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Purpose And Method Of Sociology

( Originally Published 1915 )

Purpose. The foregoing chapter pointed out the position of sociology among social sciences and indicated the field in which it operates. Its scientific purpose is primarily to generalize what is known about society. In attaining this ultimate aim of the science, it is necessary for the student to search a wide realm of knowledge and to acquaint himself with sociological data. He must deal primarily with facts not necessarily with material facts, although these should not be passed by, but psychical, economic, political, moral, and social facts which exist over and above the material world ; for here, as elsewhere, the first scientific process is the assembling and classification of facts. In this process social relationships are of great importance. A knowledge of society as it actually exists is essential, and this cannot be obtained by philosophizing about what society ought to be, for the result of such a course would be to generalize about an ideal society. However, it may fairly be claimed that the full purpose of the science will not have been attained until it contributes to the social well-being and the individual happiness of mankind. Sociology has a practical purpose. Based upon a knowledge of how society has come to be what it is today, sociology can better point the way in which the social organization can more effectively adapt itself to the changing conditions of life. From a careful analysis of the social structures and processes of society as organized at present, sociology will derive that understanding of the nature of society which will suggest remedies for its ills. A sound social technology is based upon a careful study of the origin, development, and analysis of present-day social structure and processes.

The ought of social conduct, then, must be considered. The purpose of sociology is not fulfilled when it has classified and described social phenomena, discovered the social forces, and formulated laws of social being and growth. It should point the way to a better social life and to the improvement of the social mechanism. In short, we may say that the purpose of sociology is, first, to understand society; then, to enable us to formulate a scientific program of social betterment.

The Object of Society. Originally and fundamentally society had for its aim the protection of a group of individuals from the influences which tend to destroy either the group or the individual. Some of these influences are those operating from with-out, others from within the group. On the one hand, the social organization operates to preserve and perpetuate the human stock by protecting it from its enemies the ferocious animals, violent forces of nature, and savage mankind. It is organized, primarily, for the perpetuation of the group, and, secondarily, for the protection of the individual. On the other hand, by its beneficent organization, it deals out justice to those within the group and keeps them from destroying one another. For long ages this cooperation was probably quite unconscious as to definite purpose. From the cooperation to be seen in the social organizations of some of the lower forms of life, like ants and bees, the probabilities are that social cooperation was early established by natural selection weeding out those who did not develop the social tendencies leading to cooperation. Later the advantage which cooperation gave for survival became apparent first to a few leaders and then to wider circles of a population. Pleasurable results from cooperation results experienced from the earliest days of association of like beings -- were intensified as intelligence developed and as new methods of cooperation were devised. At first limited to economic and sympathetic cooperation, the field gradually widened to include an increasing number of subjects. Gradually cooperation became predominantly conscious, varied in method, and wider in scope, so that in developed societies the objects for which social organization exists have multiplied to include those finer satisfactions of life which are beyond the mere necessities of survival. Hence, the systematic study of a society today having such a purpose creates a science concerned not alone with social movements, but with the well-being of man. This makes it one of the most important of the social sciences, for it appeals directly to everyday life. Its phenomena are the everyday activities of men. Its laboratory is the world of social life. Its interest is bound up with every human aspiration and hope.

The Problems of Sociology. The numerous problems con-fronting the sociologist are of a varied nature. Perhaps the fundamental problem is a correct conception of the origin, structure, and activities of society. A correct knowledge of the parts and functions of society and their relation to one another is of prime importance to the student. It is essential that he understand not only social phenomena, but the causes producing them and the effects which grow out of their interrelations.

The demonstration of the regularity of recurring social phenomena is no less important, for without this no definite conclusions can be reached. If there are no regularities in social life, no general laws under which large bodies of social facts can be subsumed, then sociology has not reached the dignity of a science.

The question of the freedom of the human will in shaping social development is another vital problem. Can the conscious purpose of man control social events? In its solution is involved the relation of the so called natural development of society to its development under the control of the social mind. It leads to the problem of social consciousness and social purpose. Moreover, it determines the position and influence of the individual in social activities. If man's purposive efforts for the changing of social conditions are useless, he might as well sit down and fold his hands while the slow but merciless process of natural forces work out the destiny of the race.

