Scopes of Sociology


Every science has its own areas of study of fields of inquiry. It becomes difficult for any one to study a science systematically unless its boundaries are demarcated and scope determined precisely. Unfortunately, there is no consensus on the part of sociologists with regard to scope of sociology. V.F. Calberton writes, ‘since sociology is so elastic a science, it is difficult to determine just where its boundaries begins and ends, where sociology becomes social  psychology and where social psychology becomes, sociology, or where economic theory becomes sociological doctrine or biological theory becomes sociological theory something, which is impossible to decide”. It is maintained by some that Sociology studies everything and anything under the sun. This is rather too vague a view about the scope of Sociology.

The scope of sociology is very wide. It is a general science but it is also a special science. As a matter of fact, the subject matter of all social sciences is society. What distinguishes them from one another is their viewpoint. Thus economics studies society from an economic view point; political science studies it from political viewpoint while history is a study of society from a historical point of view. Sociology alone studies social relationships and society itself. MacIver correctly remarks; ‘what distinguishes each from each is the selective interest’. Green also remarks, ‘ the focus of attention upon relationships makes sociology a distinctive field, however closely allied to certain others it may be.

The scope of sociology is, indeed, very vast. It studies all the social aspects of society such as social processes, social control, social change, stratification, social system, social groups, social pathology etc. Actually, it is neither possible nor essential to delimit the scope of sociology, because, it would be, as Sprott puts it, : “A brave attempt to confine an enormous mass of slippery material into a relatively simple system of pigeonholes”. It is actually neither possible nor essential to delimit the scope of sociology.

However, there are two main schools of thought regarding the scope of sociology:

  1. The specialistic / formalistic school and
  2. The synthetic school.

 



  1. The specialistic School:

The school of thought is led by the German sociologist George Simmel. The other main advocates of this school are Vierkandt, Max Weber, Small, Von Weise and Tonnies.

Simmel and other are of the opinion that sociology is a pure and an independent science. As a pure science it has a limited scope. Sociology should confine itself to the study of certain aspects of human relationship only. Further, it should study only the ‘forms’ of social relationship but not their contents. Social relationship such as competition, sub-ordination, division of labour etc., are expressed in different fields of social life such as economic, political, religious, moral, artistic etc. Sociology should disentangle the forms of social relationships and study them in abstraction. Sociology as a specific social science describes, classifies and analyses the forms of social relationships.

Vierkandt says that sociology concern itself with the ultimate form of mental or psychic relationship which line one man with other men. According to him, the actual historical societiees, for example, the French society of the eighteenth century, or the Chinese family are of interest to sociologists  only as a illustration of particular types of relationships. He further maintains that similarly in dealing with culture, sociology should not concern itself with the actual contents of cultural evolution but is should confine itself to only the discovery of the fundamental forces of change and persistence. It should abstain from a historical study of concrete societies.

Max Weber opines that the aim of sociology is to interpret or understand social behaviour. But social behaviour does not cover the whole field of human relations. He further says that sociology should make an analysis and classification of types of social relationships. Indeed not all human inter-actions are social. For instance, a collision between two cyclists is in itself merely a natural phenomenon, but their efforts to avoid each other or the language they use after the event constitute true social behaviour. Sociology is thus, according to him, concerned with the analysis and classification of types of social relationships.

Von Weise says that the scope of sociology is the study of forms of social relationships. He has divided these social relationships into many kinds.

Tonnie also supported the view of formalistic school. He has differentiated between society and community on the basis of forms of relationships. He interpreted social processes quantitatively and gave a mathematical formula. He says:

P = A x S
Where,  P = Social processes, A = Attitude, S = Situation and attitude is made up of;

A = NxE (N = Basic social nature & E = Previous experiences)

S = BxA (B=Geographical conditions & A = Attitude of the participants)

Thus, according to the formalistic school, sociology studies one specific aspect of social relationships, i.e. their forms in their abstract nature, and not in any concrete situation. A comparison is drawn between the forms of social relationships and a bottle. A bottle may be either of plastic or any other material. It may contain milk, water etc. But the contents of the bottle do not change the form of bottle. Similarly, the forms of social relationships do not change with the change in the content of social relationships. For example, the study of competition – a form of social relationship will not make any difference whether we study it in the political field or economic field. Sociology has been compared with Geometry. Just as Geometry studies about the forms of physical things triangular, rectangular, square or circular etc., similarly sociology studies about the forms of social relationships. The relation of sociology to other social sciences is similar to the relation of Geometry with other natural sciences. The formalistic school has limited the scope of sociology to the abstract study of the forms of social relationship.

