1. Sociology the Discipline

1. Modernity and social change in Europe and the emergence of sociology. 2. Scope of the subject and comparison with other social sciences. 3. Sociology and common sense.

Table of contents


In all sociology was the first science to be concerned with social life as a whole, with the whole system of social institutions and social groups which constitute a society.

Intellectual Causes

Sociology has a fourfold intellectual origin in :

  • political philosophy,
  • philosophy of history,
  • biological theories of evolution and
  • movements for social and political reform.
  • Conservative reaction to enlightenment.

Change as threat to a just social order.
It was originally the philosophical historians who were largely responsible for breaking the mold and seeing society as something more than the political entity of the state. Credit for this goes to Comte, Marx and Spencer.
Social survey, which in itself had two sources provided an important element to sociology.

  1. The growing conviction that scientific methods could be used to study human society.
  2. The growing concern with poverty (and other social evils) and the recognition that it wasn’t a natural phenomenon but a result of human ignorance or exploitation. Under these two influences, the prestige of natural sciences and the movements of social reform, the social survey came to occupy an important place in the new science of society.

Material Causes

The new interest in history (the traditions of philosophy of history) and social change (origin of sociology) was aroused by the enormity of social changes that Europe underwent in the 18th and 19th centuries, namely the Industrial revolution and the French Revolution.

IR: led to mass squalor in cities. Workers lived in abominable conditions while the aristocracy lived in unimaginable splendor. This contrast led to the rise of social reform movements, as well as Marxism.

FR: the very idea that people could select their own government was revolutionary for aristocratic Europe at that time. As till then Monarchs were seen to be divinely appointed.
Social survey emerged from the idea of application of natural science methods to human society. It also took support from the acceptance of the new understanding of social evils, which were manifested by the material possibilities of the industrial age. A social survey, of poverty or any other social evil in fact, only made sense if it was backed by the belief that something could be done about it. Thus, the original attempts at sociology were attempts to guide the process of social change towards what was perceived as progress (nature of progress as envisioned then was highly Euro-centric). The development of sociology in India is due to much the same reasons as at an earlier stage in Europe. The emergence of new social problems emerging from rapid economic and social changes introduced by the colonial regime and the desire to direct and control these changes.
Sociology as a basis of reform took shape in the 70s post Vietnam war era in the USA. Rise of conflict in the form of race riots (Civil right movement), student revolts and reactions to the Vietnam war were triggers which raised the popularity of conflict theories which saw social conflict as a constant fact and challenged the authority of the functionalist perspective which was preoccupied with the maintenance of social order. This marked the turn of sociology from a theoretical to an applied science with the aim of resolving social problems rather than construction an objective science of society. WEB DuBois was a prominent sociologist who explore the problems of race in the US.

Joseph De La Maistre was a leading conservative critic of the changes in European society and felt that modernity, capitalism, and industrialisation were leading to a society of despair as opposed to the society of hope envisioned by enlightenment scholars.
Sociology emerged as a combination of enlightenment means aimed at achieving conservative goals.


Social Anthropology

Although the two had vastly different origins, due to the changes that they have undergone over time they are now practically indistinguishable. However, in terms of

  • concepts,
  • methods of investigation and analysis, and
  • focus of studythe two disciplines are still widely separated.

In the past Anthropologists studied primitive societies whereas sociologists concerned themselves with advanced/modern societies. As field work became a fundamental requirement for anthropologists, they were involved in studying small societies which were radically different from their own. These radical differences allowed the anthropologists the liberty of being ethically neutral while analyzing these societies as functioning wholes. Also since these societies changed little and had little or no historical records, a historical approach became more or less impossible.
Differences arose initially due to the fact that while anthropologists used a functionalist approach, sociologists were still concerned with historical comparison (Durkheim on comparative sociology). Thus, the broad differences that between the two subjects in the early years were primarily due to the object/focus of study.
Recently these trends have begun changing due to the fact that primitive societies are being altered by the influence of western ideas and technology. In short, the focus of study has been societies in the process of economic growth and social change for both sociologists and anthropologists who increasingly work on the same kind of problems in Asia and Africa. Also there are an increasing number of anthropological studies in advanced societies, like studies of the “little community”, kinship groups, etc. In societies such as India, which are neither primitive nor advanced the distinction between the two disciplines holds little meaning and there is a real opportunity to for the traditional divide between the two to be overcome.

