Sociologists study the behavior and interaction of people in groups. They research the characteristics of families, communities, the workplace, religious and business organizations, and many other segments of society. By studying a group, sociologists can gain insight about individuals; they can develop ideas about the roles of gender, race, age, and other social traits in human interaction. This research helps the government, schools, and other organizations address social problems and understand social patterns. In addition to research, a sociologist may teach, publish, consult, or counsel. There are approximately 2,600 sociologists working in the United States.
Sociologist Career History
Sociology has its origins in the 19th century. As a science, it was based on experiment and measurement rather than philosophical speculation. Until an experimental basis for the testing of theory and speculation was devised, the study of society remained in the area of philosophy and not in that of science. Auguste Comte, a French mathematician, is generally credited with being the originator of modern sociology. He coined the term, which is derived from the Latin socius, meaning companion. His idea was that sociology should become the science that would draw knowledge from all sciences to produce fundamental understandings of human society. It was his feeling that once all sciences were blended together, human society could be viewed as a totality. Comte’s theories are not now widely held among scientists; in fact, the development of sociology through the past century has been basically in the opposite direction. It was Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist, who initiated the use of scientific study and research methods to develop and support sociological theories in the early part of the 20th century.
The field has become more specialized as it has grown. The study of the nature of human groups has proved to be all-encompassing. Only by specializing in one aspect of this science can scholars hope to form fundamental principles. For example, such areas as criminology and penology, while still technically within the field of sociology, have become very specialized. Working in these areas requires training that is different in emphasis and content from that which is required in other areas of sociology.
The Job of Sociologists
Curiosity is the main tool of a successful sociologist. Sociologists are intrigued by questions. For example, why do the members of different high school sports teams interact with each other in certain ways? Or why do some people work better in teams than others? What are the opportunities for promotion for workers with disabilities? Sociologists can even be inspired to question social policies based on their everyday experiences. For example, a sociologist reading a newspaper article about someone on a state’s death row may wonder what the effect that the state’s death penalty has on its crime level. Or an article on a new casino may cause the sociologist to wonder what effects legalized gambling have on the residents of that area. Such curiosity is one of the driving forces behind a sociologist’s work.
With thoughtful questions and desire for knowledge, sociologists investigate the origin, development, and functioning of groups of people. This can involve extensively interviewing people or distributing form questionnaires. It can involve conducting surveys or researching historical records, both public and personal. A sociologist may need to set up an experiment, studying a cross section of people from a given society. The sociologist may choose to watch the interaction from a distance, or to participate as well as observe.
The information sociologists compile from this variety of research methods is then used by administrators, lawmakers, educators, and other officials engaged in solving social problems. By understanding the common needs, thoughts, patterns, and ideas of a group of people, an organization can better provide for the individuals within those groups. With a sociologist’s help, a business may be able to create a better training program for its employees; counselors in a domestic violence shelter may better assist clients with new home and job placement; teachers may better educate students with special needs.
Sociologists work closely with many other professionals. One of the closest working relationships is between sociologists and statisticians to analyze the significance of data. Sociologists also work with psychologists. Psychologists attempt to understand individual human behavior, while sociologists try to discover basic truths about groups. Sociologists also work with cultural anthropologists. Anthropologists study whole societies and try to discover what cultural factors have produced certain kinds of patterns in given communities. Sociologists work with economists. The ways in which people buy and sell are basic to understanding how groups behave. They also work with political scientists to study systems of government.
Ethnology and ethnography, social sciences that treat the subdivision of humans and their description and classification, are other fields with which sociologists work closely. Problems in racial understanding and cooperation, in failures in communication, and in differences in belief and behavior are all concerns of the sociologist who tries to discover underlying reasons for group conduct.
Sociologists and psychiatrists have cooperated to discover community patterns of mental illness and mental health. They have attempted to compare such things as socioeconomic status, educational level, residence, and occupation to the incidence and kind of mental illness or health to determine in what ways society may be contributing to or preventing emotional disturbances.
Some sociologists choose to work in a specialized field. Criminologists specialize in investigations of causes of crime and methods of prevention, and penologists investigate punishment for crime, management of penal institutions, and rehabilitation of criminal offenders. Social pathologists specialize in investigation of group behavior that is considered detrimental to the proper functioning of society. Demographers are population specialists who collect and analyze vital statistics related to population changes, such as birth, marriages, and death. Rural sociologists investigate cultures and institutions of rural communities, while urban sociologists investigate origin, growth, structure, composition, and population of cities. Social welfare research workers conduct research that is used as a tool for planning and carrying out social welfare programs.
