What is Sociology?

A. Sociology Defined

The science of sociology tends to have an urbane, cosmopolitan-sounding tone to it. Yet, somewhat contrary to what people may be led to believe, the definition of sociology is actually quite simple. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, sociology is defined as the study of human nature or more specifically, "the study of human social behavior, especially the study of the origins, organization, institutions, and development of human society."
The word "sociology" comes from the Greek suffix "logy," which means "study of" and the stem "socio" of the Latin word "socius," meaning member or friend, which, in the general sense, refers to all people.

The Encyclopedia of Public Health relays the following information about sociology, its origins, major influencers, and varying forms:

"As a scientific discipline, Sociology was borne out of the latter-day nineteenth century and early twentieth century theoretical writings. Note: The term theoretical is used to indicate the formulation of an understanding for a term/concept in relation to a set of known scientific facts and/or hypotheses."

Within the discipline of sociology, the predominant theories stem from the work of such well-known sociologists as: James Coleman, Emile Durkheim (Functionalism), Karl Marx (Socialism), George Herbert Mead (Symbolic Interactionism), C. Wright Mills (Power Elite Conflict Theory), Talcott Parsons (Structural Functionalism), Herbert Spencer (Social Darwinism), and Max Weber (Organization Theory).

Yet, even with such prolific sociologists contributing to sociology, a debate still persists as to whether the human interest-focused discipline qualifies as a true science.

B. Sociology's Role in Public Health

The central sociological component that connects the discipline to the idea of public health is its emphasis on society, as a whole, as opposed to individuals. This marked characteristic in which the emphasis is on units of study at the collective level (family, group, community, world, etc.) is what distinguishes the field from psychology.

In sociology, the primary principal is the way in which the communal structure is maintained, and how the processes among shared processes, such as conflict and resolution, relate to the maintenance and evolution of social hierarchies.

The role of the sociologist is to study the processes that build, maintain, and sustain a social system. One example of these processes is that of a health care system in a particular geographical locale.

While the scientific component of the study is concerned with the process regulating and shaping these particular systems, the sociological aspect works on the assumption that both social structure and social processes are complex and, thus, whatever methodology is used to study such inroads must also be suitably complex, as well as requiring large amounts of data and extensive amounts of time.

Ultimately, the method derived to use sociology as a tool for measuring public health was the population-based studies, such as generation of statistics and census reports. Yet, even by employing these comprehensive methods, sociology has been outshined by psychology (the biomedical model) in terms of a science known for its abilities to study public health.

However, sociology remains a viable instrument for gauging the following variables of public health: social capital (economics), social inequality (discrimination), social status (class), health care orientation, and finance.

C. Sociological Concepts in Public Health

Numerous sociological concepts, more than in any other science, infiltrate the practice of public health. Take, for example, socioeconomic status; this concept takes a population as a whole and breaks it down by social classes to indicate where a particular individual falls and the percentage of people in each particular level.

In fact, variations of social class status are key indicators of a host of differential life experiences, including employment, health, and illness (access to medical care), number of offspring, and, generally speaking, the extent of environmental exposure.

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Proven over time, inequalities in health directly relate to a person's degree of social and economic inequality. After discovering this fact during the early part of the 20th century, the majority of the focus of 20th century public health studies was devoted to finding ways to reduce these inequalities.

D. Quantitative versus Qualitative Studies

As we stated earlier, sociology has relied upon such methodologies as populist studies and other forms of focalized research to generate findings that may be applied across a wide cross-section of people.

While many Europeans have felt that quantitative studies held greater merit than qualitative studies, over time, it has been found that both approaches play a critical role in the formulation of public health summaries.

According to the world of sociology, there exists both an objective and a subjective reality. An objective reality is that which is indisputably fact-based; for example, a person has cancer. The subjective reality, in comparison, is the person's experience in dealing with the news of the cancer and subsequent treatment protocols.

Within the sociological framework, both realities serve a valuable purpose.

The objective, quantifiable approach contributes to creating the parameters of the study; for example, demographics of persons with cancer. However, the subjective, qualitative approach helps provide insight into behaviors connected with the illness, as well as broader-based matters. These broader-based matters include areas such as related medical and social policies, applicable global systems, and other elements of sociology wherein statistical measurements may either be more difficult to obtain or may be less pertinent to the primary goal of the study.

A popular sociological tool for studying issues connected with public health is that of surveillance. It proves to be a useful method for observing and recording the distribution and effects of a particular disease.

In sociological public health models, where health and illness are concerned, social and behavioral factors play a central role. Hence, varying forms of survey methodology is pivotal to the collection of accurate, widespread data.

While this reliance upon data collection has existed since the middle of the 20th century, the concern over how information is collected, managed, analyzed, interpreted, and used has persisted in varying degrees.

Direct interviews with respondents and social surveys characterized by large random samples generate complicated data that proves to be hard to measure and analyze.

Further complicating the process is the fact that sociological studies are composed of multiple phases. For example, as previously stated, discerning the socioeconomic status of an individual first requires the assessment of the larger social structure of which the individual is a part. Hence, socioeconomic status (SES) is viewed as a product of several components inclusive of education, employment, family size, total household income, and residence.

Determining the relative weight each component carries creates a major analytical challenge. For this reason, when attempting to present the correlation that exists between socioeconomic status and health care conditions, there is no clear cut answer as to the mechanism that works best in terms of determining the influence of the relationship.

E. Sociology and Evaluation in Public Health

Without further complicating matters, with sociology comes the notion of micro- and macrolevel variables. Microlevel variables are quite rare. For instance, Bill Gates is one of the very few multibillionaires that exist, whereas there are many more millionaires and even more people classified as being middle class.

While it is easier to study the groups that contain smaller numbers of people, it tends to be more important and hence more useful, to study groups that affect larger pockets of people, or those at the macrolevel. Yet, while it may be more meaningful to study larger groups, it also proves to be more complicated. Additionally, if the goal is to actually change the distribution of people within a certain demographic group, that is even more challenging.

Requiring a significant redistribution of resources within the larger social grouping, a significant period of time, not to mention, a highly focused effort would be needed to change the make-up of the macrovariables.

Yet, even with the significant obstacles, the principal role sociology plays in the world of public health is that of isolating those macrocomponents in society that have the greatest likelihood of affecting the largest number of people's public health.

While sociological studies based upon public health may not produce immediate results nor be easily understood, the long-term role of sociology in public health is to change and improve the public health.

F. Is Sociology on the Back Burner? Commonly Held Beliefs
Many, even those professionals in the field of sociology itself, will acknowledge the fact that sociology is a rather broad and ambiguous field. Hence, even seasoned sociologists often have a difficult time defining sociology and explaining its relevance within the scientific arena.

Though sociology still remains to this very day, some say it held greater prominence in earlier centuries.

One explanation for sociology's lack of visibility may be attributed to the fact that it has become truncated into a multitude of specialized areas; for instance, media studies, gender studies, industrial sociology, political sociology, and others.

Oftentimes, specialization is accompanied by a lack of centralized focus and, thus, a divergence of similar interests competing for the spotlight. Yet, even when sociology is fractured into disparate entities, it still holds the ability to connect social ideas, diagnose potential plights against society, and over all, find ways to resolve issues within a large scale social structure.

G. Important Terms in Sociology

In the study of sociology, some of the core components include:

Criminology. This focuses on criminal and deviant behavior.

Demography. This refers to shifts in population size or type.

Political sociology.
Political means the concentration on government, judicial structures, and laws in place.

Sociology of race and gender. An examination of the social constructs of race and gender, as the inequalities that exist among and between groups.

Social stratification. This is the study of inequality and class structure.