Diane Zabel and Christine Avery
As its name clearly implies, the social nature of the human animal is the focus of sociology. Although such an interest has been a subject of philosophical contemplation since ancient times, the modern discipline of sociology emerged in the nineteenth century. The origin of the term is attributed to the nineteenth-century French philosopher Auguste Comte. Comte is generally regarded as the founder of modern sociology. Lee Braude’s 1994 bibliographic essay on the emergence of sociology is a good choice for those who wish to know more about the development of sociology as a discipline. 1 This essay discusses some of the major developments in sociology from the mid-nineteenth century to 1930, with an emphasis on the development of American sociology. More than eighty works are cited in this essay, making it a valuable tool for any librarian needing a summary of the most seminal publications in the field. Braude’s coverage concludes with 1930, because by that date American sociology had firmly established itself as a discipline. A symbol of this, according to Braude, was the 1929 construction of the Social Science Research Building at the University of Chicago. In 1999, Braude published a follow-up bibliographic essay in Choice, tracing developments in sociology since 1930. 2 The phenomenal growth in sociology since 1930 is evidenced by the increase in the number of works that Braude cites in his analysis of the discipline’s progress. Braude’s critical evaluation of key contemporary works is useful to librarians, graduate students, and others needing to become conversant with the core literature in sociology. Choice also publishes bibliographic essays on subfields of major disciplines. One example is Harry Gold’s article on the development of political sociology, a subspeciality that emerged in the post-World War II era. 3 It is particularly important for academic librarians to browse this feature of Choice because these bibliographic essays are outstanding and provide an easy means of gaining familiarity with the literature of a discipline or subdisclipine.
Sociology is a social science, using empirical methods to study human group behaviour. It is the broadest of the social sciences, overlapping with psychology, anthropology, education, political science, business, history, communication, statistics, law, and economics. Some subfields of sociology, notably the sociology of work, the sociology of law, political sociology, the sociology of welfare, the sociology of the environment, and the sociology of work conflict, illustrate this overlap. Sociology has distinguished itself from these related fields by developing a unique perspective. Both psychology and sociology study behaviour, but whereas psychology concentrates on individual behaviour, sociology is concerned with collective behaviour and how groups influence individual behaviour. Historically, anthropologists have primarily studied tribal peoples and pre-industrialized societies. Consequently, anthropological methodologies were developed primarily for the study of non-Western societies. However, since World War II, anthropologists have increasingly studied urban societies in Western countries and in the Third World. Like sociologists, many anthropologists have researched many relevant contemporary topics ranging from drug abuse to unemployment. In contrast, sociological methodologies were developed primarily for the study of modern Western societies.
Sociology has affected other disciplines. For example, history traditionally studies prominent people and important events in the past. Historians have adopted a sociological perspective with their increased interest in the daily life of average people, the family, and work. Sociology has also had an impact on librarianship. Leigh Estabrook’s 1984 study using citation analysis to measure library researchers’ use of sociological materials found that 8 percent of library citations were sociological references. 5 She concluded that this was not insignificant and projected that in the future, library researchers would probably increase their use of sociological works, especially those publications relating to computing and technology issues.
Sociology has been applied to the study of society’s problems. Topics under sociological investigation include alcohol and drug abuse, family violence, homelessness, crime, and racial discrimination. In 1994, Neil J. Smelser, a prominent sociologists, accurately predicted that in the future more research would focus on subjects such as step-parenting, dual-career couples, commuter marriages, telecommuting and home-based work, the economic and ethical consequences of medical technology, the social epidemiology of AIDS, and the social aspects of environmental threats. 6 These were important themes in the late 1990s and continue to be in the twenty-first century. Social work developed as a practical response to social problems and is based in sociology. Along with teaching in universities, sociologists work in industry, government, human services, and private social agencies.
A range or research methods characterizes the discipline of sociology. Sociological conclusions are not based on common sense but are the product of systematically collected data. After developing a hypothesis, sociologists select a research method and collect data, which are interpreted, reviewed, and sometimes replicated. The most heavily used research method in sociology is survey research. Survey research uses questionnaires, interviews, or both to determine what people think, predict behaviour, or to measure public opinion. This technique uses a sample, a representative number of people from the population studied. Generalizations about large groups of people are based on the samples.
