Our guide to sociology
Jane McGuire

Our guide to sociology

First published date July 06 2015 Amended date July 06 2015

What has more impact on our identity: our genes or our upbringing? Are men and women really that different? Why do some people commit crime? The chances are if you are thinking of studying sociology you will have already thought about some of these questions. In simple terms, sociology is the study of human relationships and behaviour. This covers everything from crime and religion, family, discussions of race and social class to the shared beliefs of a common culture. Keen to find out more? Read on!


What is sociology?

The study of sociology can be broken down into three sectors; social, societal and global. The social study looks at the concepts of romantic love, racial and gender identity and religion. On the other hand societal is the study of crime and law, wealth and poverty and prejudice and discrimination in society. The global elements of sociology studies phenomena such as war and peace, economic development and the population growth.

In any course or study of sociology, you will also cover anthropology – the study of humans. This is split into cultural and biological anthropology, asking questions about the influence of genes and society on an individual’s makeup. By taking a closer look at society, a sociologist will begin to uncover the underlying meanings of emerging patterns of social behaviour.

As students you will be trained to think critically about human social life and help others understand the way social groups work. This is all in the hope that we can build a better society, without conflict and discrimination.


What does a sociologist actually do?

In very simplified terms a sociologist analyses evidence to develop an understanding of key social processes. Sounds a bit technical doesn’t it? This is done by observing the life of groups of people, conducting large scale studies and interpreting historical documents for patterns of behaviour. Sociologists believe our social surrounding influences our thoughts and actions, so will continue to study human behaviour in regards to crime prevention and issues to do with race and class.

What are the main theories behind sociology?

If you choose to study sociology, you will be introduced to a wide range of sociologists and philosophers who have all developed their own theories of human social relations. Here’s a brief overview of some of the theories you may come across -

- Symbolic interaction perspective: This theory focuses on the symbolic meaning that people develop and rely on in social interactions. Based on Max Weber’s assertion that individuals act according to their interpretation of the meaning of their world, and American philosopher George Herbert Mead’s theory of the social self.

- Conflict theory: Unsurprisingly, conflict theory focuses on the role of conflict and power in social order. This theory is based on the work of Karl Marx. A conflict theory sociologist would argue society is maintained by domination and the ruling of those in power.

- Functionalist theory: Based on the works of Emile Durkheim, functionalism sees society as more than just the sum of all its different parts, but instead it is the result of all these parts working together. In other words, all the different parts or groups in society depend on one another.

- Social learning theory: A theory that attempts to understand society by understanding the development of the self. This theory is often used when it comes to explaining why some individuals are led to crime, when others are not.


What will I learn on a course?

Every course is different, but most will cover the basics of sociological understanding. A beginner’s study will introduce key theories, methods and debates. A more advanced course may focus more in depth on the sociologists and the development of their theories. Nearly every course will cover modules on the sociology of crime and deviance, the education system and religion and issues of power and inequality. Expect to leave with a new found way of looking at the world and the people in it! 

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