While both are considered to be part of the social sciences, sociology and social psychology are more different than they are alike. Despite the similar sounding names, each discipline looks at the world from a different viewpoint, and ultimately with a different purpose.
What is Sociology?
Understanding sociology is perhaps the best method to understanding the difference between psychology with a focus on social interactions and sociology itself. According to the American Sociological Association, sociology is the scientific study and evaluation of society. This includes analyzing patterns of social interaction, relationships with others, and culture. Sociologists study these interactions and examine their relationships with other social strata.
Sociologists study what it means to be social creatures. This can include complexities of relationships between two people, to the interactions between businesses and their impact on both local and global economies. Sociology looks for patterns of behavior, though assumes that there will be some variation due to individual choices and actions. These choices help to shape the world around us. A sociologist interested in the impact of religion may conduct a study to determine if the amount of churches per capita has either a positive, negative, or null effect on issues such as crime, average gross income, or average education of a given area. They may further break this down by other socioeconomic criteria and publish that date or present that date to policy makers and governmental officials.
Simply put, sociology examines the behavior of groups of people.
What is Social Psychology?
According to the American Psychological Associations social psychology is the study of how people are shaped and affected by their social environments. While a sociologist may be interested in the spending habits of a given population during an economic decline, a social psychologist may be more interested in understanding how a person deals with the stress of an unstable economy. Social psychologists, while looking at the role that society plays on an individual, are more interested in the role that a person’s interpretation of stress, social challenges, prejudice, criminal activity, etc., plays in their mental and emotional functioning.
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While sociologists and social psychologists differ on philosophy, they also have a different range of employment opportunities available to them. Sociologists may find themselves employed in businesses, research facilities, and in various positions within local, state, and federal government. They may take on the role of full-time employees, or may offer their services via consultation. Social psychologists may work in schools, offices of mental health practitioners, hospitals and in some governmental roles as well. Being psychologists, they may employ a plethora of individual and behavioral testing to assist their clients with understanding the impact of societal issues around them. Both sociologists and social psychologists may find themselves employed in colleges and universities, teaching their respective disciplines.
Although social psychologists and sociologists at first glance appear to be similar, it is their focus of interests and scope of practice that separates the two fields. Social psychologists focus on how individuals cope with society, while sociologists are more interested in understanding the behavior of groups of people.