MN Srinivas said that sociology in India is more akin to social anthropology due to the great diversity which makes it difficult to apply macro generalisations.


JS Mill believed that “human beings in society have no properties but those which are derived from, and may be resolved into the laws of the nature of individual man” which starkly contrasts with the Durkheimian belief that social facts have an independent existence of their own outside the psyche of the individual. It is easy to see that both these views are the opposite ends of the spectrum and thus, the reality must lie somewhere between these two positions.
Psychology may be considered social to some degree since all psychological phenomena occur in a social context which affects them to an extent. However, it may still be said that social psychologists would feel a closer association with general psychology than with sociology. As they tend to be more bound by psychological methodologies (emphasizing experiment, quantitative studies etc.) and have often ignored the structural features of the social situation in which the study is conducted. Example in the study of war and conflict there have been mutually exclusive sociological and psychological explanations.
There have been various attempts to bridge the gap between the two disciplines such as the one by Gerth & Mills who see social roles as the meeting point of the individual and the social structure. They believe that a social role can be used to analyse the individual character and social structure in the same terms. This line of thought was eventually abandoned and the stream of studies wherein the two disciplines are divergent have taken a dominant position in the present academic situation.


There have been some critical studies which attempt to show that economics in itself cannot be an entirely autonomous subject. The general idea is that the “first principles” of economics are hypotheses which need validation and the only way to do that is through sociological inquiry.

There have been a number of studies in both subjects which have been interested in the cross impact of the two subjects. Economic studies which have directly concerned themselves with problems of social theory and sociological works which have concerned themselves with the general features of economic systems. It is in the latter part that the literature is most plentiful. Sociologists have explored aspects of economic behavior which have been either neglected or treated in a cursory fashion by economists. Sociological writings on capital and its effects are numerous.

Economics and sociology were closely related at their origins, ex in the works of Adam Smith, but then diverged. With time they have come together again, notably in recent years. The major cause of this is the shift of focus of economic studies from free market mechanisms to the GDP/GNP and the concept of economic planning that it brought along. This has led to the examination of social factors that drive economic growth, that is to say, what drives a person to do what they do suddenly became interesting again.
The major impetus in the collaborative efforts has come from economists who have made use of sociological concepts and generalisations in their studies. Few sociologists on the other hand have acquired enough competence in modern economic theory to specialize in the study of economic phenomena.
Just like the combination of economist and psychologist (Tversky/Kahneman) have produced great collaborative works in the cross field of behavioural economics, similar scope exists for studying group economic interactions.

Political Science

Traditional political science has three aspects: descriptive, practical and philosophical. Political science theory has developed sparingly beyond that involved in classification of types of government. The influence of sociology in this sphere has been great.
The sociological character of political science can be seen especially in two respects: the growth of comparative studies and in the study of political behavior and institutions in relation to other social institutions. Political science is nothing but the study of a particular social institution, the state. It deserves to be a separate discipline because of various reasons:

  1. Special importance of political institutions and the importance of the problems of distribution of power in society.
  2. Many sociologists in their observation of actual behavior have tended to ignore the political structures, thus coming up with generalisations which have been irrelevant.


