Sociology Research TopicsThis list of more than 200 sociology research paper topics is both interesting and informative as it offers the student and researchers an insight into the rich legacy and development of the discipline of sociology while also providing the requisite reference information for advanced study and research into each topic. In this regard, there is a sufficient amount of information to support the rich sociological legacy of enabling students ample opportunity to learn while also providing important insights for those who enthusiastically embrace social activism as a part of the sociological enterprise. Increasingly, sociologists have engaged in exploring a wide range of topics, and this extensive activity is demonstrated through the large number of sociology research paper topics presented in the list below. Although there is certain to be some modest theoretical and methodological overlap between some of the topics, each topical article is developed to reflect the unique historical development of the topic, offers a general overview of the current state of knowledge, and provides suggestions for how the area of inquiry is destined to develop as we move well into the 21st century.

More Than 200 Sociology Research Topics

Sociology of Crime

  1. Capital Punishment
  2. Child Abuse
  3. Corporate Crime
  4. Criminal Justice System
  5. Cybercrime
  6. Domestic Violence
  7. Organized Crime
  8. Political Crime
  9. Race and Crime
  10. White-Collar Crime

Sociology of Deviance

  1. Academic Deviance
  2. Crime and Deviance
  3. Criminalization of Deviance
  4. Deviance
  5. Deviant Beliefs
  6. Deviant Careers
  7. Deviant Identity
  8. Medicalization of Deviance
  9. Positive Deviance
  10. Theories of Deviance

Sociology of Culture

  1. Culture
  2. Counterculture
  3. Cultural Capital
  4. Cultural Critique
  5. Cultural Feminism
  6. Cultural Imperialism
  7. Cultural Relativism
  8. Cultural Studies
  9. Culture Industries
  10. Culture Jamming
  11. Postmodern Culture
  12. Sociocultural Relativism
  13. Subculture

Sociology of Sports

  1. Sport and Globalization
  2. Sexuality and Sport
  3. Social Theory and Sport
  4. Sport
  5. Sport and Capitalism
  6. Sport and Culture
  7. Soccer

Demography

  1. Biodemography
  2. Demographic Transition Theory
  3. Demography
  4. Demography of Aging
  5. Family Demography
  6. Fertility and Public Policy
  7. Immigration Policy
  8. Population and Development
  9. Population and Gender
  10. Second Demographic Transition

Economic Sociology

  1. Brands and Branding
  2. Capitalism
  3. Conspicuous Consumption
  4. Division of Labor
  5. Economic Development
  6. Economic Sociology
  7. Moral Economy
  8. Sociology of Work
  9. Sustainable Consumption
  10. Transition Economies

Sociology of Family

  1. Family Diversity
  2. Family Poverty
  3. Family Structure
  4. Family Theory
  5. Fatherhood
  6. Gender, Work, and Family
  7. History of Family
  8. Lone-Parent Families
  9. Marriage
  10. Motherhood

Sociology of Gender

  1. Compulsory Heterosexuality
  2. Development and Gender
  3. Education and Gender
  4. Feminism
  5. Gender and the Body
  6. Gender Bias
  7. Gender Oppression
  8. Gender Role Ideology
  9. Homophobia
  10. Sex and Gender

Sociology of Globalization

  1. Global Cities
  2. Global Economy
  3. Global Income Inequality
  4. Global Justice
  5. Global Politics
  6. Globalization
  7. Glocalization
  8. International Migration
  9. Media and Globalization
  10. World Conflict

Medical Sociology

  1. Health and Culture
  2. Health and Medicine
  3. Life Course
  4. Medical Sociology
  5. Social Epidemiology
  6. Socialist Medicine
  7. Socioeconomic Status and Health
  8. Sociology of Aging
  9. Sociology of AIDS
  10. Women’s Health

Sociology of Organizations

  1. Bureaucratic Personality
  2. Institutional Theory
  3. Labor Market
  4. Labor Process
  5. Management
  6. Military Sociology
  7. Organization Theory
  8. Organizations as Social Structures
  9. Social Institutions of Capitalism
  10. Transnationalism

Political Sociology

  1. Authoritarianism
  2. Authority and Legitimacy
  3. Citizenship
  4. Conservatism
  5. Identity Politics
  6. Imperialism
  7. Political Sociology
  8. Sociology of Law
  9. State and Economy
  10. Welfare State

Sociology of Race and Ethnicity

  1. Affirmative Action
  2. Ethnic Enclaves
  3. Ethnic Groups
  4. Indigenous Peoples
  5. Nationalism
  6. Prejudice
  7. Racial and Ethnic Conflict
  8. Segregation
  9. Tolerance
  10. Whiteness

