Principles of sociology

R. Gosling (ed.) and S. Taylor with the Department of Sociology, LSE

2010 Undergraduate study in Economics, Management, Finance and the Social Sciences

This guide was prepared for the University of London External System by: R. Gosling (ed.), Director of External Study, LSE, with chapters written by the following members of the Department of Sociology, LSE: Dr Claire Alexander, Dr Suki Ali, Simon Dickason, Malcolm James, Dr David Palmer, Dr Angus Stewart, Dr Steve Taylor. This is one of a series of subject guides published by the University. We regret that due to pressure of work the author is unable to enter into any correspondence relating to, or arising from, the guide. If you have any comments on this subject guide, favourable or unfavourable, please use the form at the back of this guide. This subject guide is for the use of University of London External students registered for programmes in the fields of Economics, Management, Finance and the Social Sciences (as applicable). The programmes currently available in these subject areas are: Access route Diploma in Economics Diploma in Social Sciences Diplomas for Graduates BSc Accounting and Finance BSc Accounting with Law/Law with Accounting BSc Banking and Finance BSc Business BSc Development and Economics BSc Economics BSc Economics and Finance BSc Economics and Management BSc Geography and Environment BSc Information Systems and Management BSc International Relations BSc Management BSc Management with Law/Law with Management BSc Mathematics and Economics BSc Politics BSc Politics and International Relations BSc Sociology BSc Sociology with Law.

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Published by: University of London Press © University of London 2005; reprinted with amendments 2009; 2010 Printed by: Central Printing Service, University of London, England


Introduction ............................................................................................................ 1 What this unit is about .................................................................................................. 1 What is sociology? ........................................................................................................ 1 What skills you will learn from studying this unit ............................................................ 2 The structure of the unit ................................................................................................ 2 Reading advice and other resources ............................................................................... 4 Hours of study and use of this subject guide................................................................... 7 The examination and examination advice ....................................................................... 7 Section A: Social theory and research .................................................................... 9 Chapter 1: What is sociology? .............................................................................. 11 Aims of the chapter ..................................................................................................... 11 Learning objectives ...................................................................................................... 11 Essential reading ......................................................................................................... 11 Further reading............................................................................................................ 11 Video/DVD .................................................................................................................. 12 Works cited ................................................................................................................. 12 1.1 Introduction .......................................................................................................... 12 1.2 Approaching sociology ........................................................................................... 13 1.3 What is sociology? ................................................................................................. 14 1.4 Sociology and commonsense ................................................................................. 17 1.5 Thinking sociologically ........................................................................................... 20 1.6 The individual and society ...................................................................................... 24 1.7 Socialisation and identity ....................................................................................... 28 A reminder of your learning outcomes.......................................................................... 34 Chapter 2: Sociological research .......................................................................... 35 Aims of the chapter ..................................................................................................... 35 Learning objectives ...................................................................................................... 35 Essential reading ......................................................................................................... 35 Further reading............................................................................................................ 35 Works cited ................................................................................................................. 36 Video/DVD .................................................................................................................. 36 2.1 Introduction ......................................................................................................... 36 2.2 Some principles of sociological research ................................................................. 37 2.3 Research designs: planning and choice................................................................... 43 2.4 Major research designs in sociology ....................................................................... 48 2.5 Research methods ................................................................................................. 54 A reminder of your learning outcomes.......................................................................... 64 Chapter 3: Theory and research............................................................................ 65 Introduction ................................................................................................................ 65 Aims of the chapter ..................................................................................................... 65 Learning objectives ...................................................................................................... 65 Essential reading ......................................................................................................... 65 Further reading............................................................................................................ 65 Video/DVD .................................................................................................................. 66 3.1 Methodology revisited ........................................................................................... 66 3.2 Positivism .............................................................................................................. 69 3.3 Interpretivism ........................................................................................................ 72

.............................................................................................. 151 Introduction ..................................... 79 Chapter 4: Theories and developments ...................... 81 Essential reading ........................................................................................................ 135 Definition .................... 146 Works cited ............................ 171 Works cited ............................. 182 Works cited ........................ 135 Introduction .................... 151 Further reading........................................................................ 136 Key debate: Is globalisation new and real? ................................. 149 Chapter 6: Economic globalisation.................................................... 172 Chapter 8: Cultural globalisation ........................................................1 Origins of sociology ...................................................................................... 142 What are the implications for sociology? .......................... 81 Chapter structure ................................................................................. 163 Introduction ................................ 81 Further reading................................................................................................................................. 82 4.......................................................................................................................... 152 Key debate: Has globalisation changed the nature of the firm? ..21 Principles of sociology 3.............. 76 A reminder of your learning outcomes............................................................................ 168 Conclusion .......................................................................................................................................................... 173 Introduction ....................................................................................................................................................................................... 81 Learning objectives ..................................................................................................... 183 ii ....... 133 Learning objectives ................................................. 82 Videos/DVD ................................................................................... 134 Chapter 5: Introduction to globalisation...................................................................................................................................................................................................... 156 Conclusion ....................................................... 133 Useful websites ................... 132 Section B: Globalisation .......................................................................................................................................................................................... 124 A reminder of your learning outcomes. 133 Aims of this section ....................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 173 Key debate: Has globalisation led to cultural homogenisation? ........................................................................................... 182 Sample examination questions for Section B ............. 182 A reminder of your learning outcomes.. 160 Works cited .............................................................................................................................................................................................................................2 Sociological theories .................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 81 Aims of the chapter ................................................................................... 124 4..... 82 4. 177 Conclusion ...................................................................4 Realism ......... 133 Reading advice for Section B.................................................................................................................... 151 Key debate: To what extent have we seen the emergence of a global economy? ...............................................3 Bringing the individual back in .................................................. 163 Key debate: Has globalisation weakened the state? .............................................................................................................. 81 Introduction .................................. 163 Four ‘threats’ to nation states ....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................4 Postmodernity and sociology................ 137 Key debate: What are the drivers of globalisation? ............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................ 166 Key debate: Has globalisation created new forms of politics? ......... 87 4..... 115 Summary ............... 160 Chapter 7: Globalisation..................................................................... politics and the state....................................... 173 Key debate: Does globalisation lead to a clash of cultures? .................................................................................................................................................

............................................................................................................................................................................. 251 Learning objectives ............................................................................................................... 209 Works cited ........ 211 Learning activities...................... 251 Study materials........................................................3 Changing debates: some key theoretical approaches to ‘race’ and ethnicity ........... 230 Introduction ..........................................................................................................................................................................................2............................................................................................................................................. 226 Sample examination questions .............................................................. 196 9............................................................................................................... 230 Reading advice ......................................2 ‘Race’ and ethnicity: some basic definitions ...................................... 232 11................................................1 Changing sociological perspectives on social inequality and social injustice.......................................................... 188 How to use this chapter .................... 224 A reminder of your learning outcomes..................................... 187 Works cited ............................................................................................................................................................ 190 9...................................... 187 Further reading.................................................................................................................2 Analysing social injustice .......................................................... 210 Introduction ........................................................................................................................... 190 9.......... 209 Aims of the chapter ......................................................... 187 Websites .... 214 10..........................................1..................................................................................... 249 Sample examination questions .......................................... 229 Learning objectives ....................... 187 Aims of the chapter .................................................... 234 11............................... 185 Chapter 9: Gender ............................................................................... 188 Introduction ................................................................. 212 10....................................................................................................3 Classical perspectives on social inequality . 218 10...............................2 Equality and difference: feminist debates.................... 240 11......................................2............................ 229 Further reading...................................... 209 Learning objectives . 187 Learning objectives ............................................................................................................................................ 209 Further reading......................................................................................................... 236 11.......................................... 243 11.....4 Contemporary approaches: old and new ethnicities ................................... 206 Chapter 10: ‘Race’ and ethnicity ......................................3 Families and work .................. 187 Essential reading ........................................................................................................................................................ 209 Essential reading .................................................................................1.......................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 230 11................................................................ 202 A reminder of your learning outcomes.......1 Sex.............................. 227 Chapter 11: Social inequality and social injustice ...........................................Contents Section C..................................... 251 Aims of the chapter ............2................... 246 Summary: inequality and injustice ......................................... 250 Chapter 12: Religion and society ........................................................................................................................1 Thinking about ‘race’ and ethnicity ............................................................................................................. 206 Sample examination questions ..........1 Structural dimensions of inequality: contemporary class analysis .......................................................3 Social injustice and the pursuit of human rights..................... 212 10.................1............................................ gender and sexualities .............................................................. 251 iii .................. 210 Reading advice .......................................................... 229 Essential reading .............. 249 A reminder of your learning outcomes............................................................................... 229 Aims of the chapter .................................................................................................2 Global perspectives on inequality and injustice .......................................................

............... 281 Essential reading .................................................... 298 13................................................................. 303 Aims of the chapter ...................................................................................................2................................................ modernity and sociology .......................... 251 Further reading – detailed recommendations ......... modernity and globalisation .......................... 303 Learning objectives ......................................................................................................... 281 Reading advice ............................................................... 251 Websites .........................................................................................2 Weber: power.............. 337 Further reading........................................................... 329 Appendix 1: Approaching your examination ..................................................... stratification and domination ................ 304 Further reading and works cited....6 Secularisation ..... 335 Appendix 3: Full reading list . 281 Aims of the chapter ........1................ 283 Introduction: power..........1 Introduction ..................................... 300 A reminder of your learning outcomes.................. 279 Chapter 13: Power in society............................................................................... 329 Sample examination questions ................................... 275 A reminder of your learning outcomes............................................................ 278 Sample examination questions ........................... 273 12............................................................ 283 13............... 305 14................................................................................................................ 299 Summary ............................................. 253 12......4 Religion and social conflict .......................1 The pluralist model of power ........................................................... 301 Chapter 14: The sociology of organisations ................................1 Marxism and the analysis of power .............................2............................................................................................................. 329 A reminder of your learning outcomes................................................................................ 315 14................. 282 Structure of this chapter ...................................1 Defining ‘religion’ ............................................................ 257 12...................................................................... 290 13..................................................................................................................................21 Principles of sociology Essential reading ................................................................................................................... 293 13..............4 Organisational strategies and the environment........... 315 14.................................1.... 337 Essential reading ........2 Sociological research on religion .......................................................................... 252 Introduction .............................3 Religion and social integration ...................................... 286 13...............................................3 The power of elites ...........................................................................................................................................1 Postmodernist perspectives on power............................... 271 12.......................................................................................................... 282 Additional reading and other works cited ........................................................................................................................................................................................ 331 Appendix 2: Sample examination paper .... 309 Conclusion ..................... 295 13................ 268 12................................................................. 303 Essential reading ...................................................................................................................5 Religion and economic culture ................................................................................7 Religion................................................................................................................................................2 Power to and power over.......... 321 Conclusion .............. 266 12............................................................................................................2 Why do new types of organisation emerge? .................................... 282 Further reading.......................................................................................................... 260 12............................ 303 Chapter structure .......................................................................................................................................... 301 Sample examination questions .....................................................................................................................................................................3....................................................................................................................................................................................................................1....................................... 281 Learning objectives ..............................................................................3 Power in organisations ............................................................................ 304 14............................... 338 iv ..........

Newby The problem of sociology.. E. Finance and the Social Sciences Erratum sheet May 2010: First erratum sheet to the 2009 edition of the subject guide Important VLE resources Please note that the following resources are now available on the VLE: • a recorded interview with LSE staff about studying for this unit • an opportunity to ask Rosie Gosling questions about this unit and discuss material with your peers through an online forum. Lee. W. Francis Perspectives in sociology. . D. Chapter 2 Watch a video of Rosie Gosling interviewing Professor Eileen Barker. the author of this section. Note: Section B: Globalisation has been updated for 2010. The full textbook is available to view online via the VLE. and H. Section C Follow links to the BBC’s collection on second wave feminism. Management. The essential textbook remains the same but the approach is slightly different. Section A: Social theory and research Two of the essential textbooks are available to view online via the VLE: Cuff. 2006) fifth edition [ISBN 9780415301114 (pbk)]. Sharrock and D. Globalization. The Essential reading is now: Waters. the author of The making of a Moonie.W.W. Chapter 4 Watch a video of Rosie Gosling and Dr Nigel Dodd discussing Durkheim and Weber’s work. M. 2000) [ISBN 9780415094535]. Section B: Globalisation Watch a video set of Rosie Gosling interviewing Simon Dickason. one of the works cited in Chapter 2. Test your understanding with self-quizzes for each chapter. (London: Routledge. 2001) second edition [ISBN 9780415238540]. (London: Routledge.2790021 Principles of sociology Economics. (London: Routledge. Chapter 14 Note: This chapter – The sociology of organisations – has now been completely rewritten.

21 Principles of sociology Notes .

This unit is one of the most popular options in the Diploma in Economics programme as it helps students to be critical of the information they receive and encourages them to think logically and consistently. but sociologists do not agree about what societies are and how they should be studied and so no one definition will suffice. We hope to dispel these myths and introduce you to a subject which is interesting and which will provide a basis throughout your studies. We have designed this unit to provide the necessary grounding in sociological theory and methods of social research. Management and Information Systems will take this unit as a key ‘servicing unit’ that will provide you with knowledge of the social world and the key ways in which it can be researched. You may be taking the BSc Sociology degree or a Diploma for Graduates in Sociology and this unit will be the basis upon which all the other units rest. Students in Business. provides the essential grounding for further study in the subject and also provides the knowledge and critical skills which are necessary for the degrees in Management and Business.) The most basic view of sociology is that it is about understanding relationships in human societies. (Chapter 1 in Section A will go into much more detail as to the nature of this subject. No formal prerequisites are required to study this unit. There is a health warning though – if you take this subject you will never see things in the same way again! Principles of sociology is a foundation unit and. You will be introduced to different sociological theories and to the ‘classical’ and more modern sociologists. others suggest that there is too much reading and that it requires great feats of memory. Some people worry about sociology. We have introduced globalisation as a compulsory topic to illustrate how sociology can help in understanding and explaining this phenomenon. as such. some feel that it is ‘too theoretical’ or that it does not relate to the ‘real world’. Students will then be required to apply this knowledge to substantive areas of sociology. 1 . In all cases we hope you enjoy studying this subject. one of the most important things to remember is that sociology is more than commonsense! You will be introduced to the subject of sociology and will be encouraged to think how different it is from other social sciences that you may have studied. The relationship between these theories and assumptions of the social world will be investigated and you will see how the techniques of social research are applied in an academic manner. However. In Section C you will be able to apply these theories and approaches to particular areas in sociology which are of interest to you. but you do need to have an enquiring mind and be prepared to read and think. What is sociology? First we should start by attempting to define sociology.Introduction Introduction What this unit is about Welcome to this unit – Principles of sociology. You will be encouraged to see the development of sociology as it developed from and reacted to the Enlightenment.

of course. 2 . socialisation and identity. Finally. You should spend at least half of your allocated study time on Section A. Thereafter you are free to choose one option only from a variety of topics. LSE’s motto is rerum cognoscere causas which means ‘to know the causes of things’. The chapters in Section A account for 50 per cent of the marks and are examined by a compulsory question. Section A: Social theory and research: compulsory This has been written by Dr Steve Taylor with Rosemary Gosling. to be critical of your own work • be creative and able to link ideas from this unit and the other disciplines you are studying to create new ways of thinking about social phenomena • to be challenged. try thinking aloud. The structure of the unit Sections A and B are compulsory for everyone and make up 75 per cent of the syllabus. This is not an easy subject and it requires you to think deeply about the materials and be able to deal with more than one way of thinking about the social world. Globalisation is an important topic.21 Principles of sociology What skills you will learn from studying this unit By the end of the unit you will have gained knowledge and learnt some important skills: • to be critical of any data and theories that you read or hear about and. The key aspects in relation to individuals and society are examined through the concepts of role. and to try to express your ideas with them. These disagreements have their basis in the fundamental assumptions about what the motors of social change are. which is subdivided into questions requiring short answers and one longer question relating to a particular sociologist or perspective. and how do we ‘know’ if there has been such a change. It is a good idea to study with other students and friends. You should not be content with simplistic explanations – you should always look beneath the explanations for a deeper understanding of the social world. not just because we are interested in knowing whether we are living in a new age but because there is so much disagreement about the topic. This is not only because of its length and depth but because the subjects covered are essential for the other sections of the syllabus. It makes up half the syllabus and concentrates on questions relating to the nature of sociology. (If this is not possible. Before you start to study this section you should be aware of the major changes that have occurred in the last two centuries and how the growth of sociology is connected with an attempt to explain these changes. Do the best that you can • to be co-operative and share ideas and materials. the methods which sociologists use. methodology and the major sociological perspectives.) This is an important skill for the world of work where you are often required to work in teams. Section B: Globalisation and social change: compulsory Having obtained some background on the nature of sociology we want you to be able to apply what you know to one of the core sociological problems – social change.

