What is Sociology?

What is sociology? There is no single definition. Most sociologists would say that we aim to make sense of group life in the modern world. We consider individuals but our starting position is to regard them as social beings. Sociologists argue that people learn what it is to be human (the acquisition of language, culture, norms) through social interaction, and that they are enmeshed in networks of mutual dependence (for example we do not typically grow our own food, make our own clothes or build our own shelters). These networks of dependence stretch across the globe. Part of the sociological enterprise entails seeing these connections.


The British Sociological Association argues that sociology is:


  • Reflexive: it looks at how society is structured and asks why it is structured the way it is and considers what alternative ways of being might look like

  • Critical: it offers constructive critique of social arrangements (both institutions and social relations) to ask how we might improve peoples’ lives

  • Empirical: in addition to abstract thinking, sociological arguments are based on evidence

  • Radical: it offers new, sometimes subversive or revolutionary, ways of thinking about our world

  • Relevant: it deals with the big issues of the day which impact upon us all, like environmental degradation, economic inequality and gender oppression

  • Democratic: sociology is for everyone

  • Justice-oriented: we are concerned with fairness and work towards this end

  • Powerful: sociological thinking can be transformational at both an individual and collective level. We can help make the world a better place


Below is a range of definitions offered by lecturers and teachers from across Aotearoa New Zealand:

"Sociology is the discipline that seeks to understand ourselves and our world. It has a critical edge: sociologists expose relations of power and mechanisms of domination. Sociology also concerns itself with justice: we identify inequalities and commit to human flourishing. Finally, sociology has a utopian impulse. Part of our task is to educate and agitate for a better world."


Associate Professor Steve Matthewman - University of Auckland - President of SAANZ

"Sociology is the systematic (and empirically-based) study of patterns of the rise, maintenance, change and demise of the array of different collective social forms and how these (and other factors) shape people’s attributes, attitudes and actions (including interactions) and how these in turn underpin and also change these social forms."


Professor Charles Crothers - Auckland University of Technology (AUT)

"The initial attraction to sociology for me, was that it allowed me to make much greater sense of my life and place in the world.  In understanding that our agency is shaped by a multitude of systems, structures and experiences, I am able to better critically examine and question the complexities of our social world.  This opens up possibilities for new ways of thinking about our social worlds, and for making progress toward more sustainable and equitable lives."


Dr Corrina Tucker - Massey University 

"I didn't major in sociology for my Bachelor's degree, and felt increasingly disillusioned in my attempts to understand my world. My first taste of sociology changed that dramatically. I was home! Sociology gave me tools, gave me insights and gave me hope. From its inception, sociology has been about making the world a better place and those who pursue the discipline invariably seek the same end. If you have a strong sense of social justice, a suspicion that poverty is not individually determined, or a sense of wonder at the achievements human communities, sociology beckons. There are no simple answers, but sociology helps us ask the right questions. It engages young minds with a fresh perspective, invigorates the world-weary, makes us squirm under our own spotlight and provides opportunities to transform those aspects of the human world that make us uncomfortable."


Dr Maxine Campbell - University of Waikato - SAANZ Secretary

“Sociology is the foundation of everything we know, the environment we operate in. Once you’ve studied it, you never see the world in the same way again.” 


Justin Peters, Head of Department, Social Sciences, ACG Senior College.

"Sociology considers the ways that everyday action contributes to the reproduction of social structures, and how these structures, in turn, shape identity, relationships and power in society.  Students of sociology develop a set of critical lenses that shed new light on the social world, and they acquire the necessary skills to analyse the operation and effects of social processes and structures.  A sociology degree will prepare students to dissect the multiple layers of our social reality - with all its pitfalls and promises - and apply that knowledge to guide our society to a better future." 


Department of Sociology, Gender and Social Work - University of Otago 

"The discovery of sociology during our university studies for many of us was like a light coming on – the concepts and theories we were exposed to helped to make sense of the societies in which we lived.  Sociology is the study of society in terms of how a group of people subjugate, or are subjugated by, certain patterns of ideas, behaviours, interactions and cultures.  It explains how and why everyone in society does not think the same and is not treated the same, and helps us to understand why, and in what ways, individuals or groups attempt to impose their ideas about how we should behave upon other groups, and the effect this has on all of us."


Department of Tourism, Sport and Society, Lincoln University

What is sociology? Sociology is the systematic study of society. Its practitioners analyse society in a great variety of ways to connect people’s lives with public issues and concerns. Society is everywhere so sociology’s scope is wide. This diversity is seen in the breadth of topics taught. At Canterbury, these include sociology of the body; ethnicity; mental health; criminology; exploring the past, the environment and death studies. Add cities, religion, social movements and everyday life to this mix and you get a sense of the depth and diversity of this rich and rewarding discipline.


Sociology and Anthropology - School of Language, Social and Political Sciences - University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

Students from the University of Auckland discussing "what is sociology?"...