Undergraduate

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What is Sociology?

Many Americans do not know what sociology is; in fact, many of our concentrators did not know what it was before they came to Harvard! Internationally, however, Sociology is a key discipline in the social sciences, and here at Harvard, it is the focus of a vibrant department with a long and illustrious history of teaching and scholarship.

One common misunderstanding about sociology is that it is only useful training for those who want to become social workers or political activists. Neither is true. Sociologists often study problems with important public policy implications, but sociology itself is not primarily concerned with providing care for the needy or political ammunition for partisan debates.

Sociology was born of the desire to apply the analytic rigor of science to the humanistic concerns of the social world. Training in sociology thus stresses the marriage of elegant thinking, human empathy, and the highest standards of empirical inquiry. Our students receive instruction in both classical social theory—such as Marx, Weber, and Durkheim—and cutting-edge qualitative and quantitative methods. Students also learn how to apply both forms of analysis to real-world issues—whether from third world development to corporate capitalism, or from crime in the streets to crime in the suites.

Preparing Students for a Variety of Careers

It should come as no surprise that our concentrators find themselves well-prepared for a wide variety of “real world” occupations: As our alumni will attest (see Alumni Profiles), sociology is excellent training for careers in law and public administration, medicine and public health, advertising and marketing, politics and public policy, business, banking, and consulting, to name just a few.

Students interested in the social sciences often ask why they should concentrate in sociology instead of our sister departments (economics, government, psychology, anthropology, and history). These are foundational disciplines too but there are a variety of reasons to concentrate in sociology (or to pursue a secondary concentration): practically speaking, we are a relatively small department with a generous student-faculty ratio and a strong tradition of commitment to undergraduates. The sociology department is also an extremely diverse place (as you will discover by perusing our website and the research of both faculty members and graduate students). Finally, through course projects and senior theses we encourage students to conduct field based research, thereby bringing together theories of social interaction with their first hand experiences of the world in which we live.

Mastering Multiple Modes of Inquiry

Our undergraduate program is also unique in its emphasis on mastering multiple modes of inquiry. Students get training in quantitative analysis, ethnography and in-depth interviewing, and comparative-historical analysis. The concentration also offers courses in the widest possible array of substantive topics, allowing students to create a customized curriculum suited to their particular interests. Some concentrators choose to focus their studies around a single topic—race and ethnicity, for example, or culture and the arts—while others prefer to sample a broad mix of topics. A quick look at our course offerings will show the large number of subjects and perspectives covered in our department. Our faculty includes among it the world’s foremost experts in areas such as poverty, immigration, race and ethnicity, corporate management, crime, politics, intellectual and social history, work, gender, and culture. We host scholars with area expertise in many, if not most, of the major regions of the world.

Sociology crosses with many of our sister disciplines, but it is unusual in its concern with the interrelation of social forces studied in isolation elsewhere. Economics and politics are common concerns of sociologists, for example; the difference is that we tend to approach these issues as part of a complex whole rather than independent features of humanity—Sociology is concerned foremost with social interactions. Sociology’s breadth seems particularly valuable in our increasingly global, inter-dependent world.

For more Information

If sociology seems like an appealing concentration to you, or if you merely have more questions, please do not hesitate to contact Rachel Meyer, our Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies. Our undergraduates and graduate students (many of whom are House Tutors) are also excellent people to talk to about the discipline and the department. We think it is a special place devoted to community, compassion, and the comprehensive understanding of humanity. We very much hope you will join us.