You will be exposed to different definitions of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ and the different approaches to the issues raised. You will be expected to demonstrate knowledge of the relevant sociological theories when writing your examination answers. The approach taken by the authors in writing these chapters requires you to have a good grounding in sociology before you begin to study one of the chapters. You should be aware of how the sociologists mentioned in the chapters have gathered their data and what theory has guided their research. because of your own personal interests. The areas which you should keep abreast of are: • the reactions to the social or global changes that are occurring – the behaviour of the anti-globalists for example and the financial crises that started in 2008 • whether globalisation has increased inequality between and within nations • whether the nation state is becoming less or more important. then this information will help you to think about your interests and how to choose a unit which fits well with your future unit choices. It is an opportunity to use the knowledge of sociology that you will have gained from Section A. You will be rewarded if you can demonstrate to the Examiners that you have read widely and can apply what you have read and understood to the theories and explanations provided in these chapters. You will be required to reflect on what you know in relation to your own society and you will be rewarded in the examination if you do. but if you don’t. especially ontology and epistemology. there is a considerable amount of material which relates to a discussion of the ‘essentially contested’ nature of the core concepts used by the authors. It is important that you understand that. for most of these chapters. read the text allocated. The authors address theoretical issues directly and give a fresh approach to the study of this subject. You may know already. but you must read around the topic and. Knowledge of the key debates that have been discussed in Section A is important.Introduction These are not difficult chapters. This section has been written by Simon Dickason. ‘Race’ and ethnicity This has been written by Dr Claire Alexander of the Department of Sociology at LSE and was updated in 2009 by Malcolm James. which Section C topic you want to study. You will be rewarded for your ability to keep abreast of the debates which you will be introduced to in this unit. The reading is directed and draws on the work on epistemology and ontology covered in Section A. Section C: Specialist topics: choose one How do I choose which topic to take? To help you choose which one topic from Section C to study in detail we outline here the content of each chapter. Gender This has been written by Dr Suki Ali of the Department of Sociology at LSE. as in all cases you will be expected to use the key debates to inform your reading of your chosen subject area. The key texts give an in-depth approach to this subject and will require a careful reading. of course. Dr Alexander’s major research is on ‘identity’ and this topic is examined in 3 .

There may be some overlap with the Politics foundation unit (114 Democratic politics and the state) but the approach will be different. you should use relevant material on organisations from this chapter in that unit and vice versa. which has been written by Dr David Palmer from the Department of Sociology at LSE. if you choose to study this one in depth it would help you if you were to read the Power chapter as well. This chapter leads on from Section B (Chapters 5–8) on Globalisation and social change very well and you should not attempt this chapter without a clear understanding of globalisation. and it is of particular relevance to those of you who are studying for the politics and international relations degree. Power in society Dr Angus Stewart. who has taught political sociology at LSE for a number of years. Religion and society This chapter.319. gender. For full details of the editions and ISBNs please check the reading list at the end of this subject guide. You will find a full and detailed reading list for the whole unit at the end of this subject guide on p. modernisation and globalisation. inequality and organisation. Social inequality and social injustice This has been written by Dr Angus Stewart. 4 . The sociology of organisations This has been written by Simon Dickason and is of particular interest to you when you take 127 Organisation theory: an interdisciplinary approach. 79 Elements of social and applied psychology and/or other management subjects. You will need to use your textbooks in a slightly different way for Sections A and B than for section C. The material is straightforward but the examination questions will not ask you to describe a particular theory without some criticism. Although you must choose only one topic to study. has written this chapter. If you are studying unit 107 Introduction to business and management at the same time. economic culture. if you choose this chapter it would also be helpful. therefore. power. Reading advice and other resources Reading for this unit is always split into two types. You must locate your understanding of organisations clearly within the sociological perspective and be aware of the many different explanations involved. and to think about how religion intersects with ethnicity. and considers religion in relation to social integration. social conflict. although not required of you. There is a concentration on the key ontological and epistemological concerns as to the nature of power and the possibility of ‘knowing’ who has power.21 Principles of sociology this chapter. puts a strong emphasis on research methods. Essential and Further reading. it is important not to look at religion in isolation. to read some of the other topics for Section C. When taking a sociological approach. It is worth noting that reading lists are updated annually and provided online even when the subject guide is not fully revised that year.

Scott Sociology. or Lee. (Harlow: Prentice Hall. Plummer Sociology: a global introduction. it does not cover many of the theoretical aspects of the unit and will not offer much support for your Section C topic. This book is supported by a website and there are lecturers’ notes online.. Students are very happy using this text. Plummer Sociology: a global introduction. W. it takes a global approach to the subject and so is an ideal text for students studying this subject on the External System.W. This covers all the theories indicated in the reading for Section A. 5 . as some of the textbooks are also used as key reading for Section C. E. although it is not essential reading for the Section C chapters on race and gender. 2000) [ISBN 9780415094535]. and K. (Harlow: Prentice Hall. Choose one from: Fulcher. charts and pictures. (Cambridge: Polity Press. we have indicated two texts of which you should buy one. (London: Routledge. or Macionis. However. However. (London: Routledge. As indicated by its title. J. 2007) third edition [ISBN 9780199285006 (pbk)]. Francis Perspectives in sociology. 2005) third edition [ISBN 9780131287464 (pbk)]. D.Introduction Reading for Section A We have provided you with a choice of three major textbooks as introductory reading for Section A. although the style is clear. however on its own it does not have enough material for the theoretical aspects of Section A.W. The chapters on globalisation and identity are very useful. It is written in a clear and simple style. Sharrock and D. J. clearly written text for the theoretical aspects of the unit such as Section A. and J. and methods of social research. Sociology. the relationships between theories and methods. It does not have as much material on globalisation as Macionis and Plummer or Giddens. We strongly advise you to buy the fourth edition of Macionis and Plummer. J. some of the chapters have been organised in an unusual way and so it is very important to make use of the directions to specific reading provided in the subject guide. or Giddens. This text is easy to read and is well illustrated with many examples. and K. We then move on to the textbooks which specifically cover the theoretical aspects. 2008) fifth edition [ISBN 9780745633794 (pbk)]. and H. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. and. 2006) fifth edition [ISBN 9780415301114 (pbk)]. 2008) fourth edition [ISBN 9780132051583 (pbk)]. We suggest that you decide which text to buy in relation to your choice of subject in Section C. however we have also provided references to the third edition: Macionis. it will support them well. This is an excellent. Newby The problem of sociology. Choose one from: Cuff. A. you will only need to buy one of them.

Some web page addresses may change during the life of this subject guide. it approaches the subject historically and therefore it helps students to locate the sociologists clearly within the society and time they were writing. which may help you by giving you a chance to ‘see’ sociologists in action. You are given reading advice at the start of each chapter. (London: Routledge. Websites Websites are increasingly sophisticated sources of information and there is a great deal of material available. The authors have provided you with some thinking points. However. However. You will need to use the same username and password to access this resource as the ones you are sent to use for the Student 6 . You will also need to refer to the relevant chapters in the compulsory textbooks which you have bought for Section A. We have indicated some in the subject guide. we have no control over this. 2001) second edition [ISBN 9780415238540]. Principles of sociology This contains much more material than is required for this unit. It is clearly written and you should have little problem in reading it. At the end of this subject guide we have provided a full list of all reading referred to in this subject guide for ease of reference. Globalization. The Online Library can be accessed via the Student Portal at https://my. as with all texts it should be read in relation to the topic studied. such as recordings of interviews with academics and self-testing quizzes. The websites relating to the classical sociologists are usually very good indeed. Reading for Section B There is one major text for this Section which you will need to buy or have access to. Waters. They have not been designed to be read as a novel! You need to do the reading as you tackle each section to ensure that you have fully understood it before you proceed to the next section. Online resources An increasing number of resources. our strong advice is that you should work through your Section C topic slowly and carefully ensuring that you fully understand each section before proceeding to the next. are being made available to you online via the University of London External System Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). This will help your understanding and provide you with the necessary critical skills required for these chapters. Video/DVD For some chapters we are able to recommend a video/DVD to you. We advise you to log in to the VLE regularly and to make use of the forums for this unit to share your ideas and discuss topics with your fellow students. beware of the ‘sample essays’ and ‘examination tips’ websites – these may not necessarily help you to write and think in the style and manner that will help you for this unit on the External Programme. Again we have indicated the relevant chapters in the textbook in reading advice given in this subject guide.londonexternal. Reading for Section C These chapters are written in an academic sociological style and require students to read the key texts in parallel with the material in this subject guide. M. If a page is no longer available please try an Internet search to find its new location.

The examination structure has been designed in such a way that you will be rewarded for your knowledge of the subject and your ability to demonstrate an understanding of the key issues. There is also advice about how the marks are allocated to each style of question in Section A. You should practise answering the short questions in Section A and gradually build up to answering the essays for Sections B and C. this is based on completing your unit in one year.Introduction Hours of study and use of this subject guide You should aim to study this unit over eight months and you should spend at least seven hours on this unit each week. You do not need to mention everything that you have learnt and should answer the question economically. You are required to know all the material that has been indicated in the subject guide. Please note that subject guides may be used for several years. but more importantly you should indicate that you can understand this. You should also carefully check the rubric/ instructions on the paper you actually sit and follow those instructions. You will be rewarded if your essays are well structured and if you select and use only material that is relevant to the question. we suggest that you might also like to look at the past years’ examination papers. we do not need to know all you know! 7 . using references and examples which indicate that you are aware of the relative importance of each. sample examination questions have been included for you to practise on. Remember: the examination tests your knowledge and understanding of the subject. We have provided you with a detailed examination advice section and a full sample examination paper at the end of this subject guide (p. You will need to read widely and think deeply. For Section A. Because of this we strongly advise you to always check both the current Regulations for relevant information about the examination. The examination and examination advice Important: the information and advice given in the following section are based on the examination structure used at the time this guide was written. starting in October.331). You can demonstrate understanding by answering the question that you have been asked directly. and the current Examiners’ commentaries where you should be advised of any forthcoming changes. You need to make sure that you have clearly understood Sections A and B before moving on to Section C. discussing the issues raised with other students or colleagues. You will need to adjust this for your own study year. especially the concepts involved and the perspectives of the relevant sociologists. At the end of Sections B and C. We have suggested a study schedule here to help you plan your time.

21 Principles of sociology Notes 8 .

we shall be addressing four key questions: • What is sociology about? (Chapter 1) • How do sociologists do research? (Chapter 2) • What is the relationship between theory and method in sociology? (Chapter 3) • How have sociologists tried to explain how societies work and change? (Chapter 4) 9 .Section A: Social theory and research Section A: Social theory and research In Section A.

21 Principles of sociology Notes 10 .

you should have a clearer idea of: • how to study sociology. Essential reading For full edition details. 2007) Chapters 1 and 4. what is meant by active learning. Learning objectives By the end of this chapter. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. please refer to the full reading lists in the Appendix to this subject guide. 2008) Chapters 1 and 2. Plummer Sociology. 2005 and 2008 editions) Chapters 1 and 7. Choose one of: Fulcher. J.Chapter 1: What is sociology? Chapter 1: What is sociology? Written by Dr Steve Taylor. (Harlow: Prentice Hall. and having completed the essential reading and activities. and K. (A reminder: for full details of the editions and ISBNs please check the reading list at the end of this subject guide. A. but note that these books can be a little more difficult to understand than the textbooks. (Cambridge: Polity Press. and J. or Macionis. and how Parsons and Mead put forward different explanations of these processes. Sociology. J. Scott Sociology. or Giddens. A global introduction. Aims of the chapter The aims of this chapter are to give you a clearer idea of the following: • how to approach studying sociology • what sociology is • the differences between sociology and commonsense • what is meant by sociological thinking • the relationship between the individual and society • socialisation and identity formation. and what examiners will be looking for • what sociologists study • some of the key ways that sociology gives us insights that go beyond commonsense understanding • what is meant by thinking sociologically and sociologists’ interest in social order. It is worth noting that reading lists are updated annually and provided online even when the subject guide is not fully revised that year.) 11 . Further reading It is worth dipping into any of the following classic introductions to help give you a ‘feel’ of sociology and sociological thinking. social change and the relationship between the individual and society • how our identities arise from social relationships • what sociologists mean by socialisation and identity.

It is not about learning theories or facts and figures. 1963). The social system.halovine. millions of people in modern industrialised societies are confronted by more choices than ever about how to live their lives. It is simple]. 1970). but it is also about trying to understand ourselves. 1951). we hope. Mead. Parsons. T. So how did the world become this way? Why are people’s lives today so different from those of their parents and grandparents? What are the possibilities for our lives in the future? These are the questions that sociology asks and attempts to answer. Mills. drug addiction and self harm continue to rise. as rates of crime. 1990). geared towards the British school syllabuses but it has a lot of good introductory material and useful links to specialist sociology websites. The presentation of the self in everyday This website gives links to a range of other sociology resources. C. Thinking sociologically. . (Harmondsworth: Penguin. Gintis Schooling in capitalist America. This chapter is designed to help you start thinking like a sociologist. (Harmondsworth: Penguin. Websites 8 www. (New York: Free Press. Berger. 1934). Video/DVD Introducing Sociology (halo vine. (Harmondsworth: Penguin. Willis. self and society. However. it seems that the drive for ever greater prosperity and new-found freedoms and lifestyle choices come at a This is a British sociology website.1 Introduction We are living in a world of dramatic and unprecedented social change: new technologies and cultural upheavals are transforming our lives. It is about understanding what it means to ‘think sociologically’. 1976) [ISBN 9780465097180 (pbk)]. mental disorder. 1993) [ISBN . you should find it quite easy to follow. A short video/DVD giving some insights into ‘sociological thinking’ by explaining what sociology is about and showing how a sociologist might bring a very different perspective to everyday things like the mobile (or hand) phone and the security camera. 1. Goffman. Works cited Bowles. Mind. As prosperity grows and cultural taboos break down. E. P Learning to labour. Z. S. and how societies make us who we are.21 Principles of sociology Bauman. (London: Routledge. Sociology is about trying to understand the social world. take time out regularly to stop and 12 . G. (University of Chicago. 2004) [8 www. Once you start thinking sociologically you will find the later chapters on research and theory and the topic areas covered later in this chapter and in Sections B and C easier to understand.sociology. P Invitation to sociology.sociolog. 9781857421705]. (Aldershot: Ashgate. (Oxford: Blackwell. 1971) [ISBN 9780140213508 (pbk)]. Wright The sociological imagination. 8 www. To make the most of this chapter. and

or can you relate them to wider changes in your society? For example. then choose another relative or acquaintance 20–30 years older than you. you have to recall information in all subjects. More specifically. Do not rush the chapter. you have to criticise what you read. and examiners will be looking for evidence of this understanding. patterns of work or certain social values changed since your parents were young? Do you think these might have influenced some of the differences you have identified between yourself and your mother or father? By asking yourself these kinds of questions. How would you explain them? Are they just individual differences. 1. Active learning Some people may tell you that examinations are all about memory. have educational opportunities. Obviously there are all sorts of possibilities. you must be able to: • describe key sociological ideas. theories and studies to different aspects of social life. Obviously. If you cannot compare yourself with a parent for some reason. or question. This is wrong. You also have to question things. theories and studies • apply sociological ideas. So if you find yourself simply trying to remember lists of facts you need to learn in a different way in order to do well in sociology. sometimes. Sociology is primarily about understanding ideas. but rather ask yourself all the time. Maybe your aspirations are different from your mother or father? Maybe your values are different? Maybe you have (or hope to have) very different work from your mother or father? Now try to account for those differences. to do well in sociology. by exploring how personal lives may be influenced by wider social changes. It doesn’t matter what you have written down. ‘What does this tell me about how a sociologist thinks about the world?’ Let’s start with an example. Activity 1. Look at your list. compare different ideas and. but the main emphasis in sociology is on testing your thinking abilities rather than your memory.1 A changing world Write down five ways that your life is different from that of your mother (if you are female) and your father (if you are male) when they were your age. you are already starting to think like a sociologist. The idea of actively thinking about a problem can be illustrated with an 13 . This involves actively thinking rather than passively trying to absorb information as a sponge absorbs liquids. You have to apply your knowledge to the problem.Chapter 1: What is sociology? reflect on the points being made and attempt to answer the questions that have been set in the Activities.2 Approaching sociology Critical thinking So how should you approach studying sociology? It’s important to make it clear from the start that sociology is not a subject you can simply learn. theories and studies • discuss and compare sociological concepts. Lists of ‘learned’ points will not impress examiners. that has been set. Before reading any further attempt the Activity below. All these skills involve active learning and thinking.

These may be: • personal relationships with people we know well.21 Principles of sociology example from everyday life. who else has a key?) but you are doing much more than that. Any subject is easier to understand once you have some grasp of its field of inquiry and what it is trying to do. friends and people we know at work or college 14 . 1. Try this even if you have never studied the subject before. or social relations. You have to ask yourself some questions and work out the best solution.’ Answering such questions well involves going through the same process described above in relation to being locked out of your house. Sociologists are primarily interested in all that happens to people in terms of their relationships with others. This involves active processes throughout your period of study. or ‘Compare the costs and benefits of using structured and unstructured interviews. for example. focus on the problem you are confronted with. ‘Describe three ways to get into your house. to ‘Identify three ways sociologists can study the past’. How can this story help us to tackle questions in sociology? You certainly won’t be given a question asking you to.2 What is sociology? Before reading any further write down in one sentence what you think sociology is. questioning the things you read about.’ But you might be asked. Stop and think about this for a moment. so the word literally means the study of companionship. Imagine you have returned to your house and found you have forgotten your key and there is no one in. compare and contrast their relative merits and. Is there some other way you can get into the house without a key? How many other people have keys and which one of these people would it be the best to contact? Is there somewhere else you could go and wait? Should you smash a window to get in? Here. above all. Let’s begin by introducing some of the key ideas of sociology and the questions it asks. you are also actively thinking about the problem and working out possible solutions. such as asking yourself questions. The first step on the road to understanding sociology is to ask ourselves what the subject is about. It is a useful activity to try to think about a topic first before reading something about it. looking for links between different parts of the subject.3 What is sociology? Activity 1. Now try to develop your definition by attempting two further questions: • What do you think sociologists study? • How do you think a sociologist’s understanding of some aspect of social life would be different from a ‘commonsense’ understanding? The study of social relationships The word sociology comes from a combination of the Latin socius (meaning ‘companion’) and the Greek logos (meaning ‘the study of’). you are certainly drawing on your existing knowledge (for example. You have to work out the possibilities. such as family members. noting down what you do not understand and looking for the answers from your books or this subject guide.

