Giddens – What is Sociology?

A summary of Giddens’ ‘Sociology’ (2017): The Introduction

‘The world we live in today can feel liberating and exciting but, at the same time confusing and worrying. Global communications and friendships across national boundaries are in many ways easier to sustain than in previous times, yet we also see violent crime, international terrorism, emerging wars and persistent economic and social inequality.

Global terrorism.jpg
Giddens: the global world is full opportunities, but also high consequence risks

The modern world presents us with many opportunities and possibilities, but it is also fraught with high-consequence risks, most notably the damaging impact of our high-consumption lifestyle on the environment.

Most people within the relatively rich countries are materially better off than ever before, but in other parts of the world many millions live in situations of poverty where children die for the lack of fundamental things such as food, safe water supplies and basic healthcare. How can this be, when humanity as a whole has the capability to control its own destiny that would have been unimaginable to previous generations’?

Global Inequalities.jpg
Why is there so much inequality in the world?


  • How did this world come about?
  • Why are the conditions of life today so different from those of the past?
  • Why is there so much inequality in the world?
  • Where are today’s societies heading in the future?

These ‘big questions’, among many others, are the prime concerns of sociology, and if you have ever asked yourself any of the above big questions, then you can consider yourself a novice sociologist.

Sociology can be simply defined as ‘the scientific study of human life, social groups, whole societies and the human world as such… Its subject matter is our own behaviour as social beings in relationship with many other people. ‘

The scope of sociology is extremely wide, ranging from the analysis of passing encounters between individuals on the street to the investigation of crime, international relations and global forms of terrorism.

Most of us see the world in terms of familiar features, through our friends, families and working-lives, but sociology insists that we take a broader view in order to understand why we act in the way that we do.

Sociology teaches us that much of what we regard as natural, inevitable,  good and true may not be so, and that the basic worldview we have is simply a result of the historical context in which we live and the social processes which frame our daily lives.

Understanding the subtle yet complex and profound ways in which our individual lives reflect the contexts of our social experience is basic to the sociologist’s outlook.

The rest of Giddens’ introductory chapter covers the following:

  • An introduction to sociology as a way of thinking – ‘the sociological imagination’.
  • How sociology came into existence – introducing some of the ideas of the founders of sociology – Auguste Comte, Emile Durkhiem, Karl Marx and Max Weber , and the ‘neglected founders’ of sociology.
  • The three basic sociological traditions – Functionalism, conflict perspectives, and symbolic interactionism.
  • What sociology might be used for – should it public (political) or private?

A few thoughts on this introduction

  • What isn’t clear from this section (although Giddens does make it clear later on) is that There are some sociologists who would reject aspects of his definition of sociology – there are those who do not think sociology should be a science, for example and there are those who think sociology should be much more focused on micro processes – Giddens has a very global (verging on futuristic IMO) approach to sociology.
  • For those studying A-level sociology, this isn’t an A-level text book, and YES, the restraints of the A-level syllabus means you won’t be spending much time focusing on interesting issues such as global warming or terrorism, you’re much more likely to be focusing on turgid sociology from the 1970s and 80s, because that’s what’s on the spec, and so you could be assessed on it, and your teachers can’t risk not teaching it!

Related Posts

 You might like to read my summary of Bauman and May’s take on the same question: ‘what is sociology’?

If you want to check out one of Giddens’ major contributions to sociology – have a look at my summary of his 1991 classic ‘Modernity and Self-identity’ – a great read, but it helps if you’ve already studied both sociology and psychology.

Sources used to write this post

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology

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