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.