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‘Socio’ comes from the Latin ‘socius’, meaning ‘companion’ or ‘ally’. In modern terms, ‘socio’ has evolved to mean ‘society’ or ‘relating to society’. The suffix ‘-logy’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘the study of’. Quite literally, ‘sociology’ means ‘the study of society’. 

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What is Sociology?

‘Socio’ comes from the Latin ‘socius’, meaning ‘companion’ or ‘ally’. In modern terms, ‘socio’ has evolved to mean ‘society’ or ‘relating to society’. The suffix ‘-logy’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘the study of’. Quite literally, ‘sociology’ means ‘the study of society’.

So what does the study of society involve? Studying society, or Sociology, is a complex and complex field of study. It studies human interactions, processes, changes and developments in society. Simply put, it is the study of social phenomena. As you can imagine, this is a very broad area. The subject ranges from studying small subcultures to large-scale cohort studies.

Sociology can be studied in many different contexts, either nationally or internationally, and either specific to a culture or cross-culturally. Sociology explains certain social phenomena by analysing patterns, understanding motivations for human behaviour, and examining dynamics, such as the influence of history, culture, politics and religion on human societies.

Sociologists use a range of research methods to gather information about society and to test sociological theories. Sociology is a social science, because it uses scientific tools. In our study of Sociology, we will not only be looking at what is studied in society, but also how it is studied.

Social Studies, network, StudySmarterSociology studies humans and society. Pixabay

A brief history and background of human sociology

The study of society and human behaviour within society is not new; in fact, ancient philosophers began asking sociological questions long before sociology became an independent academic discipline. Ancient philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Confucius were interested in human behaviour within their societies and produced theories explaining social conflict and power structures.

In the 18th century, philosophers such as Locke, Kant and Hobbes used their philosophical perspectives and theories to suggest social reforms for common social problems. In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution brought about many changes to socio-economic structures, mobility (including global mobility), politics and religion. These developments helped people understand societal structures and changes affecting their own lives and also exposed them to other societies and cultures.

The academic discipline of sociology

In 1838, French philosopher Auguste Comte, often referred to as the father of modern Sociology used the term sociology to describe the study of the social world. He acknowledged that it was a discipline in its own right. However, this term was first coined by French writer Emmanuel Sieyes in 1780. Comte rediscovered and defined it.

Because of the French origin of the field, the word ‘sociology’ comes from the French word ‘sociologie’. Comte believed in using scientific methods; this is known as the positivist approach.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, some key thinkers became ‘pioneers’ in Sociology and developed theories to help bring about social change. These included Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber; their knowledge of other disciplines, such as history, economics, philosophy and psychology, contributed to their sociological research.

Sociology became a growing academic discipline in the United States in universities and schools during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The American Sociological Association (ASA) was founded in 1905 and other countries soon formed their own national Sociology associations. The International Sociological Association (ISA) was founded in 1949. It sponsors research in over 50 areas, including children, religion, employment, law and families.

Sociology, graphic of people forming a question mark, StudySmarterIn modern times, sociology is recognised as an independent academic discipline.

The sociological imagination

In 1959, American sociologist C. Wright Mills established the concept of the ‘sociological imagination’. Social imagination is the ability to take everyday personal events and interactions and connect them to wider society. The concept encourages us to challenge the familiar and look beyond our “limited perspective of personal experiences and cultural biases” (C. Wright Mills, 1959). By doing so, we can understand the relationship between personal and public issues.

Non-western sociology

It is important to note the value of non-western Sociology. Although the majority of sociologists came from the Western world and studied Western societies, non-Western sociology has largely been unaddressed by sociological studies conducted by Western academics working in the West. After claims of Western ethnocentrism (the perception or belief that one culture is ‘normal’ or ‘natural’), many sociologists are acknowledging and encouraging international and multicultural research.

A notable example of Eastern sociological research is the work of Ibn Khaldun on the social phenomena of Arab-Muslim civilisations. He explains ‘how and why’ societies were the way they were using detailed accounts and historical insights. French geographer Yves Lacoste and English historian Arnold Toynbee considered his work the greatest of its kind.

The Journal of Chinese Sociology facilitates the development of sociological research in China and promotes the Chinese sociological perspective around the world. The Journal publishes empirical studies on modern Chinese society, covering topics such as social inequality, social movements and politics, economic reform, and migrant and family demographics in China. The research presented in this journal has valuable theoretical and policy implications.

Sociology, ontology and epistemology

Sociology can be viewed from the wider perspective of ontology. Ontology is a philosophical branch that studies ‘existence’ and ‘being’. It is relevant to Sociology and social research because it asks whether concepts are part of an objective reality or are socially constructed. Do facts discovered in social research exist outside of social research?

The study of ontology is also linked to epistemology. Epistemology is concerned with how we ‘know’ things. According to some epistemologists, we can only derive knowledge from our senses and that is how we know it exists. For example, we know that grass is green because we can see it and we know that the ocean exists because we can see, hear and feel it. Knowledge is based on our perceptions, which create our realities. If we could not see, would the grass still be green? If we did not see the ocean in person, would it exist?

There are many more philosophical perspectives that are relevant to the study of sociology. This section has given an overview of just one perspective. Although these are not relevant for your sociological studies, you may want to independently learn more about philosophical perspectives in sociology if you are interested.

