Sociology and the Liberal Arts – A Guide to Studying Sociology as Part of a Liberal Studies Education

Streets and sidewalks crowded with people

As the study of society and its relationship with the individual, sociology finds a natural home within the liberal arts. It’s already the flagship field of the social sciences, and it gets even more inter-disciplinary when you consider how, by-definition, it also provides a critique of social institutions like culture, the family, religion, class, race, and much more.

With roots stretching back to the 18th century, leaps and bounds have been made in sociology right up to the present day. This field has blossomed and taken the world by storm, so much so that many elements of modern society that we might consider to be new territory, like social media, have actually already been described by sociology decades ago.

Today sociology is in its prime and is critical for understanding how the world operates. It provides insights into everything from politics and advertising to interpersonal relationships and happiness. As such, the liberal arts is a perfect home for the study of sociology.

What is Sociology?

The American Sociological Association defines sociology as the study of society, people’s behaviors, and their interactions in groups. It’s the study of social institutions like families, class groups, identity groups, and political class membership. Sociology encompasses many elements; it…

Whereas psychologists try to understand human behavior by studying the individual, sociologists try to understand human behavior by looking at the big-picture context of society. The inter-disciplinary nature and human implications of sociology mean it’s a natural extension to learn about this field through the liberal arts.

Revolution, Industrialization, and Democratization – The Birthplace of Sociology

Voting in the USAThe 18th century was a pivotal time in human history and saw the flourishing of several key factors that would give birth to sociology. These were the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the nation-state, and the subsequent increase of democratic forces.

Developments in technology made the Industrial Revolution possible:

Key developments in politics that began around this time were:

These factors combined to create the rise of the city. Relatively meager standards of living, wealth, and life expectancy began to see remarkable gains in the countries of the world experiencing these changes. With their large concentrations of people, thoughtful observers were able to make large-scale social observations, and early sociologists with a humanist outlook still found much that was lacking:

Enter Auguste Comte…

Sorbonne University in Paris, FranceComing of age in the 19th-century, Auguste Comte is considered to be the founder of sociology. It was in industrializing Paris that he would make his foundational contributions to what would become known as sociology.

Drawing on his urban experiences, Comte published societal critiques on subjects like industry, politics, the managerial class, the scientific method (he called it “positivism”), nationalism (he called it “republicanism”), the social sciences, and humanism.

His thoughts on these subjects were revolutionary for their time, planting the seeds for countless foundational sociological ideas, and marking the philosophical transition of humans that came with transitioning from an agrarian to an urban environment.

Because of Comte, religion, to the extent it served as a philosophical compass, began to be replaced by the scientific method and humanism. Urban-based social movements that defined themselves with sociological group-identity terms rather than the traditional religious ones –including suffragists, abolitionists, and Marxists– began to develop. To this day social institutions and the socio-economic group identity are key concepts in the field of sociology.

Comte also bridged the gap between the hard sciences and the social sciences. His contributions led to the widespread realization that self-determined individuals –a new concept of the day’s republicanism– and society have a dynamic relationship: institutions impact individuals, and individuals as a collective impact social institutions. In the former monarchist worldview individuals were a mere footnote.

And Comte wasn’t finished; he carried these new concepts even further. He theorized that individualism and humanism, the moral actions of people within a civil society, could be understood through repeated observational analysis. He took these new societal developments and sought to understand them with the scientific method, once again a revolutionary idea.

Understanding the significance of Comte is essential to understanding sociology today and why it’s been such an important field over the past several centuries. Studying Comte as a fundamental person for sociology is a parallel to studying the industrializing world in the 18th century within the liberal arts.

It’s impossible to fully appreciate the factors that led to the Industrial Revolution without a liberal arts background that looks at the historical, technological, cultural, philosophical, religious, and artistic developments that laid the groundwork for the developments of the industrializing 18th century. And without those it’s impossible to understand the environment experienced by Comte which would ultimately lead to the establishment of sociology.

Sociology Today – Persistent Challenges with a Modern Twist

Since the time of Comte sociology has grown into a well-developed and mature field, though it still relies on many fundamentals that were established in Comte’s time:

Online social media is one of the newest fields of exploration for sociologists today. It has wide-ranging implications for the norms and values of society complete with real-world rewards and social punishments. These can affect a person’s employment, love life, political orientation, and mental health.

Young group of adults using smartphonesBut even with this new digital territory today’s social media does not necessarily introduce new sociological concepts. Writing in 1956 with the novel idea to examine peoples’ face-to-face interactions as a form of self-realizing performance theater, the sociologist Erving Goffman’s work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life offers a perfect description of today’s social media virtue signaling environment where users cultivate and manage their profiles to the last detail.

Sociologist Stanley Cohen touched on topics that are easily recognizable in today’s social-media-driven news cycle. He introduced the sociological concept of a moral panic in his 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics.

Cohen identifies a sensationalist media as being instrumental to creating a moral panic by exaggerating and distorting an event, offering gloom-and-doom predictions about its implications, and finally making appeals for greater societal control as a result while offering condolences through “gatekeepers of morality,” among whom he included editors.

Concentrations of power will always try to manipulate people for their own ends; that was a defining element of society back in the 18th century that originally inspired the reactionary formation of sociology as a field. While they might change the wrapping paper, many of the underlying concepts within sociology have been well-established to the point that understanding these offers the best inoculation against today’s latest manipulative incarnations whether they be fake news, social media bot networks, or wily politicians.

Throughout the history of sociology and right up through the present, the liberal arts has always been the relevant scaffold for a full and rich contextual understanding. Democracy, freedom, and human rights have been with sociology since its founding, and understanding the relationship between these and sociology today means a big-picture appreciation of the liberal arts.