What is the Difference Between a Sociology Degree and a Social Work Degree?

Sociology and social work are two related fields which both deal with the relationships of human beings to their social environments. However, the two career paths involve very different work environments, practices and educations.

Sociologists study human society and social behavior through research and examination of groups, cultures, institutions and more. They engage in detailed research projects, often using statistical and other methods from the social sciences including interviews, surveys and observations in the field. Their main objects of study are the lives of individuals and groups in the context of larger institutional, economic, political and social events and forces. Religious, political, cultural and other factors play an important role in their research, and sociologists often work closely with leaders and policy-makers on these and other themes as consultants or in other roles. Other than in universities, sociologists also work in research organizations, government agencies and consulting firms.

Professional sociologists typically have a PhD, although individuals with Master’s or Bachelor’s degrees may also find work in the field. Undergraduate degree work in sociology will include courses on classic sociological literature, current sociological methods, statistical and research methods and particular courses on sociological themes, such as poverty, gender, cultural and ethnic relations, population and families.

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Social work, while it deals with similar general issues to sociology, is typically a far more hands-on field. Social workers are either direct-service social workers, who provide immediate help to people with solving everyday personal and social problems, and clinical social workers, who like psychologists help their clients cope with mental and behavioral issues in a clinical setting. Although some professional social workers go on to teach the profession in colleges and universities, most social workers work in clinics, schools, hospitals and government agencies, as well as private practices or organizations. Direct-service social workers work with their clients to determine goals and help with life challenges, to access community and public resources and cope with life challenges such as adopting a child, a medical diagnosis, addiction or disability. Clinical social-workers work on many of the same issues, but focus on developing individual, group or family counseling in order to improve their clients’ mental and emotional health and develop individual or family coping strategies for such challenges.

Entry-level social work positions generally require only a Bachelor’s in Social Work (BSW), although higher-level positions and work in schools and hospitals often require a Master’s in Social Work (MSW), and all clinical social workers must have the MSW. Undergraduate degree work in the field will involve courses on the different groups and populations in the community, human behavior and psychology, government policy on social services and welfare, and other work in sociology, economics and related fields.

Sociology and social work are very different careers with different educational pathways. While both draw on a similar body of knowledge, sociology generally focuses on research and study while social workers are more directly involved with applying knowledge about society to assisting individuals and families. Consequently, a sociology degree will typically involve more theoretical and methodological coursework, while social work degrees will often have a large practical component focusing on current policy and specific therapeutic and service techniques.