Sociology is an empirical science that uses abstract concepts to search for and explain recurring patterns in human social behaviour. Sociologists employ a view of human behaviour that focuses on the patterns of relationships among individuals rather than solely on the individuals themselves. This view, known as the sociological perspective, consists of ideal types, models, and paradigms that provide the sociologist with ways of describing such patterns. The sociological perspective embodies the concern of sociologists with both social order and social problems and their desire to develop theories to explain a wide range of human behaviours. Sociology is characterized by multiple views which offer different contributing causes to explanations of the same general issues. The sociological perspective therefore does not consist of a concrete body of knowledge but of a way of looking at human behaviour that stands apart from other fields of enquiry and explanation.

Social sciences in general focus their attention upon the behaviour of the species Homo sapiens, examining how people interact with one another and how they organize themselves for cooperative activities. Sociology, though sharing these traditional concerns, recognizes that this notion of the domain of the social sciences is seriously deficient because some of the interactions among people are characterized by conflict rather than cooperation, and some of the things that people do weaken or damage the system of social organization and work against the achievement of collective objectives. Moreover, the system of social organization may itself be deficient in certain respects that make it difficult, or even impossible, for people to cooperate effectively.

Sociology emerged as a distinct academic discipline during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries mainly through the contributions of Marx and Engels, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, and max Weber. However, there is considerable disagreement with respect to the sociological explanations of social phenomena and to sociology's place in the social sciences. Durkheim, for example, attempted to show that sociology was an autonomous and distinctive science. In contrast, others have argued that sociology is not a separate discipline but one that integrates the findings of economics, history, politics, psychology and geography, and that sociology is a perspective that seeks to ground individuals and events in a broad social context, and this perspective is not unique to the discipline of sociology but is shared by the social sciences. For still other sociologists, some Marxists in particular, sociology does not have a scientific status because it has no definite object of analysis, no distinctive methodology, and should be seen as an ideology appropriate to a particular stage of capitalist development. Notwithstanding these disagreements, a defence of sociology could rightly claim that:

  • it has contributed through numerous empirical studies to knowledge and understanding of modern societies
  • it raises important questions about the nature of individual responsibility in law and morality by studying the social context of action
  • it has contributed significantly to developments in other disciplines
  • it provides a new form of consciousness that is particularly sensitive to the dilemmas of a secular, industrial and post-industrial civilization