Sociology of Religion

  1. Belief
  2. Buddhism
  3. Civil Religion
  4. Islam
  5. Judaism
  6. Orthodoxy
  7. Ritual
  8. Secularization
  9. Sociology of Religion
  10. Theology

Sociology of Science

  1. Eugenics
  2. Experiment
  3. Fact, Theory, and Hypothesis
  4. Human Genome
  5. Matthew Effect
  6. Induction and Observation in Science
  7. Science
  8. Scientific Revolution
  9. Scientific Knowledge
  10. Technology, Science, and Culture

Social Movements

  1. Animal Rights Movement
  2. Anti-War and Peace Movements
  3. Civil Rights Movement
  4. Environmental Movements
  5. Gay and Lesbian Movement
  6. Indigenous Movements
  7. Social Movement Theory
  8. Social Movements
  9. Student Movements
  10. Women’s Movements

Social Problems

  1. Abortion as a Social Problem
  2. Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse
  3. Death Penalty as a Social Problem
  4. Disability as a Social Problem
  5. Gambling as a Social Problem
  6. Genetic Engineering as a Social Problem
  7. Globalization and Global Justice
  8. Race and the Criminal Justice System
  9. Unemployment as a Social Problem
  10. Welfare Dependency

Social Stratification

  1. Bourgeoisie and Proletariat
  2. Class Conflict
  3. Educational Inequality
  4. Gender and Stratification
  5. Leisure Class
  6. Race/Ethnicity and Stratification
  7. Status Attainment
  8. Theories of Stratification and Inequality
  9. Urban Poverty
  10. Wealth Inequality

Social Theory

  1. Actor-Network Theory
  2. Attribution Theory
  3. Cognitive Dissonance Theory
  4. Conflict Theory
  5. Critical Theory
  6. Deterrence Theory
  7. Game Theory
  8. Expectation States Theory
  9. Feminist Standpoint Theory
  10. Grounded Theory
  11. Identity Theory
  12. Labeling Theory
  13. Queer Theory
  14. Rational Choice Theories
  15. Role Theory
  16. Social Exchange Theory
  17. Social Learning Theory
  18. Social Network Theory
  19. Structural Functional Theory
  20. System Theories

Urban Sociology

  1. Built Environment
  2. Urban Ecology
  3. Urban Policy
  4. Urban Political Economy
  5. Urban Poverty
  6. Urban Renewal
  7. Urban Revolution
  8. Urban Space
  9. Urban Tourism
  10. Urbanization

Sociology Definition

Commonly accepted definitions of sociology agree that it is the scientific or systematic study of human society. The focus is on understanding and explaining, and ranges from the individual in social interaction to groups to societies and global social processes. Unique to sociology is its emphasis upon the reciprocal relationship between individuals and societies as they influence and shape each other.

Methods of discovery range from quantitative methodologies patterned after those of natural science with the goals of explanation and prediction to strategies for social reform and service to qualitative methodologies that focus on interpretation and understanding rather than prediction.

History of Sociology

Auguste Compte (1798–1857), the French philosopher who coined the term “sociology,” defined it as the systematic study of society, and the accumulated knowledge resulting from it, that would help to guide and improve social development. He advanced a “law of three stages”—not about “savagery–barbarism–civilization” but about three stages in the development of human knowledge: theological, metaphysical, and scientific.

Had sociology stayed true to it origins, it would be more central to the study of world history than it now is. Like most bold statements, that one needs to be immediately qualified. It is rarely possible to pinpoint, chronologically or geographically, the absolute beginnings of a broad intellectual tradition. Geographically, it has to be recognized that there were, and are, many different national sociological traditions, and concerns with history—let alone world history—have not been central to all of them. Chronologically, a key insight in comparative history and sociology—the analogy between the interconnected institutions of a society and the interconnected parts of a living organism—can be traced back as far as Aristotle’s Politics. Sociologists are also fond of tracing their ancestry back to Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah of about 1380 (1958); often described as a “philosophy of history,” it is also one of the earliest discussions of the possibility of a social science and of long-term social change in world history, and it introduced concepts of undoubted sociological significance, such as social cohesion.

Precursors of Sociology

The emancipation of sociology from the shackles of political and moral philosophy that it shared with so many other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences is usually seen as beginning in the French and Scottish Enlightenments and gaining momentum through evolutionary thinking in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Through a study of history since classical times, in his De l’esprit des lois (The Spirit of the Laws), first published in 1748 (1949), Montesquieu distinguished between three forms of government—republics, monarchies and despotisms—less on the basis of who exercised power and still less on their respective moral qualities, and more according to how it was exercised and why each form arose to fit societies of different kinds. Other precursors of a historically orientated sociology include Adam Ferguson (1723–1816) and the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794). Ferguson stressed the interdependence of people with each other in societies, and in his Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) he traced humanity’s progression from “savagery” to the “refinement” of “civil society” (the idea of “civil society” returned to great prominence in the late twentieth century, especially in connection with the collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe). Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progres de l’esprit humain (Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, 1955 [1795]) similarly traced the entire progress of human society through a series of ten stages from “savagery”— when humans were little better than the animals—to a vision of an egalitarian and enlightened future. Ferguson and Condorcet’s visions of uninterrupted human progress set a pattern for many nineteenth-century theories of social evolution, in which human societies traveled from savagery through barbarism to civilization.

