Not all universities approach sociology the same way, and the new science evolved differently depending on where it was taught and who was teaching it. The two major types of sociology that emerged were qualitative sociology and quantitative sociology. Today, most universities use both qualitative and quantitative methods of inquiry, and one method is not necessarily better than the other.

Qualitative Sociology

At the University of Chicago, Albion Small (1854–1926) developed qualitative sociology, which is concerned mainly with trying to obtain an accurate picture of a group and how it operates in the world. Small and his followers were particularly interested in understanding how immigration was affecting the city and its residents. From the middle of the nineteenth century to roughly the middle of the twentieth century, massive numbers of people immigrated to the United States from a variety of countries. Chicago in particular attracted many immigrants from Poland. Early sociologists were fascinated by the social changes they saw taking place and began conducting qualitative studies that involved personal interviews and observations of ethnic rituals and ceremonies.

Some University of Chicago sociologists actually went back to Poland to interview people who were about to immigrate to the United States, who had relatives who were immigrants, or who had no intention of immigrating anywhere. In keeping with the spirit of qualitative sociology, the researchers felt that they could understand the experiences of Polish immigrants only if they also understood their reality and experiences before they left their homeland.

Today, qualitative sociology emphasizes understanding individuals’ experiences by examining their books, television programs, interactions, and ceremonies, among other elements. For example, a sociologist hoping to understand the experiences of emergency medical technicians (EMTs) might spend time riding in the backs of ambulances as the EMTs go out on calls.

Quantitative Sociology

Sociology at Harvard University developed differently. Like the University of Chicago sociologists, Harvard sociologists wanted to understand the immigrant experience, but they went about their research in a quantitative way. Quantitative sociology relies on statistical analysis to understand experiences and trends. While some researchers at Harvard did talk to people and observe them, many preferred to remain within the confines of the university and quantify their data to render it suitable for statistical manipulation.