Perhaps, I can best explain this by example:

My mate uses demographic and interview data to study how poverty and unemployment affect the suicide rate among French-Canadian male heads of family (who, more so than English-Canadians, feel that if they can't provide for their family than they have no worth and hence are more likely to commit suicide). They study families, suicide notes and collect statistics and demographics to test their models of what the social and socioeconomic factors are that affect the suicide rate.

My research, on the other hand, is more concerned with so called mentalizing (our ability to attribute mental states to other people) and empathizing (our ability to understand and resonate with the emotional experiences of others). Both abilities are inherently social (in that they are always directed at others) but I study the behavior of individuals in social situations and not collectives. Nevertheless we may examine factors that appear more "sociological" such as social status, group membership and culture.

Unlike much of sociology, psychologists of all breeds by and large conduct experiments. So we measure things like reaction time, or self reported attitudes, or physiological arousal, or brain activity, or even just plain old behavior (e.g. number of pencils someone picked up to help a confederate). Then come the stats! From what I've been able to gather, sociologists are more akin to philosophers. It is, so I'm told, common for sociology conferences to spend days discussing theory without a shred of data. Social psychology on the other hand is data-driven. No one takes a theory seriously unless it's backed up by empirical work.

That's a bit long, hope it helps!
posted by Smegoid at 1:24 AM on September 12, 2007

Response by poster: Yes, that's the sort of idea I had too, Smegoid...the extracts that I read consisted primarily of cultural criticism, with no statistics to be found. How normal is that in sociology?
posted by StrikeTheViol at 7:43 AM on September 12, 2007

My understanding of sociology (from minoring in the field in college, as well as observing patterns in the general field) is that it is largely a worthless non-science full of people expressing opinions on various subjects with absolutely no scientifically collected evidence to back them up. Sociologists seem to come up with the outcome they want to reach first, and then go looking for evidence that fits their case. This is the exact opposite of how science operates.
posted by korpios at 8:32 AM on September 12, 2007

.the extracts that I read consisted primarily of cultural criticism, with no statistics to be found. How normal is that in sociology?

I didn't pursue sociology beyond an honours undergraduate degree, but even then my honours thesis was essentially economics. A hundred years of development has meant that the lines have blurred a lot. So you end up with sociologists who work like psychologists, or historians who work like anthropologists, and so on.

I'd say that sociology is probably split pretty much exactly between qualitative types and quant types. (The qualitative specializations tend to be ____ Studies, I find, Cultural Studies being the qualitativest of the qualitative.)

This is the exact opposite of how science operates.

Well, yes, the old joke about "things that call themselves 'science' aren't". But that doesn't help differentiate between the various social sciences very well.

The "science" in "social science" is a historical designation. It's an arts degree for a reason. I think you'd have a hard time finding a lot of people in those fields that consider social sciences to be Science, the one exception being psychology.
posted by mendel at 10:22 PM on September 12, 2007

There are many arguments in Sociology about whether or not it should be treated as a science. People like Durkheim clearly tried to - such as his work on Suicide. Weber was one who recognised that it was something that could not necessarily be studied scientifically, but that it would be more apt to interpret society, rather than study it empirically.

Realistically, there's a happy medium between the two. Sociology is something that does study society, but overall has been seen to be different from the natural sciences. Indeed, biology doesn't try to solve the problems within society and hence it makes sense sociology to be different from the natural sciences.

Equally, there are many different fields of sociology. Many focus on research, many focus on theory. Theory brings into nature a much more philosophical level of study and that's the side I'm interested in. And the side I'm doing my Dissertation on.

Hope that gives you some help
posted by bobbyone at 4:42 AM on November 24, 2007

« Older Coffee grounds and water systems   |   What do I do with my arms and hands? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.