Auguste Comte—The Law of Three Stages

Montesquieu, Ferguson, and Condorcet were only “precursors” of sociology, however, in at least a literal sense, since the word sociology had not yet been invented. The dubious honor of coining the term belongs to Auguste Comte (1798–1857). Perhaps more clearly than anyone before (unless it were Ibn Khaldun), Comte was concerned with the possibility of a social science, the systematic study of society and the accumulated knowledge resulting from it that would help to guide and improve social development. He called this science “sociology.” At that time the modern division of the social sciences into many institutionally distinct disciplines—anthropology, archaeology, economics, political science, psychology, as well as sociology per se—had not yet come about, so it must be understood that by sociology Comte meant the social sciences at large, including the study of world history. He advanced a “law of three stages,” but it was not about savagery–barbarism– civilization; it was rather about three stages in the development of human knowledge. At each stage a different general principle predominated in the ways in which human beings sought explanations of the natural and social world that they inhabited. During a long theological stage, explanations were offered in terms of gods and spirits. There had followed a metaphysical stage, when explanations were offered in terms of abstractions such as “reason”; this transitional phase was fairly clearly modeled on Renaissance and Enlightenment thought in Europe. Finally, the modern world was witnessing the emergence of a positive or scientific stage; in the early nineteenth century the word positif was nearly a synonym in French for “scientific.” Comte used it to signify the rejection of the speculative philosophy of the past, which had so often advanced propositions in forms incapable of being tested against observable facts. But Comte, the founder of philosophical positivism, was by no means a positivist in the sense that was later caricatured as “crude positivism.” He did not believe that scientific knowledge could be based on observation alone; observation had to be guided by theoretical ideas, but theories had to be modifiable in the light of observation. The corpus of knowledge grew through the interplay of the two mental operations directed at theoretical synthesis and at the observation of empirical particulars. The law of three stages was linked to Comte’s notion of a “hierarchy of the sciences.” Looking at the history of the main areas of knowledge, he contended that the positive or scientific stage had been reached first in mathematics (which at that date was mistakenly believed to be an empirical discipline), then by astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology; topmost in the hierarchy and last in development came the new discipline of sociology. The areas of knowledge higher in the hierarchy could not be reduced to the lower but represented a higher level of synthesis, the attainment of the scientific stage at lower levels being preconditions for the emergence of the higher. Astronomy had in Comte’s view entered the scientific stage in antiquity; physics and chemistry had been placed on a scientific footing much more recently; the biological sciences were undergoing rapid development in his own lifetime. Each advance up the hierarchy of the sciences represented an increase not only in humankind’s understanding of, but also in its control over, first physical, then organic, and finally social forces. In industrial society, when sociology had attained the scientific stage, social affairs would be studied and then regulated scientifically. Comte encapsulated this idea in his slogan savoir pour prevoir, prevoir pour pouvoir (know in order to foresee, foresee in order to be able [to act]). These central ideas of Comte’s—despite there being a fairly high proportion of nonsense in his voluminous writings—contain a valid kernel that is still relevant to understanding world history.

Comte’s influence was especially marked on the work of Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), who combined it with newly prevalent evolutionary ideas to produce an ambitious comparative-historical taxonomy of the forms of human society. His influence was in turn strongly felt in the development of sociology in the United States (for example, through William Graham Sumner, 1840–1910) and (with Comte) in the work of Emile Durkheim (1858–1917). In the student textbooks, Durkheim, Karl Marx (1818–83), and Max Weber (1864–1920) are now often depicted as the three founders of the modern discipline of sociology (a curiously unsociological view that diminishes the extent to which they all stood on the shoulders of giants). Yet all three continued their precursors’ central concern with understanding the long-term development of human society, so it is paradoxical that in the science they are supposed to have founded this concern became steadily less important as the twentieth century ran its course. The decades after the World War II saw the spread of what has variously been called “developmental agnosticism” (Wittfogel 1957), “hodiecentrism” (Goudsblom 1977) and the retreat of sociologists into the present (Elias 1987). This tendency may in part be the outcome of the sociological profession’s wish to measure its achievements against the utilitarian yardstick of usefulness in rectifying the ills of contemporary society. It also had deeper intellectual roots.

