Sociology is study of society or human grouping. In the social sciences, it is at the “top” of the spectrum with economics because it examines the largest scale trends of human behavior… the results of 4 billion people interacting together. At the “bottom” of the social sciences is psychology, which studies the individual actor. Cultural anthropology is in the “middle” because it looks at tribes or cultures — small groups identified by geography, history or race.
Sociology, being at the top of the social sciences, yields some of the most interesting information about humanity, but also some of the most philosophical (i.e. least scientific or mathematical). To say that sociology is a science, as most contend, is stretching the truth. Most sociology falls into macroeconomic or macropsychological speculation. The framers of the field were often more philosophers of race or social class than anything else. So the objectivity of the field must be taken with more than a grain of salt, although data and statistical analysis are of course part of being a good sociologist.
This makes sociology wide open to the Christian, however. In contrast to psychology, whose status as scientific is doggedly defended, sociology tolerates more conjecture and revelation. Understanding, generalizing, and predicting human behavior on the largest levels requires some religious understanding (even if it is atheism), and therefore one’s worldview comes naturally into play. If Christians are shrewd about how they present their theories, they can play the game without getting ousted; theology and metaphysics is deftly sneaked in the back door by almost every sociologist of worth.
Yet for this very reason, it is important for Christians to understand that Sociology may be one of the most liberal fields in the social sciences — just slightly more conservative than history, literature, or the other humanities. This is because social analysis intermingles with literary device; the two are often hard to separate. So while no novelist is a sociologist per se, many sociology texts are essentially non-fiction novels. Theories address religion, economics, psychology, education, media, law, ethics, and philosophy. Many contributors, including Merton, Parsons, Martineau, and de Tocqueville, are charming to read. Others, such as Plato, DeBois, Marx, and Nietzche, were never called sociologists formally but were social analysts all the same. Any preacher on social stratification, race, family, urbanology, sex roles, criminology, demography, or industry can effectively be called a sociologist if they follow suit.
Sociology today has some of the most liberal and diverse vocabulary of any social science. Rife with terms such as “structural functionalism,” “phenomenology,” “postivism”/”antipostivism”, “symbolic interactionism,” and “social network analysis,” the field of sociology can seem one of the most hostile. Essentially, these terms and others have cropped up to make the field seem more scientific… the fancier the terms, the more scientific it seems. In reality, though, most terms describe very plain ideas in fancy language, and some can even be retranslated into biblical ideas quite easily. For example:
- Deviance: rebellion
- Conformity: obedience
- Discrimination: justice/injustice
- Anomie: foolishness, idleness, unbelieving
Putting scientific and technical terms into Biblical language is important because although the Bible does not give exhaustive answers to every sociological question, it does form the framework for proper social analysis. While some would deconstruct and dissect human relationships and behavior down to an almost indescribably complex level, Scripture maintains that the general ideas behind society and human nature are quite simple: human hearts are depraved, God made men and women a certain way before the Fall, society rejects the knowledge of God, society is in a state of enmity with itself (inner war), sin degrades a culture, power corrupts, work produces and heals, etc. All these simplistic types of statements give the Christian a map through the manmade-complex world of sociology. If he can keep them in mind, they will provide a reliable guide into and out of the fascinating arguments. But he must hold fast: the dizzying terms and models will threaten to lose him.