Sociology and the Social Sciences

In a general sense, sociology can be considered a science. The term science refers to the body of knowledge obtained by methods based upon systematic observation. Like other scientific disciplines, sociology engages in organized, systematic study of phenomena (in this case, human behavior) in order to enhance understanding. All scientists, whether studying mushrooms or murderers, attempt to collect precise information through methods of study which are as objective as possible. They rely on careful recording of observations and accumulation of data.

Of course, there is a great difference between sociology and physics, between psychology and astronomy. For this reason, the sciences are commonly divided into natural and social sciences. Natural science is the study of the physical features of nature and the ways in which they interact and change. Astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, and physics are all natural sciences. Social science is the study of various aspects of human society. The social sciences include sociology, anthropology, economics, history, psychology, and political science.

These academic disciplines have a common focus on the social behavior of people, yet each has a particular orientation in studying such behavior. Anthropologies usually study cultures of the past and preindustrial societies that remain in existence today. They use this knowledge to examine contemporary societies, including even industrial societies. Economists explore the ways in which people produce and exchange goods and services, along with money and other resources. Historians are concerned with the peoples and events of the past and their significance for us today. Political scientists study international relations, the workings of government, and the exercise of power and authority. Psychologists investigate personality and individual behavior. In contrast to other social sciences, sociology emphasizes the influence that society has on people’s attitudes and behavior. Humans are social animals (beings); therefore, sociologists scientifically examine our social relationships with people.

To better illustrate the distinctive perspectives of the social sciences, let us examine sociological and psychological approaches to the issue of gambling. The growing legalization of gambling in the US has, in effect, increased the number of participants and contributed to a rise in the number of ″problem gamblers″ - that is, people who consistently lose more money than they can afford. Gamblers’ professed goal is economic gain; yet, because the vast majority end up loosing money, their persistence is commonly viewed as ″irrational″ or even ″pathological.″ Viewed from the perspective of psychology, gambling represents an escape into a fantasy world where great fortune can be attained easily. Eventually, people become so dependent on gambling that the activity fulfills an emotional need. As a result, they cannot give up gambling without feeling nervous and upset.

By contrast, in their examination of gambling, sociologists focus on the social networks that develop among many participants. Whether they be offtrack bettors, sport bettors, or poker players, gamblers establish friendship groups and work hard to create feelings of conviviality even among casual acquaintances whom they meet through gambling. Consequently, for such persons, gambling is a form of recreation and may even be their primary social activity. This sociological perspective on gambling casts a shadow on recurring efforts to discourage particular individuals from gambling and to discourage the practice in general. Giving up gambling may, in fact, mean forgoing all social interaction that a person has previously found to be meaningful. Alternatively, participation in Gamblers Anonymous – a self-help group for ″problem gamblers″ modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous – provides a new forum to which ex-gamblers can turn for interaction, understanding, and encouragement. The individual can find social support to replace the friendship groups developed in his or her betting days.

This example shows that by viewing social phenomena from several perspectives, we can enhance our understanding of human behavior. Social science disciplines – in this case study, psychology and sociology – offer distinctive expertise that is valuable in developing a response to those gamblers who wager more money than they can afford to lose