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The main types of sociology

The main types of sociology

November 27, 2021

Sociology is a young science . As soon as one reads who their authors are considered "classics", they realize that the oldest ones are from the beginning of the 19th century.

Among them, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim and Max Weber stand out, among others. In this article, I review very briefly what are some classifications of types of sociology that can be found regularly in this field. However, due to the early age of the discipline, although there are certain consensus, in a wide range of areas there are still disagreements, some even vital to the discipline.

I am talking about questions as if statistical techniques can help us explain satisfactorily or not social phenomena; whether it is "sensible" to use theories of behavior instead of "structural" theories; or if sociology can or can be considered a science like the others, or on the contrary it is destined to be always relegated to the background, for whatever reason.

If we generalize to the areas to which these questions belong, we will see that their response will influence much of how we do research later: what techniques and type of models should we use to explain properly? Are individuals important when it comes to constituting and explaining social phenomena, as well as their different states? Due to the complexity of these phenomena, should we relegate ourselves to not having the same explanatory capacity as other sciences? At this point, physics or biology hardly pose questions of this kind, at least as I have formulated them. These constant discussions make the classifications that you use here change, or that, in fact, are already changing .

Three approaches to see sociology

I will use three different criteria useful to give a general "image" of the discipline from different angles: sociology according to the methodology used; according to the social phenomenon to which it refers; and according to the theoretical conception of "social phenomenon".

Due to reasons of space, I do not focus on explaining in depth each type in particular. For this, at the end of the article, references are proposed that may allow those interested to know a little more.

1. Types of sociology by its methodology

When it comes to researching and falsifying hypotheses, sociology has generally relied on techniques that can be classified into qualitative and quantitative.

1.1. Of qualitative techniques

Qualitative techniques are designed to study everything that requires data that is very difficult to quantify and that at least they are epistemologically subjective. We are talking about ideas, perceptions, reasons, and signs that have meanings. Many times qualitative techniques are used to explore topics for which there are few data, to face future research with quantitative techniques.

In fact, these types of techniques are usually linked to research that is interested in study the phenomenology of subjects with respect to a social fact . For example, we can ask how identity is lived and understood in a particular social group. The in-depth interview, discussion groups and ethnography all represent techniques that have usually been linked to this field. Another qualitative technique used a lot in history is, for example, the historical narrative.

As usual, the sample of individuals of these techniques is usually much smaller than that of quantitative techniques , because they follow different logics. For example, in the case of qualitative ones, one of the key objectives is to reach a saturation of the discourse, a point where new interviews do not provide more relevant data than those already provided. In a statistical technique, for its part, the result of not reaching a certain number of necessary sampling means, almost, the use of any statistical technique.

1.2. Of quantitative techniques

Within quantitative techniques we can distinguish between two major fields: that of statistics and that of artificial simulation.

The first is the classic in sociology. Along with qualitative techniques, statistics has been and continues to be one of the most used . It has its meaning: in sociology, collective phenomena are studied, that is, phenomena that can not be reduced to a single individual. Statistics provides a series of techniques that allow describing variables that belong to the set of individuals, while allowing to study associations between different variables, and apply certain techniques in order to predict.

Thanks to the increasingly widespread field of Big Data and the Machine Learning , statistical techniques have had a certain type of revitalization. This particular field is undergoing a "revolution", both inside and outside the academy, from which the social sciences hope to deal with enormous amounts of data that allow us to better define the description of social phenomena.

The other great area, that of artificial simulation, is relatively new and less known. The approach and applicability of these techniques is different depending on which one is considered. For example, the Dynamics of Systems allows to study the relations between collectivities applying some models of differential equations that model the aggregate behavior together with other aggregates. Another technique, that of the Multi-Agent Simulation Models, allows the programming of artificial individuals that, by following rules, generate the social phenomenon that is intended to be studied from a modeling that takes into account individuals, their properties and essential rules. , and the environment, with no need to introduce differential equations.