Understanding how we can know things is directly relevant to sociology and social research. Do certain concepts exist outside of our understanding? How do we know whether society exists objectively or whether it is a social construct?

Key takeaways

  • Sociology has Latin and Greek roots meaning ‘the study of society’.
  • Sociology studies human interactions, processes, changes and developments in society.
  • Sociology is the study of social phenomena.
  • Sociologists put forward theories to explain certain phenomena, processes and changes. They also use research methods to gather information about society. Sociologists use scientific methods, which makes sociology a social science.
  • Sociology had origins in ancient philosophy before becoming an academic discipline. The father of sociology, Auguste Comte, believed in using a positivist approach to the study of sociology. Sociology is now a well-known academic discipline around the world. There are national and international sociological associations that sponsor research in a variety of areas of interest.
  • Sociology is also linked to the philosophical studies of ontology and epistemology, which are concerned with whether there are objective realities or social constructs and how we come to know that things exist.

Sociology topics and learning objectives

Sociology can help us understand society, societal structures and processes and how they affect human behaviour. Sociology can be studied through the following topics.

  • Theory and methods

  • Education with methods in context

  • Cultural identity

  • Families and households

  • Health

  • Work, poverty and welfare

  • Beliefs in society

  • Global development

  • The media

  • Crime and deviance

Sociology: theory and methods

Sociological theories are suggested explanations of how society works and how humans behave. Sociological theories are key to the study of sociology and are studied throughout the topic. ‘Sociological methods’ look at research methods used in sociological research; for example, how can sociologists study employment patterns? Understanding how sociologists discover information about society is important in our study of sociology.

Sociology: education with methods in context

Education is an important topic in sociology as it looks at how education varies depending on social policies, external and internal processes and individual factors such as social class, race and gender.

Sociology: cultural identity

Cultural identity looks at the impact of culture on our identities. Cultures include global culture, mass culture, subcultures and the cultures of different backgrounds in society. This topic looks at how culture and socialisation form our identities.

Sociology: families and households

The topic of families and households looks at how families and households have changed over time. It studies demographic changes in different types of families and explores why these changes could have occurred. The concept of childhood is also discussed as a sociological construct.

Sociology: health

The topic of health discusses how health and illnesses may be social constructs. It also examines trends and patterns in the social distribution of healthcare and how medical access varies in social groups.

Sociology: work, poverty and welfare

The issues of poverty, welfare and the labour process are discussed in this topic. In particular, the distribution of wealth in the UK, the Welfare State, and how work and poverty have changed over time.

Sociology, rich and poor person, StudySmarterThe topic of work, poverty and welfare discusses the distribution of wealth in the UK.

Sociology: beliefs in society

Religions, ideologies and religious movements are discussed in this topic with relation to their roles in society. The topic also considers contemporary issues and changes in religion, such as the impact of secularisation.

Sociology: global development

Global development looks at the impact of globalisation on wider society, and global inequality. It looks at how global sociological changes such as industrialisation and urbanisation impact society, development and the environment.

Sociology: the media

This topic looks at the role and impact of media on society. It looks at representations in the media of different social groups and considers how audiences interact with the media.

Sociology: crime and deviance

The topic of crime and deviance looks at the social distribution of crime, the causes of crime, and effective punishments. A key focus of this topic is on the sociological theories on crime.

Sociology, criminal running, StudySmarterSociology studies patterns in crime.

Sociology: stratification and differentiation

The topic of social stratification and differentiation looks at different social groups and their characteristics. A key focus of this topic is how differences between individuals and groups lead to differences in status, power and roles in society.

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What is sociology?

Sociology is a social science that studies human interactions, processes, changes and developments in society.

What does sociology mean?

The term ‘socio’ means society or ‘relating to society’. The suffix ‘-logy’ means ‘the study of’. Therefore, Sociology means the ‘study of society’.

Is sociology a science?

Sociology is considered a social science because it uses scientific methods to study social issues and phenomena. Some argue that sociology is an objective science, much like the natural sciences, as it is possible to obtain objective social facts through data collection and analysis.

What is culture in sociology?

Sociologists define culture as consisting of the shared values, beliefs, customs, languages, arts and history of a group of people.

Who came up with the term ‘sociology’ and is considered the father of Sociology?

Auguste Comte came up with the term ‘sociology’ in 1838.

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What factors contribute to the context of sociological research?

Factors contributing to the context of sociological research include:

  • the way researchers perceive the nature of the social phenomena, 
  • pre-existing literature, 
  • the inductive versus the deductive approach to developing theory,  
  • the research quality standards and rules.

What is the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning?

The difference between inductive and deductive reasoning is in the way researchers approach theory development. 

  • The inductive approach seeks to develop new theories. 
  • The deductive approach aims to test existing ones.

Do researchers need to use existing literature?

Yes, they do. They need to familiarise themselves with what other researchers have already said and done to build upon it.

Are researchers subject to any research quality standards?

Yes, they should ensure the utmost research integrity and obey ethical standards.

What are the different types of research methods?

  • Primary or secondary research
  • Quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-methods

What are the different types of data in research methods?

Researchers collect primary and secondary data. Using primary data involves using data collected by the researcher first-hand, whilst using secondary data means using someone else's research outputs. Data can also be of quantitative and qualitative nature.


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