Social Work vs. Sociology: Which Field Is Right for You?

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A social worker holding a clipboard meets with a client.The careers of social workers and sociologists both fall under the social sciences umbrella, and at their core, they have a similar focus. The main difference between the two comes down to an issue of practical vs. theoretical application.

Social workers confront and cope with real-world people and problems, while sociologists study them from a theoretical perspective. The fundamental concerns of each occupation may be the same, but their job duties and required education bear little resemblance to each other.

Prospective students who are comparing social work vs. sociology should understand that the proper background and type of education can influence their decision and allow them to reach their professional goals. Would-be social workers can look to degree programs such as a master’s in social work, which can help candidates understand social work and prepare for a career in this rewarding field.

Differences Between Sociology and Social Work

While both social work and sociology deal with the ways humans think and behave, the careers associated with each occupation can look quite different. When considering a future between social work vs. sociology, many students consider the type of work they would like to do, whether it is more practical or more theoretical, and the type of workplace they are interested in.

Within social work, individuals may find themselves in workplaces such as schools, government agencies, hospitals, and private corporations. While day-to-day responsibilities vary from one setting to the next, social workers tend to be hands-on, working directly with people and striving to improve their lives.

In contrast, while sociology students study areas of human behavior from family interactions, to criminology, to gender roles, their work is often more theoretical and less practical (hands-on) than social work.

For future professionals, one of the main considerations between social work vs. sociology may be whether they want to focus largely on research by pursuing sociology or would rather work directly with people, providing individuals with the skills and resources to succeed.

Sociologist Qualifications and Duties

Those 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 generally leads to an academic track. Applied, clinical, and professional programs prepare students to enter the workplace, teaching them the analytical skills to perform sociological research in professional settings.

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

Individuals who like interacting with others and who feel a sense of duty or fulfillment in helping others may prefer the field of social work. Social workers help people 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 their job description and duties. Some social workers only need a bachelor’s degree in social work. Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) must have a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree followed by two years of experience in a supervised clinical setting. They must also be licensed by their state.

Whatever their education or certification level, the BLS states that social workers typically perform these functions:

  • Identifying people and communities in need of help
  • Assessing clients’ needs, situations, strengths, and support networks to determine their goals
  • Helping clients adjust to changes and challenges in their lives, such as illness, divorce, or unemployment
  • Researching, referring, and advocating for community resources, such as food stamps, child care, and health care to assist and improve clients’ well-being
  • Responding to crisis situations, such as child abuse and mental health emergencies
  • Following up with clients to ensure their situations have improved
  • Maintaining case files and records
  • Developing and evaluating programs and services to ensure basic client needs are met
  • Providing psychotherapy services

Social Work 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 3,000 sociologists were employed in the United States in 2020, with new job openings projected to grow by 5% from 2020 to 2030.

In contrast, 715,600 social workers were employed in 2020, with new jobs projected to grow by 12% between 2020 and 2030.

To put things in a larger context, people are not going to stop having problems anytime soon, and social workers will be needed to help them cope. For those weighing careers in social work vs. sociology, this may be worth considering.

Make a Positive Difference with a Master of Social Work

Social workers can make a positive impact on the lives of others. They do so by providing them with the knowledge, skills, and strategies to face life’s challenges and prepare for the future. For those deciding between social work vs. sociology as a professional path, the many available careers can be both challenging and fulfilling. Whether working one on one with clients or studying why we do the things we do, higher education in social sciences can lead to a fascinating career.

Ohio University’s online Master of Social Work program prepares graduates for careers in social work. Graduates assist at-risk populations with various life situations, managing 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.

Discover how you can make a difference in the lives of others and embark on an exciting new career in social work.

Recommended Readings

4 Types of Therapist Roles to Pursue with an MSW

Important Social Work Job Skills

Working as a School Social Worker


The Balance Careers, “Best Jobs for Graduates With a Sociology Degree”

The Balance Careers, “What Does a Social Worker Do?”

National Association of Social Workers, Careers

National Association of Social Workers, Career Development

U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Sociologists

U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Social Worker