Criticism of formalistic school:

The views of the formalistic school are widely criticized. Some critics remarks may be cited here;

The formalistic school has unreasonably narrowed the field of sociology. Sociology should not only study the general forms of social relationships but also their concrete contents.

Secondly, the distinction between forms of social relationship and their contents is not workable. Social forms can not be abstracted from the content at all, since social forms keep on changing when the contents change. Sorokin writes, ‘We may fill a glass with wine, water or sugar without changing its form, but I cannot conceive of a social institution whose form would not change when its members change’.

Thirdly, sociology is not the only science that studies the forms of social relationships. Other social sciences also do that. The study of international law, for example, includes social relations like conflict, war, opposition, agreement, contract etc. Political science, Economics also study social relationships.

Finally, the establishment of pure sociology is impractical. No sociology has been able to develop a pure sociology so far. No science can be studied in complete isolation from the other sciences. In fact, today more emphasis is laid on inter-disciplinary approach.

  1. The synthetic School:

The synthetic school of thought conceives of sociology as a synthesis of the social sciences. It wants to make sociology as general social science and not a pure or special social science. In fact, this school has made sociology synoptic or encyclopedic in character. Durkheim, Hob House, Ginsberg and Sorokin have been the chief exponents of this school.

The main argument of this school is that all parts of social life are intimately inter-related. Hence the study of one aspect is not sufficient to understand the entire phenomenon. Hence sociology should study social life as a whole. This opinion has contributed to the creation of a general and systematic sociology.

The views of Emile Durkheim:

He is one of chief proponent of this school of thought. He says that sociology has three main divisions or fields of inquiry. They are as follows: Social Morphology, Social Physiology and General Sociology.

  1. Social Morphology: Social morphology studies the territorial basis of the life of people and also the problem of population such as volume and density, local distribution etc.
  2. Social Physiology: Social physiology has different branches such a sociology of religion, or morals, of law, of economic life and of language etc.
  3. General Sociology: General sociology can be regarded as the philosophical part of sociology. It deals with the general character of the social facts. Its function is the formulation of general social laws.

The views of Morris Ginsberg:

He says the main task of sociology can be categorized into four branches: social morphology, social control, social processes and social pathology.

  1. Social Morphology: ‘Social Morphology’ deals with the quantity and quality of population. It studies the social structure, social groups, and institutions.
  2. Social control: ‘social control’ studies formal as well as informal – means of social control such as custom, tradition, morals, religion, convention, and also law, court, legislation etc. It deals with the regulating agencies of society.
  3. Social processes: ‘Social process’ tries to make a study of different modes of interaction such as cooperation, competition, conflict, accommodation, assimilation, isolation, integration, differentiation, development, arrest and decay.
  4. Social Pathology: ‘Social pathology’ studies social mal-adjustment and disturbances. It also include studies on various social problems like poverty, beggary, unemployment, over-population, prostitution, crime etc.

Sorokin’s View: He says that the subject matter of sociology includes:

  1. The study of relationship between the different aspects of social phenomena;
  2. The study of relationship between the social and non-social.
  3. The study of general features of social phenomena

Karl Mahhheim’s view: He divides sociology into two main sections:

  1. Systematic and general sociology: It describes one by one the main factors of living together as far as they may be found in every kind of society.
  2. Historical sociology: It deals with the historical variety and actuality of the general forms of society. They are categorized into two sections: firstly comparative sociology and secondly social dynamics. Comparative sociology deals mainly with the historical variations of the same phenomenon and tries to find by comparison general features as separated from industrial features. Social dynamics deals with the interrelations between various social factors and institutions in a certain given society, or instance, in a primitive society.

Ginsberg has also summed up the chief functions of sociology as follows:

  1. Sociology seeks to provide a classification of types and forms of social relationship.
  2. It tries to determine the relation between different factors of social life. For example, the economic and political, the moral and the religious, the moral and legal, the intellectual and the social elements.
  3. It tries to disentangle the fundamental conditions of social change and persistence  and to discover sociological principal governing social life.

Recently, a Sociological Seminar was held in America which gave a general outline of scope of the sociology. Alex Inkeles has put it as follows: Social analysis, primary concepts of social life, basic social institutions, and processes.

J.B. McKee holds that social action, social structure, social processes and social institutions are included in the scope of sociology.