The Similarities and Differences Between Psychology and Sociology

March 8, 2018

At first there was just sociology and psychology. But then one area of psychology took an interest in social processes and group processes, which is where social psychology came from. That’s why the names are so similar: social psychology came about from mixing psychology with sociology. 

Likewise, sociology also took an interest in the individual processes that psychology focuses on. Interactions between people and their environment became a point of interest for sociologists.

This meant they moved away from macro-sociological (big picture) focuses. Hence why you might notice that one has had a huge influence on the other’s evolution, and vice versa. In the end, they’ve really evolved together.

Nowadays, both fields of knowledge have evolved in the direction of specialization. Both of them have put effort into more specific, particular things. What that’s lead to is that they’ve both moved away from each other.

So, sociologists have focused on macro kinds of variables, like social structure (Bourdieu, 1984) or migration (Castles, 2002). Meanwhile, social psychology has focused on micro variables like group identity (Tajfel and Turner, 2005) or influence (Cialdini, 2001).

A love-hate relationship

It’s also worth pointing out that both of these sciences study the same thing: human behavior. But social psychology is more like a branch of psychology that studies how our environment directly or indirectly influences our actions and behavior (Allport, 1985).

In turn, sociology is a social science dedicated to a systematic study of society, social action, and the groups that make up a society (Furfey, 1953). Basically we could say that they both study relationships between people, but look at things from a different angle. 

In fact, the different vantage points means they can actually enrich one other as they grow apart. One of the main differences between them is that psychology studies the effect of social things on the individual, while sociology focuses on the collective phenomena themselves.  So to put it another way, social psychology studies human behavior on the individual level and sociology on the group level. 

A heart-shaped rock.

Social psychology

Social psychology’s main goal is to analyze the interaction between individuals and society (Moskovici and Markova, 2006). These interaction processes take place on different levels that scientists usually split up into intrapersonal, interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup processes.

Basically, they’re processes with people and processes with groups. When it comes to interpersonal processes (differences between people), they study the processing of information and how people use that information within their groups. And in the case of intergroup processes (differences between groups), they focus on studying the role groups play in building individual identities.

Social psychology always keeps social phenomena in mind, but doesn’t make them the main focus. Instead it analyzes how those social phenomena have an effect on individuals. So basically social psychology tries to understand how exactly most individuals are influenced by social factors, without worrying about any differences between people’s personalities.

Sociology

Sociology’s research studies how the organizations that shape our social structures are created, maintained, and changed. In addition, it studies the effect that different kinds of social structures have on the behavior of groups and individual people, as well as the changes those structures undergo due to social interaction.

To put it another way, Richard Osborne (1994) says: “sociology is about explaining something that seems obvious (how our society works) to people who think it’s simple and don’t understand how complicated it actually is.” That is, the things we do in our daily lives sometimes have explanations you’d never have thought of.

A different matchstick than the rest. Sociology.

Big players in both fields

Even if it’s true that social psychology and sociology both have thousands of important people in them, there are a few that really stand out. Since we can’t give credit to all the great researchers who have left a mark, here we’ll list some of the theories and methods that some of the most well-known figures in both fields came up with. Also, this will help you understand the differences between the two sciences better:

  • First, Pierre Bordieu (1984) is known for coming up with the concept of habitus, among other things. It’s a group of frameworks that we all use to look at and act in the world. This means our habitus has a big influence on our thoughts, perceptions, and actions. 

In this theory, habitus is the fundamental thing that explains social class. So you form part of a social class depending on what characteristics it has. And that means doing certain actions is what puts you in one specific social class or another.

  • Henri Tajfel, along with John Turner (2005), developed the theory of social identity. According to this theory, there are categorization processes that lead us to identify with groups with rules that will regulate our behavior. So the more you identify with a group, the more willing you’ll be willing to follow that group’s rules. You may even make sacrifices to keep it going.

While Bourdieu says that the frameworks you see the world through will determine your behavior, Tajfel thinks that belonging to a certain group and following its rules is what will determine it. To conclude, they both study the same thing, just from different angles. 

Bibliography

Allport, G. W. (1985). The Historical Background of Social Psychology. In G. Lindzey & E. Aronson (Eds.). The Handbook of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. London: Routledge.

Castles, S. (2002). Migration and community formation under conditions of globalization. International Migration Review 36 (4), 1143-1168.

Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and Practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Furfey, P. H. (1953). The Scope and Method of Sociology: A Metasociological Treatise. Harper.

Moscovici, S. & Markova, I. (2006). The Making of Modern Social Psychology. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Osborne, R. (2005). Sociology for Beginners. Icon Books, Ltd.

Tajfel, H. and Turner, J. C. (2005). An integrative theory of intergroup contact, in Austin, W. G. y Worchel, S. (eds.) The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, pp. 34-47.