What is Sociology? What is Linguistics?   no comments

Posted at 1:07 am in Discipline,Linguistics,Sociology


Giddens, A (2006): Sociology: 5th Edition.Cambridge: Polity.

Aitchison, J (1972): Lingusitics, An Introduction. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Trudgill, P (1983): Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society. London: Penguin.

My reading this week has focused on an introduction to the disciplines that I am studying, Linguistics and Sociology.


Sociology is a scientific study of human social life, our communities and the things we do as individuals within a community or as a whole society. In order to study sociology, one must possess what is described as a ‘sociological imagination’, in order to perceive the meanings behind actions. Individual actions, no matter how trivial, all have behind them a process of social development and decision making which has brought the actor to make the decision. For example;  A soldier might find himself in a foreign land, fighting a war for his country, as a result of a number of social factors and influences which have been impressed upon him since childhood, perhaps even before his birth. Sociology aims to identify these processes and record them, in order to discover and document what causes and sustains the societies we find ourselves in, and in many cases propose ways in which we might change or manipulate these causes, for the betterment of our individual lives and of our societies.

While it is hard to establish a birthday for sociology, it is commonly agreed that this science emerged and developed alongside the French and Industrial Revolutions of the late 18th Century, and was initially an observational science, documenting the social changes that were occurring in these turbulent times of mass population migration and class stratification.

Sociology has several key theorists at its base. In brief, they are:

  • Auguste Comte (1798-1857): Developed sociology as a positive (observational) science.
  • Emile Durkheim (1858-1917): Developed empirical sociology. Durkheim was especially interested in community and solidarity, and was the first scientist to link the social environment to individual actions in a famous study detailing the causes of suicide.
  • Karl Marx (1818-83): His ideas of capitalism and worker-capitalist relationships were a driving force in politicising sociology and identifying classes.
  • Max Weber (1864-1920): Disagreed with Marx that sociology should focus on economics and social class. Sociology should focus on the ideas and beliefs that drive social change, whatever they may be. For example capitalism has its roots in advances in science, engineering and bureaucracy.

I will talk in more detail about these theorists and their contributions to sociology (as well as ways in which their theories relate to my topic of organisation) in later blog postings.

In more recent times, sociology has developed further theoretical approaches, such as functionalism (studying the underlying norms of society), symbolic interactionism (the role of language and symbols, such as smiling, in society), microsociology (individual actions) and macrosociology (large scale social systems). All of these approaches are identified by their own theorists and methodologies, but can be seen to adhere to an overarching rule of sociology, that societies possess external and internal norms which influence, if not dictate, their development. Sociology does not pretend to identify all these norms, but all fields of sociology are concerned with discovering these core rules.


Linguistics is, first and foremost, not the learning of languages. It is the observational study of language as a tool for human communication. Linguists are very much concerned with observing the evolution, usage and semantics of language, and are not to be thought of as enforcers of a ‘best’ language. Indeed, linguists make it clear that all forms of language are equal in their importance; there is no one language better than the other.

Language is the pre-requisite for information collection; humans are born with the ability to learn language but, unlike animals, must be taught its use. Language varies widely over geographical distances, with different language structures existing over large distances, and over shorter distances, various dialects(grammatical differences) and accents (pronunciation differences), subsets of a common language. Differences in language can be used to show different perceptions of the world around us in various cultures and societies, a famous example of this being the many different types of word for “snow” in the Inuit tribes of North America, who live in an environment that necessitates a precise description for different types of snow.

Linguistics has a wide scope of study, concerned with understanding:

  • Phonetics: the study of human speech sounds.
  • Phonology: the study of sound patterns.
  • Syntax: the study of word formation
  • Semantics: the study of meaning.

And has many schools of thought within, such as:

  • Psycholinguistics: language and the mind.
  • Sociolinguistics: language and society
  • Applied linguistics: application of linguistics to society.
  • Stylistics: language and literature
  • Anthropological linguistics: language in cross-cultural settings.
  • Philosophical linguistics: language and logical thought.
  • Historical linguistics: Language change.

Linguistics is, therefore, very much concerned with uncovering what its foremost contemporary academic, Noam Chomsky, calls the ‘Universal Core’ of language. The set of universal rules and norms which exist in all societies and form the structure of all language, distinguishing humans from animals.

In this preparatory reading, I have discovered that both sociology and linguistics share a common ground in terms of their quest to observe and record the changes in the social activities of humans. Sociology appears to ask “Why are humans social?”, observes the actions and consequences of social organisation, and attempts to identify the processes behind them. Linguistics asks “Why can humans be social?” and observes language as the information sharing glue that binds our society together and ultimately leads to the social actions and consequences which sociology observes. In sociology, language may be seen as one of many processes influencing an action, but linguistics sees language as the core building block of all that is social, and it is important to acknowledge this in order to separate the disciplines.

It is clear that both these subjects have much to tell us about the concept of organisation, and in later blog posts I’ll be linking their relevance to the World Wide Web.

For my next blog post, I’ll be discussing linguistics in more detail, in particular the structure and purpose of language, and how important it is in defining social groups.

Written by Phil Waddell on November 2nd, 2010

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