Sociology and political science are part of a liberal arts education. Both majors promote strong critical reading, analytical writing, and research skills. Telling the difference between sociology and political science can be tricky. Both disciplines are a social science, which means they study human society. Broadly speaking, sociology is the study of social groups within society, while political science is the study of government-derived power. Pursuing a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in either discipline can lead to careers or further education in areas including industry, government work, consulting, teaching, law, and more. Students choosing between these two majors should consider their interests, skillsets, and career aspirations.
Comparing Sociology and Political Science
A sociology major studies groups of people based on identity factors such as ethnicity, race, age, gender, education, and social class. Intro level coursework will cover the basics of human behavior and theories on social development before launching into a more refined study of specific people groups and how they interact within society as a whole. A sociology major can study reform issues including poverty, crime, and economic inequality as well as large-scale demographics like population and migration. Sociology relies primarily on quantitative research like surveys, polls, and census data for its analysis and research conclusions, but also utilizes qualitative methods like case studies and ethnography.
The focus of political science is understanding the function of political systems (i.e. governments) in society. Political science majors examine government power and politics from domestic and international perspectives. Coursework covering basic government structures and political theory is typical of an intro level class. Political science entails studying the policies, laws, diplomacy, and processes of a government institution as well as the behavior of political parties and the people groups who make up a body politic. A political science course might cover the causes and prevention of war or impacts of race and ethnicity on policy debates. Like sociology, political science relies on a variety of qualitative and quantitative measures to inform its research and analysis.
A quick way to assess the differences between a sociology and political science major is to compare specializations in their coursework. As a student progresses through the major, they may have the opportunity to take classes in some of the following areas:
- Political Theory & Philosophy
- Political Behavior
- Comparative Politics
- Public Policy
- International Relations
- Social and Economic Class
- Gender and Sexuality
- Social Movements
- Distributions of Wealth and Poverty
- Population and Migration
Further Education and Careers
The strong analytical skills developed by a bachelor's degree in sociology often prepares graduates for a wide range of career fields and applied roles. Common pursuits include positions specific to the training, planning, and development of organizations and industries. Sociology majors can gain an acute knowledge of social issues, which often makes them well suited for roles in social work, reform, or political activism. According to Payscale.com, the average salary of a sociology major in 2019 is $58,000. Earning an advanced degree, such as a master's or doctorate degree, can lead to more lucrative positions, such as research or teaching. A potential high-paying career for a sociology major could be working as a human resource manager. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual pay for this position in 2018 is $113,300.
Political science majors often pursue careers in government at the local, state, or federal level. Careers as a policy analyst or political consultant for media outlets, think tanks, or non-governmental organizations (NGO's) are also popular. According to Payscale.com, the average salary in 2019 for a political science major is $65,000. An advanced degree in political science can open opportunities for university teaching, research, and other higher-paying positions. Majoring in political science does not mean one has to go into politics directly. Politics influences all areas of life. Thus, an extensive understanding of political processes and their impacts can set one up for a career in business, non-profit or for-profit work, education, public relations, marketing, consulting, and more. The study of civil liberties and individual rights is central to a political science curriculum. Consequently, this major is often used as a steppingstone towards law school and an eventual career as a lawyer or attorney. The BLS reports the median annual pay for a lawyer in 2018 is $120,910.
Making a Decision
(1) Evaluate personal interests and career aspirations. Students might ask, am I passionate about the intricacies of political policy and government or more interested in the large-scale interactions of people in society? Does my career aspiration directly involve government and politics or is it more concerned with understanding groups of people, organizations, and culture?
(2) Understand the scope of study. For example, take the issue of poverty. Political science majors might study the role of government in addressing poverty, public attitudes towards antipoverty policies, the crafting and passing of legislation aimed at alleviating poverty, or political participation among impoverished groups. Sociology majors would probably approach poverty from a broader perspective by examining the distribution of poverty, theories on the causes of poverty, or cultural responses to poverty.
(3) Consider supplementing your major. Sociology and political science complement each other nicely. Choosing to double major or minor in these disciplines can provide students with a more robust education and broaden their potential for future opportunity.