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What Is Sociology?

August 13, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Are you fascinated by the behavior of people? Do you enjoy exploring how people organize themselves, the social structures that make up our world, or the patterns that underlie these structures? If so, a career in sociology might just be for you.

The basic idea underlying sociology is the belief that you can use science to analyze and understand the social world. Though many sociologists no longer believe that objective laws underpin social organization and behavior, like the laws of gravity in science, many sociologists still attempt to analyze and understand society and social behavior by applying scientific methods and principles. 

The first sociology school in the United States was the Atlanta School at the Atlanta University in Georgia. The Atlanta School was founded by W.E.B. Du Bois, a hugely important intellectual, activist, and academic. Du Bois also undertook one of the first and most important scientific sociology studies in the United States. Unfortunately, Du Bois and the Atlanta School are often written out of history.

After the Atlanta School, the Chicago School became an important institution in American sociology. The Chicago School was very influential and set the framework for much of the sociological work undertaken in the United States moving forward. If you study sociology in America today, your program will likely point to the Chicago School as a founding father in the curriculum. 

If any of this has piqued your interest, it is worth looking a little further into sociology. To make things easier on you, we’ve put together a full guide to sociology and sociology degrees. This guide should help you to understand what the field of sociology is all about, what you can do with a degree in sociology, and how to know if sociology is the right degree for you. 

Scope Of Sociology

To start, it is probably easiest to give a basic definition of sociology. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, sociology is “a social science that studies human societies, their interactions, and the processes that preserve and change them.” To do so, sociologists study groups in society, institutions, structures, and systems. 

Sociology’s scope is not limited. Put simply, humans are social animals. As sociology is defined as the study of society, social behavior, and social relationships, it really encompasses all facets of the human world. As a result, we can best understand sociology as a particular approach to studying the world around us. 

Often, sociologists study issues like class, inequality, law, religion, culture, gender, or oppression. Sociologists also study social institutions related to these concepts, meaning that sociologists also study major world events like revolutions, political transformation, political circumstances, wars, and economic systems.

The information above is pretty interesting, and it gives a good sense of the kind of things that sociology focuses on. However, the outline above does not narrow the field down. In some ways, it makes it even more difficult to come up with a solid definition. The easiest way to do so, then, is to look at some of the ways that sociology is taught. 

Here’s a quick look at sociological curriculum and education:

What does a sociology curriculum typically include?

A sociology curriculum at the undergraduate level is likely to include a few things no matter where you study. For introductory classes, sociology departments are likely to start with the works of Charles Darwin, who pioneered evolution science. From here, these programs will probably draw connections between the behavior of people and human biology. After Darwin, departments are likely to study classic thinkers such as:

  • L.T. Hobhouse
  • Herbert Spencer
  • Karl Marx
  • Max Weber
  • W.E.B. Du Bois
  • Friedrich Ratzel
  • Adam Smith
  • Emile Durkheim

Overall, the curriculum will focus on the various theories that have been developed over time to explain or better understand the factors and variables involved in structuring or influencing human behavior. 

For instance, W.E.B. Du Bois focused much of his work on the ways that socially constructed and engrained ideas of race-structured society and social relations. In particular, he focused on the way that American society treated black Americans due to their racialization. This treatment influenced everything from medical treatment to politics, he wrote.

Karl Marx developed a theory which became hugely influential throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century. Marx based this theory on the idea that society and social behavior are closely tied to economics. He analyzed the major economic system across the world and demonstrated how it functioned. He also wrote that economic inequality was the basis of much behavior, social structure, and class. 

Emile Durkheim was the founder of a French school of sociology. Durkheim is recognized as one of the most important thinkers in the history of social science. His work focused on how societies reacted and maintained their structure in modernity when traditional systems of social control were broken or transformed. Much of his work dealt with the idea of the collective consciousness. 

What type of material does a sociological education cover?