Because it is considered that this type of simulation techniques, despite being quite different , allow to better study Complex Systems (such as social phenomena) (Wilensky, U .: 2015). Another simulation technique widely used in demography, for example, is that of Microsimulation.

It is important to add to this point that both the Big Data revolution and the application of simulation techniques, as they serve to study social systems, are now known as "Computational Social Science" (for example, Watts, D .: 2013).

2. Types of sociology by field of study

By field of study, the types of sociology can be classified, above all, by the following topics:

  • Sociology of work . For example: the study of the working conditions of workers in industrial Catalonia of the nineteenth century.
  • Sociology of Education . For example: the study of social income inequalities in educational performance.
  • Sociology of the genre . For example: the comparative study of the day's activities between men and women.

To these three great themes, very general in themselves, are added others, such as studies of social mobility and social classes (Wright, E .: 1979); the studies of fiscal behavior (Noguera, J. et al .: 2014); the studies of social segregation (Schelling, T .: 1971); the studies of the family (Flaqué, Ll .: 2010); the studies of public policies and the Welfare State (Andersen, G.-E .: 1990); the studies of social influence (Watts, D .: 2009); the studies of organizations (Hedström, P. & Wennberg, K .: 2016); the studies of social networks (Snijders, T. et al .: 2007); etc.

While some areas of study are well defined, the frontier of many others clearly touches other areas. For example, one could apply a view of the sociology of organizations to a typical study of the sociology of education. The same is true, for example, when applying the study of social networks to areas such as the sociology of work.

It should be noted, finally, that although sociology has been quite isolated throughout the 20th century, now the borders that separate it from other social sciences, from economics to anthropology and always bordering on psychology, are increasingly more blurry, with interdisciplinary collaboration becoming the norm instead of the exception.

3. Types of sociology by theoretical field of the concept "social phenomenon"

One of the fields where sociologists disagree most vividly with each other is the one that defines and interprets what social phenomena are and cause, as well as what their possible effects on societies are.

Simplifically, today we could find three positions that serve to define types of sociology or ways of understanding sociology: structuralism, constructionism and analytical sociology .

3.1. Structuralism

Although structuralism has had different meanings according to the moment and the person who has used it, in sociology generally this term is understood in the sense of "structures" of society that exist by themselves beyond the individual and that affect him causally directly, normally without this being aware of its effect.

This vision corresponds to the proposal of Émile Durkheim, one of the classics of the discipline, and that can be summarized in that "the whole is more than the sum of its parts", a principle that can also be found in Gestalt psychology. This view, then, considers that social phenomena exist, in some way, beyond the individuals themselves, and their scope of action on them is absolute and direct. For that reason, this perspective has received the qualification of "holist".This vision of social phenomena, very summarized here, has been the most popular in the last century, and currently it is still the most widespread within the discipline.

3.2. Constructionism

The constructionist vision is also one of the most widespread in the discipline. Although there may be constructionist visions in almost all areas of sociology, it is also characterized as being quite "independent".

The constructionist vision is largely influenced by the discoveries made by cultural anthropology. These showed that, Although certain conceptions can prevail in a society, they do not have to do it in the same way in other societies . For example, European society may have a certain conception of what art is, what is good or bad, what is the role of the State, and so on, and that Indian society has a completely different one. Which is the real one, then? Both and none.

In this sense, constructionism would say that many of the things that seem as solid as nature actually depend on human acceptance. The most extreme position of this current, which we could call constructivism (Searle, J .: 1995), would say that everything is a social construction insofar as it is understood and conceptualized by the word (which is, of course, something created by and for humans). In that sense, things like science, or the ideas of truth and certainty, would also be social constructions, which would imply that they depend solely and exclusively on the human being.

3.3. Analytical sociology

The analytical position, on the other hand, besides being the most recent, exists as an answer to both structuralism and constructivism . It is, by far, the least adopted position within the discipline.

