a different definition of sociology – guest post herbert j. gans

Herbert J. Gans is an emeritus professor of sociology at Columbia University. This posts discusses how might define sociology as an academic discipline. This post originally appeared at Work in Progress, the blog of the Organizations, Occupations, and Work section of the American Sociological Association.

In his recent post on sociology’s image problem, Prof Rojas included a definition of sociology as “the scientific study of groups.” It is the same one I was taught in graduate school seventy years ago, and think it is now long out of date.

Let me offer the one I have used in recent years: Sociology is the study of what people in formal and informal organizations, institutions, communities, states and other social structures do, think and feel with, for, against and about others.

Three of its virtues are (1) it can be abbreviated or expanded for different venues; (2) it avoids the thorny questions of whether sociology is a science, or what kind of science, and something in addition to being a science; and (3) it offers a more graphic image of sociology to the lay people etc who now ignore sociology or do not understand what it is.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

January 12, 2016 at 12:01 am

2 Responses

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  1. Matt Vidal’s definition from the comments section of the original post seems to me better:

    “In my view Herb’s definition is better than Fabio’s, but by defining sociology in terms of “organizations, institutions, communities, states,” it seems to implicitly cede some ground to economics, thus respecting the old Parsonian pact whereby economists study the economy and sociologists study everything else.

    Here’s another try at a definition:

    Sociology is the study of the interaction between social structure and individual behavior.

    In addition to being simple, an advantage of this definition is that it specifies sociology as distinct from economics. The latter is based on methodological individualism, the idea that explanations of the social world should refer only to individuals. In contrast, sociology sees social structure and institutions as existing independently of individuals and able to shape individual behavior; the distinction between “social structure” as distinct from “individual behavior” is meant to indicate this.”


    Umut Koc

    January 12, 2016 at 9:17 am

  2. This is a good general definition of “social science” (or “social studies” if you prefer not to use “science”). This is not a good definition of sociology.



    January 14, 2016 at 6:48 pm

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