This problem is followed, on the other hand, by the question of the possibility of applying the principles of organic evolution to society. If man can control society, then what part is left to natural forces of the world in the shaping of social development ?

Again, if progress is brought about through the struggle of individuals and races and the survival of the fittest, is peace or war of greater value to the human race?'

In the wake of these fundamental philosophic problems connected with sociology come many practical problems. There are the questions of the relation of ethical and religious culture to social development. Are they part of the process ? Are they causes or are they effects, or each in turn? What kind of government should be sought in view of the history of social development? What should be society's attitude towards its waste products the dependent, defective, and criminal classes? What message, if any, has sociology for the educational and business systems of society? Does it throw any light upon the measures to be taken to direct society along lines of future development in the interest of the highest type of social personality and of social group? All these and many more problems thrust themselves upon the sociologist for answer.

The Unit of Investigation in Sociology. Each science has its unit of investigation, that is to say, its specific object of study. Thus, biology studies the living being, and anthropology man in his physical relations. Sociology studies the socius, or man in his social relations. As in the case of each of the sciences mentioned, processes and products are studied also, but these are studied in order to throw light upon the main problem, that of man's social activities.' Connected with man's social activity are all those products and processes which we call social phenomena. Social phenomena, as Ross reminds us, " are all phenomena which we cannot explain without bringing in the action of one human being on another." 2 Moreover, these phenomena must not be exceptional, but must be so characteristic of a large group of people that they provide a basis for generalization. For example, the phenomena which arise when two people meet and associate have no social significance if they are peculiar to those two only and are not likely to occur when two other people meet and associate under the same circumstances. Sociology studies man in his social relations, as affecting and as affected by association, together with all the products and processes consequent upon such association.

The Method of Sociology. The method of sociology depends primarily upon its nature as a science and secondarily upon its position among other sciences. Being a general social science devoted to the broad field of human association, it must generalize upon the data furnished by other sciences bearing upon social life. Its place in the hierarchy of sciences demands the same general method as other sciences. On the other hand, owing to the fact that so many social phenomena have not been treated by any special social science, it has been necessary for sociology to collect the facts in certain fields of social activity, for example, that of the family, in order to have a basis on which to generalize, and in every field to use the essentially sociological data provided by the results of other sciences.' It is to-day a concrete science with a strong tendency to become a generalized science setting forth general principles based upon descriptive studies. Just as political economy began with the observation of special phenomena and rapidly became an abstract science, so sociology is moving in the same way as more general laws are discovered. But economics, even as an abstract science, never loses sight of concrete phenomena. Certain generalizations having been made, the economist proceeds with renewed vigor to the investigation of concrete phenomena. It is probable that sociology will, for many years to come, continue to be largely a concrete or descriptive science. The variations in the movements of society caused by the inventive genius of man will have a tendency to prevent the science from transcending the limitations of the concrete. Nevertheless the vital point of any science is " generalization," and while the accumulation of facts is essential to its proper study, sociology will grow only through generalization.

The Concrete Method. The investigation of society will always be carried on by the observation of the life of parts of society and its movement as a whole. This will cause it to be descriptive and concrete and to reach its conclusions from the results of observation rather than from abstract reasoning. There has been too much philosophizing about society without an intelligent interpretation of the facts. Indeed, there is no social science that has not lost much through the neglect of concrete observation and through the cultivation of deductive reasoning that has frequently ended in a vast amount of theorizing not always conducive to the development of science nor the advancement of mankind. Yet there are always general laws to be formulated, and it is the proper use of the facts, rather than the facts themselves, that makes a science. Hence, abstraction and generalization necessarily follow. The large number of social phenomena make it necessary for the student to collect, classify, and arrange them in logical order before he can reach definite conclusions. The best sociologists of today have not at their disposal a sufficient number of concrete data respecting the constitution and activities of society. Great as is the difficulty, the observation of concrete phenomena furnishes the only true basis for the construction of a formal science of society. There remains much work of this character yet to be done. We have only just begun the practice of studying intensively and comprehensively cross sections of our social life by means of the social survey.

