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Understanding Behavior in Society: The Difference Between Sociology and Social Psychology

Humans move through life navigating societal norms, cultural influences, and other variables that impact both individual behavior and society at large. Sociologists and social psychologists are two types of professionals who investigate our lives, behaviors, and thoughts, as well as how these elements play out in social groups.

A social psychologist conducts a group research session.

In each profession, experts use their findings to understand group behavior and develop solutions to the complex challenges facing individuals, communities, and organizations. By observing, describing, and measuring social behaviors and situations, sociologists and social psychologists gain an understanding of human behavior and broad trends. Continue reading to find out more about the differences between sociology and social psychology and how to step into one of these exciting professions.

Sociology Overview

Sociologists study civilization and the social behavior of people, groups, and cultures. Sociology covers everything from how strangers passing one another on the street interact to how global conflict plays out. Sociologists observe religious, political, and economic groups, examining their far-reaching effects on society, as well as the impact they may have on individual lives.

Using qualitative and quantitative research methods, sociologists can predict, for example, the potential impact of new laws or policies on a specific demographic. Their research informs lawmakers as they formulate public policy or social workers as they navigate public health problems.

Sociology Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the employment of sociologists to increase by 9% between 2018 and 2028, which is faster than the projected average growth for all occupations (5%). For their important contributions to human understanding, which are applicable in economics, psychology, and other social sciences, sociologists earn a median average annual salary of $82,050, according to the BLS.

Social Psychology Overview

Social psychologists study how individuals think about, relate to, and influence one another.

They also study how interactions between people can affect a wide range of issues, such as romantic attraction, friendship, and conflict. They may examine whether a person behaves a certain way due to their personality or environment, why certain social groups experience high levels of conflict, or what makes a couple more likely to stay together.

Leveraging both basic and applied research methods in their study, social psychologists conduct research on individuals and social groups. Basic research focuses on fundamental human nature by asking questions about people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. A researcher might explore what causes us to fall in love, or what inspires people to build friendships or enter into conflicts. Applied research tends to focus on a specific niche of human life, such as business, health, or education. Social psychologists can employ the insights gained from research to improve an aspect of life. For example, a professional in this field might design a program to help reduce conflict in the classroom.

Social Psychology Job Outlook

The BLS projects the overall employment of psychologists to grow 14% from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations (5%). While the BLS does not keep specific data for social psychologists, the average psychologist in any specialty earns a median annual salary of $79,010. Pay can vary with education, location, and industry.

Similarities Between Sociology and Social Psychology

Both sociology and social psychology are fields of study that examine aspects of human behavior, such as how humans think and behave in different situations and times. Professionals can step into an entry-level job in either field with just a bachelor’s degree, but it is more common for sociologists and social psychologists to hold a master’s degree or doctorate, especially if they would like those exact job titles. With a graduate-level education, these experts can conduct research or teach in higher education.

Differences Between Sociology and Social Psychology

Although there are similarities between sociology and social psychology, there are notable differences, too. The differences between sociology and social psychology have largely to do with the focus of their study and research and the educational paths required.

Area of Study

Sociologists focus on society as a whole or large groups within society. They study patterns of behavior and how they shape the world around us. For example, if they’re researching religious organizations’ impact, they may examine whether a concentration of churches in a neighborhood has any effect on crime, income, or education.

In contrast, social psychologists focus on individuals and how social factors impact behavior. For example, a sociologist may study the spending patterns of an entire population during a recession, whereas a social psychologist might examine how an individual handles stress, anxiety, or mental health during that same time of economic decline.

Educational Path

Earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology offers students career opportunities in areas such as public health, senior services, data management, nonprofit management, and academic leadership. Students completing a bachelor’s in sociology can tailor their coursework to specific interests and career goals, such as criminology, social justice, and social work. Sociology offers two types of master’s degree programs: traditional programs and applied, clinical, and professional programs. A traditional program prepares students to pursue a PhD. An applied, clinical, and professional program prepares students to enter the workforce and perform sociological research.

Social psychologists often begin their academic careers by studying psychology or sociology at the bachelor’s level. They typically go on to earn a master’s degree in psychology; however, it is important to note that psychologists in clinical practice must have a license. Most research psychology positions require a doctoral degree. Students may choose to complete a PhD in psychology, which requires a comprehensive exam and a dissertation based on original research.

Typical Career Path

Sociologists can use their expertise to initiate change in areas such as public health, senior services, data management, nonprofit management, and academic leadership. A bachelor’s in sociology can equip students with the skills needed for a diverse range of job opportunities in human, social, and community services.

Social psychologists have a unique understanding of human behavior, combined with extensive training in research methods. Many work as instructors or researchers in universities and colleges, across departments such as psychology, business, political science, health sciences, and education. Others are employed as consultants, researchers, political strategists, marketing directors, or other related roles in the private sector. Social psychologists may also work in government and nonprofit organizations, helping to design and evaluate public policies and programs.

Sociology vs. Social Psychology: Which Is Right for You?

Sociology and social psychology are ideal fields for students interested in studying people. Although there is some overlap, there are many differences between sociology and social psychology, such as areas of study, educational paths, and career trajectories. Those interested in studying people at the individual level may consider pursuing social psychology. Students who want to develop a broad social perspective, as well as have the flexibility to select a concentration and tailor research projects to serve society, should consider a degree in sociology.

Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Sociology gives you options, as the curriculum covers a broad range of topics, such as community responsibility, mental illness, human sexuality, race, ethnicity, and crime. Discover how honing the right skills can help you find your path in the exciting field of sociology or social psychology.

Recommended Readings

The Future of Psychology: New Methods for Helping People

What Do Sociologists Do? Explore the Dynamics of This Rewarding Profession

Sources:

American Psychological Association, Pursuing a Career in Social Psychology

American Sociological Association, What Is Sociology?

Science Daily, Social Psychology

Simply Psychology, Social Psychology

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Sociologists