Very briefly, this position aims to conceptualize social phenomena as complex systems formed by individuals, whose actions in interaction with other individuals make up the causes of the emergence of social phenomena.

In fact, this perspective places special emphasis on uncovering the causal mechanisms that generate social phenomena. That is, the concrete actions of individuals who, at the macro level, generate the phenomenon we wish to explain. It is common to read that this position has the interest of offering black-box free explanations, or explanations that detail the exact processes from which the social phenomena we see occur.

In addition, analytical sociology, a term by which it has gained fame in recent decades (Hedström, P .: 2005, Hedström, P. & Bearman, P .: 2010, Manzo, G .: 2014, among others), clearly bets by the use of artificial simulation techniques from which social phenomena can be better studied, understood (again) as complex systems.

As a last point, to say that analytical sociology wants to advance sociology by making it as similar to the rest of the sciences as possible in terms of certain aspects of the research process (such as promoting the use of models and clearly betting on the mathematical-formal expression or, in its absence, the computational one).

The relative of the boundaries between types of sociology

A note is necessary, here: it should be noted that, although the differences between the different areas are quite clear and evident, and although generally the individuals within each group share certain basic premises, these are not completely homogeneous within themselves .

For example, in the structuralist positions there are clearly people in favor of different conceptions of constructionism. In the analytical position, on the other hand, not everyone shares certain causal relationships between the different levels (the social and the individual phenomenon).

To go beyond

A reference author who has tried to classify the social sciences from different criteria is Andrew Abbot, in Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. The book is written with a pedagogical and clear style, and allows an idea not only of sociology and its different types, but also of the other social sciences. Very useful to introduce yourself in the subject.


The conclusion we can reach is that we can find types of sociology according to (1) the method they use; (2) according to the field of study in which they focus; (3) and according to the theoretical position that frames them in a position within the discipline. We could say that points (1) and (2) are consistent with other sciences. Point (3), however, seems to be the fruit of the discipline's early age. We are talking about that, depending on whether one is in one position or another, could affirm things that are impossible or contrary to another point of view, a fact that gives the feeling that none is right and that, ultimately, the Feeling of "progress" within the discipline is little or no.

But nevertheless, Thanks to the advancement of certain methodologies, sociology, together with other social sciences, are increasingly able to study social phenomena better , as well as to propose better hypotheses that can be better contrasted and that may have greater validity.

Bibliographic references:

  • Flaquer, Ll .: "Family policies in Spain within the framework of the European Union" in Lerner, S. & Melgar, L .: Families in the 21st century: Different Realities and Public Policies. Mexico: National Autonomous University of Mexico. 2010: 409-428.
  • Noguera, J. et al .: Tax compliance, rational choice, and social influence: an agent-based model. Revue Française de Sociologie. 2014. 55 (4): 449-486.
  • Schelling, T .: Dynamic models of segregation. Journal of Mathematical Sociology. 1971. 1: 143-186.
  • Snijders, T. et al .: "Modeling the co-evolution of networks and behavior" in Montfort, K. et al .: Longitudinal models in behavioral and related sciences. 2007: 41-47.
  • Watts, D .: Computational social science. Exciting progress and future directions. The Bridge: Winter 2013.
  • Watts, D. & Dodds, P .: "Threshold models of social influence" in Hedström, P. & Bearman, P .: The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009: 475-497.
  • Esping-Andersen, G .: The three worlds of welfare capitalism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1990.
  • Hedström, P .: Dissecting the Social. On the Principles of Analytical Sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2005
  • Hedström, P. & Bearman, P .: The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009
  • Manzo, G .: Actions and Networks: More on the Principles of Analytical Sociology. Wiley 2014.
  • Wilensky, U. & Rand, W .: An Introduction to Agent-Based Modeling. Massachusetts: MIT Press books. 2015
  • Wright, E. O .: Class, crisis, and the state. London: New Left Books. 1978

How We Got Here: Crash Course Sociology #12 (November 2021).

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