V.F. Calberton comments, “since sociology is so elastic a science, it is difficult to determine just where its boundaries begin and end, where sociology becomes social psychology and where social psychology becomes sociology, or where economic theory becomes sociological doctrine or biological theory becomes sociological theory something, which is impossible to decide”.
However, there are two main schools of thought regarding the scope of sociology: (1) The specialistic or formalistic school and (2) the synthetic school.
(1) The Specialistic or Formalistic School:
This school of thought is led by the German sociologist George Simmel. The other main advocates of this school are Vierkandt, Max Weber, Small, Von Wiese and Tonnies.
Simmel and others are of the opinion that sociology is a pure and an independent science. As a pure science it has a limited scope. Sociology should confine itself to the study of certain aspects of human relationship only. Further, it should study only the ‘forms’ of social relationships but not their contents.
Social relationship such as competition, sub-ordination, division of labour etc., are expressed in different fields of social life such as economic, political, religious, moral, artistic etc. Sociology should disentangle the forms of social relationships and study them in abstraction. Sociology as a specific social science describes, classifies and analyses the forms of social relationships.
Vierkandt says that sociology concerns itself with the ultimate form of mental or psychic relationship which links men to one another in society. He maintains that in dealing with culture, sociology should not concern itself with the actual contents of cultural evolution but it should confine itself to only the discovery of the fundamental forces of change and persistence. It should refrain itself from making a historical study of concrete societies.
Max Weber opines that the aim of sociology is to interpret or understand social behaviour. But social behaviour does not cover the whole field of human relations. He further says that sociology should make an analysis and classification of types of social relationships.
Small insisted that sociology has only a limited field. Von Wiese and Tonnies expressed more or less the same opinion.
The views of the Formalistic School are widely criticised. Some critical remarks may be cited here:
Firstly, the formalistic school has unreasonably narrowed the field of sociology. Sociology should study not only the general forms of social relationships but also their concrete contents.
Secondly, the distinction between the forms of social relations and their contents is not workable. Social forms cannot be abstracted from the content at all, since social forms keep on changing when the contents change. Sorokin writes, “we may fill a glass with wine, water or sugar without changing its form, but I cannot conceive of a social institution whose form would not change when its members change”.
Thirdly, sociology is not the only science that studies the forms of social relationships. Other sciences also do that. The study of international law, for example, includes social relations like conflict, war, opposition, agreement, contract etc. Political Science, Economics also study social relationships.
Finally, the establishment of pure sociology is impractical. No sociologist has been able to develop a pure sociology so far. No science can be studied in complete isolation from the other sciences. In fact, today more emphasis is laid on inter-disciplinary approach.
2. The Synthetic School:
The synthetic school of thought conceives of sociology as a synthesis of the social sciences. It wants to make sociology a general social science and not a pure or special social science. In fact, this school has made sociology synoptic or encyclopaedic in character. Durkheim, Hob House, Ginsberg and Sorokin have been the chief exponents of this school.
The main argument of this school is that all parts of social life are intimately inter-related. Hence the study of one aspect is not sufficient to understand the entire phenomenon. Hence sociology should study social life as a whole. This opinion has contributed to the creation of a general and systematic sociology.
The Views of Morris ginsberg:
Ginsberg, another advocate of the synthetic school, says that the main task of sociology can be categorised into four branches: Social Morphology, Social Control, Social Processes and Social Pathology.
(i) Social Morphology:
‘Social Morphology’ deals with the quantity and quality of population. It studies the social structure, social groups and institutions.
(ii) Social Control:
‘Social Control’ studies-formal as well as informal-means of social control such as custom, tradition, morals, religion, convention, and also law, court, legislation etc. It deals with the regulating agencies of society.
(iii) Social Processes:
‘Social processes’ tries to make a study of different modes of interaction such as cooperation, competition, conflict, accommodation, assimilation, isolation, integration, differentiation, development, arrest and decay.
(iv) Social Pathology:
‘Social Pathology’ studies social mal-adjustment and disturbances. It also includes studies on various social problems like poverty, beggary, unemployment, over-population, prostitution, crime etc.
Ginsberg has summed up the chief functions of sociology as follows:
(i) Sociology seeks to provide a classification of types and forms of social relationships.
(ii) It tries to determine the relation between different factors of social life. For example, the economic and political,-the moral and the religious, the moral and the legal, the intellectual and the social elements.
(iii) It tries to disentangle the fundamental conditions of social change and persistence and to discover sociological principles governing social life.
The scope of sociology is, indeed, very vast. It studies all the social aspects of society such as social processes, social control, social change, social stratification, social system, social groups, social pathology etc. Actually, it is neither possible nor essential to delimit the scope of sociology, because, it would be, as Sprott puts it, “A brave attempt to confine an enormous mass of slippery material into a relatively simple system of pigeonholes”.