The Retreat into the Present

The fact that in the Victorian age, and for some decades in the early twentieth century, there was a widespread and uncritical assumption that the new “civilized” industrial societies were superior to other ways of life—especially those that Europeans encountered in their colonies and Americans in the course of their westward expansion—led to an equally uncritical and comprehensive rejection by sociologists (and even more strongly by anthropologists) not just of the idea of progress, but of all study of processes and stages of long-term social development. The genocides of the Nazi era served as the most awful warning of the dangers of regarding categories of human beings as superior and inferior; Sir Karl Popper (1945, 1957) and Robert Nisbet (1969) forged intellectual links between political tyranny and the pursuit of “inexorable laws of historical destiny,” which helped for a while to make developmental perspectives almost taboo for may sociologists.

The retreat into the present, however, had begun earlier. The rise after the World War I of the approach within anthropology known as “functionalism,” associated especially with Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, had a strong but markedly delayed impact on sociology. Functionalism involved studying societies as systems of well-meshing “parts” at a given point in time. It was at the peak of functionalism’s influence in sociology during the two decades after the World War II that Talcott Parsons (1902–79) dominated American sociology, and American sociology dominated the world. In anthropology, functionalism had begun as a methodological rule of thumb in field work: it was a reaction against the tendency of Victorian evolutionary anthropologists to resort to “conjectural history” in seeking to explain the customs of preliterate societies, when for the most part any firm evidence about the past of such societies was lacking. Seeking synchronic relationships between patterns that could actually be observed in the field made better sense for anthropologists than speculating about their origins in past time. Why the same ahistorical approach should have had such appeal to sociologists studying societies blessed with abundant written records of their own past development gives more pause for thought. Although functionalism was in retreat in sociology by the late 1960s, developmental agnosticism was then reinforced through the influence of French structuralism, which had drawn its original inspiration from the shift in linguistics from diachronic to synchronic investigations led by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913). The same cast of mind can be seen in the so-called poststructuralist Michel Foucault (1926–1984), and its shadow falls even on the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002), two leading French intellectuals who have attracted numerous followers in sociology across the world. Foucault presents a particularly relevant paradox: he appears on the surface to be studying processes of historical change, but on closer scrutiny he can be seen to depict the dominance of static “discourses” that are mysteriously supplanted through unexplained historical ruptures into new dominant discourses.

Historical Sociology

By the end of the twentieth century, there was a definite revival of historical concerns among sociologists, although historical sociology was now generally seen as one among many minority interests or subdisciplines— rather than the central preoccupation that it was for many of the discipline’s founders. An interest in world history, or in very long-term processes of social change, is however the province of a minority of a minority, among sociologists as among historians. (Furthermore, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between historically minded sociologists and sociologically minded historians.) A useful distinction can be drawn between two types of historical sociology. The first may be called simply the sociology of the past, in which sociological concepts and theories are used to investigate groups of people living in some specific period in the past. This kind of research does not differ fundamentally from research into groups of people living in the present: it is merely that documents form a larger part of the evidence than they would generally do in research into the present, for the very practical reason that dead people cannot fill in questionnaires or respond to interviewers. As against this sociology of the past, other sociologists seek to discern and explain longer-term structured processes of development.

The distinction is not hard and fast. For example, Norbert Elias’s The Court Society (2006)—among his works the most widely admired by historians— deals with a relatively closely defined place and period (France and its royal court in the century before the French Revolution), but his underlying concern is with more general processes of development. Still less is the distinction one of academic worth. Many of the finest examples of historical sociology are instances of the sociology of the past. To put it perhaps oversimply, their impulse is comparative rather than developmental.

The scale on which comparison is pursued or invited varies enormously. At one end of the scale, two widely admired books may be mentioned: Kai T. Erikson’s Wayward Puritans (1966) and Leonore Davidoff’s The Best Circles (1973), studies respectively of deviance in colonial New England and of behavior in nineteenth-century London high society. They are excellent examples of the sociology of the past. Their value, however, is not dependent on the fact that they are studies of the past: they are in effect contributions to the understanding of deviant behavior and of endogamous status groups irrespective of time. The arrow of time may also be reversed for comparative purposes: a present-day study may prove stimulating when studying the past. For example, Stan Cohen’s modern classic, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972)—a study of battles between rival groups of motorcyclists and motor-scooter riders in Britain and of the public reaction to them—might usefully be read by historians laboring at the large body of research on witch crazes in the past.

Other examples of the sociology of the past, but on a more macrosociological scale, are studies like Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966) and Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions (1979). They explicitly set out to study comparable episodes at different periods in different societies. Taking a small number of episodes, they attempt to generalize to similar situations, past, present, and future. Yet they do not advance any theory of social development over the longer term.

