The social sciences examine human relationships. Just as the natural sciences attempt to understand the world of nature, the social sciences attempt to understand the social world.

Just as the world of nature contains ordered relationships that are not obvious but must be discovered through controlled observation, so the ordered relationships of the human or social world are not obvious and must be revealed through controlled and repeated observations.

Like the natural sciences the social sciences are divided into specialized fields based on their subject matter.

The Development of Sociology

All science requires the development of theories that can be proved or disproved by systematic research.

Sociology is a recent discipline. It emerged in the middle of the 19th century when European social observers began to use scientific methods to test their ideas. Three (3) factors combined to lead to the development of sociology.

1. The social upheaval in Europe-In in the middle of the 19th century Europe was in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. This shift from agricultural, to factory production, brought violent changes to people’s lives. Masses of people were forced off the land. In search of work, they moved to the cities, where they were met with anonymity, crowding, filth, and poverty.

Their ties to the land, and to the generations that had lived on it before them, and to their way of life, were abruptly broken. In the city, they were faced with terrible working conditions: low pay; exhausting hours; dangerous work; bad ventilation, and noise. To survive families had to allow their children to work in these same conditions.

As the result of the American and French Revolutions, the idea took hold that individuals possess inalienable rights, and the political systems in the Western world began to democratize themselves. As the traditional order was challenged, religion lost much of its influence as the unimpeachable source of answers to life’s perplexing questions.

Each fundamental social change further undermined traditional explanations of human existence. Sweeping social change upsets the existing social order and thus it encourages questioning and demands answers.

2. The rise of Imperialism-The Europeans had been successful in conquering, many parts of the world. Their new colonial empires, stretching from Asia through Africa to North and South America, exposed them to radically different cultures. Europeans began to ask why cultures differed.

3. Success of the natural sciences-Just as the Industrial Revolution and imperialism were moving people to question fundamental aspects of their social world, the scientific method (the use of objective, systematic observations to test theories in chemistry and physics) has begun to transform the world. Given these successes, it seemed a logical next step to apply this method to the questions now being raised about the social, world.

Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology

Facts never interpret themselves. For us to interpret them, we must place them in a framework. That conceptual framework is called a theory.

A theory is a general statement about how some parts of the world fit together and how they work. It is an explanation of how two or more facts are related. By providing a framework in which to fit observations, each theory interprets reality in a unique way.

Three major theories have emerged within the discipline of sociology: Symbolic Interactionism, Functional Analysis, and Conflict theory.


Symbolic interactionist view symbols- things to which we attach meaning- as the basis of social life.

1. Without symbols, our social relations would be limited to the animal level, for we would have no mechanism for perceiving others in terms of relationships (parent and child, aunt and uncle, employer and employee). These symbols define for us what such relationships entail.

2. Without symbols, we could not coordinate our actions with others; we would be unable to make plans for a future date, time, and place. Without symbols, there would be no books, movies, and musical instruments. We would have no schools or hospitals, no government, no religion.

3. Even the self is a symbol, for it consists of ideas that we have about who we are. And it is a changing symbol, for as we interact with others, we constantly adjust our views of the self-based on how we interpret the reactions of others.


Functional Analysis is also known as Structural Functionalism and functionalism and was part of sociology from the beginning.

Auguste Conite (1798-1857) and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) used an organic analogy

to anaIvze society, viewing it as a kind of living organism. Just as a biological organism has interrelated tissues and organs that function together, they wrote, so does society. Like an organism, if society is to function smoothly, its various parts must work together in harmony.

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) also saw society as composed of many parts, each with its own function. When all the parts of society fulfill their functions, society is in a “normal” state. When they do not, society is in an “abnormal” or “pathological” state..

Functionalists say, that to understand society, we need to look at both

STRUCTURE (bow the parts of a society fit together to make the whole) and

FUNCTION (how each part contributes to society).

Robert K Merton (b 1910) dismissed the organic analogy but he continued the idea that society as a whole is composed of interrelated parts. Merton used the term functions to refer to the beneficial consequences of people’s actions that help maintain the equilibrium of a social system. in contrast, dysfunctions are consequences that undermine a system’s equilibrium.

From the perspective of functional analysis, the group is a functioning whole, with each part related to the whole. Whenever we examine a smaller part, we need to look for its functions and dysfunctions to see how it is related to the larger unit. The basic approach can be applied to any social group, whether the whole society, a school, or even a group as small as the family.


Karl Marx (1818-1883), the founder of conflict theory witnessed the Industrial Revolution that transformed Europe. He saw that peasants who had left the land to seek work in urbanizing areas had to work at wages that barely provided enough to eat. Shocked by the suffering and exploitation be witnessed, Marx began to analyze society and history. As he did, he developed conflict theory, concluding that the key to all human history is class struggle.

In each society, some small group controls the means of production and exploits those people who do not. In industrialized societies, the struggle is between the bourgeoisie, the small group of capitalists who own the means to produce wealth, and the proletariat, the mass of workers exploited by the bourgeoisie. The capitalist also controls politics, so that when workers rebel the capitalists are able to call on the power of the state to control them.

Some current conflict theorists use conflict theory in a much broader sense. Ralf Dahrendorf (b.1929) sees conflict as inherent in all social relations that have authority. He points out that authority, or power that people consider legitimate, runs through all layers of society- whether small groups, a community or the entire society. People in positions of authority try to enforce conformity, which in turn creates resentment and resistance. The result is a constant struggle throughout society to determine who has authority over what.

Lewis Coser (b.1913) notes that conflict is especially likely to develop among people in close relationships. Such people are connected by a network of responsibilities, power, and rewards, and to change something can easily upset arrangements that they so carefully worked out. We can think of close relationships as a balancing act that involves the maintenance and reworking of a particular distribution of responsibilities, power, and rewards.

Unlike Functionalist, who view society as a harmonious whole, with its parts working together, Conflict theorists see society as composed of groups fiercely competing for scarce resources. Although alliances or cooperation may prevail on the surface, beneath the surface is a struggle for power. Marx focused on struggles between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, but modern conflict theorists have expanded this perspective to include smaller groups and even basic relationships.


Macro-level analysis- examines large-scale patterns of society.

Micro-level analysis– focus on social interaction, or what people do when they are in one another’s presence


Applied Sociology– This term refers to the use of sociology to solve problems. Applied sociologists work in a variety of settings, recommending practical changes that can be implemented. They may focus micro-level problems like family relationships or macro-level problems like crime and pollution.

Clinical Sociology-Some applied sociologists do not just make recommendations for change based on their findings; they also involve themselves directly in solving problems. This type of applied sociology is called clinical sociology. Clinical sociologists who work in industrial settings may try to change work conditions to reduce job turnover. Others work with ex-convicts, drug addicts, while still others are family counsellors.

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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