A sociology degree will combine analysis of contemporary social phenomena with theoretical ideas explaining why these phenomena take the form that they do. A sociology degree will generally cover ideas, such as race, class, gender, sex, war, economics, and so on. It will likely feature some regional studies as well as more generalized topics. 

When pursuing a sociology degree, you will likely study theoretical texts, films, and articles about various social events, circumstances, and structures. 

What is the purpose of sociology?

The purpose of sociology is to better understand the ways that humans act and interact in society. Many sociologists hope to produce research that will directly influence government and state bodies and their attempts to police or structure social groups. Many other sociologists hope to produce research that will allow the world to better understand society and transform it for the better.

Sociologists work in government, academia, and public and private organizations. The Bureau Of Labor Statistics notes that sociologists work in areas such as:

  • Scientific Research and Development Services
  • State Government
  • Colleges and Universities
  • Family Services
  • Social Work 
  • Consulting Services

Educational Paths For People Interested In Sociology

To work in sociology, you must obtain a bachelor’s or master’s degree in sociology. Most high ranking sociologists also have a doctorate in the field, which is also the case for those who teach sociology at universities or colleges. For that reason, a sociology career almost always begins with a university degree.

An aspiring sociologist needs to look at the sociology programs available to them at colleges and universities. To work as a sociologist, it is not always necessary to begin study with a sociology degree. Some people who research sociological topics start their career with degrees in economics, political science, criminology, or philosophy. Therefore, the first step towards a sociology career is securing a bachelor’s of arts in an area of interest.  

Whether you complete a bachelor’s in sociology or another field, the next step to getting a job in this field is to pursue a master’s degree. While your undergraduate major doesn’t necessarily have to be in sociology, your master’s should be if this is the area you intend to work in.

Let’s take a closer look at how these programs work and what you need to know to pursue your education in sociology.

What are the educational requirements for a sociology degree?

To be accepted to a sociology bachelor’s degree, you need a high school diploma or the equivalent. A bachelor’s in sociology will have the same requirements as any other bachelor’s degree in social science. It will likely require you to take a general range of courses in social science and humanities subjects. Also, you will be required to take many specific sociology courses.

It helps to look at the requirements or study plans available on the websites of various sociology departments. For instance, Harvard University’s sociology department includes a Plan of Study, which outlines the requirements for a sociology major. These requirements include introductory courses, tutorials, quantitative methods courses, seminars, and electives.

To complete a graduate degree, you will be required to have an undergraduate degree. Sometimes, a social work college diploma will be acceptable with certain extra requirements. To complete a doctorate in sociology, you will need a master’s degree. Generally, your degrees must be in sociology or another related field, such as social work, criminology, or anthropology.

To complete a doctorate in sociology, the candidate will be required to complete a certain number of graduate-level courses, a range of core courses, a qualifying examination (or comps), and a dissertation. The dissertation is an original and exhaustive piece of research in an area of expertise. It is the most important and most difficult aspect of the Ph.D. For most doctoral students, the Ph.D. program is largely devoted to researching and writing their dissertation. 

What types of degrees are available in sociology?

Like most other social sciences or humanities, you can earn a bachelor’s, a master’s, or a doctorate in sociology. Depending on the specific job you hope to work in following your degree, the level of education that you need will differ. The average pay that you are likely to receive depends upon the specific degree you have. Those with a higher-level degree can expect to earn more, on average.

Generally, someone with a bachelor’s degree in sociology will have a general understanding of the field. With a master’s, they will attain a more developed and sophisticated level of understanding, which is narrowed to focus on a niche topic. A person with a doctorate is an expert. They can teach sociology at the university level and produce original research. 

Generally, an undergraduate degree in sociology is four years long. A master’s degree tends to be between one and two years. A doctorate might be four years in length. Therefore, completing a Ph.D. in sociology will require about ten years of study. However, as we mentioned earlier, a Ph.D. is only necessary if you plan to work in certain jobs. It is also worth keeping in mind that most people think of their graduate degree as work. Often, they are paid to study and can teach courses on the side. 

How does sociology inform other areas of study?