Social institutions Social relationships are rarely random. educational institutions are dependent on the government for their funding. All sociology is about relationships of one sort or another: for example. It can range from things that affect large parts of the world over long periods of time. where behaviour tends to be regular or patterned. Sociologists are interested in the study of individuals’ personalities and behaviour but they are also interested in how they relate to other people. political. right down to two people having a brief conversation in an elevator. such as industrialisation or globalisation. education and religious practice are examples of social institutions. for example. family. but whose actions influence our lives. For example. The fact that sociology is about social relationships that can take many different forms means that its scope is very wide. to the study of specific social organisations. From this starting point. how they are produced and how they shape people’s lives. Types of family life. Economy Workforce Education Funding Taxes Government Figure 1. take away our rubbish or drive the taxi we are in • indirect relations with people we neither know nor see. Thus it is very difficult to give a precise definition of sociology because it operates at different levels. such as those we have with people who serve us in shops. In contemporary industrial societies we find. educational. legal and religious institutions.1: Institutional interdependence As a result of this institutional interdependence. Normally they are organised in various ways. To give a simple example: productive institutions are dependent on educational institutions for a skilled workforce. relationships between different societies. or macro. What we loosely refer to as a ‘society’ is actually a complex of many social institutions. the word relationship is very important in sociology. economic. However. and government institutions. sociologists want to know more about these social contexts. Sociologists call this institutional interdependence. Therefore. rely on productive institutions to create the wealth to finance government spending. directly or indirectly. such as schools or families. the key idea in all sociological research is that people’s lives and behaviour cannot be understood apart from the social contexts in which they participate. in turn. Although these institutions seem to be separate and distinct they are also related to each other in various ways. a decision by corporate executives in the United States to shut down an overseas plant can affect the working and domestic lives of thousands of people who live nowhere near the USA. between different parts of a society and between individuals and societies. many sociologists adopt a structural.Chapter 1: What is sociology? • impersonal relationships. perspective that means looking at societies as 15 . Sociologists refer to these patterns of behaviour as social institutions.

approach and looking at small segments of institutions in much greater detail. He found that rather than simply being failed by the school and the society. prejudices and. as Bowles and Gintis suggested. Sociologists in the UK and the USA studying the relationships between the institutions of family and school have found that. which they saw as being in manual labour. then. Sociologists explore different forms of social institutions. It also explores the ‘inside story’ of people’s lives. such as physics or chemistry. They argued that schools prepared large numbers of young people. Sociologists are not only interested in exploring relationships between social institutions. Exploring this question usually involves adopting a micro. This means that social institutions are produced by the conscious activities of human beings. if the research calls for it. Paul Willis (1977. Sociology. which are natural processes. The subject of sociological research – social institutions – is cultural rather than natural. We shall be looking at this issue in much more detail in Chapter 3. as we shall see. subordinate jobs. for low-paid. Can you think of some reasons for this? Two US sociologists. but it is important to note that there is an important difference between sociology and natural sciences. that is how people interpret and make sense of the situations in which they find themselves. the weather and chemical processes within the body. They had already decided that education was irrelevant to their futures. Think about this for a moment. Sociology as a science? Another question that is often asked about sociology is whether or not it is a science. is not just about just about the wider ‘outside’ picture of patterns of social organisation and behaviour. beliefs. and trying to work out how different institutions ‘function’ to produce particular outcomes. An interesting postscript to this study is that Paul Willis’ services are now very much in demand from the governments of some newly industrialising countries puzzled by the fact so many young students are turning their back on the educational services provided for them. or small-scale. However. in contrast to things like gravity. adopted a structural approach to explore this problem. the relationships between them and how individuals experience them. children from lower-class or working-class backgrounds have more problems at school and leave with fewer qualifications. even their darkest secrets. This illustrates how sociological research can help in the formation and analysis of government policy. For example. on average. Bowles and Gintis (1976).21 Principles of sociology systems. Now read 16 . Summary Sociology may be generally defined as the study of the social relationships. The result of this is that sociologists are also interested in the subjective aspects of life. the boys he studied deliberately failed themselves. this ‘structural approach’ tells only part of the story. The only point in going to school was to ‘have a laugh’ and make fun of those who did work. they are also interested in the relationship between individuals and institutions. in a famous sociological study called Learning to Labour. how they make sense of social situations. by refusing to work at school. usually from the more deprived backgrounds. their values. reprinted 1993) made a detailed study of 12 British working-class boys.

we are also bombarded with information about our own and other societies from newspapers. we are all sociologists of a kind because. radio and television and the Internet. it is easy to justify the need for specialist subjects like physics. what’s causing these problems and what could. most of us have developed a number of social skills and an extensive knowledge of the social world around us. They are not directly accessible to us. and I shall use the example of crime to illustrate them. because answering it is a good way to find out more about what sociologists do and how they think about the world. but note that this is more complex. It is important that you attempt the activities that have been designed to illustrate key points and help give you a ‘feel’ of the subject. After all. using any one of the textbooks we have recommended by Fulcher and Scott (2007). We call this ‘lay’. People also have theories and opinions about their society. look back to the answer you gave to this question in Activity 1. or commonsense. It’s a perfectly fair assumption. what’s wrong with it. So. be done to make things better.2 on p. Much of it is directly accessible to us and we begin learning about it from the moment we are born. But we can’t say the same about the social world. chemistry and biology. is the sociologist’s understanding of societies any different from everyday. Therefore. what is different about specialist sociologists? There are many answers to this question but here we are going to look at three of the most important ones. knowledge of society. Berger’s Invitation to sociology takes a different approach and is very entertaining.4 Sociology and commonsense In the next three sections your main reading will be this subject guide rather than your textbooks. We can only know about them from expert knowledge. and • applying or testing sociological theories.14 concerning how you think sociology is different from commonsense. although I shall suggest some further reading throughout.Chapter 1: What is sociology? This is a good place to start reading to develop your understanding of some of the issues raised here. If you want to read a little more deeply. Sociology is different from commonsense because it involves: • asking distinct sociological questions • doing research. commonsense understanding? Can a sociologist tell you anything about social life that you couldn’t have worked out for yourself? It is worth pursuing this question. Are we all sociologists? It’s interesting how many people think that sociology is just commonsense. So. and should. 17 . 1. Giddens (2008) or Macionis and Plummer (2005 or 2008). We don’t just learn about social life from our own experiences. But first. we cannot understand the workings of things like atoms. by the time we are grown up. molecules or cells simply from our everyday experiences. look at Chapter 1 of Mills (1970). In a way.

or some of the customs. They may feel that you are playing tricks on them and may take exception to your behaviour. The famous US sociologist Peter Berger – whose book Invitation to sociology we have recommended as further reading for this chapter – says that part of the sociologist’s art is making the familiar become strange. Sociologists are also interested in these questions and a number of sociologists work in crime prevention. is there anything you might now question or do differently as a result of ‘your visit’? But be careful here. how different the houses were. including the UK. the streets. and spend a little time pretending you are a visitor from another country and have never been here before. Another difference between sociological and commonsense thinking – as we shall see in the next chapter – is that sociologists are interested in how everyday social order is maintained. or whatever. the laws relating to the prohibiting of homosexual relationships have been changed and it is not illegal to be homosexual. returning to your ‘real life’. in the UK 40 years ago. people spend quite a lot of time talking about it. but in many countries. such as your place of work. Making the familiar strange means learning to look at your familiar environment in the same way. Write down what you notice. the people. some people may not understand that you are ‘doing’ sociology. Now it is illegal for a man to rape his wife. If you have travelled to another country for work or a holiday.3 Making the familiar strange Try this yourself. for example. by looking at it with the eyes of a stranger. thinking as a sociologist also raises other questions. by the legal system. why are some actions defined as ‘crimes’ in the first place. that people are made aware of the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. what can be done to stop or at least reduce it. From this point of view sociologists are not just interested in how crime disrupts social order. observed that it is only by identifying certain acts as crimes. Select a setting that is very familiar to you. and labelling certain people as criminals and punishing them. However laws are changed by people and laws change over time. above all. paradoxically. it was quite legal for a man to rape his wife but illegal to be a practising homosexual. 18 . This means trying to see the taken-forgranted world around you afresh. What this shows is that what is defined as a crime is socially defined. For example. Sociologists are interested in how these definitions are constructed in everyday life. For example. Activity 1. amusing.21 Principles of sociology Asking sociological questions: making the familiar strange Most people feel they have some understanding of crime and. From this perspective. Emile Durkheim (1858–1917). The famous French sociologist. What questions spring to mind? What do you find odd. However. think back to the first day or two when it was new to you. whereas other acts that may be equally harmful are seen as quite acceptable? Why do societies change their minds about what is and what isn’t a crime and what should be done about crime? For example. or a tourist in a foreign land. interesting about this ‘new’ culture? What do you like or dislike about it? Finally. certainly in countries like the United States and the UK that have high reported crime rates. college or home. they are also interested in how crime contributes to social order. Recall how much you took in. sociologists question some of the things that most people just take for granted about crime. why it happens and. Thus. which social groups have the power to define some acts (but not others) as crimes and some individuals (but not others) as criminals? What is considered as a crime. The conversations you hear are usually about how bad crime is. is what the law states is a crime.

Further reading See Berger (1963) Chapter 2. For example. the first answer to the question of how sociology is different from commonsense is that sociologists see the world differently and ask different questions about it. Sociologists are also interested in how the media report crime. I am standing at the bus stop but my bus hasn’t arrived. So. Applying sociological theories In everyday life we all draw on our commonsense understanding to theorise about things that puzzle us. involves applying particular skills. In sociology these are called research methods and we shall be looking at these in the next chapter.Chapter 1: What is sociology? crime actually plays a part in maintaining social order. they also collect and organise this information in very specific and systematic ways. 19 . My theorising may then influence what I do next. Doing research People in modern societies probably feel they know something about crime – such as whether it’s going up or down or which social groups are committing most of it – because they are bombarded with information about crime from newspapers. it is not just that sociologists have access to more sources of information. Maybe it’s because of the traffic. However. such as carry on waiting or get a taxi. So.2. magazines and television. sociologists studying crime would use many other sources of information. unless they have been a victim of crime or are criminals themselves. The process of doing sociological research. we can see that a second major difference between the layperson and the sociologist is that sociology involves the systematic study of societies from a wide range of sources. section 3. like the process speaking a foreign language or playing chess. Why is it not here? I might then begin to theorise about the problem by drawing on my commonsense understanding of why a bus might be late. How do you think sociologists might study crime? Sociologists: • examine the official crime rates to see how crime is related to aspects of society. You will be reading more about this in Chapter 3. sociologists studying crime have access to much wider sources of information than most people who. However. Maybe it came early. are dependent on what the media tell them. Maybe the bus has broken down. such as geographical region or people’s age or social background • explore how the statistics are produced and how reliable they are • interview people who have committed crimes • talk to victims of crime • observe the police at work • study the workings of the courts and the legal system • join criminal gangs • visit prisons and have even have had themselves locked up to observe prison life from the inside! In short.

Therefore. Merton’s theory predicted – quite rightly as it turned out – that as long as Western societies encourage people to want more and more material goods while effectively preventing a large proportion of the population from ever obtaining them legitimately. or goals. what makes sociological theorising different from commonsense theorising is that sociologists have another source of knowledge to draw upon. without any obvious means of obtaining them. although commonsense theories tend to explain crime in terms of the characteristics of individuals – they are bad. increasing crime. have no legitimate means of achieving these aspirations. This does not mean that Merton’s theory was necessarily right – indeed it has been modified and criticised – rather I have used it here simply to illustrate how explanations drawn from sociological theory are significantly different from commonsense explanations. or when we hear about social issues in the press or on TV it is usually about things that people feel . who do not have access to good educational institutions or useful social contacts. A US sociologist. crime will continue to rise. they are in a state of anomie and more likely to try to obtain their goals by illegitimate means through crime. So. However.21 Principles of sociology Sociologists also draw on their commonsense understanding when theorising about human behaviour. Robert Merton (1910–2003). sociological understanding is different from commonsense in at least three important respects: sociologists tend to ask different questions. most people from disadvantaged backgrounds. a key concept in sociology is anomie. Although criminals are clearly deviating from society’s norms by committing crimes. or deregulated. The fact that sociologists have access to this specialised knowledge means that they can provide explanations of human behaviour that are different from commonsense. Summary Most people have some commonsense understanding of societies simply by living in them. do systematic research and apply sociological theories. You will be reading more about Merton in the section on structural functionalism in Chapter 4. 20 . status and power. when they have aspirations. A person can be said to be anomic. However. Sociological problems When most people think about society. they are also conforming to US society’s norms by wanting greater material rewards. have had a bad upbringing and so on – Merton’s explanation locates the causes of crime in terms of the organisation of wider society. As the subject has evolved. used the concept of anomie to develop a sociological theory of rising crime in US society. 1.5 Thinking sociologically In the previous section I suggested that one way that sociology is distinguished from commonsense is that sociologists think about social life rather differently. For example. He argued that although the culture of US society encourages everyone to pursue the ‘American dream’ of achieving wealth. are going ‘wrong’ with society. conflicts between different groups in society. growing ‘disrespectful behaviour’ of young people. sociologists have developed very general frameworks of ideas called sociological theories that help explain how societies work and change. In this section we shall look at this sociological thinking in a little more detail.

‘right’. Let’s look at each of these in turn. ‘normal’.50) Activity 1. Why is there is this order and regularity to social life? How and why do societies hold together? Why do most people seem to follow the rules of a society or social group most of the time? Where does this order come from? Are these rules generally agreed? Or do some groups impose their rules on others? 21 . are about how societies. sociology is about much more than this and its focus is much wider. However. or parts of societies. by driving through a red light or going straight to the front of a queue rather than the back. they are just as interested in things that are seen to be ‘good’. The puzzle of social order Next time you find yourself in a crowded place. • Unemployment. anti-social ways – but they are more interested in the rules themselves and how they work. how this order changes and its relationship to the behaviour of individuals. For example. Imagine you are seeing it all for the first time. such as a busy street. Pause and write down some examples of social order. • How societies change. just take a few minutes to stop and look. Sociologists are interested in social problems and some work for organisations that address some of these problems. • The organisation of economic production in your society. ‘ordinary’ and so on. Most people take this order for granted and the only time they notice it is when someone breaks a rule. (p. then. You’ll see evidence of the social order that is all around you. We begin by asking why the world is this way. and which do you think are better described as ‘sociological problems’? • Rising divorce rates in your society.Chapter 1: What is sociology? Most people – including most people starting sociology – say that sociology is about studying social problems and perhaps helping to find ‘solutions’ to them. You might have mentioned: • people queuing at bus stops • people waiting for others to get off the train before they get on • cars stopping at a red light • people paying for the goods they take from the shops. not revolution but government. these rules are the starting point. • Illegal drug use. not divorce but marriage. However. • The role of educational institutions in modern societies. Thinking sociologically means being curious about the order of everyday social life. Sociological problems. ‘acceptable’. a shopping mall or crowded subway. As Berger puts it in Invitation to sociology: The fundamental sociological problem is not crime but law. not racial discrimination but racially defined segregation. for sociologists. work in the way they do.4 Social and sociological problems Which of the following do you think are better described as ‘social problems’. This is partly right. Although sociologists are interested in things that people feel are ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ in societies. sociologists are interested in why people break the ‘rules’ of a society – such as committing crimes or behaving in odd.

