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  The term sociology (from Latin socius, ‘companion’ and Greek logos, ‘study of’) literally means the study of the processes of companionship. The word was originally coined by Auguste Comte (1789 - 1857), and in its early usage meant the scientific, and more specifically, the positivistic study of society. Since then the term has gained much wider currency, and is used to refer to the systematic study of the functioning, organization and development of human social life, groups and societies. Sociology characteristically embraces a wide range of competing paradigms and approaches. It has also remained open to ideas imported from other disciplines.

Sociology is one of a group of social sciences which includes: anthropology, economics, political science and human geography. The divisions between the various social sciences are not well-defined they all share a range of common interests, concepts and methods. Some argue that what distinguishes sociology from the other social sciences is its peculiar interest in the problems of modern industrial societies. While this is certainly a central interest of the discipline, the concerns of sociology are far more wide-ranging and incorporate all aspects of all types of society.

The scope of sociology is extremely wide, stretching from the study of a passing encounter between two individuals to the analysis of global social processes. The subjects covered by the discipline include: the sociology of development (the examination of social change from agrarian to industrial societies and in particular the Third World); the sociology of deviance (the study of behaviour which departs from that regarded as ‘normal’ within a society, including crime, mental illness and sexual behaviour); the sociology of health and illness (the study of the experience, distribution and treatment of illness); the sociology of the family and kinship (the study of how sexual reproduction is organized and of the social relations deriving from blood ties); the sociology of art (a sociological concern with the visual arts, music, theatre, cinema, and literature); the sociology of education (the sociological analysis of educational processes and practices); the sociology of knowledge (the study of the social processes involved in the production of knowledge); the sociology of law (the sociological study of the social context, development and operation of law and the legal system); the sociology of housing (the analysis of different patterns of housing provision and housing tenure, historically, comparatively and within societies); urban sociology (the study of social relationships and structures in the city); the sociology of industry (the study of work as paid employment and of industry); the sociology of mass communications (the study of the mass media of communications); the sociology of organizations (the study of the factors which affect organizational structure and the social behaviour of people in organizations), the sociology of religion (the sociological analysis of religious phenomena); the sociology of science (the study of social processes involved in the production of scientific knowledge as well as the social implications of this knowledge); the sociology of sport (a subdiscipline within sociology which focuses on the relationship between sport and society), the sociology of the built environment (a recent emphasis in sociology which brings together a number of special studies previously handled separately: the sociology of housing, urban sociology, architecture and town planning); the sociology of work (the sociological analysis of work and its organization, especially, but not solely, in terms of paid work); the sociology of gender (the study of the ways in which the physical differences between men and women are mediated by culture and social structure); and the sociology of race (the study of the historical, social and cultural bases of contemporary inequalities between different ethnic groups).

The practice of sociology involves the abilities to think imaginatively and to detach oneself from preconceived ideas about social relationships. Within sociology there are some broad divisions as to the assumptions that can be made about the nature of social reality, and these crucially influence the approach to analysis that is adopted, the research methods employed and, ultimately, the theories that are generated.

A central question within sociology concerns the basis of social order. Why do societies exhibit certain stable patterns and regularities of social behaviour and structure? What are the factors that make societies cohere? The classical answer to these questions was provided by the functionalist, , Émile Durkheim (1858 - 1917), one of the founders of sociology. He believed that society was more than just the aggregate product of its individual members, rather, he argued, society pre-exists human beings and exerts a moral force over their behaviour. For Durkheim, it is the external constraining effects of the society that directs human behaviour and it is to society and not individuals that one should look for explanations of social phenomena. Other social theorists have also emphasized the importance of social structure in explanations of social life: two notable figures were , Karl Marx (1818 - 1883) and , Talcott Parsons (1902 - 1979). Others—ethnomethodologists and phenomenologists, for example—argue that this approach to social reality ignores the fact that for the members of a society, social reality is meaningful and that individuals act on the basis of this meaning, purposefully directing their activities towards the accomplishment of certain goals, and in so doing construct and reconstruct social reality. In practice, most sociologists accept that social structure and individual action both play a part in the creation and re-creation of social reality though there are differences in emphasis. A further major division within social theory is that existing between those who stress the importance of a consensus of social values as the basis of social order (consensus theory), and those who emphasize the role of conflict and opposed interests (conflict theory). DA

See also action perspective; critical theory; dependency theory; dramaturgical model; ethnomethodology; evolutionism; exchange; functionalism; historical sociology; holism; individualism; interactionism; macrosociology; Marxism; microsociology; naturalism; phenomenological sociology; positivism; rational choice theory; social/sociological problems; social realism; society; sociology of knowledge; structuralism; structuration; structure-agency debate; symbolic interactionism; system; systems theory; understanding.Further reading A. Giddens, Sociology; , D. Lee and , H. Newby, The Problem of Sociology.



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