The minority of the minority are those sociologists whose interest centers on the construction of modes of long-term developmental processes. They include notably Immanuel Wallerstein, whose The Modern World-System (1974, 1980, 1989) is in effect a massive attempt at an historical disproof of David Ricardo’s apparently timeless “law of comparative advantage.” Wallerstein presents what is in effect a very long-term illustration of the principle of “pathdependency,” showing how initially small inequalities in ties of interdependence between societies and economies have been magnified over time to produce huge differences today between what are euphemistically called the “North” and the “South.” Another example is that of Norbert Elias, whose massive The Civilizing Process (2000 [1939]) advances a theory of state formation based on a study of western Europe during the second millennium CE and links that to changes in the psychological makeup (or habitus) undergone by individuals as they become gradually more subject in the course of generations to the social constraint imposed by the monopolization of violence by the state apparatus. Charles Tilly’s work also centered on state formation processes. Abram de Swaan’s In Care of the State (1988) shows how the development of compulsory education, income maintenance, and public health policies followed a similar sequence over five hundred years in Britain, Germany, France, the United States, and the Netherlands, because a process of the collectivization of risk overrode very different ideological assumptions in the various counties. Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power (1986, 1993) traces the changing relationship between economic, ideological, military, and political bases of power over the entire course of human history. Another large-scale intellectual project is that of Randall Collins, whose work, usually represented as “sociological theory,” in fact replicates in scope that of Max Weber; representative books are Weberian Sociological Theory (1986), The Sociology of Philosophies (1998), and Violence: A Microsociological Theory (2008). Finally, it should be recognized that Marxist scholars kept alive the sociological interest in long-term processes of change when they were least fashionable. Perry Anderson’s Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (1974a) and Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974b) are classics of that tradition.

Perhaps in response to the hodiecentric mood that prevailed in their discipline for several decades—historical sociologists have shown considerable methodological self-awareness. Notable contributions in this area are Charles Tilly’s Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons (1984); the extensive debate about the relevance of rational choice theory in historical sociology (Coleman and Fararo 1992); that about the entire “scientific” basis of historical sociology provoked by Goldthorpe (1991,1994; cf. Hart 1994, Mann 1994). William Seward’s Logics of History (2005) and the collections of essays edited by Adams, Clemens, and Orloff (2005).

At what appears and may prove to be a turning point in world history—marked by the financial collapse of 2008—a concern with long-term processes may be returning to the center of sociological concerns. In particular, the widely predicted decline in American world hegemony looks certain to provoke studies—such as The American Civilising Process (Mennell 2007)—of the United States in long-term perspective.

The Foundation Theories Of Sociology

As a discipline, sociology arose early in the nineteenth century in response to rapid social change. Major transformations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as rapid industrialization resulting in a large, anonymous workforce with workers spending most of their time away from families and traditions; large-scale urbanization throughout Europe and the industrializing world; and a political revolution of new ideas (individual rights and democracy), directed a spotlight on the nature of societies and social change.

The French social thinker Auguste Comte (17981857) first coined the term sociology to describe a new way of thinking about societies as systems governed by principles of organization and change. Most agree that Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), the French sociologist, made the largest contribution to the emergence of sociology as a social scientific discipline. Both empirical research—collecting and quantifying social data—and abstract conceptions of society were major elements of Durkheim’s research. Durkheim’s work had a major, early impact on the discipline, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries two more of the giants in sociological thought emerged in mainstream German sociology: Max Weber (1864-1920) and Georg Simmel (1858-1918). Additionally, Karl Marx (1818-1883), while on the edge of sociology, had a major impact on German sociology and on the discipline as a whole. Marx was concerned with the oppressiveness that resulted from industrialization and the capitalist system rather than the disorder to which other social thinkers were reacting. Advocating revolution as the only means to end the inequality between the controlling bourgeoisie class and the exploited proletariat class created by the new industrialized society, Marx produced much of his work while in exile from his native Germany (Marx and Engels [1848] 1967). His writing provides a continuous strand of sociological theory, heavily influential in Europe and, at times, in the United States. The importance of Marx’s work in shaping early sociology also lies in how German sociology developed in opposition to Marxist theory (Ritzer 2000).

Weber’s concern with ideas and systems of ideas (particularly religious ideas) and their effect on a capitalist economic system—specifically with Protestantism as a belief system that encouraged its members to embrace change—contrasts with Marx’s reflection of the economy in ideas. Simmel’s influence on sociology, unlike that of Marx and Weber, was through his studies of small-scale social phenomena. Focusing on forms of social interaction and types of actors who interact, his work was most influential on early sociologists at the University of Chicago.