For example: • economic data show that the patterns of employment. the everyday. have worse health and die at younger ages. However. and people’s increasing awareness of them. whose ideas were later to transform the world. above all. rates of mental illness and even suicide rates are much the same year in and year out • social differences – there are significant and consistent variations between different social groups in a society: for example. arrests. to end up with lower educational qualifications. are more interested in the unusual and troublesome. output. those from economically poorer social backgrounds – sometimes referred to in sociology as socially deprived or lower social class – are more likely. such as the property-owning capitalist class and organised labour movements were beginning to emerge. Origins of sociology The formal study of sociology began in the nineteenth century as an attempt to make sense of massive changes that were sweeping over Western Europe at that time. capitalist societies were constantly changing. and Marx was optimistic that they were sowing the seeds of their own destruction. imports and exports of a country are very similar from one year to the next • demographic data – that is. See the section on Karl Marx in Chapter 4 for further reading. the ‘taken-forgranted’. work in lowpaid jobs. European societies were industrialising and there was a mass movement of people from the rural to the urban areas. Traditional institutions of power and control. The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were times of reform and revolution and new sources of power. would lead to revolutionary change and the creation of what Marx believed would be fairer communist societies where resources would be distributed to people according to their needs. information about the distribution of populations – show that in any given country roughly the same number of people are born each year. For Karl Marx (1818–1883). we would find more evidence of the regularities of social life. whereas journalists.21 Principles of sociology If we were to dig a little deeper and do some research. These early sociologists tried to make sense of this new industrial age by identifying what they believed were its essential characteristics and comparing them with what had gone before. were losing much of their influence. Sociology is about documenting and explaining these kinds of regularities and patterns. the modern age was characterised. on average. 22 . but we can introduce two of the most influential figures here. by a new form of free market economy that he called industrial capitalism. and the subject we now know as sociology was born. the mass media and to some extent the general public. get married and get divorced • rule breaking – reported crimes. He argued that most of the wealth it created remained in the hands of the small owning class who made their profits by exploiting the labour power of the workers. such as the Church and landed aristocracy. So. We shall be looking at these theories in more detail in Chapter 4. Marx was very critical of capitalism. The fact that societies could be transformed so dramatically in such a comparatively short space of time led scholars to start exploring the sources of social order and change. The injustices they produced. sociologists are more interested the usual.

you might be said to be alienated from your true vocation.Chapter 1: What is sociology? Max Weber (1864–1920). they are alienated from their natural selves. This is the effect of rationalisation. For example. The term alienation means being separated. By rationalisation he meant the change from doing things because they had always been done that way (traditional action) to identifying outcomes and calculating the most efficient means of achieving them (rational action). because the profit motive predominates above all else in capitalist societies. the terms ‘health’ and ‘illness’ seem clear enough. Thus. of these ideas apply to your society or to your personal experiences? Can you think of some examples that: a) illustrate b) contradict Marx and Weber’s views? You will be dealing with this topic in more detail in Chapter 4. if you really want to be a musician but feel you have to study banking to get a good job. The bureaucratic efficiency of the organisation can take away the creativity of the people working in those organisations. Activity 1. few people have the opportunity to realise their creativity. which is also a form of alienation. However. For Marx. In fact he thought it would almost certainly lead to an even more bureaucratic state having more control over people’s lives. Most sociologists today are not as ambitious as Marx or Weber. the principle that studying societies (or parts of them) involves seeing them as changing social processes is still an essential element of thinking sociologically. He argued that the modern age was characterised by a process of increasing rationalisation. most people learn to evaluate their lives not so much in terms of what they do. Weber believed that Marx could be right about capitalism being replaced by communism. another key founder of sociology. This is ‘caused’ by the way production is organised. For example. Marx argued that people are naturally creative. it may be worth stopping for a moment and thinking about one of their key ideas and seeing if it has any relevance today. Therefore. For Weber. and the increasing bureaucratic administration of life. Do you think either. Other examples of the rationalisation of life included the replacement of religion by science as the major source of intellectual authority. Now if we just look at our contemporary world. modern life is characterised by increasing bureaucratic control and regulation of people’s lives. the displacement of elites based on birth by ones based on qualifications. creativity and imagination. However.2. Weber did not think this would be any liberation. but in terms of what they own and what they consume. section 4. They simply have to ‘follow the rules’ and lose the ability to think for themselves. He called this the ‘iron cage’ of rationality. Weber was concerned that the remorseless spread of rational bureaucracy was stifling individual initiative. looking back shows just how 23 . However. It may seem strange to be asked to read about theorists who were writing about societies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They tend to focus on particular aspects of societies rather than trying to construct such large-scale and general theories of social change. I am a medical sociologist and that means I study health and illness. unlike Marx. or estranged from our true selves. took a different and altogether more pessimistic view. For Weber there was no way out of the ‘iron cage’. However. or both.5 Marx and Weber today: alienation and creativity You will be reading much more about Marx and Weber later in your studies.

24 . You will be looking at this topic in more detail in Section B on globalisation. sociological problems take a much wider focus and ask how societies work and change in the ways they do. In questioning this view sociologists are not. as continually changing social processes. Rather. sociologists are interested in how this changing social order shapes our lives as individuals. Start by completing Activity 1. Above all. In modern societies many things that were simply seen as part of life a century ago – such as pregnancy. how it is happening and whether or not we are gaining or losing out by being persuaded to see more and more aspects of our life as illnesses over which we have no control? Sociological thinking. Further reading Berger (1963) Chapter 8. in important respects. Sociologists are interested in studying individuals. How does this happen? We shall start exploring this process here by asking you to look at your relationship to society. involves moving to and fro between past. As individuals we obviously create societies but sociologists argue that. Sociologists are particularly interested in documenting and explaining social order and the processes by which this order changes over time. Many social scientists and scientists would agree with this. as some claim. then. thinking sociologically involves seeing the relationship between the individual and society as a two-way. medicine and psychology. This raises many questions for the sociologist. Sociologists use the term medicalisation to describe the process whereby more and more aspects of life are being labelled as illnesses.21 Principles of sociology much our ideas of what constitutes ‘health and ‘illness’ have changed over time. rejecting the study of the ‘individual’ in favour of the ‘group’. Maybe there is more of society ‘in you’ than you realise? You and society: identity and role What we would like you to do for this section is to think about yourself and your relationship to the society in which you live. long-term unhappiness and disruptive behaviour by children in school – are now seen as medical conditions requiring treatments. arguing that as societies are clearly created by individuals. present and developing ideas that help explain societies. 1. and a lot of sociological research involves talking to and observing individuals.6 The individual and society Commonsense thinking holds that societies are all about individuals. such as: why this is happening. We will come back to this activity again so it is important you take a little time to fill it in now. for example – that provides the key to understanding human behaviour. street. rather than a one-way.6 below. or parts of them. Summary Whereas social problems are about things people feel are ‘wrong’ with societies. societies also create us. it is the study of the individual – through biology.

6 Self and society Imagine you have 10 words to describe the person you are to someone who has never met you. Julie’s list I am: 1. that is. Write down the 10 words you would use. if you think about it. each of them has a social component. intelligent 9. Sociologists usually refer to these things as part of our social identity. Social identity Julie’s first three answers are British. attractive 10. People have different ways of doing it. Julie. characteristics she shares with millions of other people. wife 7. 25 . everyday words but. These are familiar. Ask yourself why you think these words say something about you as a person? What do they tell other people about you? Now look at the list below compiled by one of my students.Chapter 1: What is sociology? Activity 1. Afro-Caribbean 3. female 4. British 2. There is no ‘right answer’ to the question: describe yourself. Afro-Caribbean and female. popular. they refer to relationships with others. hairdresser 5. student 6. I am: 1………………………………… 2………………………………… 3………………………………… 4………………………………… 5………………………………… 6………………………………… 7………………………………… 8………………………………… 9………………………………… 10………………………………… Check over your list and spend a few moments asking yourself why you have chosen these words. Let’s look at Julie’s answers in a little more detail. If you can. Don’t worry if you put in things that are very different from her. that is a label that places people in particular social categories. add a few additional comments to your original list. mother 8.

sociologists have shown that gender has important social dimensions. you may also have put down some of the things you do. Indian. Which of these differences do you think are primarily due to biological causes (for example. Sociologists refer to these as norms. smoking in public places or consuming alcohol are legal in some countries but illegal in others. although nationality is a very clear and unambiguous source of identity for some people. values and behaviour. Nationality and ethnicity confer identities on people that influence their relationships. Many of these norms vary over time within a particular country and also vary between countries. they also have their own traditions. as they are for many people. They affect how we behave. show a better standard of behaviour and help around the house more. These are also common everyday words. It is also social. history. In answers 4–7 she has told us about her occupation. Thus.) Like Julie. Most nation states. as we are simply born either male or female. For many people their ethnicity may be an equally. the same sociological ideas apply. For example. whether a person identifies primarily with a nation or with an ethnic group. Singaporean or British is to say much more than I live in a particular region of the world. boys are expected to be ‘tough’ and ‘masculine’. sociologists mean a social group that has certain common characteristics. access to public places). You too may have put down your nationality. customs and generally accepted ways of behaving. Many countries are increasingly comprised of different ethnic groups. availability of employment opportunities. or female rather than male. for Julie. for sociologists. but they have also have specific social expectations attached to 26 . Social roles Like Julie. or countries. Although gender may appear to be purely biological. (See Chapter 10 on ‘Race’ and ethnicity for a further discussion on this point. for many people. These cultural norms have an important influence on us. their nationality is still an important statement of their social identity. Activity 1. in most cultures. and boisterous and aggressive behaviour is usually tolerated more in boys than in girls. government and laws. This is because. Describing herself as British and Afro-Caribbean suggests that. or more. how we view the behaviour of others and how we ‘see’ the world. both her nationality and ethnicity are important sources of identity. whereas girls are usually expected to be more mature. you probably put down your gender as one of the most important ways of describing yourself.7 Gender differences Stop and think about this last example for a minute and write down five ways that you think your life would be different if you had been born male rather than female. not only have their own language.21 Principles of sociology Let’s take nationality first. However. gender is not just a biological category. In important respects we learn to be men or women through social interaction. However. language. To say I am Malaysian. By an ethnic group. or with a combination of the two. For example. Social and ethnic groups tend to place different expectations on males and females and this then shapes the subsequent behaviour of boys and girls and men and women. customs and institutions. important source of identity than their national identity. it’s not the same for others. We don’t just become men or women. such as a shared culture. that she is a student and that she is a wife and a mother. women bear children) and which of them do you think are due to the way in which your society is organised (for example its cultural values. men are physically stronger.

Other people then confirm and reinforce this identity by looking at the person with approval or admiration. However. Similarly. social consequences will normally follow.8 Roles Have you put any of these social roles on your list? If so. or you may neglect your children as a mother. people can interpret their scripts in different ways. they also have social aspects to them. You may behave like a child at college. What do you think that involves? Colleges obviously expect their students to do academic work. This may then be confirmed by getting good marks in the exams. such as being thrown out of college or having your children taken away from you. Activity 1. if like Julie.Chapter 1: What is sociology? them. For example. easy-going or stressed. because it is as if societies are giving people scripts they are expected to follow rather like actors in a play. rather than as a social role you share with millions of others. Colleges. you may have said that you are hardworking or lazy. Let’s take the ‘script’ of being a student. if your teachers praise your contributions in class. make a few brief notes about some of the expectations you think are placed on them. At first sight these characteristics appear to be purely ‘personal’ rather than social but. outgoing or shy. One mother may choose to stay at home. They expect students to conduct themselves in certain ways. you are given a ‘mothering script’. 27 . because their face and body shape fit the cultural norms of attractiveness as defined in magazines. shout at the teachers and do no work. when you think about it. then. like actors. But how does a person know whether or not they are intelligent? If you are a student. you are expected to love your child and (in most cases) take the main responsibility for its upbringing and its day-to-day welfare. Sociologists refer to these characteristics as aspects of our personal identity. give you good marks and write favourable comments on your coursework – or even tell you that with your natural ability you should be doing much better! – then you are more likely to begin to develop an idea of yourself as capable or intelligent. listen to their lecturers. or beautiful. Whether we conform to social expectations or not (and most of us do most of the time) we have to take into account the expectations others have about how we should behave. cinema and on television. there are certain social criteria by which you can judge this. Personal identity Like Julie (answers 8–10). work without the close supervision they had at school and hand in work that is properly presented and referenced. they usually expect rather more than this. For example. are doing more than teaching students academic subjects. for example. asking them for dates and telling them how lovely they are. Of course. things that say something about you as a specific individual. you may also have put some personal characteristics on your list. You could even tear up your ‘social script’ and do something entirely different. Julie has said she thinks she’s intelligent. while a third works full-time and arranges childcare. attend classes. Sociologists sometimes refer to these as social roles. another may work part-time. They are also presenting them with an identity: ‘this is the sort of person you are expected to be while you are here’. But. a person may see themselves as attractive. when you think about it. you are a mother. Similarly.

When we think about what we are.7 Socialisation and identity The previous section illustrated just how much your life as an individual is bound up with the social contexts in which you live. But how does this arise? In very general terms. Or we may go the other way and accept that we can never be any of these things and adjust our behaviour accordingly. outgoing or shy – arise from social relationships and socially accepted norms and standards. or more sociable and outgoing. more assertive. occupation and personal qualities are influenced by the society in which you live. make up the culture of a society. 1. as we saw in the previous section. fat or thin. In this section we shall introduce some sociological concepts. we may try to make ourselves more clever. Summary Here we have asked you to describe yourself as a person and illustrated just how much of ‘yourself’. ask yourself why you think you have developed this view of yourself. You cannot understand one without the other. Did you put in any of these more personal characteristics? • If so.9 Personal identity Look at your list. your ethnicity. these cultural practices and values place expectations on how people should behave. • What do you think have been some of the most important influences on the way you see yourself? • Are there any particular incidents that stand out as being particularly important? • Also ask yourself how much the social expectations and the reactions of other people influence your behaviour. we compare ourselves with these social norms. or not trying to make friends. Sociologists use the term institutionalisation to describe the processes whereby these social practices become accepted ways of doing things in a society or social group. How do others see us? This in turn may influence our behaviour in all sorts of ways. These social practices. or sub-culture of a social group and. such as speaking a particular language or organising ourselves into small groups called families. For example. Socialisation We observed in the last section that a key sociological problem is the relation between the individual and society. individuals and societies are inseparable. even the ideas we have about ourselves as individual people – such as whether we think we are intelligent or stupid. gender. we are all born into societies where there are already established patterns of organised behaviour that we referred to earlier as social institutions. perhaps by not working in class. and the values and beliefs surrounding them. Activity 1. attractive or unattractive. Further reading Berger (1963) Chapter 5. 28 . How do we match up? We also monitor other people’s reactions to us in daily life.21 Principles of sociology In short. For sociologists. and theories that help describe and explain this process further.

people’s social identities. So socialisation is a continuous process: it begins when we are born and only ends when we die. In premodern or traditional societies. team games. in number of ways. the increasing opportunities many people now have to change their status and their lives means that personal identities have become much more important statements of ‘who we are’ than they were in the past. or mobility. socialisation doesn’t end when we leave school. such as nobleman. Another example is socialisation into old age. • Social identity refers to the ‘public self’. they are teaching us a lot more. People have a view of themselves but that view has to be sustained in social interaction by people confirming to us in various ways that we really are who we think we are. sociologists usually distinguish between social identity and personal identity. of people between different parts of society. for example. gender and occupational roles. or adult. Schools obviously teach us academic skills but. Therefore. So. schools are trying to socialise us for adulthood. As we saw. In sociological terms. This is sometimes known as the ‘hidden curriculum’. 29 . and is constructed around characteristics that are attributed to a person by others and mark them out as a member of a particular group. or peasant. Medical sociologists have even shown that terminally ill people are socialised by medical and nursing staff into dying in the ‘right way’. there was relatively little movement. They also learn what is expected of them when they are becoming old. punctuality. However. co-operation. socialisation continues through our lives. For example. It is from school that we learn. People do not just get old. • Primary socialisation involves the socialisation of the young child by the family. So identities – especially personal identities – are not fixed but are rather fluid and changing. In some societies growing old gracefully means retreating into the background. discipline and that good work will be rewarded. they are negotiated in everyday life through social interaction. The distinction between social and personal identities is one of the ways that sociologists have documented social change. • Personal identity refers to those qualities that mark a person out as unique and set apart from others. • Tertiary. We explored some examples of this in the previous section when you were asked how you would describe yourself.Chapter 1: What is sociology? Sociologists use the term socialisation to describe the various processes through which people learn about. the norms and values of the social groups in which they live. Socialisation processes can be divided into three stages. as we saw in the previous section. • Secondary socialisation is socialisation by the school. people are socialised into ethnic. Self and identity It is through socialisation that a person develops a sense of identity: that is an image of who they are as a person. as sociologists have shown. largely defined who they were throughout their lives. gender and work identities. Although social identities are still important sources of identity in modern societies. and generally conform to. such as ethnicity. bad work penalised.

Activity 1. such as changing your appearance. People in these situations are confronted with what the US sociologist. etc. Sociologists who research the area of identity are particularly interested in exploring situations where people are suddenly and dramatically redefined by others. So although people may still be playing roles backstage at home. how they live.10 Spoiled identity? Stop for a moment and ask yourself if there have been times in your life when you have found a person or people suddenly reacting very differently to you. has called ‘managing a spoiled identity’. for example – husband. see Chapter 4. behaviour or lifestyle? Did it work? If so. Some sociologists argue that one of the defining characteristics of contemporary affluent societies is that increasing numbers of people have unprecedented scope to transform their identities. For example. we can influence the way others see us by buying new clothes. If these responses were to stop and people started avoiding her. we are not simply dealt our identities as if they were cards in a game. The role of the individual Although the reactions of others are clearly important. section 4. and we selfconsciously monitor our ‘performances’. for Goffman. there is less deliberate ‘presentation of self’ and more congruence between how we are seen and how we really are. wife. However. mentally ill or disabled. Under personal identity she felt she was ‘popular’. or backstage. – they are doing so less self-consciously. He argued that identities were not so much a part of us – permanently or temporarily – as resources we ‘pick up and put down’ to negotiate everyday life. like actors.3. such as wanting and enjoying her company. we are rather like actors ‘playing’ the roles on stage. becoming more sociable or driving ourselves on to success in our careers. unemployed. such as when they are labelled as a criminal. 30 . However. such as the enthusiastic teacher. did you notice other people reacting to you differently? Did this affect the way you thought about yourself? On stage and off stage Erving Goffman (1969) brought a new. (For more on the process of identity formation and labelling. bankrupt. Think about why and how it happened and try to recall if it affected your view of yourself. then her idea of herself as ‘popular’ would be threatened and may even break down. when they are less obviously presenting an identity. to sustain ‘being popular’ as part of her identity requires people reacting to her in certain ways. Identities are things we consciously manipulate. Socialisation also gives us skills to exert some control over who we are and how others see us. daughter. who they live with. and some would say cynical. So.11 A new you? Have you tried to change yourself in some way recently. it is now much easier for people to change where they live. Erving Goffman (1922–1982). not all social life is like this.21 Principles of sociology The role of others Go back to the previous section and look at the list compiled by Julie. the caring nurse or lazy student. in given situations. people have time off stage. For example. Goffman recognised that. or present.) Activity 1. twist to the question of changing social identities. how they look and what they believe in.

