Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop and refine a body of knowledge about human social activity. For many sociologists the goal is to conduct research which may be applied directly to social policy and welfare, whilst others produce purely academic theory closer to that of philosophy. Subject matter ranges from the micro level of individual agency and interaction to the macro level of systems and the social structure.
Sociology is both topically and methodologically a very broad discipline. Its traditional focuses have included social stratification, social class, social mobility, religion, secularisation, law, deviance. As all spheres of human activity are sculpted by social structure and individual agency, sociology has gradually expanded its focus to further subjects, such as health, medical, military and penal institutions, the Internet, and even the role of social activity in the development of scientific knowledge.
The range of social scientific methods has also broadly expanded. Social researchers draw upon a variety of qualitative and quantitative techniques. The linguistic and cultural turns of the mid-twentieth century led to increasingly interpretative, hermeneutic, and philosophic approaches to the analysis of society. Conversely, recent decades have seen the rise of new analytically, mathematically and computationally rigorous techniques, such as agent-based modelling and social network analysis. Sociology should not be confused with various general social studies courses which bear little relation to sociological theory or social science research methodology.