Sociologist Career Requirements
Since a master’s degree is recommended, if not required, in this field, you should take college prep courses while in high school. Take English classes to develop composition skills; you will be expected to present your research findings in reports, articles, and books. In addition to sociology classes, you should take other classes in the social sciences, such as psychology, history, and anthropology. Math and business will prepare you for the analysis of statistics and surveys. Government and history classes will help you to understand some of the basic principles of society, and journalism courses will bring you up to date on current issues.
Most sociologists get their undergraduate degree in sociology, but a major in other areas of the liberal arts is also possible. Courses that you will likely take include statistics, mathematics, psychology, logic, and possibly a foreign language. In addition, keep up your computer skills because the computer is an indispensable research and communication tool.
Keep in mind that you probably will not be able to find a job working as a sociologist with only a bachelor’s degree. However, new graduates may be able to start as a research assistant or interviewer. These workers are needed in research organizations, social service agencies, and corporate marketing departments.
Students who go on to get their master’s and doctorate degrees will have a wider variety of employment opportunities. With a master’s degree, opportunities are available in the federal government, industrial firms, or research organizations. Individuals with specific training in research methods will have an advantage. Those with a master’s degree can also teach at the community or junior college level.
More than half of all sociologists hold doctorates. A large majority of the sociologists at the doctoral level teach in four-year colleges and universities throughout the country. Job candidates fare best if their graduate work includes specialized research and fieldwork.
In addition to the natural curiosity mentioned above, a good sociologist must also possess an open mind. You must be able to assess situations without bias or prejudice that could affect the results of your studies. Social awareness is also important. As a sociologist, you must pay close attention to the world around you, to the way the world progresses and changes. Because new social issues arise every day, you will be frequently reading newspapers, magazines, and reports to maintain an informed perspective on these issues.
Good communication skills are valuable to the sociologist. In many cases, gathering information will involve interviewing people and interacting within their societies. The better your communication skills, the more information you can get from the people you interview.
Exploring Sociologist Career
There are books about sociology, and possibly some journals of sociology, in your school and public libraries. By reading recent books and articles you can develop an understanding of the focus and requirements of sociological study. If no specific sociology courses are offered in your high school, courses in psychology, history, or English literature can prepare you for the study of groups and human interaction; within these courses you may be able to write reports or conduct experiments with a sociological slant. A school newspaper, magazine, or journalism course can help you to develop important interview, research, and writing skills, while also heightening your awareness of your community and the communities of others.
More than two-thirds of the sociologists working in this country teach in colleges and universities. Some sociologists work for agencies of the federal government. In such agencies, their work lies largely in research, though they may also serve their agencies in an advisory capacity. Some sociologists are employed by private research organizations, and some work in management consulting firms. Sociologists also work with various medical groups and with physicians. Some sociologists are self-employed, providing counseling, research, or consulting services.
Many sociologists find their first jobs through the placement offices of their colleges and universities. Some are placed through the professional contacts of faculty members. A student in a doctorate program will make many connections and learn about fellowships, visiting professorships, grants, and other opportunities.
Those who wish to enter a research organization, industrial firm, or government agency should apply directly to the prospective employer. If you have been in a doctorate program, you should have research experience and publications to list on your resume, as well as assistantships and scholarships.
Sociologists who become college or university teachers may advance through the academic ranks from instructor to full professor. Those who like administrative work may become a head of a department. Publications of books and articles in journals of sociology will assist in a professor’s advancement.
Those who enter research organizations, government agencies, or private business advance to positions of responsibility as they acquire experience. Salary increases usually follow promotions.
Median annual earnings for sociologists were $57,870 in 2004, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $27,520, while the highest 10 percent earned over $90,580.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, social scientists (the heading under which the Department classifies sociologists) working in the federal government with a bachelor’s degree and no experience started at $24,677 or $30,567 a year in 2004. Those with a master’s degree started at $37,390; with a Ph.D., $45,239; and with an advanced degree and experience, $54,221.
An academic environment can be ideal for a sociologist intent on writing and conducting research. If required to teach only a few courses a semester, a sociologist can then devote a good deal of time to his or her own work. And having contact with students can create a balance with the research.
The work of a sociologist takes place mostly in the classroom or at the computer writing reports and analyzing data. Some research requires visiting the interview subjects or setting up an experiment within the community of study.
Sociologist Career Outlook
Employment for sociologists is expected to grow more slowly than the average through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Opportunities are best for those with a doctorate degree and experience in fields such as demography, criminology, environmental sociology, and gerontology. Competition will be strong in all areas, however, as many sociology graduates continue to enter the job market.
As the average age of Americans rises, more opportunities of study will develop for those working with the elderly. Sociologists who specialize in gerontology will have opportunities to study the aging population in a variety of environments. Sociologists will find more opportunities in marketing, as companies conduct research on specific populations, such as the children of baby boomers. The Internet is also opening up new areas of sociological research; sociologists, demographers, market researchers, and other professionals are studying online communities and their impact.