July 14, 2020
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For most students, selecting a major program is the most significant decision made in their academic careers. But the courses required for the major typically comprise no more than half of the academic work accomplished in the junior and senior years. Thus, it's important that you consider other fields of study and how they may relate to your sociology major.
Some of the courses you select outside your major will be chosen to add general breadth to your undergraduate program. But a significant portion of your work should be devoted to fields that complement your major. Courses in related fields can provide additional background necessary for more careful sociological analysis. For example, the student with a sociological interest in race relations might be well served by taking a course in African American history. Related fields can provide answers to questions close to sociological interests but not treated within the boundaries of sociological inquiry. For example, the student interested in how humans became capable of symbolic interaction might study physical anthropology or physiological psychology. Related fields can also sharpen your sense of what distinguishes a sociological perspective. For example, taking a course in psychology may heighten your sense of how each discipline approaches questions about identity and society.
Determining appropriate related fields is partly a matter of individual interest. If you are interested in the sociology of religion, courses in religion make good sense. Interest in political economy might be deepened by courses in political science or economics. The study of socialization could be complemented by one or more psychology courses. But whatever your particular interests, three academic disciplines offer important complements to sociology in general and deserve special consideration when considering related fields. They are history, philosophy, and anthropology.
Sociology seeks to answer questions such as: How do economic and political institutions in American society influence its culture, values, and ideals? How do these ideals, in turn, act back upon and influence these institutions? How do American social and political ideals justify and legitimate modern society? How do the transformations of American political economy in the past twenty years affect the distribution of income and wealth, chances for social mobility, patterns of racism and sexism, and opportunities for social justice? And what is a good and just society? What are the different schools of social and political thought which discuss these issues of ethics and social justice? The answers to these questions require that we see sociology as both an historical and philosophical discipline. Philosophy and history are not related disciplines, but form the heart and soul of sociology.
The classical sociologists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were all trained in philosophy: Karl Marx in the writings of Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach; Max Weber in the works of Kant, Rickert, and Nietzsche; Emile Durkheim in Plato, Kant, Rousseau, and Montesquieu; and George Herbert Mead in Kant, James, Dewey, Hegel, and Dilthey. For them, sociology without philosophy is blind and directionless, philosophy without sociology is abstract and meaningless theorizing.
Philosophy can shed important light on the history of Western principles that have been used to justify and critique modern capitalist society (natural rights theory, utilitarianism, theories of market efficiency and productivity, historicism, socialism, existentialism, etc.). Not to evaluate and judge the institutions and values of modern industrial society is academically dishonest, socially irresponsible, and personally immoral. Philosophy provides us with the tools to help in this direction. It helps us clarify the debates within sociology and philosophy over the nature of social science, values, and objectivity. It shows us the rich intellectual traditions and competing views of science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and how they affected the different views of sociology as a science--interpretive science and historical science, which attempt to understand social reality (Weber and Gadamer), critical science, which reveals the inner contradictions between social principles and economic structures within history (Marx and Habermas), and positivistic science, which attempts to explain social reality by relying on empirical data and universal laws (Durkheim and Comte).
These discussions about knowledge and truth, ethics and justice, vision and hope guide the sociologist in a return to classical antiquity and the world of ancient Greek art, philosophy, and literature. This is where the intellectual origins of sociology lie.
History is the other half of the discipline which attempts to locate our study of society within a broader temporal context. Sociological investigation into issues of wealth and power, class and stratification, inequality and poverty, democracy and freedom, identity development and personality formation require that we understand the historical origins of how the present society came to be constructed. This means that we must look for the origins of modern capitalism in the transformation of medieval economic, political, religious, and scientific institutions and values. The structures of our contemporary society rest in the formation of the modern nation-state (fifteenth and sixteenth centuries), Protestant Reformation (sixteenth century), scientific revolutions (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), Enlightenment (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), industrial revolution and factory system (nineteenth century), welfare state (twentieth century), and so forth. Without history we repress our past, forget our origins, and fail to see our possibilities.
The department, therefore, encourages students to take courses in philosophy and history which supplement and expand the sociology curriculum.
Anthropology and sociology are quite closely aligned, as indicated by the fact that these two disciplines frequently comprise a single department at many institutions. Both disciplines are guided by a shared theoretical tradition. The works of classical sociologists Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim, for example, animate work in both disciplines. Evolutionary models of cultural and social change are shared as well. These two disciplines also share certain methodological techniques. Field research, involving interviewing and careful observation, are common to sociology and cultural anthropology. Both disciplines increasingly use statistical analysis.
Sociology students most often study the subfield of cultural anthropology. In contrast to sociology's focus on modernization in the industrial nations of the West, cultural anthropology typically examines non-Western, pre-modern cultures. These courses thus provide an important comparative perspective that allows sociologists to consider the applicability of their understandings in often radically different social settings. Upper-level courses in cultural anthropology focus on a particular aspect of culture (e.g., kinship, religion, language) or on a specific world region or group (e.g., Sub-Saharan Africa, North American Indians).
Courses in archaeology and physical anthropology can also greatly benefit sociological study. Both of these subfields add significant time-depth to the study of human behavior. By investigating the material remains of extinct cultures, archaeology allows us to consider social organization and change in prehistory. Physical anthropology explores the origins and continuing evolution of the human species, thus embracing the entire history of human activity on the planet. Physical anthropology focuses as well on the interplay of biological and cultural evolution in human behavior, raising questions about the origins of language and the influence of genetics on social patterns.