What is sociology?
Just what is sociology? Put simply, sociology is the study of human societies, including social structures and rules (political, legal and so on); common beliefs and behaviors within a particular society; social changes over time; and differences between social groups and overall societies.
Studying sociology could mean conducting empirical research (based on observation), using statistical analysis to identify causal relationships and trends, and seeing how these trends relate to various social theories.
Sociology is part of the social sciences group of subjects, and intersects with other social sciences such as politics, economics, statistics and law.
Like subjects such as geography, sociology encompasses elements of both scientific enquiry and also more humanities-based approaches. As a result, sociology students are expected to develop a broad range of transferrable skills, including research, essay-writing and statistical analysis.
As with all subjects, the content of sociology degrees will vary at different universities. However, some of the key sociology topics you can expect to study include:
You can expect to start with an introduction to social theories (models for understanding society), including the works of major contributors to the field, recent developments and current points of contention or interest.
Social research methods
All sociology degrees will also provide an introduction to different social research methods. These are typically divided into two categories – quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative social research methods are based on quantifiable evidence, interpreted through statistical analysis. Qualitative social research is based on observation and communication. Much social research combines elements of both.
A term which is also often used in the related subject, anthropology, ethnography is the study of and recording of different human cultures. Ethnography is typically based on field work, with the researcher spending a significant amount of time living within the culture s/he is focusing on.
Crime and punishment
One of the most common sociology topics is crime and punishment. This can mean studying issues such as: the underlying causes of crime; how a society defines crime and how this can change over time; how societies attempt to prevent crime, and how crime is punished. This topic may also involve analysis of related moral questions, such as whether violence can ever be justified, and how the lines of ‘punitive control’ are defined.
Also commonly found on sociology degree curricula are issues relating to social welfare. This could involve examining the provision of social welfare systems such as health care, housing support and unemployment benefits in different societies worldwide. Students may explore underlying factors – political, economic, cultural – which have shaped different social welfare systems, and also assess the outcomes of various approaches.
Jobs for sociology majors
Like most humanities and social sciences courses, sociology degrees do not prepare students for a clearly defined career. However, a degree in sociology does provide a broad set of transferrable skills valued by employers across many different employment sectors. For those who do want to put their sociology background to more specific use, popular jobs for sociology majors include:
Social work jobs
Social work refers to a fairly broad group of roles all focused on trying to improve the quality of life for those classed as ‘disadvantaged’ in some way within a society. Social work jobs are typically found within governments and local authorities, community groups and charities. Roles may be based on research, organization and management, administration, or direct contact with individuals and groups. Key issues for social workers include: drug abuse, mental health problems, physical and learning disabilities, homelessness, child protection and school attendance.
Sociology graduates may also consider counselling jobs, which typically involve providing one-on-one (or group) consultations, allowing clients to talk through problems and challenges. Many counsellors specialize in offering help for a particular type of problem (such as relationship counselling or addiction counselling), and also in a particular style of counselling provision. Employers include charities, government agencies, healthcare providers, educational institutions, and independent counselling services.
Probation and prison service jobs
Sociology graduates with an interest in crime and punishment may pursue probation and prison service jobs. Roles here may be administration-based, or centred on direct contact with offenders. Prison officers work within prisons to supervise daily activities, while probation officers work with offenders serving non-custodial sentences or recently released from prison. Tasks could include assessing the risk of re-offence, providing training and advice, and maintaining regular records and reviews.
Community development jobs
Whereas social work roles focus more on supporting individuals and families, community development jobs aim to improve quality of life for larger groups. This could mean focusing on a specific geographical area, or on a group of people within that area, and running projects to bring about positive changes. Examples could include projects to overcome problems relating to unemployment, social tension, or access to resources. Typical tasks include fundraising and managing a budget, organizing events, mediating between different groups, providing training and coordinating various activities and stakeholders.
These are just a few of the many sectors in which sociology graduates may put their skills and knowledge to use. Others may enter careers in politics, local government, law or media, or perhaps put their strong numerical skills to use in the financial sector or a role based on statistical research. With a broad skill set, there’s certainly plenty of choice.
Transferable skills for sociology graduates
Thanks to sociology’s combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods, sociology graduates should end up with a broad set of useful transferable skills. These include:
• Research and data collection
• Planning and project management
• Data analysis, including competent/advanced use of statistics
• General IT skills
• Self-management, including planning and meeting deadlines
• Professional communication, spoken and written
• Ability to approach issues from multiple perspectives
• Ability to challenge and evaluate common beliefs
• Application of theory to real-life situations
• Good ‘people skills’ – ability to communicate and establish relationships with many different types of people
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