The Data of Other Sciences. While the sociologist carries on his investigation independently, he accepts the conclusions reached by other sciences and uses the data collected by them. It would be idle to ignore what biology has taught us concerning the physical system of man, the primary causes of association, or, indeed, the influence of heredity, for these must enter as primary causes of social development. We must not neglect what psychology has to teach us of the nature of the mind of the individual, for it is from this that we start in our efforts to understand the social mind. Political economy in the study of the economic life has given us many principles and laws and accumulated data which must be utilized in developing the science of sociology. And the same is the case with political science, ethics, and history ; they have gained knowledge of certain aspects of social life, and it is idle for the sociologist to ignore their conclusions and attempt to do the work over again. But, as stated in the last chapter, sociology cannot become a synthesis of these sciences, nor is it a mental science simply because it studies the social habits of thinking people. Its scope is much wider than this.

As Ross has so well pointed out, the sociologist is not looking for the same things as the historian, the economist, the political scientist, or the psychologist. The sociologist is trying to rise from particular cases to general terms. He wants not solitary or striking facts but recurrent phenomena, no matter how trivial they may seem to scholars in other fields. The only requirement is that these phenomena be social and that they show tendencies and reveal regularities of social activity. Sociology studies objective groups, relations, institutions, subjective imperatives and uniformities in society. All of them are products of the social process. It also studies the social processes by which these social products are produced.' Sociology differs from the other social sciences in two respects. It begins where they leave off, and its data are those growing out of association in all its aspects.

Sociology varies from Other Social Sciences chiefly on Account of its General Nature. Sociology has its own independent purpose and its own definite scope, and therefore can accept what has been accomplished without interfering with the status of other sciences. In seeking to discover and present general laws it transcends the limited position of each of the other social sciences. The difficulty attending its generalization makes the development of the science slow?

The scope of the sociological field as well as its differentiation from the fields occupied by the other social sciences is clearly indicated by Professor Ross's Map of the Sociological Field which is here added.

The Course of Reasoning. M. Comte, who first made a formal declaration regarding sociology, placed it in the category of descriptive and concrete sciences, but his own treatment of the subject in his Positive Philosophy was that of a social philosophy rather than that of an inductive science. In the beginning it was very natural that sociology should be a philosophy in order that its place among the philosophic interests might be determined and its field so delimited as to show its possible value. However, recently emphasis has been given to inductive study. Facts or data have been observed, collected, and classified and general principles have been deduced. The substantial progress of the science has been along the lines of concrete investigation by establishing principles from constantly recurring regularities in the mass of data.

The experimental process of society building in which each new form of association or organization has tried to meet the exigencies of the case, and the consequent passing of customs, habits, and laws rendered obsolete by the " law of survival," would seem to indicate that no formal science based on axioms, postulates, and theorems capable of demonstration could be established on such a shifting experimental basis. But as no cycle of reasoning is complete without both methods, the deductive will always be used along with the inductive.

Scientific Method must be Observed. It is very important, whatever process of reasoning is employed, that there should be a strict scientific method in all treatment of social phenomena. Comte made the first step in this direction by giving sociology an honored place in the hierarchy of sciences, and Spencer early acknowledged the need of more extended data, which in part accounts for his Descriptive Sociology and the large collection of social facts in his Principles. Ward, in his Dynamic Sociology, has approached his main topics from the concrete and rounded his argument with a deductive method. Yet how many writers on sociology have succeeded in doing little more than record impressions or, at least, expound theories from their respective points of view ! Every science has made material advancement just in proportion as it has discovered facts and arranged them in scientific order. Therefore, sociology will develop in pro-portion as speculation ceases and thorough scientific investigation advances. Difficulties indeed present themselves at once when the endeavor is made to bring some classes of social facts under statistical control. It is difficult, for example, to measure the growth or decline of a custom, a belief, a tradition. We may be convinced that there has been an increase or decrease; but the scientific determination of the quantitative differences is much more difficult in sociology than in the biological sciences, or even in psychology or education. Nevertheless, the sociologists have made a very creditable beginning. Dealing first with the measurement of the most easily controlled social facts, such as population, housing, wages, poverty, pauperism, crime, insanity, and feeble-mindedness, the sociologists have attempted to bring under control of exact scientific measurement the much more intractable social phenomena of the social mind.

