Defining sociology

by Herbert J Gans

In his recent post on sociology’s image problem, Prof Rojas included a definition of sociology as “the scientific study of groups.” It is the same one I was taught in graduate school seventy years ago, and think it is now long out of date.

Let me offer the one I have used in recent years: Sociology is the study of what people in formal and informal organizations, institutions, communities, states and other social structures do, think and feel with, for, against and about others.

Three of its virtues are (1) it can be abbreviated or expanded for different venues; (2) it avoids the thorny questions of whether sociology is a science, or what kind of science, and something in addition to being a science; and (3) it offers a more graphic image of sociology to the lay people etc who now ignore sociology or do not understand what it is.

Herbert Gans is Robert S. Lynd Professor Emeritus and Special Lecturer, Columbia University, Department of Sociology.

  1. matt vidal said:

    In my view Herb’s definition is better than Fabio’s, but by defining sociology in terms of “organizations, institutions, communities, states,” it seems to implicitly cede some ground to economics, thus respecting the old Parsonian pact whereby economists study the economy and sociologists study everything else.

    Here’s another try at a definition:

    Sociology is the study of the interaction between social structure and individual behavior.

    In addition to being simple, an advantage of this definition is that it specifies sociology as distinct from economics. The latter is based on methodological individualism, the idea that explanations of the social world should refer only to individuals. In contrast, sociology sees social structure and institutions as existing independently of individuals and able to shape individual behavior; the distinction between “social structure” as distinct from “individual behavior” is meant to indicate this.

    • barubin said:

      And then there is (adapted from Tilly possibly), Sociology is the systematic study of social relationships. This definition doesn’t reify society, scales up or down, implicitly recognizes all social relationships in all spheres and is parsimonious. Saying that it’s the interaction between social structure and individual behavior suggests that individual behavior is not also social structure –a claim with which some of my colleagues (who see structure as embedded in, not separate from,individual behavior) might argue.

  2. Herbert J Gans said:

    I like your definition, Matt, especially its brevity but mine was intended to help make the discipline more intelligible and attractive to the general public, and I fear that public wouldn’t understand your definition.

    While I agree that organizations etc. influence, shape or even determine people’s behavior, I want to leave room for some agency, reminding us that organizations also consist of people.

    My definition is purposely general enough to accommodate various theoretical positions. People is not the same as individuals, and organizations can include firms, social movements, vanguard parties, as well as families and even dyads.
    Thus, my definition does not accept Parsons’ division of labor; in fact it justifies sociologists studying economic activities and organizations.

  3. matt vidal said:

    @Beth That is the definition I had in my head during graduate school: The study of social relations. Since then I’ve become more evangelical about ensuring that people know sociology covers the economy and of stating what I think it distinct about sociology: What we might call methodological relationalism, as opposed to methodological individualism. Of course, as you rightly point out, trying to encapsulate this into a simple but general definition is extremely difficult because of the sheer complexity of the structure/agency relation, not to mention different positions on it.

    @Herb I fear you are correct! My definition begs the question of what social structure is, along with, as Beth mentioned, what the interaction between structure and agency is.

    I wonder if a simpler, more general definition, taking a cue from Herb, might be: Sociology is the study of the relations between institutions, organizations and individual action?

  4. matt vidal said:

    In related news, here is the definition offered by the journalist Gideon Lewis-Kraus in his recent, lengthy NYT article on sociologist Alice Goffman:

    Sociology is about how “the group [is] primary to its members — that we are evolving products of contingent social norms.”

    Parsons still casts a long shadow, despite having disappeared from sociological theory syllabi many years — decades? — ago. So this is an important discussion to have in public!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: