Sociology is becoming fragmented. With specialised fields spinning off beyond the capacity of a unifying theoretical frame to embrace them, the prospect exists that sociology's vital centre may not hold. Proceeding from a social constructionist perspective, this work examines the existence and probes the origins of the specialised sociological fields of social problems and social movements. Conceptual ambiguities that currently plague both specialisations are noted, as are their effective theoretical isolation from general sociological theory. Each field is traced to its roots in sociology's formative period in the nineteenth century. Two modes of doing sociology are found to have evolved, respectively, in the United Stales and in Continental Europe, each conditioned by distinctive historical experiences and resonating with the prevailing social and political concerns on the two continents. American sociology emerged in response to social perceptions that progress is inhibited by a proliferation of 'social problems'.
Continental European sociology arose in reaction to Enlightenment principles failing to be institutionalised, inviting the perceived social threat of either revolution or anarchy. Both sociologies are thus seen as ideologically contaminated, and their respective dominant perspectives, through the 1950s, are contrasted as the 'social problem orientation' and the 'social movement orientation'. Comparative analysis of these orientatations probes such issues as ahistorical vs. historical treatments: methodological individualism vs. collectivism: differential conceptions of class; the discipline's need to inhibit ideological contagion through a sociological reconstruction of prevailing social constructions of reality; the vital distinction between structural and processual conceptualisations. The study concludes that temporality serves as a crucial but much-neglected dimension in much of American sociology. So-called social problems and social movements are found to be grounded in essentially similar empirical social circumstances, with their alternate conceptualisations attributable to differential time-frames through which such circumstances are sociologically apprehended.
This points to the potential theoretical integration of these two fields. Scientific, ideological. and social policy implications of alternative constructions of reality are also explored.