Social Work vs. Sociology

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People who feel a sense of duty or pleasure in helping people often prefer the field of social work.


The careers of social workers and sociologists both fall under the social sciences umbrella, and at their core, they have a very similar focus. As the journal Nordic Social Work Research (NSWR) describes it, “Both disciplines focus on social problems, social structure, social integration, and how individuals respond to and live within cultural and structural constraints.”

In practice, however, the professions of social workers and sociologists are very different. The core difference, says the NSWR, boils down to an issue of practical versus theoretical. Social workers confront and cope with real-world people and problems, while sociologists study them from a theoretical perspective. The fundamental concerns may be the same, but the job duties and the education required to carry out these responsibilities bear little resemblance to each other.

Regardless of whether someone wants to pursue a social work or sociology track, the proper background and education will be required. Would-be social workers can look to programs such as Ohio University’s online masters in social work, which can help candidates understand social work pros and cons and prepare for a career in this rewarding field.

A Brief History

Sociology and social work were not always so different. According to the NSWR, the seeds of the division were sown in 1892, when the brand-new University of Chicago began accepting women into its sociology program. In a time of strong differentiation between men and women, the men uniformly gravitated toward theoretical studies, while the women preferred to put their knowledge to practical use. In 1920, largely in response to this demand, the university opened a program in social work education. The women flocked en masse to the new program while the men remained on the traditional path. Sociology became a male bastion, and social work became a near-exclusive female province.

The gender lines have blurred over the decades. Today many women pursue careers in sociology, and many men choose to become social workers. People of any gender and all inclinations can succeed in either field.

Sociologist Qualifications and Duties

People who are drawn to intellectual pursuits and the academic lifestyle may be well suited to careers as sociologists. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), sociologists typically need a master’s degree or Ph.D. There are two types of sociology master’s degree programs. Traditional programs prepare students to enter a Ph.D. program, which will generally lead to an academic track. Applied, clinical, and professional programs prepare students to enter the workplace, teaching them the necessary analytical skills to perform sociological research in a professional setting.

Regardless of their education and position, sociologists study society and social behavior by examining the groups, cultures, organizations, social institutions, and processes that develop when people interact and work together. Their responsibilities may include:

  • Designing research projects to test theories about social issues
  • Collecting data through surveys, observations, interviews, and other sources
  • Analyzing and drawing conclusions from data
  • Preparing reports, articles, or presentations detailing their research findings
  • Collaborating with and advising social scientists, policymakers, or other groups on research findings and sociological issues

Social Worker Qualifications and Duties

People who like interacting with others, and who feel a sense of duty or pleasure in helping people with problems and issues, may prefer the field of social work. Social workers help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives. Clinical social workers, who require an added level of education and training, also diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues.

The educational requirements for social workers vary depending on the job description and duties. Some social workers only need a bachelor’s degree in social work. Clinical social workers must have a master’s degree and two years of experience in a supervised clinical setting after they’ve completed their degree. Clinical social workers must also be licensed by their state. Whatever their education or certification level, the BLS states that social workers typically perform these functions:

  • Identify people and communities in need of help
  • Assess clients’ needs, situations, strengths, and support networks to determine their goals
  • Help clients adjust to changes and challenges in their lives, such as illness, divorce, or unemployment
  • Research, refer and advocate for community resources, such as food stamps, childcare, and health care to assist and improve a client’s well-being
  • Respond to crisis situations such as child abuse and mental health emergencies
  • Follow up with clients to ensure that their situations have improved
  • Maintain case files and records
  • Develop and evaluate programs and services to ensure that basic client needs are met
  • Provide psychotherapy services

Job Outlook

Although the core concerns of social workers and sociologists are similar, notable differences exist between the two fields. According to the BLS, an estimated 3,500 sociologists were employed in the United States in 2016, with demand projected to remain steady through 2026.

In contrast, 682,100 social workers were employed in 2016, with demand projected to grow to 791,800 by 2026. People are not going to stop having problems anytime soon — and they are going to need social workers to help them cope. For those weighing careers in social work vs. sociology, this disparity may be something worth considering.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Social Work

Ohio University’s online Master in Social Work degree program prepares graduates for careers in social work. Graduates assist at-risk populations with various life challenges, managing any challenges that may come their way.

The MSW program, which is offered through the university’s College of Health Sciences and Professions, is 100% online and does not require a GRE for admission.


Nordic Social Work Research, Social work vs. sociology
Nordic Social Work Research, A brief history
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Sociologist qualifications and duties
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social worker qualifications and duties
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Sociologist job outlook
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social worker job outlook