Lesson 1: Sociology as a Social Science


The purpose of this lesson is to provide you with an understanding of the origin of sociology and its three perspectives. The process of case study and problem solving will explain why this discipline can be called a social science.

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, you should be able to accomplish the following:

  1. Discuss the origin of sociology and the sociologists who pioneered the field.
  2. Explain the three perspectives of sociology, including how each views society.
  3. Name the steps in the scientific method and describe its various components.
  4. Discuss the ethics of research in the social sciences.

Reading Assignment


  • Chapters 1 and 2 (pages 2–49)


Auguste ComteFigure 1.1. Auguste Comte coined the term sociology to apply to the science of human behavior and society.

On a planet populated by more than six billion human beings, a science that studies human groups and how they interact is destined to receive increasing importance. The study of sociology is one of the newest of all the social sciences. A need for a "science of society" (as Auguste Comte, the founder of the discipline, often stated) arose because nation-states were created and civilization became more urban. By use of the scientific method, sociologists turn the mere observation of group behavior into a study that can document and support specific theories.

In the study of society and group behavior, three perspectives, or views, exist. They are conflict perspective, functionalist perspective, and interactionist perspective. Chapter 1 explains each. You will need to study these views, as they will be used throughout the text. Also remember the sociologists who pioneered the field. It is from their work that we build our study today. Many of the progress evaluation and exam questions will deal with these leaders and their views of society.

Sociology is not just common sense; it is the scientific study of group behavior. The human factor, however, makes it an inexact science. A human sociologist, while studying other humans, finds it hard to be detached and unbiased. We have all played amateur sociologist by evaluating social situations from our own perspective. It is difficult not to let our predispositions of race, religion, politics, education, family background, goals, and fears get in the way of objective observation. The scientific method must be employed to give any sociological study credibility. Another problem faced by the sociologist results from the adaptability of human beings. As we learn new things, we change our behavior. For example, the discovery of cholesterol's role in circulatory disease has created a new way of looking at our eating habits. The HIV virus has caused a change in sexual practices. The discovery that the sun's rays increase the chances of skin cancer could cause sun-worshipping Americans to change their outlook on sunbathing and outdoor activity.

Sociologists limit their investigations to group behavior and human relationships. To understand these situations better, an untested generalization, or hypothesis, is tested by using the scientific method, and a theory about a particular phenomenon in society is born.

A hypothesis is always a statement. It cannot be a question. It must be testable and must always state a relationship between two or more situations, events, or factors. Our research design is a planned procedure for carrying out research for testing the hypothesis.

The research design can involve collecting data in many different ways:

  • the case study, in which the sociologist is concerned with whole groups
  • a survey such as the Gallup poll
  • natural observation
  • controlled observation, usually done in a lab
  • participant observation, in which the observer is directly involved
  • content analysis, in which the number of times something appears in writing is noted
  • historical analysis, in which verbal memories or documents are studied
  • statistical analysis, which is used with many of the above to compile data

Sociologists, when studying a particular sociological problem, should ask themselves:

  • What do I want to find out?
  • How available is the information necessary for the study?
  • How expensive will the study be?
  • How accurate is my technique?
  • How objective can I be?

The first two chapters constitute the basic tools that will be used within the text to describe various aspects of society. By having a good understanding of these perspectives and the men who created them, you will be able to place sociology in its proper role in the social sciences. By having an understanding of the scientific method, you will be able to study human groups like a true sociologist.

Study Questions

These exercises are designed to help you learn the material in this lesson. Please do not send your answers to the Center for scoring. Check your answers against those provided.

Chapter 1

  1. Why would it be incorrect to say that sociology is just common sense?

    Sociology's study of social behavior and human groups is based on much more than our personal experiences with human behavior (from which our "commonsense" ideas are derived). It is based on the scientific study of human behavior. It is based on a systematic analysis of facts. See textbook pages 7–8.
  3. Why was Durkheim's landmark work, Suicide, published in 1897, considered so important? What was his finding concerning suicide?

    Emile Durkheim developed an original theory, based on scientific studies, about the relationship between suicide and social factors. At that time most explanations for suicide were based on popular beliefs and unproven. He found that suicide was not a solitary act but was related to group life. He found that suicide rates were greatly influenced by group and societal factors. See textbook pages 8–9.
  5. Who was Max Weber, and what was his idea of verstehen?

    Max Weber (1864–1920), born in Germany, was an early sociologist. His idea of verstehen (German for "understanding," or "insight") was that an analysis of a social behavior cannot be merely descriptive but must include an interpretation, an understanding, of that group of people's explanation of their behavior. See textbook page 10.
  7. Discuss the life of Karl Marx and briefly explain the theory behind The Communist Manifesto.

    Karl Marx (1818–1883), because of his highly critical and deemed-to-be illegal writings and activities, lived most of his life outside of his native Germany. He lived in poverty in England; several of his children died of malnutrition and disease. In The Communist Manifesto, he wrote that the workers (proletariat) should unite and overthrow the capitalists (and capitalist societies) who owned and controlled the factories and other places where the proletariat worked. His ideas served as inspiration for others who would lead Communist revolutions around the world. His theory about the relationship between the groups that an individual belongs to and that individual's behavior is a major focus of modern sociology. See textbook pages 10–11.
  9. Identify Robert Merton and explain his theory regarding the causes of deviant behavior.