Sociology informs other areas of study hugely. It provides a much deeper level of insight into other areas. For instance, a sociological perspective might make the field of history of economics more grounded in the actual relation between theories, events, and human impact. 

Sociology is closely related to several other fields. Many people who study sociology combine their degree with another degree. Some of the common degrees closely related to sociology include economics, criminology, political science, anthropology, and social work. 

Sociology draws its foundational thinkers from a range of other disciplines. For instance, many important sociologists studied as philosophers, economists, historians, or political scientists. In many ways, it is an interdisciplinary field of study. 

Student Experience Of Studying Sociology

One of the important and often overlooked considerations when deciding on a degree is the experience of students. Student experience makes the difference between an enjoyable and rewarding four years and a grueling and difficult trudge. If you are in the right field, it should not feel like a chore. To get a sense of whether you are in the right field, look at the overall student experience. 

When applying for any program, it is useful to look at the financial aid options that are available to you. Financial aid can alleviate a lot of stress and reduce the need to take out significant student loans. This can make the overall study experience far more enjoyable. 

How do students commonly incorporate sociology into their degrees?

For the most part, students who study sociology take sociology as their major. With sociology as a major, it becomes the crux of your degree. In this situation, the other areas of study inform your sociological research, rather than the other way around. Incorporating these areas into sociology is more important, then, than incorporating sociology into other areas.

For students who take sociology as a minor or an elective, sociology can help to understand some of the logic and patterns underlying social behavior. For example, a student is majoring in history or economics might take a sociology course to help them understand how the larger structures or systems they are looking at impact humans directly. It might also help them to understand the ways that society produced certain structures of phenomena. 

What type of fieldwork is typically required for a sociology degree?

At the undergraduate level, it is not necessary to do a lot of fieldwork for a sociology degree, in most cases. At this level, it is more likely that research will be secondary and based on other sources. You will do a lot of reading and research to learn about what sociologists have studied before you. However, to prepare for the next stage of your studies, you will probably need to take courses related to fieldwork. These courses might be called Fieldwork Research Methods, Fieldwork Ethics, or Undertaking Fieldwork.

At the higher level, fieldwork in sociology might involve embedding yourself in social phenomena or location. It might also involve undertaking interviews, conducting surveys, analyzing behavior, or documenting phenomena. For instance, sociologists might want to study the effects of solitary confinement on the behavior of prison populations. To do so, they might interview prisoners, correctional staff, and family members. They might also conduct surveys of the public.

What are the practical applications of a sociology degree?

Sociology is a practical degree. Though it is rooted in theoretical analysis and research, sociology has many implications that relate to people’s lives. Many sociology studies transform the government’s approach to certain issues. For instance, a sociological study might pave the way for a new approach to medical treatment, incarceration, or education. 

Also, sociologists frequently work as support workers or social workers. In these kinds of roles, the impact of their work is very evident. The day to day lives of people and groups are impacted tremendously by the social workers or support staff they engage with. The theories that underlie or guide these interactions are just as important.

Career Paths In Sociology

A student with a sociology major, or a graduate with a sociology degree, has no shortage of work options. For many people who study sociology, an undergrad degree is just the beginning. 

People with a passion for the kind of research done by sociologists are likely to continue their sociological education at the graduate level. This research can lead to a career as a professor, researcher, or other academic. Other people might end their education after their bachelor’s degree and enter the workforce directly. 

Whatever path you choose, there are a lot of doors open to you with a sociology degree. Here’s a quick look at some of the many places a degree in sociology can take you. 

What types of jobs are sociology majors qualified for?

A sociology major is not a restrictive degree. For one thing, a sociology undergrad will leave you with a bachelor’s of arts of BA. With a BA, you have the opportunity to work in many different fields. As this list is so broad, we will focus only on the careers specifically suitable for a sociology major. 