Many Phases of Sociology. The descriptive phase of the science of sociology must be made prominent, for it is only by such description that clearly defined notions of the subject matter can be obtained. Without it people are led into error. For example, many people wrote about the trust, disposing of it with summary methods when its real nature, as well as its origin and development, was unknown to them. They wrote in the dark, hence their conclusions were mostly worthless. Comparatively little of all that has been written about such subjects as "Money," " Marriage and Divorce," " Education," "Social-ism," " Trusts," " Labor and Capital " is of real value because the facts were not known and the relations of the particular subject under discussion to other subjects were not understood.

Social statistics must occupy a large place in social science and its work will, so far as possible, include the whole range of social development. There is great need of careful statistical studies of many aspects of our social life. The studies in the Reports of the United States Census are valuable as far as they go. They give us a grasp of some aspects of our social life, such as population, its composition, and organization in family groups. The census has also contributed special studies on marriage and divorce, on religious bodies, on the colored people in certain employments, etc. Each decade some new aspects of our social life are studied statistically, but it leaves so much untouched that the sociologist feels how inadequately the Census as a whole represents our complex social life. From the stand-point of the novice in sociology, often a much better understanding of the nature of the subject is obtained by selecting a small unit like a rural township or one or more city blocks and studying that unit intensively according to a definite plan mapped out by some competent person.

Social evolution contributes much to the understanding of social life besides making clear the forces that act in society building and the laws that govern it. Therefore the student of sociology studies carefully the development of civilization in different parts of the world. He goes to descriptions of the nature peoples, to folklore, and to the life of the classic peoples of the past, to medieval customs, and to survivals of all kinds in our modern life, in order to learn the steps in the development of social institutions and processes, in the hope that he may find regularities of social action and reaction common to them all and thus discover generalizations or laws of society.

While the normal society is the great object of study, one must not neglect the obsolete forms of society, for it is in the broken-down parts that we frequently discover the laws of social growth and social decay. Just as it was by the study of disease in the human being that we came to know about the normal body and normal mind, so by following up the evidence displayed in degenerate types of social groups, one is frequently led to the truths which underlie normal society. Such study must be thorough and scientific and far removed from all morbid sentiment or philosophic hysterics. Social pathology may have as an important result the determination of the ought of social action.


GIDDINGS, F. H. Inductive Sociology, Chaps. II, III.

RATZENHOFER, GUSTAV. "The Problems of Sociology," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. X, p. 177.

Ross, E. A. Foundations of Sociology, Chaps. I and IV.

SMALL, A. W. "Methodology of Sociology," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. IV, pp. 113144; 235256; 380-394.

WARD, LESTER F. Pure Sociology, Chap. IV.


1. How is the primary purpose of sociology related to its practical purpose?

2. If it should be established that the conscious purpose of man can have no influence upon social development, what would be the practical effect upon movements to improve social conditions?

3. Make out a broad, general outline of the things you would want to investigate, if you were going to study society so as to get a general idea of its nature.

4. In connection with the section on the problems of sociology, read Giddings's Principles of Sociology, pp. 70-76, and then write out in outline form a statement of the problems of sociology.

5. Why is it that statistics were not applied so early to the study of social phenomena as to the study of, let us say, the biological?

6. Name all the groups of social facts which you know have been treated statistically.

7. Name some social phenomena which have not yet been studied by the statistical methods.

8. Outline a study of your own home community, dividing the study into the various heads and subdivisions under which the facts concerning it would best be grouped in order to enable one to understand that community from a sociological standpoint.

Outlines Of Sociology:
Social Life In General

Definition And Scope Of Sociology

Purpose And Method Of Sociology

Social Origins

Land And Its People

Social Activities

Social Organization

Organization And Life Of The Family

Disorganization Of The Modern Family

Origin And Development Of The State

Read More Articles About: Outlines Of Sociology

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