The perspective of sociology is closely related to the subject of relation of sociology with other social sciences.
This relation will indirectly clarify the attitudinal distinction between sociology and other social sciences.
Sociology, in the broadest sense of the term, is usually defined as the science of society or a science which studies social life, or behaviour of human beings.
This is a very comprehensive outlook indeed to view society. Sociology deals with social world, of course, but the sociologist is only one among a number of social scientists studying social world.
We know that the social world is made up of many aspects—economic, religious, political, familial, educational, and others—all of which can be defined independently of one another, but all of which influence one another in practice. Corresponding to these aspects are various branches of the social sciences, such as psychology, anthropology, economics, political science, history including sociology and many other disciplines.
But, the focus of none of these other sciences is identical with that of sociology, and it is always the focus of interest (perspective or point of view), which distinguishes one social science from another. It would not be exaggerating to say that no other discipline focuses attention on human behaviour or on human relationships per se.
It is here that sociology differs from all other social sciences. Sociology does not study the unique and particular aspects of human relationships; they are to be studied by other social sciences which have a special interest in such phenomena. Sociological approach of studying social relationship is holistic. It studies any social phenomenon in its totality and in relation to other social phenomenon.
Every science is a study of one aspect of reality or the other. All emerge from the common spring of man’s eternal quest for knowledge. From this point of view all sciences are related to one another. In spite of this common relationship, sciences differ in their approach of study, in their perspective of looking at things.
In this connection, Gillin and Gillin (Cultural Sociology, 1948) aptly remarked:
“It is true that in each sciences a general class of objects tend to receive more attention than other classes of objects, but it is also true that different sciences may study the same objects but with different points of view”. For example, consider man as the object of study.
The physicist might be interested in the system of stresses in his skeleton; the chemist in the elements and compounds in his body; the anatomist in the relationship of mussels, bones and organs; the psychologist in his reactions to stimuli; and the sociologist in his behaviour in relation to other human beings.
Social sciences have been defined as the study of the behaviour of people in human society. All social sciences thus share in common the task of exploring the reality of society, i.e., social behaviour of human beings. Each social science (major social sciences are psychology, anthropology, economics, political science and sociology) focuses attention on one particular dimension of social reality. Each social science studies man from their own particular angle.
Their approach of study or perspective is different from one another. Anthropology modestly designates itself as “the study of man (especially primitive man) and his works”. Psychology is often defined as “the science of mind or the mental processes”. It is primarily concerned with individual human behaviour. It tries to analyse behaviour of a person in terms of its relationship to personality structure. Economics studies “the ways by which man makes a living”.
It concerns with how goods, services and wealth are produced, consumed and distributed within societies. Political Science investigates the ways in which people govern themselves. Its main focus of study is power, government and political processes.
History claims to study the significant past (chronological records of distant past events). It is treated either a social science or one of the humanities. Sociology tries systematically and objectively to understand social life and predicts how various influences will affect it. It claims to study those aspects of social life, which are present in all social sciences. It also tries to bring together and extend the knowledge and insights of all the other fellow disciplines.
The real basis of differentiation is not of a difference in their concrete subject matter but it is rather a difference in their point of view or focus of attention that creates boundaries between different social sciences. These boundaries are not neat but hazy and overlap each other.
We can illustrate this point of difference of perspectives from the most popular example. Eating a slice of buttered toast can be analysed in terms of the nutritive value of the food consumed, the eating habits of the individuals, the economics of the bread, dairy, and home appliance industries, a conventional or customary dietary pattern. Not only this, the toast can be seen from social relations point of view.
It can be a possible source of social friction between husband and wife because the wife does not make the toast dark enough to shift the taste of her husband or because the toast was bit burnt in the course of its preparation.
We may take another familiar example of social pattern of gift-giving. Gift-giving is something that we all engage in, in one way or another, hardly giving a thought to its importance. The interests of sociologists, while analysing the phenomenon of gift-giving, differ markedly from the interests of psychologists, political scientists, economists, historians and anthropologists. Each discipline tends to raise different kinds of questions about human behaviour.
For example, the economist might note that gift-giving customs are commercialized in our society. It increases business activity during certain times of the year, for instance, during marriage season in India. A political scientist might undertake studies of the gifts that how individuals give to the campaign chests of political parties.
A psychologist might be interested in the attitudes people have about giving and receiving gifts, emphasising different motives for gift-giving. Historians might examine some specific event or notable occasion of gift-giving such as the gifts that ambassadors brought to various monarchs, for example, gifts given by the officers of the East India Company or by Christian missionaries to Muslim rulers in medieval India.
A sociologist, on the other hand, would examine rules of giving, accepting and reciprocity of this specific social custom as we find in the classical study by Marcel Mauss (1954). Sociologist would say that one of the important things that perpetuates gift-giving is that it initiates and reinforces friendly and familial feelings and relations. He can also examine the consequences of the rules of reciprocity. This example is sufficient to state that social sciences do not differ in what they study (i.e., society) but rather, in their approach to human behaviour.
Likewise, any social problem can be viewed from different angles. For example, in analysing alcoholism, whereas a physicist will be concerned with its effects on its body, a psychiatrist will be concerned with its effects on attitudes and behaviour, an economist will see its effects on state revenue, a sociologist will be concerned with its effects on social relations and roles and with neighbours and friends as well as its effects on work, efficiency, status and so on.
As far as the sociologist’s perspective is concerned, he views social problems as problems which arise out of the functioning of systems and structures in society or which are the result of group influences. He is concerned with social relationships which emerge and are sustained because of social problems. Thus, the above discussion about the perspective of sociology clearly highlights that whereas other disciplines dealing with society and human behaviour are usually one-dimensional, sociology can reasonably claim to be multidimensional.