"It displeases man to renounce the unlimited power over the social order he has so long attributed to himself; and on the other hand, it seems that if collective forces really exist, he is necessarily obliged to submit to them without being able to modify them. This makes him inclined to deny their existence. In vain have repeated experiences taught him that his omnipotence, the illusion of which he complacently entertains, has always been a cause of weakness in him; that his power over things really began only when he recognized that they have a nature of their own and resigned himself to learning this nature from them."
Emile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method (1895)
Sociology explores the intersection of biography and history by relating the life of the individual to the operation of social institutions. From the analysis of passing encounters between individuals in the street to the investigation of broad-based international social movements, the student of sociology studies the subtle, yet complex ways in which her life interacts with the collective experience of others.
Social interactions are the basic data from which sociologists build analyses, that is, descriptions and explanations of human action. Frequently, basic and simple interactions come to assume stable and regular forms, what sociologists refer to as institutions; the study of social behavior is often organized by the type of interactions and institutions examined. For example, parent-child interactions produce and are studied as families; relations of production and distribution of goods and services are studied as markets; systems of ritual and other symbolic meanings are studied as religion; relations which flow from and are related to the use of force are studied as law and politics.
Thus the sociologist is interested in the organization of interaction wherever it may be. She is interested in the fundamental processes that are a part of these larger patterns which cut across all institutions. Thus, one might be interested in how sets of norms and rules assume stable patterns in groups, organizations, or societies. One might be interested in rule-following and rule-violation; these are studied under deviance and lead to the study of crime and sometimes law. Or, one might be interested in the distribution of material and symbolic goods; this is the study of social stratification. Or one might be interested in the production of common culture and its distribution; this is studied as mass media, communication and popular culture. To put it in a nutshell, sociology is a generalizing social science.
The discipline of sociology, while new in relation to some other disciplines, has been an intellectual success. From its birth in the middle of the nineteenth century to the present, the perspectives and methods of sociology have become commonplace. Important insights by sociological theorists such as Max Weber , Karl Marx , Georg Simmel, and Emile Durkheim are the cornerstones not only of sociology, but of other social sciences as well.
Because we take our own behavior as social beings as the subject of the study, the French sociologist Raymond Aron wrote that sociology serves not only as the conscience, but also as the measure of consciousness of society. To study sociology is, in the best tradition of the liberal arts, to free oneself to explore the familiar anew and by so doing enrich ourselves and those around us.