Social Work vs. Sociology: What’s The Difference?

While their names are similar, comparing social work careers vs. sociology careers shows them to be clearly distinct fields. Learning more about each of these professions can make it easier to decide whether an online Master of Social Work degree will help a professional achieve their desired career goals.

What Is Social Work?

Social work is an advocacy-driven field designed to connect individuals or groups of people with the resources to solve or address problems in their lives. The modern focus of social workers is to empower the vulnerable, oppressed and impoverished, helping them cope with issues that affect their overall quality of life — from substance abuse to mental health issues and beyond. In this sense, the primary objective of social work is to improve a person’s well-being by helping them meet their basic needs.

The role of social workers is often twofold. First, they are charged with providing counseling services to their clients. Second, they refer clients to services that offer a supportive environment and promote well-being. These services may range from community resources such as food bank referrals and childcare, to government programs such as food stamps, employment assistance and housing initiatives.

What Is Sociology?

Sociology, on the other hand, is a theory-driven social science specializing in the study of social behaviors and interactions among people, groups and societies. Sociologists collect, research and analyze data concerning social concepts such as class, gender or income to identify and examine patterns of human behavior.

Sociologists design and conduct research projects that involve surveying, interviewing, and making observations to generate data that can then be analyzed. This research may span a spectrum of interest areas such as public education, crime, and racial or ethnic relations. Sociologists leverage statistical analysis to establish the foundation for public policies or programs that aim to address social problems, from health care inequities to homelessness.

Social Work Careers

Social work focuses on curating problem-solving techniques to combat social issues, including those studied within sociology.

Some social work positions only require a bachelor’s degree. However, clinical social workers must have a master’s degree, two years of experience in a supervised clinical setting and licensure in the state where they intend to practice. Typically, social work curricula require students to complete fieldwork or an internship as part of their degree. It is possible for students holding other undergraduate degrees to enroll in a social work master’s program, but it’s recommended that students who do so complete courses in psychology, sociology, economics and political science beforehand.

Sociology Careers

For individuals interested in a career in the public service sector, sociology offers an opportunity to pursue research that examines social behavior and related issues.

Educationally, sociology and social work require different academic paths. Typically, sociologists and individuals working in the sociology field have graduate education — either a master’s or Ph.D. in sociology. Two kinds of sociology master’s are typically offered: a traditional program that prepares students to pursue a doctorate; and an applied program that readies students to enter the workforce. While it’s possible to obtain entry-level positions with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, those with this undergraduate degree may benefit greatly from internships or by picking up volunteer work.

Social Work Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the median salary for social workers was $51,760 as of May 2020. Social workers in the highest 10% of earners made upward of $85,000, indicating an approximate $33,000 in possible income above the national median. Salaries vary based on education, experience, location, and other factors.

The social work field is flourishing, with the BLS projecting 13% job growth between 2019 and 2029. This figure increases within certain industry specializations. For example, mental health and substance abuse social workers are expected to see 17% employment growth, and opportunities for health care social workers are projected to grow by 14% between 2019 and 2029.

Sociology Salary

According to the BLS, the median sociologist salary in May 2020 was $86,110, with anticipated job growth of 4% between 2019 and 2029. Top earners in this field can make upwards of approximately $143,000. Additionally, sociologists often collaborate with other social science professionals. As these adjacent fields grow, more jobs flow into the market, such as opportunities for survey researchers and economists.

A social worker meets with clients.

Difference Between Social Work and Sociology

The chief difference between social work and sociology is the scale at which they operate. Social workers work closely with individuals to connect them with services, often implementing government policies. Sociologists conduct research, analyze data and present solutions to lawmakers and other groups that can enact and shape related policies.

Each profession is imperative to achieving the overall goal of improving public health. Where a sociologist might, for example, study food deserts in low-income housing areas, a social worker would be on the ground, connecting families in those areas with nutritional resources.

Deciding to Pursue an MSW Degree

It is important for aspiring public service professionals to consider the differences between social work and sociology so they can make a well-informed decision regarding their academic and career paths.

For individuals interested in hands-on work with clients and in their community, a Master of Social Work could be the right decision.

To help you expand your technical expertise and acquire the advanced skills to excel in a social work career, discover more about the University of Nevada, Reno online Master of Social Work program.

The program features a robust and focused curriculum, offering an array of courses designed to give you a competitive advantage, such as Structural Oppression, Therapeutic Interventions with Families, and Social Work Administration. Learn more today.

Recommended Readings:

Human Trafficking: A Social Worker’s Role

The Differences Between a Social Worker and a Psychologist

What Is Case Management in Social Work?


American Sociological Association, “What Is Sociology?”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Sociologists

National Association of Social Workers, Code of Ethics