In response to the poverty of immigrants and African Americans in the urban United States, projects of social reform and settlement house movements provided solutions. Much of this work was based in Chicago, where early social reformers and social thinkers combined to conduct field research and organize the first major sociology department at the University of Chicago. The sociology department, founded by Albion Small (who also founded the first sociology journal in the United States, the American Journal ofSociology, in 1895) dominated the discipline for fifty years. American students of sociology had easy access to Simmel’s ideas, which fit with the micro, symbolic interactionist perspective, through his followers (and, in some cases, translators) Small and Robert Park.

During the early years of sociology in the United States, theoretical influences of the period were combined with empirical research and the social reform projects and service conducted in the Chicago area. Trained as a social worker, Jane Addams spoke out about the inhumane treatment of immigrants who were entering the United States at increasingly higher rates. She founded Hull House in Chicago to provide assistance to immigrant families and gathered a community of sociologists and politicians to discuss and act on urban problems. W. E. B. Du Bois, an African American sociologist at Atlanta University, studied similar social problems for the black community in the United States and wrote and spoke out against racial inequality.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism, the dominant perspective championed by the philosopher George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) and others influenced by Simmel at the Chicago school, was the first foundation theory in American sociology. Although the symbolic interactionist perspective emphasizes the reciprocal relationship between the individual and society, its critics complain that it overlooks the widespread effects of culture and important sociological factors such as race, class, and gender.

In the 1930s, as the influence of the Chicago school lessened, state universities throughout the midwestern United States began to incorporate sociology departments into their curriculum, with a strong focus on rural sociology. In the 1940s the emphasis in sociology shifted away from the type of descriptive research done at Chicago to sociological theory and empirical inquiry, with the rise of influence from departments at Columbia, Harvard, and other Ivy League universities. European theorists such as Durkheim and Weber were translated and (re)introduced, and their work inspired large growth in sociological theory, particularly structural functionalism, the dominant theory in American sociology until the 1960s.

Structural Functionalism

Another foundation theory within sociology, the structural functional paradigm provides a view of society as a complex system of parts working together to promote both solidarity and stability for society as a whole. This perspective owes much to Comte and his concern for social integration during the rapid social change of the period. While Comte advocated social reform, in Britain the social philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) rejected social reform as intervention in the natural process of the evolution of society. Applying the principle of “the survival of the fittest” to the adaptation of societies rather than of organisms, Spencer’s ideas initially gained a large following throughout England and the United States.

Functionalists, following Durkheim, emphasized the study of social order and how social reforms could provide remedies for social disorder. Social structures (relatively stable patterns of social behavior) function together to preserve society. In the United States, Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) at Harvard was the primary proponent of the structural functionalism theory that dominated American sociology until the 1960s. A student of Parsons’s, Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) distinguished between manifest and latent functions of social structures, while allowing that there are also societal social dysfunctions for some. The influence of structural functionalism has declined since the 1960s with criticism for its focus on stability and static structures, its inability to deal with social change, and its failure to acknowledge how inequalities based on social class, race and ethnicity, and gender may lead to tension and conflict.

Following World War II the strong influence of sociological theory championed by Parsons and others concerned with the prestige of the discipline continued. Quantitative data methods were seen as the best way of making the discipline more professional and increasing prestige. Demography and survey research became more important with the availability of governmental funds for financing large research projects. Major advances in quantitative research eventually led to a variety of formal analyses for survey data, including multivariate statistics, path analysis, multiple regression, and complex causal models. In the late 1950s, however, traditional sociology came under attack for its preoccupation with theory and empiricism. The 1960s also brought challenges from field researchers and reformers to focus more on social problems.

Social Conflict Theory

Social conflict theory is, in many ways, a reaction to the structural functionalist perspective. The social inequality pervasive in society and ignored by structural functionalists is seen as a source of conflict and change. Conflict theory examines how society is stratified along class, race and ethnicity, gender, and age categories, and how these categories are linked to the unequal distribution of resources. Patterns of social interaction are inherent with benefits for some and deprivations for others. The goal for conflict theory is to understand the conflict between the advantaged and the disadvantaged while also taking action to reduce inequality. The perspective is certainly influenced by Marx, although critics complain that it does not have a firm enough grounding in Marxism, which was well developed in European sociology but lacked support and understanding in the United States. Critics of the social conflict perspective also complain that its pursuit of political goals shows a lack of scientific objectivity—although this theory had significant influence on contemporary theories, such as feminist theory, which emphasize the importance of political goals.

Sociology since the 1960s has expanded its emphasis to focus more on questions of race and ethnicity and gender. There has also been an incorporation of professional fields such as criminology, industrial relations, and evaluation research. In the 1990s and 2000s a variety of new areas and topics achieved prominence in American sociology: economic sociology; nongovernmental organizations having to do with justice, human rights, the arts, and the environment; immigration and ethnic identities; inequality; the growth and influence of science and technology; and social capital as resources for social mobility, citizenship, and community participation.