The sick person must want to get better. but I am really a very different person’? Can you think of recent developments in technology that now give people more scope to present different identities? Two theories of socialisation and identity So far. With external constraint. argued that this happens because societies constrain us to act in certain ways. However. these social roles have a purpose. We don’t just become ill. But how can we begin to explain them sociologically? Here we are going to look at two of the most influential theories of socialisation developed by two of the leading figures of twentieth century sociology. The sick role functions as a form of social control. This constraint is both external and internal. Mead (1863–1931). going to college and handing in essays. such as going to work. for example. is also a social state surrounded by expectations about how people should behave when they are ill. following the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Illness is dysfunctional because when people are sick they do not go to work. whereas acting another way (for 31 . It enables organisations to distinguish between those who have a legitimate reason for not fulfilling their obligations and those who do not. working hard at college and getting a good degree) will probably bring rewards (for example. Parsons Parsons (1951) saw societies as complex systems of parts working together to promote social stability. But why do most people conform to these social obligations most of the time? Parsons. It also ensures that people do the ‘right things’ when they are ill to enable them to recover as soon as possible. people simply learn that acting one way (for example. The privileges are that the sick person is not held responsible for their condition and they are allowed exemption from their usual obligations.H. there are also obligations to the sick role. A person not fulfilling the obligations of the sick role may lose the privileges. that is. we have been describing and illustrating the processes of socialisation and identity formation that are crucial to helping us understand the relation between the individual and society.12 Presentation of self Do you think Goffman is right? Do you find yourself self-consciously presenting an image of yourself to your managers at work. it helps to maintain social order. Consider illness. or to your professors if you are at college? Are you conscious sometimes of thinking to yourself ‘Here is the identity I am presenting. So ‘society’ is influencing us even when we’re sick. follow medical advice and accept treatment when necessary. a good job). hand in their essays and so on. look after their children. Parsons’ insight here was to show that even sickness. Parsons argued that in modern societies there is a distinct ‘sick role’ consisting of privileges and obligations. which appears to be purely biological. we are also socialised into sickness.Chapter 1: What is sociology? Activity 1. For Parsons. Social institutions define roles for people and socialisation is about learning these roles and the expectations surrounding them. Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) and G. In one of the most innovative and creative applications of the idea of role. They arise and persist over time because they help societies to function smoothly.

Mead’s was more about means (how it happens). Parsons argued. a young college lecturer. Internalisation of values can even override survival instincts when. for societies to function effectively. Daniel thinks that perhaps the interview did not go that badly after all and maybe he will get the job. there needs to be more than external constraint. socialisation was not just a process of learning and internalising the institutional expectations transmitted by families. Mead’s focus was on the social significance of (verbal and non-verbal) language in both socialisation and identity formation. For Mead. Mead called this taking the role of the other. he has an important interview for a new job this afternoon and he wants to think about that. Activity 1. For example. a person may work hard at their job and not consider stealing from others not because they want promotion and are afraid of getting put in prison.21 Principles of sociology example. Mead Although Parsons’ theory has been very influential in sociology. we also use it reflexively to monitor our own behaviour. The crucial insight provided by Mead was to show that we do not just use language to make sense of the world around us. He looks round the classroom. Daniel quickly changes his answer. people willingly die for their country or their religion. and over time we learn to see ourselves as we believe others see us.13 Taking the role of the other – Daniel’s day Taking the role of the other might sound complicated. 32 . so he decides to finish it early. while Parsons’ theory was more about ends (the desirability of socialisation). Daniel realises the lecture is not going well. Daniel notices the professor is starting to frown. Evening: Daniel is in a restaurant with a friend. The only students who seem awake are the ones texting on their mobile phones. People have to want to behave in socially acceptable ways. one of its limitations is that it tells us very little about the social and psychological mechanisms by which socialisation and identity formation actually take place. This happens. We can then consciously monitor our behaviour in social interaction. not working hard) will more likely bring failure (for example. schools. As he is answering. no degree and not being able to get a good job). We begin to develop these skills in early childhood when we start pretending to be other people. it is mid-morning but he sees several of the students yawning. However. For some insight into this question. because social norms become internalised through socialisation. In a very important phrase. Morning: Daniel is giving a lecture. They become part of a person’s identity and source of morality. It was rather about learning skills that then enable people actively to interpret the expectations of other people and social institutions and act accordingly. Here we look at it though a day in the life of Daniel. the mass media and so on. the professor smiles and gives Daniel an encouraging nod. some actually seem to be asleep. others are looking out of the window. he suddenly notices the professor who had interviewed him earlier in the day sitting at a nearby table. As he is telling his friend about the interview that he thinks did not go well. but it is really quite a simple idea and one which we can easily relate to our own experiences. Afternoon: Daniel is in his interview and a well-known professor has just asked him a question. As their eyes meet. we can turn to the work of Mead (1934). for example. Anyway. but because they believe that is the right thing to do. In simple terms.

However. society was dominant over the individual. so others’ reactions to us reflect back an image of our social self. Charles Cooley (1864– 1929). for example. I might as well cut it short • the professor doesn’t like this answer. Mead expressed this ‘double centre of gravity’ in his concept of the self. ‘I want to get up. you have conformed to normative expectations not just because you have internalised the value. this ‘social self’. However. was only part of the self. the relationship between individual and society was rather more volatile and problematic. they are also driven by sudden impulses. What we call consciousness is a form of a ‘conversation’ between the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’. leave now and go for a cup of coffee. instincts and inspirations. For Parsons. Social institutions confront people with sets of rules and expectations and most people simply conform to them most of the time. which he divided into the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’. Self I Has ideas.2: Mead’s concept of the self The ‘I’ is the individual.’ says the ‘I’. Each time in the story Daniel was responding to non-verbal communications. ‘It’s rude to walk out of classes’.’ So you sit quietly in the class. also. on another day if things got really bad. then you might just walk out. Just as the mirror (looking-glass) reflects back to us an image of our physical self.Chapter 1: What is sociology? Can you identify the times in this story when Daniel was taking the role of the other and seeing himself as he thought others were seeing him? How do you think he consciously monitored this and altered his behaviour? • the students are not enjoying this lecture. for Mead. From a Meadian point of view. instincts.’ says the ‘Me’. used the term looking-glass self to describe how the image we have of ourselves is based on how we believe others see us. When we take the role of the other we receive information from others about ourselves that. ‘He’s sure to notice and he will be marking your examination paper! It’s better to wait. Imagine. reflects on intended actions Behaviour Figure 1. Mead’s view of the relationship between the individual and society was rather different from that of Parsons. you were one of Daniel’s students sitting in his lecture being very bored. that communication doesn’t have to be verbal. initiates action Me Takes role of the other. a colleague of Mead. although 33 . taking the role of the other. over time. For Mead. but because you have actively made a decision to stay. People are obviously shaped by societies but they are not simply the puppets of societies. spontaneous. maybe the interview went OK after all? Notice. However. enables us to build up the concept of self that we looked at earlier. creative and instinctive part of the self that has ideas and imagination. with its capacity to take the role of the other. while the ‘Me’ is the social self that takes into account the reactions of others. the kind of person we are. ‘Wait a minute. for Mead. I must change it quickly • the professor is smiling.

2 and 4.22–24. Activity 1. and these identities can change through social interaction.14.3. The relevant sections from introductory texts are: Fulcher and Scott (2007) Chapter 4. we implicitly touched on some of the ideas of Parsons and Mead. Compare your answers now with the ones you wrote at the start of the chapter. Whereas Parsons saw socialisation arising from internalisation of social norms.2 on p. Activity 1. Mead suggested it arose primarily from people’s ability to take the role of the other. pp. and how Parsons and Mead put forward different explanations of these processes. you should have a clearer idea of: • how to study sociology. and the essential reading and activities. This will provide you with some essential building blocks for you to develop your sociological awareness and to give you the necessary support for reading the more difficult work in Chapter 4 and for your chosen topic in Section C.15 Look back at Activity 1. Try to answer the questions again.163–69 and p. 34 . We shall be returning to the theories of Parsons and Mead in Chapter 4. A reminder of your learning outcomes Having completed this chapter. See if you can identify any of them.14 Parsons and Mead In this section on socialisation and identity. Giddens (2008) pp. It is through socialisation that people develop a sense of social and personal identity. what is meant by active learning. sections 4. and what examiners will be looking for • what sociologists study • some of the key ways that sociology gives us insights that go beyond commonsense understanding • what is meant by thinking sociologically and sociologists’ interest in social order. we are never completely ‘taken over’ by society in the manner suggested by Parsons. society is the source of both our conformity and our individuality. social change and the relationship between the individual and society • how our identities arise from social relationships • what sociologists mean by socialisation and identity.21 Principles of sociology we are social beings. It is a good way to help you clarify your understanding and revise the ideas we have looked at here. Reading Here it is important that you supplement what you have read on socialisation and identity with some textbook reading. Summary Socialisation describes the processes by which people learn social behaviour. It is a good way of monitoring your progress.238 Macionis and Plummer (2005 and 2008 editions) Chapter 7.

you should have a clearer idea of: • the nature of sociological research and why it is important to know how research is done • the key criteria by which research is evaluated • what is meant by a research design and how the nature of the research design influences the data that is collected • the characteristics of survey. 2005). Scott Sociology. 2007) Chapter 3. observations. Aims of the chapter The aims of this chapter are: • to explain what social research is and how you will be expected to approach it • to identify the main criteria by which research is evaluated • to explain what is meant by a research design. Marsh. or Macionis. A global introduction. P Research Methods. 4. experimental. I. Note: It is very important that you supplement what you read here with the recommended reading. The good research guide. J. the analysis of official statistics and documents • how to approach questions on sociological research. (Buckingham: Open University Press. (Harlow: Prentice Hall. (Oxford: Oxford University Press.Chapter 2: Sociological research Chapter 2: Sociological research Written by Dr Steve Taylor. et al. 2005 and 2008 editions) Chapter 3. and identify some of the key research designs and strategies in sociology • to introduce you to the main methods of sociological research. Further reading Denscombe. 3. and having completed the essential reading and activities. 2008) Chapter 3. M. McNeil. comparative and ethnographic research designs • the key research methods: interviews. Plummer Sociology. Learning objectives By the end of this chapter. 2007) Chapters 1. 35 . A. J. (Cambridge: Polity Press. Essential reading One of: Fulcher. . Theory and practice in sociology. 2002) Chapters 1 and 2. Sociology. 9–12. (London: Routledge. or Giddens. and J. (Harlow: Prentice Hall. particularly on research design and research methods. and K.

1984) [ISBN 9781851681617]. B. S. Gordon. or parts of them. 1993) [ISBN 9780415096706]. and L.5–13. Gunter and D. Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (3) 1998. 1987) [ISBN 9780140552195]. Coles ‘Broadcast television as a cause of aggression: recent findings from a naturalistic study’. Gender and schooling: a study of sexual divisions in the classroom. change and influence how people think and act. Jacobson Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. (Harmondsworth: Penguin. To evaluate this claim. S. 1968). Durkheim. E. S. (ed. shame and 2. Crime. E. 1983) [ISBN 9780091511616]. (New York: Holt. The making of a Moonie: choice or brainwashing? (Oxford: Blackwell. The discipline of sociology is based on the claim that sociologists offer some kind of expert understanding of social life. we need to know how this ‘expert knowledge’ is generated. Townsend. (London: Longman. Some of the famous sociological studies mentioned here have been made into videos or DVDs where the authors talk about the aims of their research. Taylor. 1952). (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1989) [ISBN 9780582355958]. Holdaway. Goffman. R. how well it stands up to critical scrutiny and what assumptions it makes about the nature of the social world. 1982) [ISBN 9780333286463 (pbk)]. Videos available in halovine’s Classic Collection series are: Eileen Barker Michelle Stanworth Peter Townsend Paul Willis The making of a Moonie Gender and schooling Poverty in the UK Learning to labour All available from halovine 8 www. In Chapter 2 we shall be looking at how sociologists find out about societies. (Basingstoke: Macmillan. (London: Hutchinson. (London: Routledge. S. (London: Routledge. R. [ISBN 9780140221398]. Rinehart and Winston.21 Principles of sociology Works cited Barker. ‘Researching child abuse’ in Burgess. Rosenthal. 1979) . Durkheim and the study of suicide. Charlton. Braithwaite. Video/DVD It is often helpful to supplement what you read in the subject guide and your Sociology textbooks by watching a video. This is why understanding social research is such a central part of understanding sociology. Stanworth. how it was done and what they found. Taylor. 36 . Asylums. work. Inside the British police. pp. Suicide: a study in sociology. M. (Harmondsworth: Penguin. E. J.) Investigating society. 1989) [ISBN 9780521356688]. T.halovine. 1983) [ISBN 9780631131120]. (Oxford: Blackwell. philosophy and science. History.1 Introduction In Chapter 1 we saw that sociology is about understanding how societies. P Poverty in the United Kingdom.

most of us do it.2 Some principles of sociological research Some key terms When you start reading about social research you may find that some of the technical language will make things seem more complicated than they really are. Data interpretation: the information that is collected has to be presented. but also looking inwards and continually reflecting on the processes by which the research is being undertaken. sociologists are confronted by a number of choices and each choice brings advantages and limitations. and thinking about how it is to be interpreted.1. Data collection: the research has to be organised and data collected through various research strategies and methods. See Figure 2. Look again at Figure 2. This might involve looking at websites. So we start by introducing you to a few of those terms: • research is simply a process of investigating something systematically and sociological research is investigating social life using sociological theories and methods • data refers to the information researchers collect • research design is the way research is planned and organised • methods are the tools sociologists use to collect data • methodology is the study of sociological research methods. talking to some current students and so on. In planning and carrying out research.Chapter 2: Sociological research 2. then.1. is a reflexive process. 3. deciding how data is to be collected and organised. It involves the researcher not only looking out at the part of the social world being studied. this tells only part of the story. Figure 2. Everyday research. then. Doing sociological research. usually involves a problem or question. For example. Formulation and design: research begins with questions that then need to be translated into a researchable form. analysed and related to the question that is being investigated. There are usually three key stages. The analysis of these choices and their consequences is what we mean by methodology. such as working out how research questions can be translated into a researchable project. 1. This information may help them make a more informed choice. It is also helpful to remember that although research seems to be something only undertaken by specialists. at various times in our everyday lives. However.1: Key stages in the research process Choice and reflection in research Sociological research is about getting out ‘into society’ and exploring it in a number of practical ways. 2. visiting different departments. 37 . the collection of information and the application of this information to the problem. The process of undertaking sociological research is broadly similar. It is clear that sociological research also involves a number of particular decisions. someone thinking of studying for a degree may do some research before applying for a course.

They want some answers to four questions: • What do students think about taking sociology? • Why are there such wide variations in the grades of sociology students? • Is there a relationship between students’ social backgrounds and their sociology grades? • How do students from different social backgrounds relate to each other in sociology classes? Write down how you could study these problems. This involves the active learning talked about in Chapter 1. Identify the options that are open to you. check or question existing work in the field. understanding sociological research. Some research techniques are more appropriate than others to particular research problems. as economists tend to do. Much research is undertaken to extend. Think which ones you might choose and why. Can you see any possible problems with the approach you have chosen? Some of the most important influences on researchers’ choices of design and method are: • The nature of the problem being investigated. For example. For example. The researcher must work out what is possible in terms of such things as the amount of time and money available. This critical thinking means that sociology students learn to look for ‘the story behind’ the data. • Practical considerations. Activity 2. involves being able to compare and contrast different approaches. Therefore. it can also be applied to most of the other subjects you will study.1 below. and these theoretical preferences influence their choice of research methods. sociologists ask questions about how it was collected and how much confidence we should have in it. rather than simply taking a set of statistics at face value and trying to explain it. each with their benefits and costs and their advocates and critics. So try Activity 2. nothing is quite as it seems. Sociology teaches us that nothing should be taken for granted. it is helpful to begin thinking about an area before you start reading about it.21 Principles of sociology Stop and think for a moment Can you think of some factors that might influence a researcher’s choice? As I said in Chapter 1. Rather there are a number of different ways. • Existing research. The consequence of these choices and constraints is that there is no single ‘correct way’ of doing sociological research. It is important to look carefully at this example because we are going to be using it in different ways throughout this chapter. the 38 . When confronted by some data. access to sources of data and the requirements of those funding the research. This critical evaluation of data is not only valuable in sociology.1 Researching students taking sociology Your local university has asked us to do some research on students studying sociology as part of their degree course. • Theoretical considerations. researching the distribution of income in a whole society will require a different research design and different methods from a project exploring how a particular organisation works. Sociologists have different theoretical ideas about the nature of human societies and the best ways of generating knowledge about them. and giving good answers to ‘theory and methods’ questions.

