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 WHAT IS SOCIOLOGY

Sociology is the systematic and scientific study of human social life. Sociologists study people as they form groups and interact with one another. The groups they study may be small, such as married couples, or large, such as a subculture of suburban teenagers. Sociology places special emphasis on studying societies, both as individual entities and as elements of a global perspective.

The Birth of Sociology

Auguste Comte (1798–1857), widely considered the “father of sociology,” became interested in studying society because of the changes that took place as a result of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. During the French Revolution, which began in 1789, France’s class system changed dramatically. Aristocrats suddenly lost their money and status, while peasants, who had been at the bottom of the social ladder, rose to more powerful and influential positions. The Industrial Revolution followed on the heels of the French Revolution, unfolding in Western Europe throughout the 1800s. During the Industrial Revolution, people abandoned a life of agriculture and moved to cities to find factory jobs. They worked long hours in dangerous conditions for low pay. New social problems emerged and, for many decades, little was done to address the plight of the urban poor.
Comte looked at the extensive changes brought about by the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution and tried to make sense of them. He felt that the social sciences that existed at the time, including political science and history, couldn’t adequately explain the chaos and upheaval he saw around him. He decided an entirely new science was needed. He called this new science sociology, which comes from the root word socius, a Latin word that means “companion” or “being with others.”
Comte decided that to understand society, one had to follow certain procedures, which we know now as the scientific method. The scientific method is the use of systematic and specific procedures to test theories in psychology, the natural sciences, and other fields. Comte also believed in positivism, which is the application of the scientific method to the analysis of society. Comte felt that sociology could be used to inspire social reforms and generally make a society a better place for its members. Comte’s standards of “research” were not nearly as exacting as today’s, and most of his conclusions have been disregarded, as they were based mostly on observation rather than serious investigation.
In the United States, sociology was first taught as an academic discipline at the University of Kansas in 1890, at the University of Chicago in 1892, and at Atlanta University in 1897. Over time, it spread to other universities in North America. The first department of sociology opened at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, in 1922, followed by sociology departments at Harvard University in 1930 and at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1950s.








Types of Sociology

Not all universities approach sociology the same way, and the new science evolved differently depending on where it was taught and who was teaching it. The two major types of sociology that emerged were qualitative sociology and quantitative sociology. Today, most universities use both qualitative and quantitative methods of inquiry, and one method is not necessarily better than the other.

Qualitative Sociology

At the University of Chicago, Albion Small (1854–1926) developed qualitative sociology, which is concerned mainly with trying to obtain an accurate picture of a group and how it operates in the world. Small and his followers were particularly interested in understanding how immigration was affecting the city and its residents. From the middle of the nineteenth century to roughly the middle of the twentieth century, massive numbers of people immigrated to the United States from a variety of countries. Chicago in particular attracted many immigrants from Poland. Early sociologists were fascinated by the social changes they saw taking place and began conducting qualitative studies that involved personal interviews and observations of ethnic rituals and ceremonies.
Some University of Chicago sociologists actually went back to Poland to interview people who were about to immigrate to the United States, who had relatives who were immigrants, or who had no intention of immigrating anywhere. In keeping with the spirit of qualitative sociology, the researchers felt that they could understand the experiences of Polish immigrants only if they also understood their reality and experiences before they left their homeland.
Today, qualitative sociology emphasizes understanding individuals’ experiences by examining their books, television programs, interactions, and ceremonies, among other elements. For example, a sociologist hoping to understand the experiences of emergency medical technicians (EMTs) might spend time riding in the backs of ambulances as the EMTs go out on calls.

Quantitative Sociology

Sociology at Harvard University developed differently. Like the University of Chicago sociologists, Harvard sociologists wanted to understand the immigrant experience, but they went about their research in a quantitative way. Quantitative sociology relies on statistical analysis to understand experiences and trends. While some researchers at Harvard did talk to people and observe them, many preferred to remain within the confines of the university and quantify their data to render it suitable for statistical manipulation.

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