Microsociology And Macrosociology

Micro and macro refer to the level of analysis or the area of theoretical concern. Microsociology is the study of group dynamics and interaction, whereas macrosociology focuses on large-scale social systems and institutional arrangements. One controversy about the level of analysis was often phrased as a discussion of whether phenomena could be reduced to individual level properties or whether, instead, phenomena must be viewed in terms of their “emergent” properties that do not coincide with simply aggregating the individual level. While some formulations still allude to this controversy, it is common for researchers to attempt linkages between the micro and macro by viewing the effects of one on the other.

Macrosociology At the macro level sociologists ask, what are the broad patterns of interaction that shape society as a whole, and how does this influence take place? The most common institutions, found in most societies and most often studied by sociologists, are the following five:

The family, which meets the needs of societal replenishment and the care and socialization of children. At the macrolevel, sociologists ask how the definition of family is changing and how that affects the larger society.

Education, which meets the need for the transmission of culture and social and job skills. Sociologists ask how the educational system varies across cultures and nations, how it both mirrors and perpetuates the inequality in society.

Religion, a third institution, which meets the need for explanations of the unknown. Sociologists are concerned with why religions take various forms and how religious activity affects society.

The economy, which organizes the distribution of goods and services and is a focus for sociology because it determines who—individuals, organizations, nations—gets what—resources and access to resources in nations and globally.

Politics (or “the polity,” or government), which is also a participant in the distribution of power as well as the maintenance of order. Sociology looks at how the world’s political systems vary, who has power and why, and whether there is a global political system.

Both within and outside the context of social institutions, sociologists explore why stratification (systems of ranking into power and prestige hierarchies) exists and how it determines individual societal outcomes. How do social class divisions (based on economic position in society) affect culture, opportunities, and social mobility? What is poverty and who are the poor? Why does inequality exist and how might it be overcome?

A current trend in sociological thought has to do with the process of globalization. Rapid changes in communication and transportation have transformed perceptions of time and space so that the world of personal experience is a global one. Sociologists ask how economic change has taken place, what is a global economy, and what are the implications of globalization? How is economic globalization connected to political development? As political boundaries change, how are cultural boundaries affected? How do local cultures conflict with an emerging global culture and what is the place of women and people of color in that relationship?

Microsociology Many different areas are investigated within microsociology from different perspectives using different methodologies. Microsociology can be broadly conceptualized as considering issues related to self and identity, status and power, cooperation and competition, exchange, legitimation, and justice.

Fundamental to most areas within microsociology is the insight that individuals define themselves, based in large part on how others see and interact with them. Because interaction is central to the self, different identities are developed and projected. Research in the general area of identity and self includes both qualitative and quantitative investigations of topics such as role taking, role making, altercasting, identity disruptions or deflections, and self-referent behavior.

Much of microsociology is related to the general area of group dynamics. This area had early ties with psychology, which fashioned much of its approach including the acceptance and use of experiments as a research tool. Status and power have been consistently important areas of work within microsociology. One of the most important insights from this line of research is that status is relative to the group; that is, while people might possess the same characteristic from one setting to another, these characteristics might have very different salience in different settings.

Other group-dynamics research included a wide range of studies that could be characterized as examining cooperation and competition. While many of these examined dyads and interaction between one group and another, others examined social dilemmas—settings in which there is some degree of conflict between individual and group interests. Once resources and incentives are under consideration, exchange becomes central. Exchange formulations, some more akin to economics and others more akin to psychology, developed and took on a distinctly sociological focus by examining how the type of exchange affected both the behavior and emotion of the exchange participants. The allocation of different resources is studied within exchange formulations, and the resulting assessments, behavior, and feelings of fairness are the focus of justice and equity formulations. Related to assessment of justice is the degree of acceptance of particular institutional arrangements or legitimation.

Ethnomethodology, or method of the people, is a type of microsociology that focuses upon the everyday practices in which people engage. This field differs from most other microsociologies by eschewing the use of abstraction to summarize observations.

Challenges To The Sociological Paradigm

Reacting against the dominant paradigm that seemed to take a male, Western European, heterosexual model of the actor as representative of all actors, various critiques developed within sociology. These critiques are extremely varied both in their focus and methodology, but perhaps the most well known were feminist critiques. Although there had been early sociological analysis of the subordination of women (Ward 1883), most of the feminist analyses of sex and gender coincided with what is usually called the second wave of feminism, dating from the 1960s. During this period there was also increased attention to race and ethnicity.