The aim of social research is to move from a subjective understanding to a more objective understanding of how societies work. this raises the question of how researchers try to be more objective. much less for rolling around in the manure pile [dirt]. it is knowledge that is free from bias. Maybe it is intelligence. But how are we to do this? Let me start by asking you a question. She tells you that you’re not working hard enough at college and you’re rude to your father.Chapter 2: Sociological research person with sociological training should automatically be asking questions. objectivity remains a goal of sociology and research has to provide an understanding of societies that goes beyond mere subjectivity. so I shall spend a little time explaining them. maybe sense of humour. maybe it is just that they look rich! It could be all sorts of things. All that she says 39 . to justify itself as an academic subject. Scientists are emotionally detached from the objects of their research. as most sociologists believe. However. Can I trust this data? How was it collected? What definitions were used? How reliable was the collection? This is a valuable skill that will not only help you on the rest of this programme. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with subjective knowledge and understanding. opinion and prejudice. Aims and criteria in research I have drawn attention above to the importance of evaluating both specific data and sociological research methods. Subjectivity and objectivity are very important terms in sociology. There is debate in sociology about whether or not it can provide objective knowledge of societies and we shall be looking at this in Chapter 3. there are also criteria against which sociological research can be evaluated and we are going to look at some of the most important ones here. From subjectivity to objectivity The general aim of sociological research (and indeed all research) is to try to move from a subjective understanding to a more objective understanding of what we are studying. including their values. Objective knowledge is knowledge that is more than personal perceptions. by which you are likely to judge people. However. even if sociology cannot be truly objective. sociologists have to provide knowledge of societies that is something more than their own opinions and prejudices. Everyone – including the sociologist – draws on their subjective understanding to make sense of the world around them. However. This is where objectivity comes in. Standardisation Your mother is complaining about your behaviour again and she brings in evidence to support her complaints. It refers to individual’s perceptions. it will also help you for the rest of your life. but whatever you have written down are criteria. sociologists should aim to do the same. opinions and preferences. As Gordon (1992) observed: That objectivity cannot be attained is not a reason for disregarding it. Similarly. What qualities make someone attractive to you as a friend? Stop and think for a moment. maybe kindness. The scientific laboratory experiment is typically seen as the ideal form of generating objective knowledge. maybe good looks. Subjective knowledge is literally knowledge belonging to the subject. or benchmarks. Perfect cleanliness is also impossible but it does not serve as warrant for not washing.

the data collection will be less standardised than the questionnaire data. If the research is repeatable and produces the same results each time. Replication. If sociologists simply grab at evidence that supports their favourite point of view then their accounts of social life would be highly subjective. It may well bring benefits. If we use a questionnaire and give it to all students taking sociology. or a researcher may want to find out if the same results still apply after a time lag. Sociological research cannot – or certainly should not – be carried out in this way. such as kindness. 40 . This is typical of the way we behave in everyday life. This means there is less opportunity for the researchers simply to take data that suits their own point of view. but her use of evidence is highly selective. even though my subjective view is that sociology is a fascinating subject and they should all love it. sociologists may also have to compromise on key research criteria. this suggests that researchers have been able to detach themselves from the object of their research – indicating objectivity. There are many reasons for doing this. However. She only refers to things that support the point she is making. sociologists may be surprised by what they discover. although this observational approach does not do so well in terms of the criterion of standardisation. supposing we choose an alternative method and. This means that rather than having their views consistently confirmed by the evidence. a majority of students tell me that they dislike sociology and find it ‘very boring’ I am stuck with the results. We tend to look mainly for things that confirm what we believe. The researcher will have to make compromises when doing research. such as a sense of humour and lots of money. So. Here. that would not be obtained by a standardised questionnaire-based study. the data collection is standardised: that is. in order to obtain others. This criterion is important because people have more confidence in research that can be repeated and the results checked out. One way of trying to avoid such subjectivity is to standardise the collection and organisation of data by making research as systematic and consistent as possible.21 Principles of sociology may be true. Reliability Reliability is concerned with the question of whether research is repeatable and is most commonly used in relation to quantitative research (see below). However. instead of giving out questionnaires. even if we record our observations as systematically as we can. The findings of the original research may be unusual. it does not necessarily make it the ‘wrong’ choice. it is done in a consistent fashion. we observe sociology classes and talk informally to students. So if. just as a person choosing friends may have to sacrifice one desired criterion. which is very close to reliability. The reliability of a test employed in research is the extent to which repeated measurements using this test (under the same conditions) produce the same results. even to the point of having their favoured theories challenged or overturned. is when one researcher chooses to repeat the research of another. such as knowledge of how students actually behave in class. We won’t be able to remember everything and we can’t even write down everything we do remember. We can illustrate this point from our earlier example of studying sociology students. for example. there is more risk of our subjective view influencing the data. Therefore.

(By the way. Research example: construct validity The second question we were asked to look at by the university was the wide variation in grading in sociology We could use standardised IQ (intelligence quotient) tests that are designed to measure people’s natural intelligence. this may seem a strange criterion. aren’t they? As we shall see in more detail in the next chapter. We can illustrate this problem with a further example from our study of students taking sociology. Grade these methods in terms of their For research to be reliable and replicable the research methods must be transparent. How can data not be what it is? After all. If facts are facts. it is constructed through the ideas being used by the researcher. some people have questioned the construct validity of IQ tests. Validity The textbooks and your Statistics unit will list many forms of validity but in everyday language something is valid if it is believed to be reasonable or well founded. don’t worry. arguing that they do not really measure natural intelligence as they 41 . how justified are we in drawing these conclusions from this data? From this basis we can distinguish between construct validity. we wanted to measure the students’ intelligence to see if there was a relationship between natural intelligence and exam results. and these ideas are open to question. The data that sociologists (and other researchers) collect is not simply ‘discovered’. we are trying to choose between three different methods: • spending time with the students and observing their activities • using a standardised questionnaire given to all the students • conducting informal interviews with students at break times. At first reading. In other words. internal validity and ecological validity. However. if interview methods were used. explained how they were asked. It is now common practice for many researchers to leave the various records of their work in research archives for other researchers to examine and possibly replicate. Rather. the transcriptions or tape recordings should also be available. The issue of validity is concerned with the correspondence between a piece of data and the conclusions that are drawn from it. (For example.2 Reliability and replication In our research example of what students think about studying sociology. a lot of original research from British sociological studies is stored at the University of Essex in England and can be accessed at8 www. the research methods are transparent if the researcher has provided the questions. In sociology it has a slightly more specific meaning. in exploring this question. sociological thinking shows it is not quite that simple. Construct validity is concerned with whether data represents what it is supposed to represent. with the most reliable method given 1 and the least reliable given 3. this isn’t really the case!) Supposing. For example.Chapter 2: Sociological research Activity 2. Can you think of three reasons why another researcher might want to replicate our study in five years’ time? Transparency Transparency means that a researcher has shown exactly how the research was done. indicated the numbers of people who replied and so on.

on average. We shall be looking at reliability and validity again. Research example: internal validity We were also asked to see if there was any relationship between students’ social background and their exam performance. So although IQ data may well be reliable. the relationship between (a) and (b) may be the result of something else. we can illustrate ecological validity with an example and an activity from our study of sociology students. Although they are not there to ‘spoon-feed’ you with the answers. This is a criterion that is much more specific to sociology than to the other social sciences. 42 . However. might show that students in the ‘underachieving’ ethnic group B are also. ‘Have I understood this?’ This is why attempting the third question is particularly important. Again we can illustrate this with a problem from our study of sociology students. However. because being able to answer it shows understanding. Further research. You will also have encountered these ideas when you studied 04A Statistics 1. Therefore. Activity 2. They have less money for books. they may not be a valid measures of intelligence. We might then conclude that there is a relationship – or correlation – between ethnicity and educational achievement. • What is the difference between construct validity and internal validity? • Can you think of another imaginary example of how a study might lack either construct or internal validity? Check your answers with this subject guide and your sociology textbooks. such a conclusion might not be justified. less space at home to study and the have to work longer hours outside college to afford the fees. Internal validity is concerned with whether the conclusion that is drawn about the relationship between two or more different things is justified. much poorer. a researcher may claim that (a) causes (b).21 Principles of sociology favour middle-class children over working-class children and favour abstract thinking skills as opposed to practical skills. they will help you with things you don’t understand.3 Reliability and construct and internal validity Without looking back: • Try to explain the difference between reliability and validity. The question you should be asking yourself is not. ‘Have I learned this?’ but rather. Suppose we find that students from ethnic group A get higher marks on average than students in ethnic group B. For example. Ecological validity The criterion of ecological validity is concerned with whether the results of social scientific research are actually applicable to the reality of people’s everyday lives. Don’t worry if you are finding some of this puzzling. we might conclude that differences we observed are the results of relative poverty rather than ethnicity and the original conclusion lacks internal validity. with researchers using the same methods getting the same results. Again. Some of you will have sociology teachers.

Although doing sociological research never felt much like a holiday to me. the interview method doesn’t really tell us how they really behave in day-to-day classroom situations. it’s just down to the researcher’s preferences. Summary Research is the systematic investigation of a problem. can you think of some limitations with this method? We shall be looking at observational methods in more detail later in the section but. Activity 2. We shall be looking further at these differences in Chapter 3.3 Research designs: planning and choice What is a research design? It’s very rare just to drop everything and dash off on holiday.Chapter 2: Sociological research Research example: authenticity/ecological validity We saw earlier that if we give the same questionnaire to all the students taking sociology. You will be expected to show both knowledge and critical understanding of some of the main research techniques in sociology and be able to see how sociologists apply these techniques in their research. Both of them usually involve going on a ‘journey’ to somewhere 43 . reliability. Similarly a sociologist can’t just suddenly start doing research. some sociologists would claim that this research has limited authenticity. Therefore. going back to the criteria outlined in the previous section. there are similarities between going on holiday and doing research. but first we have to look at how research is planned and carried out. there is not necessarily always a ‘right’ option. We could interview students about this issue. Sociological research often involves making choices between the different options. For example. Even if students answer our questions honestly and frankly. Some think validity is the most important criterion in social research while others argue that standardisation and reliability are more important. Another way to explore this question is to go into the classes and observe them. Research journeys also need to be planned and organised in advance. Some methods work better than others for some problems. as we have noted. but can you think of a problem with using interview methods here? Students may give us socially acceptable answers. Some of the key criteria by which research studies and research methods can be evaluated are objectivity. This may well give us more ecologically valid data. the data collection is both standardised and reliable. But. students may give me the answers they think I want to hear and say nice things about sociology in spite of what they really think. 2. it is always helpful to start thinking about things in advance. Holidays are usually planned in advance. transparency and validity.4 Ecological validity The final question the university wanted addressing was how students from different backgrounds relate to each in other in sociology classes. Planning and undertaking research involves making strategic decisions and these decisions are influenced by a number of factors. the data we obtain may not reflect how things really are. However. or they may exaggerate the amount of work they do. Sometimes. standardisation. They lack authenticity. However.

Your account would also be very different from those of other students. It is the researcher’s questions that give research its sense of purpose and direction. Concepts are the most important tools of social research. they are influenced by their subjective views. However. such as why societies are different from each other. Therefore. Social classes are groups of people who share a similar economic position in a society. as we have already observed. You might choose to write about different things. Research always begins with questions. For example. Holidays begin with a desire to take time out and go somewhere. work and leisure activities. depending on what you felt was important and. people’s accounts of things tend to be different because they are selective reconstructions of a set of real events. in the same way as travel itineraries provide frameworks for holidays. It is much the same for researchers. or why societies change in the way they do.21 Principles of sociology different. What we call a research design is the process of translating a researcher’s original ideas and interests into a researchable ‘journey’. In this section. You will know from your own experience that some groups in your society have more wealth and opportunity than other groups. a sociologist who is interested in how a society has changed in the last 25 years cannot possibly study every change. One of the ways they try to do this is by using theoretical categories called concepts. or approaches. They also have to select evidence in their accounts of social life and. Different social class groupings can be identified in a society 44 . we start by examining some of the key choices facing researchers and then we look at some of the most commonly used research designs. But how can we study this systematically? Social class is one of the concepts used in sociology to simplify the infinite complexities of social inequalities. This means they have to find ways of making the selection process more systematic and standardised. However. They are clearly defined categories given to aspects of the social world that have significant common features. even when you were writing about the same incident. We can illustrate this by looking at researching social and economic inequality through the concept of social class. They are the building blocks around which theory and research are organised. such as family life. Concepts and conceptual thinking If you were asked to write an account of a particular day at your college. Sociologists ask all sorts of questions about social life. the sociologist’s general questions need to be narrowed down into something that can actually be researched. researchers have to move beyond their own subjective views and provide more objective accounts of social life. This is because there are many things you would simply not know about. your account would actually be a simplified version of what ‘really’ went on. and research begins with the desire to find something out. They will have to narrow this down into something manageable by focusing on specific changes in particular institutions. It involves making a number of strategic decisions and provides an overall framework for the research. you would probably interpret it differently. Concepts are the theoretical tools sociologists use to describe and explain the social world. in sociology. why social groups within the same society have different life chances. and the selection process is shaped by people’s subjective views of what they consider to be important and interesting. like everyone else.

3. These operationalising devices are called indicators. However. it is important to note that concepts are contested categories. the sociologist is able to examine the relationship between ‘class’ and ‘educational performance’ in a way that is standardised. electricians Bus drivers. Skilled/intermediate 4. they shape it and this is one of the main ways that theory is linked to research. The important thing to understand here is that concepts do not just reflect data. Unskilled Example Operationalising Doctors. Semi-skilled 5. 45 . most sociologists have typically used various forms of ‘occupational ranking’ as indicators of class (see Figure 2. educational achievements and life expectancy. postal workers Cleaners.Chapter 2: Sociological research and this can provide a basis for exploring patterns of inequality. labourers Figure 2. theoretical term and sociologists wanting to do quantitative research have to find ways of measuring.2). For example. reports and academic qualifications gained at school can be used as indicators of educational success. a sociologist wanting to explore the relationship between the concepts of ‘class’ and ‘educational achievement’. As occupation is the major source of income for most people. people who share a similar economic market position Indicator Occupational ranking For example: 1. senior managers Teachers. For example. whereas attendance. Concept Social class That is.3: Conceptual analysis example: social class and educational achievements Concepts are the most important aspect of research design. would have to find indicators of these concepts. sociologists do not all agree about how things like ‘class’ should be defined or measured. the concept. sociologists have explored relationships between people’s social class and their values. or operationalising. Semi-professional 3.2: Concepts and indicators: measuring social class By looking at rates of educational performance in each occupational group. reliable and potentially replicable. Professional 2. qualifications Statistical correlations Figure 2. political beliefs. administrators Clerical workers. See Figure 2. social class is an abstract. That is. technicians. Concept 1 Social class Concept 2 Educational achievement 1 Theoretical framework 2 Operationalisation 3 Theoretical analysis of results Indicator Parents’ occupational ranking Indicator School grades. In this context. in much the same way that the mercury in the thermometer measures the concept of temperature. They define what the sociologist studies and provide the basis for organising and presenting data.

studying poverty levels in a society will almost certainly require a quantitative research design. For example. a descriptive study of social change might ask how family life. whereas exploring the inner world of a religious cult or a criminal gang will almost certainly require a qualitative design. or hypothesis. See if you can think of some before reading further.4: Deductive and inductive research Quantitative and qualitative research designs Another important distinction is between quantitative and qualitative research designs. but the term has much wider implications (see below). Quantitative designs usually mean researchers are relatively detached from the people they are studying and it is less likely that their values will influence the research process. work and leisure have changed in the last 25 years. quantitative data can be measured whereas qualitative data cannot. 46 . an explanatory research study of social change might ask why family life. this means that a researcher is testing a theory. Explanatory research asks why something happens and identifies possible ‘causal mechanisms’. Explanatory research studies are more likely to be deductive.4). Sometimes a researcher’s decision to use quantitative or qualitative designs is shaped by the nature of the problem being researched. the decision to use quantitative or qualitative data does not just depend on the nature of the problem being investigated. it can also reflect different theoretical approaches to sociological research (as we shall see later in Chapter 3). For example. a descriptive study might suggest explanations that are then ‘tested’ by further explanatory research (see Figure 2. For example. often on the basis of earlier exploratory studies. Descriptive research studies are more likely to be inductive.21 Principles of sociology Descriptive and explanatory research designs Research designs have many different purposes but an important distinction is whether the research is descriptive or explanatory. this means that a researcher may draw out possible explanations from their observations. work and leisure have changed over the last 25 years. Quantitative data is closer to the scientific ideal of research. However. Quantitative research designs have a number of important advantages. In very simple terms. Deductive: Inductive: Theory Observations Theory Observations Theory Observations Observations Theory Figure 2. Descriptive research is about trying to construct a much clearer and more comprehensive picture of how something works. For example. Although there are sociological studies that are either purely deductive or inductive. against the data. many move between the two.

especially with government departments and the media. Much the same is true of research. Qualitative research also allows us to examine the processes by which individuals and groups come to understand their roles and identities. section 4. A quantitative research design using concepts and indicators in the way described above can provide valuable data about relationships between class background and education. sociologists usually have some idea of what they are going to find from their research.Chapter 2: Sociological research Quantitative research designs: • enable relationships between variables to be documented systematically • are more likely to fulfil the key criteria of standardisation. most holidaymakers narrow the possibilities of what might happen. reliability and transparency • give data more authority. and often do. happen. It can also be used to criticise the use of statistics in social research to see how they are socially constructed – see Chapter 4.3. So just as the holidaymaker expects certain things from their holiday. We can illustrate this point by returning to our earlier example of the relationship between social class and educational achievement. Sociologists’ research designs provide the framework for the things they find out about social life. The expected and the unexpected in social research We conclude this section where we started it by comparing the holiday and the research project. Much the same is true of research. However. The plans made in advance provide a framework for what actually happens. Therefore. are based almost exclusively on quantitative methods. the holiday experience is a product of the unexpected and the expected. Can you think of some of the strengths of qualitative research designs? Qualitative data: • is more ecologically valid • provides knowledge of how people behave in their natural contexts • enables researchers to explore people’s experiences and the meanings they give to their actions and how they develop over time. what is it actually like to be brought up in relative poverty or in relative affluence? How do pupils and teachers interact with each other in the classroom? These kinds of questions can really only be examined by qualitative research designs and strategies – such as making detailed observations of school life or interviewing people at great length – that bring researchers into much closer contact with those they are studying. For example. measurement is synonymous with science and some social sciences. You are often surprised by some of the things you discover. such as economics and psychology. But when it comes to trying to explain this relationship there are some questions that cannot be answered very well by quantitative research designs. such as sandy beaches or snowy mountains. There is usually a sense of adventure about going on holiday. You may be going to an unfamiliar place and unexpected things can. Stop and think for a moment: if quantitative research designs have all these advantages why isn’t all sociological research quantitative? After all. 47 . The simple answer to this question is that there are many important sociological questions that simply cannot be answered with quantitative methods. by planning a holiday and deciding to stay in a particular place at a given time of year.

