Strategy for Sociology Optional for UPSC

Sociology is a popular optional among UPSC aspirants. Anu Kumari, who secured the second rank in the 2017 civil services exam had sociology as her optional. The subject is unique in that it is a hit among candidates with both science and humanities backgrounds. Anyone can take this optional; there is no need for an academic background in this subject. This subject is also deemed very scoring especially if the right approach and strategies are adopted during preparation. In this article, you can read all you need to know about the sociology optional including syllabus, booklist, strategy, etc.

How many candidates take Sociology optional?

In 2015 (according to the latest UPSC annual report), a total of 1479 candidates selected sociology as their optional. Out of this number, 173 were recommended for the services, giving a success rate of 11.7%. In the following table, we give you the statistics for the number of candidates who take and are recommended with sociology as the optional subject.

Table for Sociology Success Rate

Year No. of candidates appeared No. of candidates recommended Success rate (%)
2014 1819 193 10.6
2015 1479 173 11.7
2016 1555 89 5.7

Toppers with Sociology optional

The 2017 topper Anu Kumar (AIR 2) had taken sociology as her optional. She scored high marks in both the optional papers. Her scores of 163 and 155 in the optional papers helped her increase the final tally by a great margin, helping her bag the second rank.

Take a look at the following table which gives the names of a few toppers who had sociology as their optional subject:

Name Year Rank
Anu Kumari 2017 2
S Nagarajan 2004 1
Amrutesh Aurangabadkar 2011 10
Ila Tripathi 2016 51
Utkarsh Gupta 2016 78
Chandra Mohan Garg 2015 25
Neha Yadav 2013 24
Neha Jain 2013 12
Rajanvir Singh Kapur 2011 92

Sociology optional pros and cons

There are many benefits of taking sociology as the optional in the UPSC exam. In this section, we discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages associated with the sociology optional in the IAS exam.

Sociology optional advantages

Scoring subject & short syllabus: Sociology is considered a scoring subject and this is one of the main reasons for its popularity. Its success ratio is also pretty high. With a relatively short syllabus, candidates can ideally complete within 4 months if they work sincerely.

Ample study material: There is ample study material available for this subject.

No background needed: Candidates with any academic background can opt for sociology optional and study it without any difficulty. It is very likely that candidates will have at least a basic idea of some of the concepts of sociology. Concepts like family, religion, etc. are familiar and can be encountered in the daily newspapers often. It is generally considered an interesting subject.

Overlap with other papers: There is a degree of overlap of sociology with the other papers in the UPSC exam. In the General Studies Paper 1, about 40 – 50 marks can be from sociology-related topics. The following questions from the 2017 GS 1 paper will illustrate this better:

  1. In the context of diversity of India, can it be said that the regions form cultural units rather than the States? Give reasons with examples for your viewpoint. (10 marks)
  2. What are the two major legal initiatives by the State since Independence, addressing discrimination against Scheduled Tribes (STs)? (10 marks)
  3. The spirit tolerance and love is not only an interesting feature of Indian society from very early times, but it is also playing an important part at the present. Elaborate. (15 marks)
  4. Distinguish between religiousness/religiosity and communalism giving one example of how the former has got transformed into the latter in independent India. (15 marks)

These questions can be answered better with an understanding of sociology.

Take a look at the topics from the GS papers that can be done well with the help of sociology optional:

GS Paper I

  • Political philosophies such as capitalism, communism, socialism, etc. and their effects on society.
  • Highlights of Indian society, Diversity in India.
  • Impacts of globalisation on Indian culture.
  • Role of women and women’s organisation, poverty and developmental issues, population and associated issues, urbanization.
  • Social empowerment, communalism, secularism and regionalism.

GS Paper II

  • Pressure groups and formal/informal associations, their role in the polity.
  • Welfare schemes for vulnerable sections of the population, mechanisms, laws, institutions and bodies constituted for the protection and betterment of vulnerable sections.
  • Development processes and the development industry – the role of NGOs, SHGs, various groups and associations, donors, charities, institutional and other stakeholders.
  • Education, Human Resources.
  • Issues relating to development and management of Social Sector/Services relating to health.
  • Civil services in a democracy.
  • Issues relating to poverty and hunger.

GS Paper III

  • Land reforms in India.
  • Comprehensive development and issues emerging from it.
  • Development and spread of extremism linkage – Naxalism.
  • Changes in industrial policy, impacts of liberalization on the economy, and their outcome on industrial growth.