Many of the sociological feminist writings emphasized the subordination of women and the institutional-ization of patriarchy. Some of this work questioned the sex and gender association and sexual categorizations as well. One branch of this developed into “queer theory,” a critique of heterosexual assumptions and power.

For the most part, feminist and other critical approaches did not question the fundamental approaches to the study of sociological phenomena. Rather, the feminist literature emphasized substantive issues that centered on societal power differentials that lead to a wide variety of life experiences that constrain almost every aspect of women’s lives. Another literature emphasized how “taken for granted” assumptions of gender and sex affected what observers saw and how they interpreted it. However, there was another group of feminists who challenged traditional epistemologies and argued that who the observer was determined what could be known. This is a radical claim because it violates a traditionally accepted tenet of most sciences that intersubjectivity can be obtained: that different people can be taught to see what others can see.

Postmodernism Sometimes closely aligned with feminist critiques are postmodern critiques. These critiques emerged in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. Postmodernism is a set of sensitizing concepts and ideas rather than a well-developed and agreed-upon set of premises. These concepts challenge traditional views associated with the Enlightenment. In particular, the concepts of objectivity, the transparency of language, and the separation between science and politics are questioned. Postmodern critique has been important across most of the social sciences and the humanities, alerting sociologists to how the political becomes enmeshed in the way questions are asked and subsequently answered. Along with this is attention to grand “narratives,” or ways of telling particular types of stories. From this perspective, science is one type of narrative and does not necessarily have a status different from other types of narratives such as folklore. The emphasis is upon how scientists come to believe what they believe. Some particularly radical versions of postmodernism suggest that empirical reality has little effect upon the development and testing of theories.

The Role Of Sociologists

There is a continuing debate within sociology about the proper role of sociologists. This debate echoes questions that have always been associated with sociology: Are sociologists scientists? Are sociologists advocates and reformers? Are sociologists scholars who practice a social science, whose methodology differs from that of the natural sciences?

Because sociologists vary in their orientation, their perceived and expressed views also vary. There are some who steadfastly claim that sociologists should not become involved in political agendas or arguments lest they jeopardize their dedication and reputation for being oriented toward the truth rather than toward advocacy. There are others who argue that the subject matter of sociology dictates that sociologists become involved in providing information that reflects upon different policy initiatives. This approach separates advocacy for a particular position from provision of information. Still others argue that sociologists should be advocates for particular policies, given sociological evidence. An example of such advocacy was the American Sociological Association’s filing of a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the University of Michigan Law School and the Student Intervenors in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003). In this case, the Association argued that sociological research clearly and consistently documented the pervasiveness of race in life experience such that universities cannot adequately assess candidates or their potential without considering it.

Decisions about the role of sociologists are frequently contested among sociologists themselves—a clear indication that perspectives, methods, and approaches vary considerably. However, because these contestations are often in public sociological forums, it is also a demonstration of the tolerance, or at least acceptance, of the variability within the discipline.

Sociology Today

Since its inception through the early decades of the 20th century, the discipline of sociology was essentially monolithic in perspective, representing a rather narrow range of topics in social problems areas. Early sociologists were essentially generalists, and during the first 100 years of disciplinary activity, the literature of sociology expanded only incrementally. By mid-20th century, however, there was a sufficiently large body of sociological literature on which to draw and a much broader and energized sociological curiosity as to foster some degree of specialization.

With its new focus on theories of the middle range, sociological inquiry developed into a multifaceted perspective, representing a variety of specialty topics and an expanded literature in which a proliferation of knowledge is documented. Sociologists thus developed an expansive array of specialty knowledge that represents the variety of research and theoretical activity within the discipline. Now, in the 21st century, the success of the past century requires a comprehensive survey and assessment of the many specialty topics in sociology that is essential for organizing this vast information. Each research paper linked from this list of topics provides a comprehensive research on one of these specialty topics. This list of sociology research topics also represents a thorough inquiry into the state of knowledge and scholarly thinking in each of these specialty areas by offering authoritative insightful papers on the various subfields in sociology, provide an assessment of contemporary knowledge, and brief projections of anticipated future theoretical development and research activity in particular topic.

For more than 100 years, sociological research has covered a vast terrain of topics, theoretical perspectives, and methodologies that run the range of mainstream topics of interest, emerging new ideas, as well as topics considered to be peripheral to the discipline but nevertheless draw heavily on sociological literature for their framework. The work sociologists engage in is both pure and applied, and depending on time and space and shifts in the dominant orientation of the body politic, the substance of this work is more or less significant. The discipline of sociology and its researchers are subject to the changing needs of the society that we attempt to better understand. Sociologists have been from the beginning social activists and social policy analysts. These interests and foci continue in the present and will undoubtedly continue throughout the 21st century.

More Sociology Research Paper Topics:

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