Sociology shares the tradition of fieldwork with anthropology. Fieldwork uses direct observation to collect data. Some sociological studies involve the participation of the observer, who becomes part of the group studied. Case studies analyze a community, a family, or an occupation. The collection and analysis of statistical data are important in sociology. Sociologists require statistics on the demographic and social characteristics of special groups. Instead of generating their own data, they may rely on statistics already collected. Sociologists in the United States make heavy use of data collection by the Census Bureau and other government agencies.
Many sociologists make use of machine-readable data files. There are several repositories of machine-readable social science data. The most well-known archive in this country is the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), which is centred at the University of Michigan The Consortium receives, processes, distributes, and archives large datasets. It also sponsors workshops and training sessions that are useful to data users and data librarians.
A large number of scholarly books are published annually in the area of sociology. Approximately 41,000 academic titles in sociology were published or distributed in the United States or Canada in 1997 alone. 7 Only two other subject categories in the social sciences surpassed this publishing output: history and business/economics. However, this figure from The Bowker Annual excludes the number of popular titles published in sociology. Herbert Gans authored a fascinating study on fifty-six best-sellers written by American sociologists during the period 1950 through 1995. 8 Each of these titles sold more than 50,000 copies; included were the 1950 classic The Lonely Crowd (which topped 1 million in sales), Artie Hochschild’s groundbreaking study, The Second Shift (documenting the chore wars between men and women); and three works by Lillian Rubin (World of Pain, Intimate Strangers, and Just Friends). Gans’s insights about these best-sellers suggest the impact that sociology has had on the public. These best-sellers have addressed issues such as loneliness, poverty, racism, social injustice and gender inequality, topics that obviously struck a chord with many Americans.
Collection development in sociology can be a challenge given the large volume of monographic output. Fortunately, there are selection tools that can help librarians evaluate new titles in sociology. Although it dates from the 1980s, Sharon Quist’s article on the value of book reviews in sociology is still relevant reading for beginning sociology librarians. 9 Quist outlines the importance of reviews and lists journals in sociology where book reviews can be found. Another article that should be required reading for sociology selectors is Judith Fox’s critical comparison of Choice and Contemporary Sociology as book selection tools. 10 This evaluative article reiterates the importance of not using Choice exclusively for collection development decisions given only moderate overlap between Choice and Contemporary Sociology, a premier scholarly review journal in sociology.
Citation analysis has been employed as a tool to study the literature of sociology. James Baughman conducted one of the earliest studies in 1974 11. Baughman’s research resulted in a list of most frequently cited sociology journals. A few years later, William Satarino conducted a readership analysis, examining journals that socialists reported reading. 12 Both of these early studies laid the foundation for subsequent studies of sociology literature by establishing core lists of journals relevant to sociologists. In 1984, Beth Shapiro examined several citation and readership studies in the social sciences in order to profile sociologists’ use of book and journal material. Her reviews of the research found that sociologists make greater use of monographic literature than many other social scientists, and there is an emphasis on recent English-language material. Her reviews of the research found that sociologists make greater use of monographic literature than many other social scientists, and there is an emphasis on recent English-language material. A synthesis of Shapiro’s findings indicates that
- 50 to 62 percent of all citations from scholarly research in sociology are from nonserial publications (e.g., monographs, documents, reports);
- 90 to 93 percent of all citations are from English-language sources; and
- 50 to 70 percent of all citations are from sources less than ten years old. 13
Blaise Cronin, Herbert Snyder, and Helen Atkins have conducted the most recent citation analysis in sociology. These authors analyzed tens of thousands of references from scholarly monographs and academic journals for a nine-year period (1985-1993). Their findings suggest that there may be two distinct populations of highly cited authors: one in monographs and the other in journals.
The literature of sociology is widely dispersed across related disciplines and the numerous subfields of sociology. Major subfields include criminology, social work, marriage and the family, demography, gerontology, ethnicity, women’s studies, and urban studies. Sociological Abstracts, the major database in the discipline, identifies approximately thirty broad subfields, ranging from group interactions to feminist/gender studies. Sociological research is highly interdisciplinary. There is only a small core of reference literature relating to general sociology. However, there are many specialized works relating to the numerous subfields of the disciplines.