GS Paper IV

  • Human Values- role of family, society and educational institutions in inculcating values; reformers and administrators, lessons from the lives and teachings of great leaders.

Even in the Essay paper, at least a couple of essays can be written well and in a systematic manner because of the sociology optional because the topics would be about social problems and the like. Examples of a few essay topics that were asked in the IAS mains exam with a connection to sociology:

  1. Destiny of a nation is shaped in its classrooms.
  2. Fulfillment of new woman in India is a myth.
  3. Does Indian cinema shape our popular culture or merely reflect it?
  4. The Indian society at the crossroads.
  5. The composite culture of India.

Finally, even in the UPSC personality test, sociology optional can help you. Many of the questions asked is based on social problems and current affairs. So, a knowledge of sociology can give you an added advantage.

Sociology optional disadvantages

Sociology is a social sciences subject and so, unlike the core sciences, some of the concepts and interpretations can be subjective. This may lead to subjective corrections by the examiner.

Sociology optional syllabus

Let us take a look at the syllabus for sociology for the UPSC mains exam.

There are two optional papers in the UPSC scheme of things. Both the papers are for a total of 250 marks making the total optional marks to 500.

Download the Sociology UPSC syllabus.

Sociology optional strategy

Before starting with the strategy for sociology optional for UPSC mains, let us take a look at the topic-wise trend analysis of the sociology optional papers through the years 2014 to 2017.

Topic Wise Analysis of Sociology optional Paper 1

Unit Questions worth marks
2017 2016 2015 2014
The Discipline 30 20 20 30
Sociology as Science 40 30 50 30
Research Methods 30 40 30 20
Thinkers 50 70 70 80
Stratification 50 40 30 40
Works and Economic Life 30 30 30 30
Politics and Society 40 30 50 60
Religion and Society 30 50 40 30
Systems of Kinship 50 40 20 30
Social Change 50 50 50 60

Topic Wise Analysis of Sociology optional Paper 2

Unit Questions worth marks
2017 2016 2015 2014
Perspectives 10 10 30 10
Impact of colonial rule 40 10 40 30
Rural and agrarian social structure 0 20 0 30
Caste system 50 60 50 20
Tribal communities in India 20 30 20 40
Social classes in India 0 10 0 20
Systems of kinship in India 30 30 50 20
Religion and society 10 20 30 30
Visions of social change in India 0 0 0 0
Rural and agrarian transformation 30 50 10 20
Industrialisation and urbanisation 40 80 10 10
Politics and society 20 0 20 10
Social movements in modern India 20 20 40 50
Population dynamics 30 20 10 30
Challenges of social transformation 50 40 90 60

Preparation strategy for Sociology optional

  • Start sociology preparation by reading ‘Sociology: Themes and Perspectives’ by Haralambos and Holborn. This book will provide you a basic understanding of all the fundamental concepts of sociology. Moreover, it also contains case studies and reading it will help you apply theory to practice. The book also helps immensely in dealing with chapters like Economic Life, Politics and Society, and Kinship and Social Change.
  • Focus on thinkers: As evident from the above tables, the chapter on thinkers is worth a major portion of the marks in Paper I. Therefore, you must give this section its due respect. There are six thinkers you must cover namely, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Talcott Parsons, Max Weber, Herbert Mead and Robert Merton. All the theories must be covered in detail and thoroughly. This chapter will help you in writing answers for questions from other chapters as well. For example, the topic of ‘Science, scientific method and critique’ in chapter 2 is related to Max Weber’s Scientific Method in sociological analysis.

Thinkers, as mentioned before, are a big source of questions. A few questions from the previous year UPSC papers are given below:

  1. Do you think ‘I’ and ‘Me’ are central terms in Mead’s work? (10 marks, Paper I, 2018)
  2. Explain Durkheim’s basic arguments on suicide. Can you analyse high suicide rates of contemporary Indian society with Durkheim’s theory? (20 marks, Paper I, 2018)
  3. Critically analyse Talcott Parsons’ conception of ‘Pattern Variables’. (10 marks, Paper I, 2017)
  4. What is Weberian critique of Marxist notion of social stratification? (20 marks, Paper I, 2017)
  • Throughout the syllabus, there are concepts from different chapters that you must relate with one another. ‘Theories of Social Stratification’, which is a part of chapter 5 is linked to chapter 2. Chapter 7, which is ‘Politics and Society’, has a topic on sociological theories of power which can be linked to Weberian and Marxian theories of power. Chapter 8 has a topic ‘Sociological theories on religion’ which is inter-linked to Weber and Durkheim.
  • A comprehensive book on sociological thought is crucial for you to understand the various theories and also write better answers throughout. For this, the book, ‘Sociological Theory’ by George Ritzer is recommended. It contains all the sociological theories, modern theories and post-modern theories. In fact, many successful candidates such as Anu Kumari and Ila Tripathi have recommended this book.
  • It is also helpful if you can remember the original definitions given by the thinkers. This will greatly add value to your answers.
  • While Paper I focuses on the theories of sociology and is more static in nature, Paper II is the dynamic section of the syllabus. It concentrates on Indian Society. Here, current affairs particularly with an Indian perspective is essential to fetch good marks.
  • Whenever you write answers, always quote a few relevant and current facts, figures, case studies and recommendations of reports/commissions. Real-life examples are of utmost importance in this paper. This will help you substantiate the point that you are making and also help you earn brownie points.

