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Sociology is a relatively new science born at the beginning of the 19th century. Together with philosophy, psychology, political science, and anthropology, sociology belongs to the humanities and explores “society” in its broad sense. It is the science of social phenomena, structures, relations, social problems, and their causes. The actions of individuals and groups; the social meaning that these actions obtain; the social interactions caused by coexistence in organized, rule-based societies; the ways with which social cohesion is achieved and social conflict is resolved; as well as the regulatory power mechanisms in societies are some of the main questions of modern sociology’s research agenda. Processes of institutionalization, socialization, and social stratification are of paramount interest for the several subfields of sociology.
Sociology is neither a homogenous science, nor does it consist of a unified analytical framework; a series of various methods and methodologies has been developed since its birth. Sociological research is constructed both on empirical methods and on theoretical models, attempting to argumentatively interpret and causally explain social reality and social phenomena. Empirical research is based both on quantitative methods like statistics and on qualitative ones, like interviews, questionnaires and observation. Theoretical models use historical analysis and are in critical dialogue with opposing social theories.
Most sociological approaches combine theoretical and empirical methods and also attempt new methodologies, comparisons and critiques. Because the approaches to the social world differ from one social theory to another, the questions under research differ as well. Therefore, the social problems that are each time chosen for analysis among others, as well as the social aspects that are considered most appropriate to focus on, depend on a variety of differentiating factors between sociological schools. These include: The ways with which political needs, political orientations, and ideological starting points affect the structuring of the sociological approach; the observing position of sociologists and their social and economic status; and their educational and cultural background.
Most importantly, the research issues that are each time considered to necessitate further examination, elaboration or critique, depend on the historical socioeconomic and political circumstances in which they were born and established. Thereby, sociological theories are not isolated from society, its ruling power and the social needs that are prioritized in a given spatio-temporally defined social condition. On the contrary, they stand in a dialectical relation with these social conditions. Either by analyzing them in order to make them more efficient for some parts of society, or by criticizing and deconstructing them, sociological theories reflect the specific conditions and historical circumstances that allowed and signified their production.
Among the abundance of sociologists who provided sociology with important analytical instruments and enriched the field, a few pioneering figures were: The positivist philosopher August Comte (1798-1857) who has been named as the “father of sociology” and was seeking to create a social science resembling natural sciences; Karl Marx (1818-83) with his theory of capitalism, class struggle, and historical materialism; Max Weber (1864-1920) who introduced the concept of rationalization and studied the structuring of the modern state and its bureaucracy mechanisms; Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) who studied the division of labor and introduced the concept of anomie in order to examine the consequences of social change; and Georg Simmel (1858-1918) who discussed the development of modern cities and the effects of urbanization processes on the lives of individuals.
Sociology has been influenced by the enormous and rapid historical changes that defined the transition from agricultural feudal societies to modern industrial ones. The process of industrialization and the consequent urbanization, the construction of the modern state and of the implicit political institutions, and the polarization of mass society as well as the technological progress caused by the Industrial Revolution have been elements that formed sociology’s research agenda. Furthermore, the two World Wars as well as the Cold War and their innumerable consequences regarding national states and international relations have also been integrated into the sociological agenda.
Given the complex development of modern social formations and the intensive historical and political changes defining “modernity,” sociology became increasingly fragmented in its interests and purposes. Social theory and sociological schools of the present devote themselves to a series of different social phenomena. The study of the democratic state, the parliamentary parties system and the political elites-as well as the theories of different kinds of government and governance-have been from the beginning a fundamental part of political sociology. Influential sociologies are: economic and historical sociology, criminology, sociology of space, and the sociologies of mass media and information systems, of genders, of science, of violence and law, of social exclusion and social control, of the mode of production, of work, of social stratification, of globalization, of technology, of migration, of art, of culture, and of environment.
Sociology of Environment
Sociology of environment is a new and, since the 1970s, increasingly influential discipline. An important role in its construction has been played by the new environmental movements and ecological politics in Western Europe and North America. In a broad sense, it can be seen as part of both agricultural and urban sociology, although the field has also undergone fragmentation. Population growth, demography, environmental technology, changes in global climate, pollution, degradation of the environment, and the question of the limits of natural resources are seen as aspects neglected by traditional sociology. Generally, the research interests of sociology of environment concentrate on the relation between the natural environment and social formation. The ways with which the natural environment is socially perceived and used are subjected to a number of economic needs combined with political priorities that, in turn, have been the most important research problem of the sociology of environment.
The development from sociology of environment to environmental sociology illustrates a shift in the focus of the discipline, although the examination of the relation between nature and society remains a crucial issue. Recent environmental sociology of the 1980s and onwards, however, has more intensively and pragmatically concentrated on concepts of “sustainable” environmental, urban, and agricultural development. Despite the differences in their perspective, the works initiated in the 1970s and 1980s by William R. Catton and Riley E. Dunlap, as well as by Allan Schnaiberg, are of paramount importance. Catton and Dunlap criticized the anthropocentric paradigms defining sociology, and through the emphasis on the increasing role of biological and environmental factors in the formation of societies, they vitalized the socio-ecological paradigm. Allan Schnaiberg analyzed environmental problems with regard to economic aspects of the global system of production and underlined the tight relation of the environment’s use with the broader needs of global economy, as well as their consequences on social institutions like the family.
Sustainable environmental development relates to management and risk management in several areas including: Agriculture; farming; industrial exploitation of natural resources; biological control in food’s mass production; epidemiology and toxicology; and the examination of the energy and fuel problem and its gradual exhaustion. The economic consequences that are now calling for global and collective solutions are also causing several forms of crisis as well, although there are possible alternatives to the problem. In addition, environmental sociology examines hazards and socioeconomic ruptures caused by natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes, floods). Although natural disasters are not a new phenomenon, the idea of politics that promote adjusting to natural disasters instead of spontaneous solutions of emergency is elaborated by environmental sociology.
- Riley Dunlap and William R. Catton, Jr., “Struggling with Human Exemptionalism: The Rise, Decline, and Revitalization of Environmental Sociology,” The American Sociologist (v.25, 1994);
- Anthony Giddens, Dunier Mitchell and Richard P. Applebaum, Introduction to Sociology (W.W. Norton & Company, 2003);
- Allan Schnaiberg and Kenneth Alan Gould, Environment and Society: The Enduring Conflict (St. Martin’s, 1994).