You will have studied this in unit 04A Statistics 1. Surveys In everyday language to survey something is to take a general view. Probability sampling means that the sample has been selected randomly. They are shaping and organising it for us. Our brief trip through research designs has shown that what emerges as data in a research project is a product of the relationship between the researcher’s design and the intrinsic nature of what is being researched.21 Principles of sociology The really important lesson to learn from this comparison is that researchers are not just giving us information about what is happening in the social world. in social sciences.) Researcher’s theory and design Data in the world Research data Figure 2. Survey data are most commonly collected by asking people questions. in sociology. 48 . By understanding how research was done.4 Major research designs in sociology Here we are going to develop the ideas of the previous section by introducing you to four of the major research designs. for example. In geography. usually administered by questionnaires or face-to-face interviews. Simple random sampling means that everyone in the population has an equal (non-zero) chance of being selected. However. we are in a position to evaluate it.5. Sampling Survey research is usually undertaken in relation to large populations.5: How research data is constructed This is why it is so important to know about research designs and research methods. Similarly. surveys map out a landscape or a town. the survey is a research design or strategy and not a research method. testing peoples’ opinions or attitudes and mapping out relationships between things in a quantifiable form. rather like a photograph of a landscape or townscape from a distance. 2. Surveys are usually – but not necessarily – quantitative. (See Figure 2. and researchers cannot collect data from everyone in the population. Therefore they use a sample: this is a part of a population being studied. surveys try to map out aspects of the social world. and survey data can be collected through other methods such as using documents or making observations. or approaches. Sociological thinking teaches us always to look behind the data to find out how it was produced. They are doing much more than this. Surveys offer breadth of view at a specific point in time. They are used for simply collecting information.

The more the sample surveyed represents the population being studied. validity and reliability. then the more confident the researcher will feel in generalising from the results. if females outnumber males by four to one in a population then stratified random sampling will ensure that 80 per cent of those sampled are female. class. for example. ethnicity. In non-probability sampling researchers will simply contact whom they can and this is known as convenience sampling. gains their confidence and uses that to make further contacts and enlarge the sample.) A quota sample represents a group of people that a sociologist wants to make statements about. which means that every member of a population being studied has an equal chance of being selected in relation to their representation within the general population. Population Sample Probability Non -probability Stratified random / random Convenience Snowball Quota Can generalise statistically Figure 2.6: Types of sampling Cannot generalise statistically 49 . Snowball sampling is a form of convenience sampling that is often used in research into very sensitive areas such as health problems or criminal activities. Therefore if we were researching a school and we knew the population of the school contained 55 per cent of girls and 44 per cent of boys we would select a sample in proportion to these percentages. They divide the population into parts on the basis of the population. The main reason for non-probability sampling is that the researcher doesn’t have enough information about the population being studied to construct a sampling frame as. crime and self-harm. For example.Chapter 2: Sociological research Stratified random sampling is a special case of sampling. especially in terms of key variables such as age. for example choosing any 110 girls and 88 boys. (Figure 2. Non-probability sampling means that the sample has not been selected using a random selection method and cannot be taken to represent the population as a whole. gender and professional status. where a researcher makes contact with a small group.6. in studies of drug use. The subject guide for unit 04A Statistics 1 has more material on sampling.

illustrating how sociological research can influence public opinion and public policy. being poor is having an income less than a certain level. it is because Townsend and the government statisticians were using different concepts of poverty.5 Sampling Look at the four research topics listed below. Peter Townsend and his associates set out to find out if this was really the case. To study poverty a researcher has to have a concept of poverty. • Homeless people in your town or city. They calculated that almost 20 per cent of the population were living in poverty. • Victims of domestic violence. including the lack of a holiday in the last year. The government statisticians were using an absolute definition – that is. Taking a longitudinal approach is one of the ways sociologists document changes in individuals and organisations over time and is most frequently used in areas like child development. The level of poverty in the UK was highly embarrassing to the government of the time and the book was credited with forcing the issue of poverty back onto the political agenda.000 adults living in 2. Research example: Townsend (1979) on measuring poverty By the middle of the twentieth century it was widely believed that poverty had been virtually eliminated in Britain.052 households. Is a national census a sample? • No. 50 . Longitudinal approaches A longitudinal research design involves collecting data from the same source at intervals over time. which was much higher than the government’s official figure of six per cent. It is not really a design in itself but is rather an addition to an existing design and is most frequently used in survey research when the samples being investigated are interviewed at different times. So. health and educational research.21 Principles of sociology Activity 2. This concept was measured by a number of indicators. We conclude this section with a real example of sociological survey research to illustrate some of the points that have been raised. Townsend and his researchers then made a stratified random survey of over 6. Townsend defined poverty in relative terms as the inability of people to participate in a substantial number of the activities and customs followed by the majority of the population. while Townsend was using a relative definition – that is. lack of fresh meat on a regular basis and an absence of household amenities such as a refrigerator or a bath. Which ones do you think a researcher would be able to study through probability sampling? • The future career ambitions of management students at the local university. This was not because the government statisticians made a ‘mistake’ and miscalculated their figures. • The lifestyle choices of footballers registered at your local football club. A national census is a survey of the total population but it is not a sample because everyone is asked to provide information. here the sample is the sample frame. being unable to afford things that most people in a society consider normal.

called a dependent variable.Chapter 2: Sociological research Experimental and evaluative research The laboratory experiment is the key method in scientific research. called an independent variable. The study showed how much teacher expectations influenced students’ educational performance. Can you think of any? If necessary. there are some criteria that they do not usually fulfil so well. In fact no such test had been done. They also fulfil the criteria of reliability and transparency. and students had just been randomly assigned to the ‘highly intelligent’ group. One way round this problem is to use a ‘natural experimental design’ where a researcher makes use of some naturally occurring event that creates a quasi-experimental situation. the intelligence scores of the experimental group really increased in the short run. The most common type of experimental research design uses a control group. In the experiment a possible causal influence. However. to see if they ‘work’ or to find out if one works better than another. but it has the advantage of high ecological validity as the events are occurring naturally. Teachers were told that 20 per cent of students (the experimental group) had been identified as highly intelligent through intelligence tests whereas the rest (the control group) had ordinary abilities.) • One criticism of field or quasi-experimental methods is that the data collection is often difficult to standardise. Field. However. 51 . Smoking Independent variable Cancer Dependent variable Laboratory experiments are rare in sociology. such as crime prevention strategies or health promotion policies. (Looking back like this helps both understanding and revision. Here is an example. as a result of increased teacher expectations. A natural experimental design has the disadvantage that the researcher has much less control over events. is manipulated under controlled conditions to see if it produces a change in another factor. research designs that attempt to explore relationships between independent and dependent variables in more natural settings are becoming increasingly common in sociology. Here is an example.2. The aim of evaluative research is to examine different social programmes. Research example: Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) on teacher expectations In this famous study the researchers were interested in whether teachers’ expectations influenced students’ performance. particularly in evaluative research. Experimental research designs give researchers much greater control of the research situation. The aim is to see if there are differences in the behaviour of the experimental group and the control group. or ‘quasiexperimental’. Nonetheless the classic experimental design is seen by some researchers as an important yardstick against which other methods can be assessed. • Another criticism is that experiments may lack full ecological validity because although they usually take place in ‘real settings’ – such as the classroom in Rosenthal and Jacobson’s research – researchers actually change those settings so that they are not completely authentic. This involves establishing two broadly similar populations and introducing an independent variable to one group (the experimental group) but not to the other (the control group). turn back to the criteria outlined in section 2.

unless it is unavoidable. crime. (1998) on the coming of television Many people blame television. or even groups of 52 . ethical guidelines mean that researchers cannot do anything they want in the name of research. To examine these larger cultural and historical questions. However. Ethical guidelines state that the subjects of research should not be harmed or have their lives disrupted in any way and. for producing antisocial and violent behaviour in children. To date there is no evidence from the study that the introduction of television has caused more antisocial behaviour in children. or suicide vary between societies – cannot be studied by experimental designs. Ethical considerations apply to all research. Comparative research Another limitation of experimental research designs is that they are invariably small-scale. if necessary. but can you think of any reasons why some might argue it should not have been done? • The teachers were being deceived about the true nature of the experiment. The concerns expressed above are examples of ethical issues in social research. give two reasons why you think this is so. Research ethics have to be balanced against the importance of the research findings and the possibility of doing the research in another way that doesn’t involve compromising ethical guidelines. they should be fully informed about the purpose of the research.6 Experiments and ethics Laboratory experiments are rare in sociology. The introduction of television to the island of St Helena in the south Atlantic in the 1990s provided natural experimental conditions to explore the effects of television on the island’s child population.21 Principles of sociology Research example: Charlton et al. Most people would consider Rosenthal and Jacobson’s research ethical because of its contribution to educational research and because the deception was unavoidable. _________________________________________________________ _________________________________________________________ Look again at the famous school study by Rosenthal and Jacobson outlined on the previous page. because the units of analysis are often whole societies. researchers are more likely to use what is called a comparative. why societies are different from each other. (Again. Activity 2. and particularly violence on television. research design. or why rates of health and illness. but are most commonly raised in connection to experimental designs that often set out to manipulate people’s behaviour in various ways. questions that interest many sociologists – such as why societies change. Ethics refer to responsibilities researchers have to the researched. This means that many of the large-scale. Would the violence they would see on television cause them to behave more violently? Charlton and his associates monitored the viewing habits and subsequent behaviour of a large sample of children. or cross-cultural. It was obviously a very valuable study.2. or micro. look back at the criteria discussed in section 2. or macro. _________________________________________________________ _________________________________________________________ 2. and ethical considerations have to be taken into account in planning research designs.) 1. • The children’s educational environment was changed just to accommodate the experiment. Comparative research is much wider in scope than other research designs.

Chapter 2: Sociological research

societies, such as Western society or Latin America. Comparative research does not just mean comparing different societies or the same society over time. It involves searching systematically for similarities and differences between the cases under consideration. For example, in his comparative study of crime, the Australian sociologist John Braithwaite (1989) looked for similarities between countries with particularly high rates of crime, such as the USA and UK, and at how they were different from societies with low rates of crime, such as Japan. Braithwaite found that crime was lower in societies that tend to place collective interests over individual interests. Although comparative research usually uses secondary sources, such as historical documents or official statistics, research designs can still be organised in ways that resemble the logic of experimental comparisons between dependent and independent variables. This can be illustrated by looking at one of the most famous sociological studies of all time, Emile Durkheim’s comparative study of suicide Research example: Durkheim (1952) on suicide rates In his study of suicide, Durkheim used official suicide rates – that is the number of people per 100,000 committing suicide – as an indicator of different forms of social solidarity. Different countries and different social groups consistently produced different levels of suicide. But the data still had to be organised and analysed systematically. For example, the statistics showed that European countries that were predominantly Catholic, such as Italy, had much lower suicide rates than countries that were predominantly Protestant, such as Germany. But was this due to religion or national culture? In order to find out, Durkheim then looked at the suicide rates of Catholic and Protestant regions within the same countries. The fact that the Catholic rates were still much lower, even with nationality ‘controlled’, led him to conclude that the relationship between religion and suicide was real rather being an artefact (i.e. the result of some other cause).

The key idea behind ethnography is that as human behaviour is intentional, research should be orientated towards understanding the reasoning behind people’s actions. This is sometimes referred to as ‘verstehen’, a German word meaning empathetic understanding. Ethnography is usually based on detailed case studies of particular groups, organisations or individuals, and uses methods such as observations, long conversational interviews and personal documents, that bring researchers into close contact with the everyday lives of those they are studying. Research reports are in the form of a narrative, with key evidence, such as detailed descriptions of particular episodes being reproduced to illustrate the point the researcher is making. Research example: Taylor (1982) on suicidal behaviour Taylor’s ethnographic study of suicide can be compared with Durkheim’s statistical and comparative approach. For Taylor, the flaw in Durkheim’s brilliant study was his assumption that suicide could be explained sociologically without reference to the intentions of suicidal individuals. Using a combination of interviews with people who survived suicide attempts and documentary sources, Taylor attempted to piece together a picture of the context of suicidal actions from the victim’s point of view. So, whereas the units of analysis in Durkheim’s comparative study were populations, such as nations or religious groups, the units of analysis in Taylor’s ethnographic study were individual case studies.

21 Principles of sociology

This research suggested that we should change the way we think about suicide. Most suicidal acts were not attempts to die so much as desperate gambles with death where suicidal individuals were uncertain as to whether they wanted to live or die. Therefore, the question was not just why do people kill themselves, but why do so many more risk their lives in these ‘games’ of chance. Observations about how people actually think and behave in real situations can only come from ethnographic research.

Here we have looked at four of the main research designs, or approaches, in sociology. Survey research is the systematic gathering of information about individuals and groups at a given time. Experimental designs attempt to manipulate one variable to examine its effect on another. Comparative research focuses on similarities and differences between different societies or social groups. Ethnography focuses on how people think and act in their everyday social lives. There are, of course, other research designs and sociologists often combine different aspects of the different approaches. However, the main point here has been to show you that not all sociologists take the same approach in their research.

2.5 Research methods
What are research methods?
Research methods are techniques used for collecting data. There are many different types of data in sociological research, but an important distinction is between primary and secondary data. Primary data is information that researchers collect for themselves by, for example, interviewing people or observing them. Secondary data is information that is already in existence before the research starts. For example, a researcher may make use of government statistics or monitor the content of newspapers, magazines or TV programmes. Although some sociology textbooks use the umbrella term ‘Methods’ to describe the entire research process, it is important to distinguish between research design and research methods. Sociologists have a range of research methods to choose from, each with their advantages and limitations, and they have to work out which methods best fulfil the aims of their research design. Methods are about the practical part of research, and sociologists don’t just have to work out what method they are going to use. They also have to work out how best to implement it. For example, suppose I have decided to use an interview method. I still have to decide if I’m going to do it by telephone or face-to-face. If it’s face-to-face, I still have to work out how to record the data. If I’m constantly scribbling notes or using a tape recorder it may intimidate interviewees and prevent them from saying what they really think. But if I conduct the interview more like a natural conversation, it may be difficult to recall enough of what the interviewees say. However – and this is important and less obvious – sociologists’ decisions are not just influenced by practical or technical concerns. They are also influenced by theory. This is because methods are not simply neutral research tools, as if they were methodological hammers or screwdrivers. As we shall see, each of them involves making theoretical assumptions about the nature of the social world and how we understand it. We shall be examining this in more detail in Chapter 3. Therefore, sociologists not only have to work out which methods will work best for which research problems, they also have to decide which methods

Chapter 2: Sociological research

best fit their theoretical views of what societies are and how we should be finding out about them. When you write about methods you will be expected to know: • the key sociological methods and their relationship to research design • their strengths and limitations taking into account both practical and theoretical considerations • how they are linked to different theoretical viewpoints in sociology. In this section we shall be more concerned with explaining and evaluating research methods.

Primary research methods
Asking people questions in social research One of the ways sociologists try to find out about the social world is to ask people questions. This can be done by: • asking people to fill in questionnaires • telephone or Internet1 • formal face-to-face interviews • asking questions informally in the context of field work. There are many different types of interview methods in sociology but the most important distinction is between structured and unstructured interviews. Although sociologists sometimes use a combination of interview methods in their research, we shall look at them separately to clarify the distinctions between them. Structured interviews and questionnaires The structured question format is the most popular method of asking questions in sociological research and is the most commonly used method in survey research. In the structured interview, or questionnaire, interviewees are asked a set of identical questions in exactly the same way. They are usually asked to select their answers from a limited range of options, and these are known as ‘closed’ questions (see Figure 2.7). Q. How would you rate your sociology lecturer? Tick the answer closest to your view:
You will find that an increasing amount of research is conducted online, including research by the University of London.

‰ Excellent ‰ Quite good ‰ Don’t know/neutral ‰ Quite poor ‰ Useless.
Figure 2.7: Structured interview for a class studying sociology

Structured interviews have a number of advantages over other methods of asking questions. Information from a large number of people can be obtained relatively quickly and cheaply, the data can be quantified and the researcher is more detached from the process of data collection. Activity 2.7 Structured interviews Data from the structured interview fulfils some of the key criteria outlined in the first part of this section. Look back to section 2.2 and see if you can identify which ones they are.