There are many kinds of historiography and many kinds of sociology, so the inter relations are complex and diverse.
The first and simplest is that the historians frequently provide the material that the sociologists use. Evolutionary trends in early sociology were based on historical study of social forms and extrapolated from that data. Similarly, comparative sociology (Durkheim on comparative sociology) relies on historical data to compare different social institutions in different kinds of societies.
Secondly, the historian also uses sociology to understand the values and ethics of the time under consideration, for example biographies construct the social era (Victorian era in Churchill's biography) to explain the drives and motivations of the prime actor. History also needs a clear understanding of sociology to better understand events from various viewpoints. For ex. Marx used an economic framework of thought to analyse history and came up with Historical materialism. Ex. development of subaltern and feminist studies.
Modern historiography and modern sociology have both been influenced, in similar ways, by the philosophy of history. Philosophy of history gave to historiography the notion of theoretical ideas and concerns which were absent from the works of earlier narrative historians. At the same time it gave sociology the notion of historical types of society and thus the first element of classification of societies. Historiography and sociology, it can be said differ in their focus. While the historian is more concerned with how the present state of affairs came to be, the sociologist is more concerned with how the present state of affairs affects the individual and social institutions.


Sociology originated largely as a philosophical ambition; to account for the course of human history; to explain the social crisis in 19th century Europe; and to provide a doctrine to guide social policy. In its recent developments though sociology has for the most part abandoned such aims.
However, there still remains connection between the two disciplines in three respects:

  1. There is a philosophy of sociology much in the tradition of philosophy of science, i.e. an examination of the methods, concepts and arguments of sociology, and this scrutiny is more needed in sociology than in the traditional natural sciences due to the different nature of the subject.
  2. There is a close relation between sociology and moral/social philosophy. Sociologist on a Meta level study values and human valuations, as facts. Reflexive sociology (Alvin Gouldner) is also called moral sociology.
  3. Sociology inspires philosophical debate. Ex. Merton's ideas of latent and manifest functions were critiqued for having abandoned all moral judgment.


Andre Beteille points out that sociology is different from common sense as it has a body of concepts, methods and data, no matter how loosely coordinated, for which common sense of even the most acute and well informed kind cannot substitute. However he goes on to warn that in order to over emphasise this distinction, sociologists may be tempted to deliberately make it esoteric, which in a way defeats the purpose of the subject entirely i.e. to make understanding of society easier.

Common sense has often served as the source of hypothesis for sociological inquiry which has acted as an empirical evaluation of such claims. Further, sociological understanding has a positivist bent and thus often ignore subjective understanding while common sense emphasises on subjective understanding of events. Ex. common understanding states that bengali women divorce quite frequently. What this common sense argument ignores is that Bengali women have had a longer history of empowerment than the average Indian woman and are thus comfortable with the idea of divorce if the marriage doesn't work out. Thus, sociology aims at a higher level of generalisation than common sense.

Sociology is not just about economic, political, or domestic life; it is not about class, caste, or community; it is not about the ideal of equality or the reality of inequality; it is rather about the interconnections between these and other aspects of social life. While this may be called a functionalist bias by some, Merton’s contributions makes us realise that studying interconnections does not carry in itself the inherent assumption of their functional, dysfunctional, or non-functional nature.

In the past, sociologists have often repeated that common sense is insufficient to reach the level of understanding that is sought. A valid example of this is Durkheim’s methodology in the study of suicide. He begins by saying that systematic investigation of a subject was not possible unless the investigator freed themselves from their preconceptions. He went on to show that suicide rates were social facts, rather than the individualistic actions that common sense spelled them out to be. An amazingly counter intuitive observation that he came across was that suicide rates jumped significantly not only during times of economic slump but during times of economic boom as well. One cannot expect to come by that bit of information using common sense.

Sociology tells us about the actual situation on the ground which is often different from the common sense understanding of reality. Examples from Indian society abound as well, studies by MN Srinivas showed that the commonly held notion of caste as a rigid structure were wildly mistaken. He showed that phenomenon such as sanskritization and modernisation that caste was a fluid hierarchy, contrary to the general perception of the rigidness of caste. Similarly, village studies across the nation showed that villages that were seen as harmonious little republics were in fact fractious and riddled with inequality.

Thus, while it may appear that sociology is little more than organised common sense, it is not so. The systematic use of methodologies and comparison with other societies lends it a broader perspective, and a higher level of generalisation to better understand everyday occurences in society.

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