The study of human society

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … actions and interpretations that have been collectively developed and sanctioned
  • Knowing is … situationally appropriate actions and interpretations
  • Learner is … a participant in a collective, or a social collective
  • Learning is … becoming socialized; fitting adaptations to a social situation
  • Teaching is … modeling, enculturating, involving, influencing


The word sociology was coined by Emmauel-Joseph Sieyès in the late 1700s, based on the Latin socius “companion, fellowship.” It was defined in the 1830s by August Comte in a manner that more-or-less aligns with contemporary popular meanings. Of course, the sort of thinking and theorizing associated with modern Sociology extends back millennia.


Sociology is an area of academic study that addresses matters of human society – origins (histories, locations, triggers, etc.), evolutions (development, tensions, social change, etc.), functionings (behaviors, interactions, rules, etc.), and forms (of interpersonal relationships, social orders, organizations, societies, etc.). A central feature of the domain is a standing debate over the roles of Agency and Structure in shaping human action:
  • Agency – In Embeddedness Discourses, Agency refers is roughly synonymous with “free will” or “volition.” Agency has to do with one’s capacities for independent action and free choice.
  • Structure (Social Structure) – In Embeddedness DiscoursesStructure refers to the established social arrangements and recurrent societal forms that define the situations one inhabits, frame one’s choices, and limit one’s opportunities. (Contrast: Structure, under Enactivism.)
Subdiscourses include:
  • Applied Sociology (Policy Sociology; Sociological Practice) – any intervention of domain that involves the application of sociological knowledge for pragmatic purposes (including Public Sociology, Social Work, and much of Sociology of Education, all described below)
  • Emancipatory Social Science (Erik Olin Wright, 2000s) – a mashup of Social Science and Activist Discourses, generating a version of Social Science that is especially critical of the social and political injustices associated with capitalism while advocating for meaningful and disruptive transformations of policies, institutions and systems
  • Macrosociology (Gerry Lenski, Jr., 1980s) – an approach to Sociology that tends toward the “high level” – both in the sense of theoretical abstraction and the socio-cultural forms that serves as its units of analysis (e.g., cities, or religions) (Compare, Microsociology, below.)
  • Microsociology (Irving Goffman, 1970s) – a subdomain of Sociology that is focused on the interpersonal level and concerned with everyday actions and interactions (Compare, Macrosociology, above.)
  • Public Sociology (Michael Burawoy, 2000s) – a branch– or, perhaps more accurately, a style – of Sociology that aims to make its disciplinary insights more accessible and engaging to non-academics. (Compare: Public Pedagogy, in In-/Non-Formal Learning.)
  • Social Dynamics (Auguste Comte, 1840s) – an approach to Sociology that focuses on change – that is, that concentrates its research on societies and social systems that have undergone or that are undergoing significant transformation
  • Social Statics (Auguste Comte, 1840s) – an approach to Sociology that focuses on the distinctive nature of societies and social systems at particular moments in history
  • Sociobiology (Edward O. Wilson, 1980s) – the study of the biological basis of social behavior, oriented by the conviction that Darwinian dynamics are at play in managing societal populations (through controls such as emigration, disease, war, and fertility)
  • Sociogenetics – the study of the roots and evolutions of societies
  • Sociolinguistics – the study of the use and impact of language in social systems and societies, especially as related to matters of identity, gender, social class, and ethnicity. Associated constructs include:
    • Sociolinguistic Knowledge – a notion that applies specifically to the learning of an additional language, referring to both the socio-cultural norms that are reflected in the language and the (often tacit) socio-cultural norms that are enacted by native speakers of that language
  • Sociology of Education – the study of the roles, impacts, and potentialities of formal education for society. Foci range from the immediately pragmatic (e.g., insights into group dynamics that enable the learning process) to the critically interpretive (e.g., examining how educational institutions determine and are determined by social structures).
  • Socionomics – the study of how terrains, climate, and other aspects of the physical environment influence the societies
Relevant associated discourses include:
  • Behavioral Science (Behavioral Sciences) – an umbrella category that covers roughly the same academic territory as Social Science (Social Sciences; see below), but that tends to be defined with greater emphasis on human behavior and, in general, is conceived to be in stronger alliance with Positivism.
  • Computational Social Science (Quantitative Social Science) – an attitude in the Social Sciences (see below) that embraces statistics-based approaches. Over recent years, such methods have evolved considerably through access to and means to analyze Big Data, as well as through digital tools to simulate social and other complex phenomena. Related discourses include:
    • Big Data (2000s) – vast data sets that are too large and/or too complex to be analyzed using traditional techniques. Such data sets are growing exponentially across almost all quantifiable aspects of human life – including formal education, where the focus is usually on identifying patterns, trends, and associations for individuals, identifiable subpopulations, institutions, and organizations.
    • Data Colonialism (Nick Couldry, 2010s) ­– the extraction and utilization of data to advance the interests of more powerful entities while disadvantaging the already marginalized or disempowered. Not all aspects of Data Colonialism are consciously or deliberately deployed. For example, many scholars have demonstrated how data sets on which Large Language Models (see Artificial Intelligence) are trained are riddled with deeply entrenched cultural biases – and so the “insights” they generate reflect and further entrench those biases.
    • Dataism (David Brooks, 2010s) – a mindset associated with and enabled by Big Data. Optimists suggest Dataism might lead to deeper insight and greater justice. Pessimists argue Dataism will render human knowledge and wisdom traditions obsolete.
    • Social Physics (Sociophysics) (Thomas Hobbes, 1600s) – originally, a proposal to apply the laws of physics to social phenomena; currently the use Big Data (i.e., through mathematical modeling and statistical analysis) to analyze collective human phenomena
  • Engaged Theory – a framework used by those researchers in the Social Sciences (see below) who seek to preserve a strong sense of the complexity of personal, social, and natural worlds in their empirical and theorical work. Reports typically align strongly with Embodiment Discourses, Embeddedness Discourses, and Eco-Complexity Discourses.
  • Human Science (Human Sciences; Humanistic Social Science; Moral Sciences) – an attitude within the Social Sciences (see below) that trends toward the interdisciplinary as it aims to offer useful commentary on human existence. Practitioners are typically based in a specific Social Science, but they freely draw on the others – in addition to, for example, biology, ecology, evolutionary theory, philosophy, and Neuroscience. (Contrast: Humanities, in Humanisms.)
  • Social Science (Social Sciences; originally: Science of Society) (early 1800s) – Originally used to refer to what is currently called Sociology, the term Social Science currently includes those academic domains other than mathematics and the physical sciences that embrace and assume modern standards of scientific inquiry. Among others, the Social Sciences include Anthropology, economics, education, history, linguistics, political science, Psychology, and Sociology.
  • Social Work – a domain of research and practice aimed at improving the human condition. The profession of Social Work is concerned with engaging and enabling individuals and collectives to effectively address life challenges, enhance well-being, deal with troubling societal issues, and improve social functioning.


