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THE SCOPE AND METHOD OF SOCIOLOGY
Society and Social Groups. Sociology is one of several sciences dealing with human society. Man is the subject matter of the science; but sociology does not study man as a physical organism, nor does it study his isolated activities. It investigates rather the phenomena which arise out of the association of men with one another in society.
The word society is employed in two senses. Many sociologists use it to designate any association of individuals organized for a given end. Such an association may be large or small, permanent or temporary, and organized for one or more purposes. Trade unions, scientific or religious organizations, and social clubs are all societies in the sense that they involve the necessary fundamental element of association. Professor Ellwood, approaching the problem from the psychological point of view, defines society as any group of individuals having more or less conscious reciprocal relations with each other." This definition is very inclusive, throwing emphasis upon the phenomenon of association as the determining factor of a society.
In contrast to this idea which includes all kinds of partial organizations is the conception of a society as an organization complete in itself, all forms of social life being contained within its boundaries. The first use of the term is the broader one, because it would include the large self-sufficing organization referred to in the second definition as well as the many smaller associations organized for particular purposes. The idea of the self-sufficing society is not a difficult nor an unnatural one; but it is indefinite, because in the case of advanced peoples no such organization exists as a single unit within definite boundaries.
1 Sociology in its Psychological Aspects, p. 13.
In modern times such a society would comprise most of the civilized world, because it would include trade relations and intellectual influences not confined to a city, or even to a nation. The outstanding fact of modern social life is that peoples, formerly widely separated, are now influencing one another more and more; and societies, which were formerly complete in themselves, are being merged into one great society.
A society in this latter sense is often confused with the state, but it is evident that the two are not identical. A state is an organization for one particular purpose, while a complete society includes associations for all purposes. But even when a society is not identified with a state in the sense of a political organization, it is sometimes understood to be co-extensive with political boundaries; that is, each state is supposed to be a complete society, and we conceive of the French nation, for example, as one society, and the people within the boundaries of the United States as another society. This conception is evidently inaccurate for no peoples, excepting isolated primitive groups, are entirely self-sufficing. All have relations, such as trade, or intellectual interests, or even social intimacies, which extend outside the state boundaries. However it is often convenient to represent a particular state as a society, because it has definite boundaries and is a physical unit; and, if the exact difference between the two organizations is understood, such a representation will not lead to serious error, because a state does include the chief social interests of a vast majority of the people.
It will be convenient to distinguish this conception of the large complete social organization from the smaller partial ones by confining the term society to the former and calling the latter social groups or associations. A society then is composed of individuals; and these individuals are grouped into a large number of social circles for a variety of purposes, such as family, religious, social or friendship groups, business and professional organizations, philanthropic or cultural associations, and the like. These social circles overlap, each individual belonging to many groups and associating with different individuals for different purposes. And finally these social groups are for the most part, though not entirely, included in the large association for political purposes called a state. But in modern times state boundaries do not set limits to all forms of association; and therefore a still larger informal organization must be conceived of as a complete society.
Sociology Distinguished from the Special Social Sciences. Sociology as a general science deals with all forms of social relationships; and therefore its subject matter can be nothing less than a complete society. As a matter of fact, it obtains its material from all kinds of social groups whether partial or complete.
Associations of individuals for specific purposes, like business, government, or religious organizations, may each be made a subject of study; and such studies give rise to the special social sciences, such as economics, politics, comparative religions, etc. But however numerous and complete the special social sciences may be, any piecemeal study of society necessarily misses certain fundamental and significant social facts. The life of man is not comprised in any single activity, and associations of men for different purposes all react upon one another. Therefore, to understand fully the nature of man and his social relations, society must be studied in its entirety as well as in
As compared with the individual social sciences, sociology is a more general and also a more complicated science. It deals with the fundamental principles which enter into the various social sciences, just as biology deals with the fundamental facts of life and the sub-sciences of botany and zoology deal with specific manifestations of life. It is natural that the social sciences should develop first, because knowledge normally begins with the particular and passes to the more general; but, as our knowledge of the great fundamental social processes increases, the new material and the new point of approach should throw light on all the special social sciences and complete them.
The Relation of Sociology to the Other Primary Sciences. A clear comprehension of the province of sociology requires an analysis of its position among the other fundamental sciences, as well as a distinction between it and the special social sciences. Auguste Comte, the first modern writer on sociology, in his Positive Philosophy, classified the sciences as follows: Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, (Psychology), and Sociology. Comte himself made psychology a sub-division of biology, but later writers have given it a place among the primary sciences. Spencer objected strongly to this classification and substituted another for it; and it is true that for some purposes Comte's hierarchy is a poor one. But sciences may be arranged in different ways for different purposes, and Comte's classification emphasizes certain points which are well worth noting.
Comte classified the sciences in their serial order for four reasons. He maintained that it ranked them in the order of their historical development, and of their dependence, and indicated their relative degrees of complexity, and of precision. Although his classification does show in a rough way the historical development of the sciences, that development has not actually been so lineal as this arrangement would imply. It is not far from the truth to say that, in the matter of dependence, the development of some of the later sciences has reacted upon the earlier as markedly as the development of the earlier has stimulated the later. From the point of view of development then sciences are interdependent rather than lineally dependent. It is true, however, that any one of these sciences is likely to make use of many of the principles derived from the sciences which immediately precede in Comte's arrangement. For example, many of the principles both of biology and of psychology must be understood before the laws of sociology can be fully mastered.
Of more interest are the last two characteristics of the sciences discussed, - their complexity and precision. By complexity Comte meant the relative number of forces or factors involved at a given time. From this point of view it is probably true that astronomy is the simplest of all the sciences; and the series shows increasing complexity up to sociology, which has to take account of the largest number of forces acting at once. The precision of a science refers to the character of its conclusions