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What is Sociology?

Sociology is a scientific discipline that developed in the 19th century which is used to explain social processes. Max Weber famously defined it by saying: “Sociology… is a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects. Action is social insofar as, by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual (or individuals), it takes account of the behaviour of others and is thereby oriented in its course.”

Thus, sociology attempts to explain and interpret social structures by breaking down social processes into meaningful individual elements (in the form of actions). The term “social” in the sense of social action has a different meaning to how it is used in everyday speech. It is not endued with a valuation, instead it is about interaction, sometimes even collaboration, between actors. Based on this definition, torturers act “socially” to the same degree as an association of saints or an internet community does. Societies often have created social entities, so-called institutions, that create regularities of action through standards, values and sanctions. Usually their validity is recognised over long historical periods by broad swathes of a society with the rules being followed consciously or unconsciously.

Sociology is an empirical science which aims to produce true statements about the regularities and probabilities of social processes through methodically controlled observations. Since people are free to act (unlike purely physical bodies), most of the general correlations of empirical regularities found in sociology have a probabilistic nature, i.e. their occurrence can be predicted with a high probability, but not a high inevitably. Statistical methods therefore play an important role when it comes to quantitative research methods used in sociology. Since humans (as opposed to purely physical bodies) can also report on their actions and their objectives, interpretation methods for understanding meaning are also an important part of the methodology of sociology.

A brief example shall explain the approach of sociology: After the Reunification, the birth rate in East Germany declined. Why? Empirical studies show that by reconstructing the motives of actions, a different social connection between institutions (employment system, family) produced a different logic of action. For example, unlike in the GDR, one’s employment trajectory is more at risk if one has children while studying or at the start of one’s career. Since many people simultaneously changed the direction of their actions, families were started at a later point in life and, hence, the birth rate dropped abruptly, increasing thereafter only gradually. The reduction in birth rate has impacted many social functional areas. The precise implications that this will have is the object of future research projects (and of new generations of students)…

Since the scope of sociology is society, there is a range of concrete fields of investigation and practice: the sociology of work, family, organisations, university, criminality, municipality, education, architecture, gender, social structure, sports, recreation, advertising, youth, ageing, the environment, values, political sociology, economic sociology, life course sociology etc. These different “special sociologies” are connected by general sociological theories and methods used in the different subareas.