    Robert Merton (1910–2003), born in Philadelphia, was a sociologist who studied at Temple and Harvard and taught at Columbia University. He is known for combining theory and research. His theory regarding deviant behavior explained that people (often poor people), in their efforts to achieve socially approved goals (such as accumulation of material goods), will use socially unacceptable means (such as crime) to achieve those goals when they see themselves as having no other choice. See textbook pages 12–13.
  11. Explain the functionalist perspective and name its most famous advocate.

    From the functionalist perspective, a society is made up of many parts functioning together to maintain its stability. If an aspect of a society does not contribute to its stability or survival, it will not be passed on to the next generation. Talcott Parsons is the functionalist perspective's most famous advocate. See textbook pages 13–14.
  13. What is the conflict perspective, and who is its most famous advocate?

    From the conflict perspective, social behaviors are the result of conflict over power and/or the allocation of resources. Within any organization, group, or society, there are those who benefit and those who suffer at the expense of others. Karl Marx is the conflict perspective's most famous advocate. See textbook pages 14–15.
  15. What is the interactionist perspective, and who is its most famous advocate?

    From the interactionist perspective, society is explained by studying the common, everyday interactions between its members. The interactionists believe that members of society interact and communicate nonverbally through symbols such as gestures, clothing, and facial expressions. George Herbert Mead is the interactionist perspective's most famous advocate. See textbook pages 15–16.
  17. Which sociological perspective does the text present?

    The text presents the three major sociological perspectives: functionalist, conflict, and interactionist, and the feminist view (pages 14–15). No one perspective is correct by itself. A summary of three major perspectives is on textbook page 16.
  19. Why is sociology expected to receive growing recognition in the next quarter of a century? Do you agree with this theory? Why or why not?

    According to the author of our text, in order for the magnitude of current social problems to not overwhelm human societies, those problems must be addressed. He believes that sociologists will play an increasingly important role in the development of public policy intended to address such problems. Do you agree? Why or why not? See textbook page 20.

Chapter 2

  1. List the five basic steps in the scientific method and explain each.

    The scientific method is a systematic, organized series of five steps:

    1. Define the problem. State as clearly as possible what is to be investigated. See textbook pages 29–30.
    2. Review the literature. Review relevant scholarly studies and information in order to refine the stated problem, identify possible techniques for collection of data, and eliminate or reduce mistakes. See textbook page 30.
    3. Formulate the hypothesis. Prepare a speculative, tentative statement about the relationship between two or more variables. See textbook page 30.
    4. Collect and analyze data using the chosen research design. Select a representative sample from which to collect the data. See textbook pages 30–32.
    5. Develop the conclusion. Do the data support or contradict the hypothesis? See textbook page 33.
  3. Define variable and give an example of one.

    A variable is a trait or characteristic that is subject to change under different conditions. An example of a variable is the level of health care that an individual may be able to obtain. See textbook page 30.
  5. What is the difference between an independent variable and a dependent variable?

    In a causal relationship, the independent variable causes or changes the dependent variable. The dependent variable is caused by or subject to the influence of the independent variable. See textbook page 30.
  7. What does causal logic involve?

    Causal logic involves the relationship between a condition or variable and a particular consequence of that condition or variable, with one event leading to the other. See textbook page 30.
  9. The scientific method requires validity and reliability. Define each.

    Validity refers to the degree to which a scale or measure truly reflects the phenomenon under study. Reliability refers to the extent to which a measure produces consistent results. See textbook page 32.
  11. Individuals are assigned to two groups in the classic method of conducting an experiment. Name each group and its role in the experiment.

    Subjects in the classic method of conducting an experiment are placed in either the experimental group or the control group. Those in the experimental group are exposed to an independent variable, while those in the control group are not. See textbook page 36.
  13. List the four research designs for collecting data and describe each.

    Sociologists use four major research designs:

    1. Survey: a study, usually in the form of a questionnaire or interview, that provides information about how people think. See textbook pages 33–35.
    2. Observation: information is collected through direct participation with and/or closely watching the subject(s). See textbook pages 35–36.
    3. Experiment: an artificially created situation that allows a researcher to study a cause-and-effect relationship by manipulating variables. See textbook page 36.
    4. Use of existing sources: the use of previously collected and publicly available information and data to conduct a secondary analysis (one that was not intended by the original researcher) of that information and data. See textbook page 37.
  15. Why are data collected by other researchers often unreliable when studying a social phenomenon?

    Often data collected by others may not provide exactly the information needed when doing a secondary analysis. Also, precise and complete data may not be available from any source. See textbook page 37.
  17. How is content analysis used to study a social phenomenon?

    Content analysis is the systematic coding and objective recording of data (content) obtained from existing sources, such as newspapers, the Internet, radio and television tapes, diaries, etc., guided by some rationale. Content analysis can provide insight into and data about a social phenomenon. See textbook page 37.
  19. What is the research code of ethics?

    Sociologists must abide by certain specific standards when conducting research, called the Research Code of Ethics. It was developed by the American Sociological Association. Its seven principles are listed on textbook page 38.

Companion Web Site

The Online Learning Center that accompanies your textbook has video clips, interactive quizzes, social policy exercises, vocabulary flash cards, census updates, chapter glossaries, and more to help you strengthen your understanding of the material covered in each lesson.

  • Go to the Online Learning Center, choose the Student Edition, and review the interactive activities and resources for Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.