Sociology is a social science that studies human societies, their interactions, and the processes which occur within and between them.
Important concepts within sociology include culture, feminism, norms, social class, society, and values.
If you’re interested in theories explicitly, you might prefer to read my list of sociological theories here.
- Agency – In sociology, agency is usually defined as the capacity of individuals to make choices or do things (Ferrero, 2022). Agency is the ability to act on one’s will or to change that will. This ability is affected by a myriad of socioeconomic and environmental factors.
- Coercive Organization – A term by Max Weber referring to an organization that uses intimidation, threats, and/or punishment to force its members to comply with strict rules and regulations.
- Colonialism – Colonialism is a practice of domination that involves the subjugation of one population to another. The practice of colonialism, as its Latin root (colonus – farmer) would suggest, involved transferring a population to a new territory where they would continue to live as permanent settlers (Kohn & Reddy, 2022).
- Conflict Theory – In sociology, conflict theory is a perspective that emphasizes a materialist interpretation of history, the dialectical method of analysis, a critical attitude toward existing social structures, and the existence of perpetual conflicts within society. Important conflict theorists include Karl Marx, C. Wright Mills (Knapp, 1994, pp. 228-246), Gene Sharp, and many more.
- Counterculture – A culture whose values and norms of behavior significantly differ from those of society (Hirsch, 1993, p. 419). A countercultural movement expresses the interests and values of a specific population within society. Commonly cited examples of countercultural movements include the Levellers (Outhwaite, 2008, p. 120), the counterculture of the 1960s, and Bohemianism.
- Culture – The term culture is extremely broad and extremely ambiguous at the same time. The term can refer to the set of norms, practices, and values that characterize different groups (Lenard, 2020). Any one person can be a member of multiple cultures. There is still widespread political and legal disagreement over what “culture” means.
- Cultural Relativity – Cultural relativism is the idea that a person’s beliefs, values, and behavior can be understood by considering that person’s own culture or cultures. Cultural relativists believe that the norms and values of one culture should not be evaluated according to the norms and values of another culture (The Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, 2020).
- Discrimination – Definitions of discrimination vary significantly. Human rights documents generally give a list of examples of discrimination rather than a definition. Discrimination can be thought of as a category that includes all actions, practices, and policies that are directed toward individuals based on their membership in a certain group (Altman, 2020).
- Ethnocentrism – This is exactly the type of approach that is contrary to cultural relativism mentioned above. Ethnocentrism is the use of one’s own cultural and ethnic values as a frame of reference for judging other cultures, practices, values, beliefs, behaviors, and so on. It can also mean any culturally biased judgment (LeVine, 2017, p. 166).
- Feminism – This term has many different uses and the meaning of “feminism” is very often a matter of debate. Some writers use the term to refer to a historically specific political movement in the US and Europe. Others use it to signify the belief in the existence of systemic injustices perpetrated against women (McAfee, 2018). It is therefore common to distinguish between “feminism” as a belief system and “feminism” as a political movement.
- Folkways – Also called mores, folkways are widely observed social norms within a particular society or culture (Macionis, 2010, p. 65). The term “folkways” was coined by William Graham Sumner and he defined them as social conventions that are not considered to be of moral significance by the group that observes them (For more, read about examples of folkways).
- Functionalism – In sociology, functionalism is a theory based on the premise that all aspects of a given society serve a purpose and that all are indispensable for the long-term survival of that society. The theory originates in the work of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim. (For more, read about examples of functionalism).
- Gender Socialization – Gender socialization is the process of teaching individuals how to behave according to the societal expectations of their gender. Gender socialization is the process by which boys learn to demonstrate masculinity and girls learn to demonstrate femininity (Naples, 2020, p. 216).
- Groupthink – The mode of thinking in which members of small groups tend to accept the viewpoints of said group is known as groupthink (Drew, 2022). The social psychologist Irving Janis introduced the term to explain the psychological mechanism behind foreign policy decisions such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Vietnam War (Janis, 1972).
- Inequality – In sociology, the term inequality is often used to specifically mean social inequality. Social inequality occurs when resources in a given society are distributed unevenly.
- Intersectionality – Intersectionality is a framework for understanding how a person’s social and political identities combine to create different types of discrimination and privilege. The factors that intersectionality identifies include gender, sex, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, disability, weight, physical appearance, and many more.
- In-groups and out-groups – In sociology, an in-group is a social group to which a person identifies as being a member. An out-group is the direct opposite. It is a social group with which an individual does not identify. Sociologists and psychologists often explore the phenomenon of in-group bias which can lead to marganalization.
- Macrosociology – Macrosociology, as the name suggests, is a large-scale approach to sociology that emphasizes analysis at the structural level, often at a necessarily high level of abstraction (Calhoun, 2002).
- Marxism – The body of doctrines developed mainly by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and their followers are commonly called Marxism. There is significant disagreement between the different interpretations of marxism.
- Master status – In sociology, the master status is the individual’s status that has primary importance for social identity. It is the main characteristic that identifies a given individual.
- Microsociology – In contrast to macrosociology, microsociology is a small-scale approach to sociology that focuses on the nature of everyday human social interactions. It is based on interpretative analysis rather than statistical or empirical observation (Goffman, 1972).
- Social class – A social class is a group of people within a hierarchical set of social categories (Grant, 2001, p. 161). The most common division identifies upper, middle, and lower social classes.
- Social fact – In sociology, social facts are values, cultural norms, and behaviors that are “external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him” (Durkheim, 1895/1982).
- Social institution – Social institutions are those humanly created structures of rules and norms that shape and limit individual behavior (North, 1991).
- Social Norms – Social norms are shared standards of acceptable behavior within a given group (Lapinski & Rimal, 2005).
- Social status (achieved vs ascribed) – The level of social value a person is considered to possess can be achieved or ascribed. Examples of ascribed status might be those with which a person is born. Achieved statuses are those a person gains through life.
- Social stratification – The categorization of people into groups based on socioeconomic factors like income and education by society is known as social stratification (see also: social categorization).
- Socialization (primary and secondary) – The process of internalizing the norms and values of a given society is known as socialization. There are many types of socialization, for example, primary and secondary socialization. Primary socialization occurs when a child learns the attitudes, values, and behaviors appropriate to members of a given society. Secondary socialization occurs when an individual learns what is appropriate to a member of a small group within a larger society.
- Society – Perhaps the central concept of sociology, society is a group of individuals that are involved in persistent social interaction, or a large social group sharing the same territory. Historically, there are six types of society.
- Sociological paradigms – A paradigm is a framework and perspective used as a foundation to formulate theories. In sociology there are three core paradigms: conflict perspective, functionalist perspective, and symbolic interactionism.
- Stereotypes – A stereotype is a generalized belief about a particular category of people. An expectation people might have about every member of a particular group.
- Symbolic Interactionism – A sociological paradigm that explores the ways signs, communication, and symbols shape culture, perception, and power (see more: interactions perspective in sociology).
- Values – The degree of importance of something to a given individual or group. We can theorize how to handle different cultural values using concepts like cultural relativism and cultural universalism.
There are innumerable essential concepts in sociology, but the 30 concepts listed above are some of the most central to the study of human societies and their interactions.
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Macionis, J. J. (2010). Sociology. Pearson Education Canada.
McAfee, N. (2018). Feminist Philosophy. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/feminist-philosophy/
Naples, N. A. (2020). Companion to Women’s and Gender Studies. John Wiley & Sons.
North, D. C. (1991). Institutions. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5(1), 97–112. https://doi.org/10.1257/jep.5.1.97
The Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. (2020). Cultural Relativism. http://encyclopedia.uia.org/en/problem/140048