In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Morality

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Classic Social Theory
  • Contemporary Treatments of Classical Social Theory
  • Contemporary Social Theory
  • Psychological Approaches
  • Evolutionary Approaches
  • Moral Cognition and Neurology
  • Moral Emotion
  • Moral Development
  • Microapproaches
  • Cultural Approaches
  • Morality in American Life
  • Popularly Accessible Treatments

Sociology Morality
Steven Hitlin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0097


The study of morality was once central to social thought and a primary concern of philosophers throughout recorded history. From the dawn of the social sciences, morality was considered a primary aspect of human relations; for those writing around Adam Smith’s time, the words “social” and “moral” were often used interchangeably. Early sociologists were centrally concerned with the moral aspects of society, though the concept lost its prominence as the field turned more centrally toward issues of stratification and microinteraction. In psychology, work on morality has been scattered but has experienced a recent resurgence with the advent of neurological methods alongside a variety of different approaches to understanding prosocial behavior. The terms “prosocial” and “moral” are conceptually different, though in practice much of the work on “moral” behavior assumes a prosocial assumption of morality. This article offers an overview of the relevant sociological and psychological treatments of morality useful for developing a sociology of morality. Much of the important work is found in anthropology, developmental psychology, neuroscience, and social psychology. The study of morality is fundamentally interdisciplinary. This overview is slanted toward a focus on recent contributions.

General Overviews

The works in this section provide overviews of the theory and research on morality across sociology and psychology. They constitute a good starting point for finding the range of topics that falls under the general rubric of the social science of morality. Staub 2003, Miller 2004, and Narvaez and Lapsley 2009 are all wide-ranging psychological compilations; any one is a good entrée into the psychological literature. As mentioned, recent advances in neurology and social cognition have spurred a great deal of interest in how human minds process moral information and make choices; the volumes of Sinnott-Armstrong 2008 offer the most comprehensive collection of scholars with expertise in this area. The sociology of morality (re)emerged as a field of study only in the early 21st century; the Hitlin and Vaisey 2010 handbook is an early attempt to map out the macro- and microcomponents of a field where many of the scholars do not share a focus on a collective sociological enterprise. Finally, Abend’s two papers are excellent touchstones for this enterprise; Abend 2008 discusses problems with current sociological approaches to studying morality while Abend 2010 serves as a summary statement for what has been learned in the field, what is being studied, and how much includes a reframing of older theories in new packages.

  • Abend, Gabriel. 2008. Two main problems in the sociology of morality. Theory and Society 37.2: 87–125.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11186-007-9044-y

    Abend offers a fundamental statement of the place of sociology in the study of morality, linking perspectives to work by Durkheim and Weber. He offers the view that sociologists should effectively remain agnostic on the fundamental question as to whether moral truth exists, remaining fundamentally distinct from moral philosophers.

  • Abend, Gabriel. 2010. What’s new and what’s old about the new sociology of morality? In Handbook of the sociology of morality. Edited by Steven Hitlin and Stephen Vaisey, 561–584. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4419-6896-8

    An excellent summary of where the field of morality studies stands within sociology, helpfully outlining where sociologists have new insights into the nature of morality, and how this newer work relates to classical theories. He addresses challenges to the field that sociologists must address, by moral philosophy (seeking moral truth) and neuroscience (seeking biological aspects of morality).

  • Hitlin, Steven, and Stephen Vaisey, eds. 2010. Handbook of the sociology of morality. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4419-6896-8

    A wide-ranging umbrella compilation of various macro- and microsociological approaches to studying morality. An attempt to create a self-conscious field among scholars who may not be familiar with each others’ work on similar topics.

  • Miller, Arthur G., ed. 2004. The social psychology of good and evil. New York: Guilford.

    One of the foremost compilations of the leading scholars in the psychology of morality.

  • Narvaez, Darcia, and Daniel K. Lapsley, eds. 2009. Personality, identity, and character: Explorations in moral psychology. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511627125

    A wide-ranging collection of psychological approaches to understanding morality at the individual level. A very good introduction to a variety of approaches and research traditions.

  • Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, ed. 2008. Moral psychology. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Vol. 1, The evolution of morality: Adaptations and innateness; Vol. 2, The cognitive science of morality: Intuition and diversity; Vol. 3, The neuroscience of morality: Emotion, brain disorders, and development. A comprehensive collection of works by the leading psychologists and neurologists studying morality.

  • Staub, Ervin. 2003. The psychology of good and evil: Why children, adults, and groups help and harm others. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511615795

    Staub outlines a variety of approaches understanding why individuals and groups of all sizes help or harm one another, even to the extent of committing genocide. A good introduction to the general topic of morality in psychology.

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