Some of the jobs that a sociology major can find include: 

  • Social Worker
  • Adoption Services Worker
  • Probation Officer
  • Child Care Worker
  • Crime Victim Specialist
  • Sociological Researcher
  • Employee Relations Officer
  • Support Worker
  • Market Researcher or Consultant
  • Political Consultant
  • Political Organizer
  • Sexual Assault Educator
  • Sexual Crisis Center Staff
  • Policy Planner
  • Outreach Worker

What sociological skills have applications in a variety of fields?

During a typical undergraduate degree in sociology, you will strengthen and develop several skills. These skills can easily translate to other career paths. Some of the skills that you will use and develop as a sociology student include:

  • Critical thinking
  • Reading and writing
  • Analyzing
  • Researching
  • Communication
  • Empathy
  • Interpersonal skills

No matter what job or career you end up working in, critical thinking and communication skills are essential. These are the skills necessary in everything from politics to business, to public relations, or journalism. If you are planning to branch out, it can be useful to secure a double major, a minor in another field, or a graduate degree. 

What is the typical career path of someone with a sociological degree?

When you look at the history of sociology, it can be a little difficult to get a sense of the kind of career you can expect as a sociologist. This confusion is because the many career paths of sociological thinkers do not serve as a blueprint. There are many ways that you can go in your career, and everyone takes a different path.

For instance, Karl Marx, one of the founding fathers of sociology, studied law and philosophy. He then worked as a journalist, a political writer, and a revolutionary. He also spent much of his life in exile. W.E.B. Du Bois, the founding father of American sociology, spent much of his life as the editor of a magazine, as a teacher, and as a civil rights activist. At one point, his passport was confiscated by the American government due to his criticism. 

Neither of these careers seems to lay out a clear career path. However, sociologists commonly find work in more standard positions. Many sociologists, for example, work as university professors or researchers. Others work in government departments or as civil servants. Others still work as counselors, contractors, or analysts. 

People with sociology degrees have gone on to work in Human Resources, Law, Social Work, Public Relations, Fundraisers, in the justice system, or private industry with corporations and firms. Many sociologists find work in marketing or public relations due to their understanding of human behavior and their ability to influence, guide, or manipulate behavior as a result. 

Best Schools To Study Sociology

Most large universities offer degrees in sociology. Those that do not offer a major in sociology offer at least some courses in this area. As a result, there are thousands of programs to choose from if you decide to pursue a sociology degree. Some of the best sociology schools out there are very well respected institutions. 

Deciding on the best school in any given field can be difficult. To narrow down the list, it can help to look at a few characteristics in particular. To determine which school is best, look at the reputation of the school, the affordability of the program, the instructors at the institution, the student experience, and the research produced by a department. 

The QS World University Rankings lists the following schools as the best sociology institutions this year:

Many of these schools excel in many areas. Sociology is just one of their strengths. Some other schools which frequently rank highly for their sociology programs include:

Though most of the schools listed above are very prestigious and competitive institutions, making them difficult to attend, great sociology programs are available at countless schools across the world. Some other schools with great sociology departments are: 

Conclusion

Sociology is about studying humanity from a particular perspective. It is involved in studying society, social organization, social structure, and social circumstance. For the most part, this is a critical field that examines society and events intending to discover the deeper principles which structure or influence them. 

Often, sociologists hope to examine social phenomena in a way that will allow them to find a new perspective. This new perspective might help to transform the ways that we think about the world. Some of the most important ideas and thinkers in history have emerged from the field of sociology. 

If you are fascinated by people, society, and behavior, a sociology degree might just be for you. A degree in sociology can be incredibly interesting, rewarding, and beneficial to your future career. If you manage to secure a position as a sociology professor, you are looking at a very rewarding and lucrative career path. 

Schools across the world offer great sociology programs. Some of the best schools to study sociology at include Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, and LSE; however, there are hundreds of great schools out there offering sociology degrees. One of the best ways to find an affordable sociology program is to look at public or state universities in your region with sociology departments. 

Hopefully, you now have a good sense of the nature of sociology and the kind of work that you can expect to find if you decide to pursue a degree in the field. 

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