As with all social sciences, Sociology is a site of vibrant debate around empirical methodologies and theoretical frames, contributing to sometimes-dramatically different takes on phenomena under study. Sociology has had an enormous influence on education, as an academic domain, and it is especially prominent in such branches of educational inquiry as Critical and Cultural Studies in Education, Curriculum and Pedagogy, and Educational Policy and Leadership (see Schools of Education).

Status as a Theory of Learning

It would be unusual to describe Sociology as a perspective on learning, but the suggestion is not at all far-fetched. It is a domain concerned with effective functioning, fitting adaptations, enhanced well-being, enlarging possibilities. To draw a rough analogy, in matters of learning, what Psychology is to individual knowers, Sociology is to collective knowing systems.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Some of the applied subdomains of Sociology might be properly characterized as being concerned with influencing learners – that is, loosely speaking, they can be construed as perspectives on teaching. However, the domain of Sociology can’t really be described as such.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Sociology is a varied, but robust domain of inquiry. As noted above, theoretical perspectives can range to extremes. Even so, as a domain, Sociology is committed to the standards of scientific inquiry as operationally defined on this site.  


  • Agency
  • Applied Sociology (Policy Sociology; Sociological Practice)
  • Behavioral Science (Behavioral Sciences)
  • Big Data
  • Computational Social Science (Quantitative Social Science)
  • Data Colonialism
  • Dataism
  • Emancipatory Social Science
  • Engaged Theory
  • Human Science (Human Sciences; Humanistic Social Science; Moral Sciences)
  • Macrosociology
  • Microsociology
  • Public Sociology
  • Social Dynamics
  • Social Physics (Sociophysics)
  • Social Science (Social Sciences; Science of Society)
  • Social Statics
  • Social Work
  • Sociobiology
  • Sociogenetics
  • Sociolinguistic Knowledge
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Sociology of Education
  • Socionomics
  • Structure (Social Structure)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2024). “Sociology” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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