For example, when you talk about the problem of religious minorities in India, you can cite the recent SC verdict on triple talaq. On issues of patriarchy, you can give the skewed sex ratios of various states in India and relate it to development, women empowerment, etc.

  • Quotations are also an important tool to make sure your answers stand out. But make sure the quotes that you use are relevant to the topic, correct and attributed to the right author.
  • For Paper II, there are 3 important books you should refer. They are:
    • Social Change in Modern India – MN Srinivas
    • Caste, Its Twentieth Century Avatar – MN Srinivas
    • Indian Sociological Thought – BK Nagla

For Paper II, you should also remember that the newspapers are an important source of answers. This paper generally deals with India and the questions are generally about recent events that occurred. So, when you read the newspaper daily, make sure you watch out for topics that are potential questions in this paper. Things to watch out for are gender/women issues, caste-based issues, tribal issues, Indian values and its erosion, Indian society, etc.

  • Make sure your answers are multi-dimensional. For this, when you prepare a topic, make sure to include various dimensions and perspectives on it. For instance, environmental movements in India also have a social angle to them (women and child issues, tribal issues, etc.

For example, take a look at the following question from Paper II, 2018:

  1. Elaborate the “Me Too” movement and its impact in India.

This question, based on current affairs, has many aspects to it. Answering this question requires multiple dimensions from the fields of psychology, sexual harassment in the workplace and its prevention (polity, law), feminism, idea of consent, social heirarchies, gender roles, etc.

Now, look at another question from Paper II, 2017:

  1. Indebtedness is one of the serious issues leading to farmers’ suicides. Discuss reasons and suggest solutions.

Here also, you have to talk about various aspects of farmers’ suicides like the agricultural distress in India, vagaries of the monsoons and its effect on our farmers, mental health of Indians, etc. Here, you should also talk about what Durkheim had to say about suicides.

    • In sociology, you can embellish your answers by including relevant diagrams and flowcharts. Prepare a few for standard topics and concepts so that you can use them in the exam.
    • On every topic, develop points from both sides of the spectrum (positive and negative) and present a balanced picture. Your conclusions must be futuristic, realistic and positively oriented.
  • Answer writing practice

In sociology, like in most other humanities subject, answer writing becomes very important. It isn’t like maths or chemistry, where you can write precise and to-the-point answers. Here, you have to write an introduction to the topic first, create a background, then talk about the issue asked, give real-life examples, relate it to thinkers/schools of thoughts, critique, and finally, give an apt conclusion. Now, this requires practice of answer-writing. For this, it is advisable that you enroll for an optional test series. A test series ensures that you get ample exam-like simulation before the D-day. This will help you in many aspects such as time management, assessment of strengths and weaknesses, and also help you increase your speed of writing. You will also learn to understand what is precisely asked in the question, and to write answers with a proper structure and with the proper keywords.

  • Note making

It is important to make notes while preparing for the UPSC exam, particularly for a subject like sociology where there are many theories, models, concepts and thinkers. You must make flowcharts, tables and figures that help in revision. For example, Merton’s Theory of Deviance can be expressed as:


Books for sociology optional

  • Sociology Themes and Perspectives – Michael Haralambos, Martin Holborn
  • Sociology – Anthony Giddens
  • Sociological Theory – George Ritzer
  • Society In India: Concepts, Theories And Recent Trends – Ram Ahuja
  • Modernization Of Indian Tradition – Yogendra Singh
  • Caste, Its Twentieth Century Avatar – MN Srinivas
  • Social Change In Modern India – MN Srinivas
  • Social Background of Indian Nationalism – AR Desai
  • Persistence and Change in Tribal India – MV Rao

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