Sociology in America

Sociology made its way from Europe to the United States by the turn of the 20th century. Like their European predecessors and counterparts, early American sociologists attempted to understand and solve the problems of their day, including crime, racial problems, and economic woes. But unlike the Europeans, who were more interested in forming large‐scale social theories, American sociologists tried to develop pragmatic solutions to specific problems, such as child labor.

Jane Addams and Hull Hous

Jane Addams
(1860–1935) was a preeminent founder of American sociology. She set up her Chicago‐based “Hull House” as a center for sociological research. Most of the sociologists at Hull House were women who enjoyed applying sociological knowledge to solve social problems such as unfair labor policies, exploitation of children and workers, poverty, juvenile delinquency, and discrimination against women, minorities, and the elderly. These sociologists also used a research technique known as mapping, in which they collected demographic data such as age, gender, and socioeconomic status, geographically distributed this information, and then analyzed the distribution. After identifying problems and devising a social‐action policy based on available data, they would organize community members and lobby political leaders to solve the problem. Addams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, played a major part in establishing government safety and health standards and regulations, as well as founding important government programs, including Social Security, Workers' Compensation, and the Children's Bureau.

Both an applied and a basic science

For about the first 40 years of the 20th century, most American sociologists emphasized the practical aspects of the field, especially in terms of initiating various social reforms. That is, they viewed sociology as an applied social science (applying their knowledge to create practical solutions to societal problems). Later, when sociologists became more interested in developing general theories of how society works, many viewed sociology as a basic social science, (seeking knowledge for the sake of knowledge only). Along with the ideal of knowledge for its own sake came the notion that sociology should be “pure” and objective—without values, opinions, or agendas for social reform. As a result, between 1940 and 1960, sociologists developed and applied rigorous and sophisticated scientific methods to the study of social behavior and societies.

In the 1960s, however, people began to challenge sociology's objective and value‐free approach to social knowledge. An increased awareness of and interest in such social ills as racial unrest, gender inequity, poverty, and controversy over the Vietnam War led society once again to look for the practical solutions associated with sociology as an applied science.

At the dawn of the 21st century, sociology in America is a social science that is both applied and basic, subjective and objective. In addition, the discipline has divided into many specialties and subspecialties—from industrial sociology (the application of sociological principles to solving industrial and business problems) to ethnomethodology (the scientific study of common sense) to clinical sociology (the application of sociological principles to solving human problems and effecting social change). Today, the number of sociologists stands at about 20,000.