Sociology: the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society.
So you're thinking of studying GCSE or A-level sociology, but aren't quite sure if it's right for you? You've come to the right place!
If you have any more questions about sociology, do let me know!
Introduction: What is sociology, anyway?
As the definition above says, sociology deals with all aspects of human society and social change. It can overlap with some areas of psychology (usually known as social psychology) because both subjects cover human interaction, but the key difference is that sociology studies the processes undergone by the whole of society or the interactions between certain groups in society, rather than studying the individual mind. Sociology encompasses theoretical and often quite abstract questions, such as whether actions are determined to a greater extent by individual will or by wider social trends and to what extent the evolution of society is driven by conflict between groups. There are certain ideologies which have their own, abstract frameworks for analysing issues in society, which you will look at, and the grounds for these frameworks can become rather philosophical.
However, this subject area also concerns itself with a wide range of specific phenomena (the arts, education, technology, gender roles and economic systems, to name but a few) and used to analyse the effects of these phenomena on society and how they can be improved, as well as their development and how they influence and interact with other institutions and events. This can make sociology very relevant to current affairs and politics; sociological theories can be applied to many diverse questions about education reform, dealing with terrorism and government involvement in the economy, for example. Another important aspect of sociology is the methodology and techniques used to study it, and how scientific it can and should be. Since sociological study relies on researching things which cannot easily be quantitatively measured, it is important for sociologists to consider the nature of what they are researching and how best to examine it.
How is sociology a useful subject for later life?
Sociology will develop your writing skills, being an essay subject, and will also improve your ability to analyse and evaluate arguments critically, since you must explore different perspectives on various issues and come to a reasoned conclusion. These are valued skills and good preparation for the demands of a humanities course at university. As mentioned in the previous section of this FAQ, sociology deals with a wide variety of topics, ranging from pressing problems in current affairs, to philosophical and ideological questions, to discussion of the scientific method and its role in sociological investigation. Correspondingly, sociological questions play a role in many different disciplines. If you're thinking of going into psychology, the overlap and similar consideration of issues related to education, the family and the scientific method make sociology a very complementary subject to take. If you're considering philosophy, politics, economics or any combination of the three, sociology's relevance to contemporary political and economic discourse and incorporation of abstract ideas will provide useful context and an interesting new direction for your exploration of philosophical/political/economic concepts. Law and history also require similar skills - essay-writing and critical thinking - to sociology and the criminology element is an obvious connection to law.
Does sociology suit my skill set?
If you're fairly good at putting your points across in writing and comfortable with a mixture of abstract ideas and real-world applications, there's no reason why you couldn't do quite well in sociology, and in fact if you're interested in sociology but feel that you're better at more theoretical subjects, you might want to wait until university to study it - the philosophical side of the subject is only briefly explored at A-level and even less so at GCSE. Essentially, sociology is like any other essay subject in terms of skills and doesn't really require any specific mindset; chances are if you're interested in taking this subject, you already have some degree of interest in social/political issues and the social sciences, and that's really the most important thing
What sorts of topics will I be studying? (GCSE and A-level)
At GCSE, you'll get an outline of sociology as a whole and the key terms, debates and thinkers in the field, learn about several perspectives and theories on the nature of and issues surrounding families, education, crime and social classes/inequality (and perhaps some other topics, like the media and culture) and take a look at the research methods involved in sociology and some of the practical and ethical questions they raise. As with many GCSEs, you will be expected to know a fair amount of factual information about how various theories criticise and comment on the four aforementioned topics, as well as about some social trends in the UK, e.g. divorce rates. However, you will also have to weigh up opposing theories and make judgements. A GCSE sociology essay question might look something like '"Social control is the most important function of the family." Evaluate the arguments for and against this claim' (in fact, that was an essay question from the 2016 OCR GCSE sociology paper :P).
A-level sociology is actually very similar to GCSE in terms of content, so if you enjoyed GCSE sociology, you will probably enjoy A-level too (and GCSE sociology is not necessary in order to do A-level). The main difference is that A-level becomes more theoretical and there is greater focus on examining each issue through several explicitly-defined theoretical viewpoints; for example, you might look at functionalist, Marxist, interactionist etc. explanations of inequality in education.The actual topic areas, however, are very similar: crime, education, culture, perhaps with a few additional topics like global health, the challenges posed by technological advancement, the changing role of religion in society and other such things. In both GCSE and A-level, exams are primarily made up of essays and shorter explanation questions, and you may also be given stimulus material to analyse and discuss, drawing on your own knowledge.
How hard is the workload?
Sociology has a reasonably light workload compared to other essay subjects. Of course, everyone is different and if you take a while to write an essay, you will probably spend more time than would be expected on sociology work, but I've never heard anyone complain about the sociology workload. The main thing to do (particularly at A-level) is to make sure that you fully understand all the theoretical principles you learn in class; once you've learnt e.g. the functionalist view on several topics, you will become quite comfortable with the ideology and its viewpoints and reasoning methods, and this will come in very useful in essays and save you time and stress.