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social sciences

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Sociology is the academic discipline concerned with studying human society and social change, including everything from small-scale interactions (microsociology) to interactions of world governments (macrosociology).

The roots of sociology were planted in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. In the midst of rapid technological and social changes, including the industrial revolution and mass urbanization, some thinkers began to write and do research on social institutions and interactions. Early theorists who either participated in the birth of sociology or were claimed by sociology as founding fathers include Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Georg Simmel. Early topics of writing and research were religion, capitalism, political organization, bureaucracy, and small-group relations.

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Social Research

Sociology employs a number of different research methods. These are generally grouped into two main categories: quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative research is conducted primarily through statistical analysis of large-scale survey data, often using sophisticated computer programs. This method is strongest for testing theoretical models, examining trends over time, and unlocking the way different variables interact. It assumes that social relationships can be rendered in numerical terms.

Qualitative research focuses on in-depth explorations of individual lives or situations. Types of qualitative research include personal interviews, field observation, and written questionnaires. Qualitative research assumes a greater role for interpretation and for the agency of the research subject and is strongest in developing theoretical models and understanding how variables work out in real life. Additionally, there are some social situations that would be impossible to study quantitatively because of the difficulty of collecting proper survey data.

Other types of research performed by sociologists include experimental and comparative-historical research. Sociologists can and do conduct experiments, though there are ethical and/or practical difficulties in examining most social phenomena this way. Experimental research is best suited to understanding the way small groups interact. Comparative-historical research aims to uncover the social world of the past by examining historical documents ranging from published books to ancient statistics, from diaries unearthed in attics to last century's city newspapers.

Since each research method has its own strengths and weaknesses, some sociologists combine multiple methods to arrive at a richer and more detailed understanding of the world. For instance, a researcher might conduct a large-scale survey to ask people whether they think violent movies lead to violent reactions, and then do an experiment by showing people violent movies and measuring their responses. Or researchers might comb historical archives for information about how people responded to natural disasters in the past, and then interview some senior citizens who lived through those natural disasters.

Most early sociologists did not study sexuality, thinking it a topic for other fields (primarily biology, medicine, and psychology). Freud, who was not a sociologist but some of whose writings have been adopted as sociological texts, was the first social thinker to bring sexuality into the world of the social. He wrote that people develop diverse sexual urges early in childhood (often including inclinations to homosexuality and/or bisexuality) but that these inclinations are controlled and subjugated by society.

Sociology and Homosexuality

Sociology began to come into its own as an academic field in the United States in the early to mid-twentieth century. Though the field as a whole has usually been socially liberal and accepting of diversity, the early years of sociology in the United States did not include any particular acceptance of homosexuality.

During that time, the dominant theoretical paradigm in sociology was functionalism. This paradigm emphasizes the idea that all social phenomena serve a function in society, and if a phenomenon is "dysfunctional" it will soon disappear from society. Functionalist understandings of sexuality and family life usually focused on the need for a social institution to control sexual behavior and reproduction and provide an environment for socializing new members of society (that is, children). Since homosexuality did not fit into this picture of the world, it was assumed to be dysfunctional.

The fact that early functionalism believed homosexuality was dysfunctional does not mean that all functionalists must believe this way. For instance, an understanding that homosexuality exists to provide extra adults to help raise children, as in certain bird species, would be a functionalist explanation.

Until a subfield of sociology specifically concerned with studying sexuality developed in the 1990s, what little sociological study of sexuality existed was primarily conducted within the subfield of the sociology of deviance. The word "deviance" does not have the same negative connotations within sociology as it does in everyday life--the sociology of deviance is merely the study of behavior that differs from accepted norms in society. Therefore, homosexuality is still an appropriate subject of study by scholars of deviance.

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