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

On the surface, social work and sociology appear to be interchangeable fields. While comparing social work vs. sociology does reveal similarities between professions, they are nevertheless distinct fields. Learning more about these two fields can make it easier to decide whether earning a 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 they need to solve or address problems in their lives. Today’s social worker focuses on empowering the vulnerable, oppressed, and impoverished, helping them cope with issues that affect their overall quality of life – from substance abuse to mental health issues. In this sense, the primary objective of social work is to improve a person’s well-being by helping them to meet their basic needs.

The role of the social worker is often twofold. First, they are charged with providing counseling services to their clients. Second, they refer services that offer clients a supportive environment and promote well-being. These services range from community resources, such as food stamps and childcare, to large-scale concepts like employment assistance or housing programs.

What Is Sociology?

Sociology 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 within 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. Research spans 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 inequality to access to homelessness.

A Career in Social Work vs. a Career in Sociology

The path toward becoming a sociologist or a social worker begins by obtaining a fundamental grasp of how the concepts differ from each other. For individuals interested in a career in the public service sector, sociology offers an opportunity to pursue research that examines social behavior and issues. Social work focuses on curating problem-solving techniques to combat social issues, including those studied within sociology.

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

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

Potential Salaries and Job Growth of Social Work vs. Sociology

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay for sociologists was $79,650 in May 2017, while a social worker earned a median salary of $47,980. BLS statistics also project little to no growth in the sociology field within the next decade, a metric that indicates strong competition in the workforce. The social work field is a different story, with the BLS projecting 16 percent national job growth between 2016 and 2026. This figure increases within certain specializations in the industry. For example, mental health and substance abuse social workers are expected to see 19 percent employment growth, and health care social workers could see 20 percent career growth between 2016 and 2026.

Deciding to Pursue an MSW Degree

It is important for the aspiring public service professional to consider the differences between sociology and social work carefully, 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.

Learn MoreTo help you expand your technical expertise and acquire the advanced skills important for professional growth in the field of social work, find out more information about the University of Nevada, Reno online Master of Social Work program.


Suggested Readings

Human Trafficking: A Social Worker’s Role

The Differences Between a Social Worker and a Psychologist

University of Nevada, Reno Online Master of Social Work



Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Sociologists

National Association of Social Workers

American Sociological Association