For example. an insight into how they experienced particular events. Another limitation of the structured interview method is that it lacks depth. However. The effectiveness of unstructured. qualitative interviews often depends on the rapport and trust that is built up between researcher and respondent. 56 . As researchers are detached from the people they are studying. The data collection is not standardised and is thus hard to generalise from and. using language. there is no set interview structure and interviewees answer in their own words. my lecturer: is inspiring and makes the subject interesting is easy-going and doesn’t mind if you don’t hand in any essays is a nice person looks good. Try to think of some different meanings the word ‘excellent’ could have in this context. Unstructured interviews are sometimes used in survey designs.7). The main reason for questioning the structured interview is found in what I’m doing now. Unstructured interviews One way round some of the limitations of the structured interview is to use an unstructured interview. Why do you think this is? • The meaning problem. the data will lack construct validity. It does not represent what it is supposed to represent – that is – a consistent and similar set of responses. The aim of such interviews is to allow respondents to reconstruct their experiences in as much detail as possible. but they are most frequently used in ethnographic research.3 that unstructured interviews can allow the researcher to understand the processes by which people came to understand social situations. Unstructured interviews are more like ordinary conversations. They are also normally more valid as they give greater insight into the meanings of a subject’s experiences. and ultimately the reader. section 4. readers are dependent on the researcher’s selection of data.21 Principles of sociology However. In sociological terms. Unstructured interviews have more depth and flexibility than structured interviews. giving the researcher. You will see in Chapter 4. they also have important limitations. • The problem of depth and ecological validity. it is difficult for them to explore what their subjects actually mean and it is impossible for them to know how they actually behave in real situations. The problem here is that people who might mean very different things by ‘excellent’ would still be included in the same percentage figure. in spite of its benefits. Therefore. Some of the students may have said that their teacher is ‘excellent’. some sociologists are very critical of the widespread use of structured interviews in sociology. Unstructured interviews are also less reliable than structured interviews as the results cannot be quantified and re-tested. Stop and look again at the question reproduced above (Figure 2. this means that it is low in ecological validity. as there is usually far too much data to reproduce in full. and a major problem with the structured interview method is that the same word can mean different things to different people. To write an interview question I have to use words.

Once established. there are certain limitations with all interview methods. Like interviews. • People may simply have problems in recalling information accurately. observation can be structured or unstructured. and most of them use a method called participant observation where the researcher participates directly in the life of the people being studied. As a student of child abuse. Structured observation can also take place in naturalistic settings. 1989). A great deal of psychological research has shown just how unreliable memory can be. I regularly encountered forms of cruelty to children I hardly thought were possible. If researchers want to find out how people really behave in their daily lives. Like anthropologists. persistence and the cultivation of helpful contacts. using structured questions to obtain factual information. it uses a combination of both. It requires both an attachment to and a detachment from those you are studying. as children who had been brought into care because 57 . Alternatively. learning their language and customs in order to document ways of life that were disappearing with colonisation and the relentless advance of industrialisation. as part of her research on gender and schooling. subjects may be given certain tests or tasks to do as part of an experiment and the researcher systematically records the results. unstructured or semi-structured) researchers are dependent on what people tell them.Chapter 2: Sociological research Limits of all interview methods Some sociologists use a combination of structured and unstructured interviews in their research on a ‘horses for courses’ principle. despite their many benefits. such as age or income. • With all interviews (structured. then they have to go and take a look. Researchers using observational methods do not have to rely on what people say they do. I described this process in relation to research I did on social workers’ management of cases of child abuse (Taylor. Michelle Stanworth (1983) systematically recorded the amount of direct contact time teachers give to male and to female students. This means that interviewees may give the more ‘socially acceptable’ answer. the research work involves detailing observations. This is easier said than done. For example. This technique was first used by Western anthropologists who joined tribal societies. I watched. They can see for themselves. sociologists have to find ways of getting into the groups or organisations they wish to study and this may take a lot of friendly persuasion. Structured observations are most commonly associated with experimental or evaluative research designs. but interviewees are given space (in questionnaires) or time (in face-to-face interviews) to elaborate on their answers. or semi-structured. and unstructured questions to probe deeper into people’s experiences. Observational methods Watching people is another important way that sociologists find out about social life. or they answer a question in the way they think the interviewer wants. • There is something known as the interview effect. However. For example. they may use semi-structured interviews where the questions are closed. amazed. the vast majority of observational research studies in sociology are unstructured. listening to what is being said and asking questions. However. that is.

clubs.3. the more you will write about your own values and reactions. sociologists have worked in factories. while it is impossible to keep your values out of research. This authentic knowledge and the depth and detail it provides mean that data from participant observation usually fulfils the key criterion of validity far better than data obtained from other methods. For example. used to claim that participant observation ‘tells it like it is’. On the one hand. However. Activity 2. the professional social workers remained detached and unemotional. There is a richness of detail in participant observation research that tends to be lacking in other methods and I have to confess it has always been my favourite research method. Do you think participant observation always ‘tells it like it is’ or do you think there may be some problems with this view? Can you think of times in your life when you have found yourself participating in social situations without really knowing what is going on? If so. 2 2 Taylor (1989) pp. all in the name of research. It was as if nothing that happened to children could surprise them any more.21 Principles of sociology they had been abused. but rather be surprised and intrigued by what is observed. criminal gangs and religious cults. which encouraged observational work and despatched its sociologists into every corner of the city. the more you let your own values and feelings take over. and they’ve joined political parties. on street corners and in public toilets. offices. this means that those being observed may change their behaviour simply because they are being studied. ran with open arms to hug the ‘abusing’ parents who had been allowed to visit them. call centres.8 ‘Telling it as it is’ Stop and think for a moment about the claim that being somewhere allows you see things as they are. and the researcher is not seeing the subjects 58 . If this happens. It also offers flexibility and can provide the basis for inductively generating new theoretical explanations. The idea that participant observation ‘tells it like it is’ is challenged by something known as the observer effect. and the less you will see of what is going on around you. While a ‘lay’ person witnessing such things would probably react emotionally. On the other hand. the researcher should take nothing for granted. Neither of these reactions is suitable for the sociological observer. and sometimes has to. In participant observation sociologists are able to see for themselves how people behave in their natural contexts. The famous ‘Chicago School’ of sociology. try to identify some of the reasons. schools. this is not strictly accurate. prisons and mental hospitals. section 4. Some of the most vivid and interesting studies in sociology have used participant observation. Maybe you were missing the cues or maybe people were deceiving you? Take a moment and write down your answers to these questions before moving on. Participant observation can be used in experimental designs and ethnographic research can. We will be discussing the Chicago School in Chapter 4. In essence. be done by other methods. such as unstructured interviews or documents. they’ve made observations in clinics.58–59 Participant observation is the method most commonly used in ethnographic research designs and you will find that some textbooks treat ethnography and participant observation as if they were the same. I have seen social workers and police having to drag screaming children away from their parents.

However. suicide and childhood experiences – that cannot usually be studied in this way.Chapter 2: Sociological research of the research as they really are but as they want to be seen. there are many areas of social life – domestic violence. some governments often change the way in which unemployment is classified. Goffman (1987) worked as a games teacher in the institution. Two of the most important sources of secondary data are official statistics and documents. marriages. A problem for sociologists wanting to use official statistics is that classification and collection procedures can vary both between different societies and within the same society over time. especially in large-scale comparative research designs. cheap and available. This ‘undercover’ research raises ethical issues. other organisations such as hospitals. then the ecological validity of the research is compromised. they can provide a picture of a society at a given time. as those being studied have not given their consent to the research. State sources also regularly produce economic statistics on patterns of employment and unemployment. divorces. and a comparative study of unemployment based on official statistics that have been compiled in different ways will be neither standardised nor valid. For example. ethnicity and the structure of families. while Holdaway (1983) made a study of the police force he was serving in at the time. 59 . it is hard to generalise from the results. illness. a national census is held in developed countries. suicides and the like. For example. The analysis of official statistics The term official statistics refers to the mass of data collected by the state and its various agencies. Sometimes researchers try to get round this problem by using covert observational methods and concealing their true identity from the group being studied. They are social constructions that reflect the conceptual categories and bureaucratic procedures through which they are collected. Official statistics are a major source of information for sociologists and are widely used. sexuality. Participant observation methods also tend to be unreliable. sociologists have to approach the analysis of official statistics cautiously. Secondary sources A great deal of sociological research involves the analysis of secondary data. income and expenditure. This may include data from previous research but it is mainly material that is not specifically produced for research and this has important implications for the sociologist. selection of data is very much dependent on the researcher’s subjective views of what should (and should not) be included. in his classic study of a state mental hospital in the United States. This provides information about the composition of the population in terms of factors such as births. For example. They are not self-evident ‘facts’ simply waiting for researchers to use. data not generated by the researcher. They are plentiful. that is. data collection is not standardised and. It is also time consuming and. and it has the limitation that the researcher is unable to ‘stop the action’ and ask questions freely and openly. Furthermore. like the unstructured interview. as well as publishing rates of crime. In addition to state-generated data. enable comparisons to be made and help document important changes in societies and social groups over time. usually every 10 years. because it is often based on a single case study or a small and non-representative sample. economic organisations and voluntary agencies provide important sources of statistical information.

50) The analysis of documents In its widest sense a document simply means anything that contains text. • Not all official statistics have the problems of classification and underreporting outlined above. • Researchers have access to different data sets. For example. Therefore. newspapers. (Look back to the example of Townsend’s research on p. that they ‘lack validity’. government reports. • Townsend’s research on poverty showed that the official statistics were wrong. Therefore.21 Principles of sociology Another problem with official statistics may be under-reporting. birth rates. for example. or should not. because they are not valid. These statistics give a much more accurate estimate of the level of crime than the official crime rates. diaries. what you write in your diary or in letters to friends might be a more valid representation of how you think and act than what you tell me in an interview. personal assets. companies’ profits. many governments undertake annual victim surveys. but it would be wrong to see them merely as a substitute for primary data. do not simply state. magazines. Documents are used when subjects cannot be observed or interviewed. The analysis of documents is the major method used in comparative and historical research designs. TV programmes. law courts. an increase in the official crime rates. could mean either that crime has risen or it could simply mean that more crime has been reported and recorded. some of which can offset the limitations of the others. • Sociologists should never use official statistics. rates of immigration. where a random sample of the population are asked if they have been the victims of crime. when writing about the limitations of official statistics. Official reports. in many societies. For example. for example. newspapers. films. For example. magazines. company accounts • cultural documents: for example. use official statistics. emails. • If a researcher who is comparing different sets of official statistics is sure that they have been compiled in much the same way. illness and suicide – are far lower than the real levels. death rates and murder rates are taken to be accurate representations of the true numbers. Activity 2. hospitals. legal reports. photographs. films. letters. Documents can be classified in many ways but a useful classification is: • official documents: for example. These observations do not mean that sociologists cannot. are examples of documents. records from schools. crime.9 Official statistics Critically evaluate the following statements: • Government statistics have shown that there has been a sharp rise in crime this year. and even graffiti scrawled on a wall. reports from journals. then the data will still be valid. art works 60 . but documents are also widely used in ethnographic research. It is much better to say they ‘may lack validity’ and then go to explain why this could be the case. It is generally accepted that official statistics – such as those recording people’s incomes.

each other. But what else do you think the story is saying? Can you see a hidden meaning. and any other material you think is relevant here. documentary methods use qualitative techniques to explore the meanings of texts. A document may be both authentic and first hand but. Using the criteria outlined in Section 2. rather than documents derived from earlier sources. or simply false. write down what you think are the advantages and limitations of this approach.. or content analysis sociologists systematically analyse documents in terms of certain pre-determined criteria. look at the following news item from a British newspaper. looking at the proportions of time given to: a. but by a former waiter and window cleaner called Konrad Kujau! Another question researchers have to consider is the validity of the document’s content. This may involve examining the literal meaning of the document. receive £1. to interpret the contexts that give them meaning. 19. or sub-text? The story is not just about Mike and Kathleen. In structured. said he would not take the job in case his state benefits were cut.150 a month in state benefits and live rent free. For example. written by people who witnessed something personally. On the surface this is simply an account of a young man with four children who turned down a job.Chapter 2: Sociological research • personal documents: for example. A key question in documentary research is the authenticity of the document. researchers might monitor the output of TV stations at regular intervals to calculate the proportion of violence. Researchers generally prefer first-hand accounts. who has never done a day’s work. Even with relatively recent documents this is not always clear. documentary methods can be structured or unstructured. Like interviews and observational methods. or corroborate. sexuality or stereotyping in programmes. Mike and his wife Kathleen. 23. letters. national c. Therefore. for various reasons. local b. Unstructured. Dad of 5 Turns Down First Job A jobless teenager about to become a dad for the fifth time was offered a job yesterday – and turned it down. Mike B. The diaries were being sold round the world when it was revealed that they had not been written by Hitler. researchers usually examine a number of documentary sources looking for accounts that confirm. or it could mean looking beneath the actual words or images. Another important question in the context of authenticity is whether or not a document is a forgery. emails. To illustrate this latter approach.10 Content analysis Imagine you are doing a content analysis study of the news programmes on your local TV stations.2. the content may be distorted. Look back at the 61 . diaries. It is possible here to interpret an underlying sub-text of statements and questions that help to give the story a framework and a much wider meaning. or textual. They are now demanding a bigger house when their new baby arrives in October. For example. international news stories. in 1983 the German magazine Stern paid seven million marks (£2 million) for 60 volumes of Hitler’s diaries after they had been ‘authenticated’ by several eminent historians. exaggerated. Activity 2.

documents Participant observation. Selection of methods In practice sociologists will select the methods that best fulfil the aims of the research design and there are usually clear relationships between research designs and research methods. Documents can also be used when observational or interview methods are not possible because people cannot be contacted or observed. Underlying text: • Look how much money people on state benefits are paid! • If you have more children the state will find you a bigger house when other people have to earn more money to move to a bigger house Questions raised: • Do you think this is fair on people who work hard for a living? • Do you think the benefits system is encouraging some people not to work? Activity 2. been anorexic or been abused in their childhood provide an invaluable source of information for sociologists researching these areas.11 Textual analysis Take a story from your local newspaper and see if you can interpret its underlying subtext. personal documents Figure 2. Vast amounts of information are held in documents. groups of societies Case studies Typical methods Structured interview questionnaire Structured observation Official statistics. Many studies in sociology. researchers will usually use more than one method to fulfil different aims of the research design. • People who ‘really’ need state benefits because they cannot work. particularly historical studies. many of which are easily accessible and in a form that can be examined and checked out by other researchers. are based almost exclusively on documents. For example. societies. the autobiographical accounts by adults who have tried to harm themselves.21 Principles of sociology story again. Who do you think it is aimed at? What else do you think it is ‘saying’ other than what is in the text? What questions do you think it is raising? Here are some suggestions below. unstructured interview. Research design Survey Experimental/ evaluative Comparative/cross cultural Ethnographic Typical subjects Samples of large populations Small groups of subjects Institutions. Audience: • People who work for a living and pay taxes. Often methods will be combined in a 62 .8: Research design and research methods (or the research design– method relationship) Although I have looked at the major methods separately in order to explain them.

63 . the reverend Moon. 2. such as interviewing people who worked for the organisation or were members of the social group under consideration. 3. Eileen Barker’s study The Making of a Moonie (1984) is a classic example of the use of multiple methods in research. Write down what you understand by these terms and then check your answers by looking back at the subject guide and using your textbooks.12 Revision check In the above example there are four terms in bold type: • random sample • structured questionnaire • control group • participant observation. tells followers. which is the subtitle of her book. Eileen Barker wanted to find out what sort of people join the Moonies. they are not always simply decided by what the researcher would like to do. whether they are different from ‘ordinary people’ and if they are ‘brainwashed’ by the organisation as many people believed. is ‘… choice or brainwashing?’. when you join you do everything in utter obedience to me’. • Ethics: as we have already observed. ‘I am your brain.Chapter 2: Sociological research way where the strengths of one method can be used to offset some of the limitations of another.The sociological question she asked. This is known as triangulation. there are external factors that also have to be taken into consideration in planning and undertaking research. Activity 2. 1. The founder. She carried out detailed interviews with a random sample of Moonies to explore their motivations for joining. • Time and money: lack of time or funding means that researchers sometimes have to select the cheaper option. However. choice of research methods is influenced primarily by the aims of the research design. using questionnaires instead of detailed unstructured interviews. She found that the Moonies chose to be members of the group. or Unification Church. have followers and business interests all over the world. Sometimes. for example. As I observed above. She carried out participant observation research in a number of Unification Church centres over a period of six years to see for herself the ways in which Moonies were controlled within the organisation. Some of the most important ones are: • Access: sometimes sociologists cannot get access to the documents they want from an organisation or to the social group they want to observe. She explored possible differences between Moonies and non-Moonies by giving structured questionnaires to a large sample of Moonies and to a control group of non-Moonies. In spite of so much criticism of the Moonies in the press. She explored these questions using three different methods. a term borrowed from navigation where the position of a ship is plotted from two fixed points. Barker found that were no significant personality differences between Moonies and non-Moonies and also little evidence of ‘brainwashing’. ethical considerations might constrain research. she found that the Moonies had actively chosen to be Moonies. so they have to find alternative methods. Research example: Barker (1984) on the Moonies The Moonies.

observation. they should not be exaggerated. you can turn to Chapter 4 now. The various factors influencing selection of methods are summarised in Figure 2. you should have a clearer idea of: • the nature of sociological research and why it is important to know how research is done • the key criteria by which research is evaluated • what is meant by a research design and how the nature of the research design influences the data that is collected • the characteristics of survey. If you would like to understand more about the history of sociology before you begin working on the subject in more detail. It is important to appreciate the strengths and limitations of each method. Although it is important to mention the influence of external influences on research. Most of the time. and that is that all research involves making theoretical assumptions about the nature of the social world. observations. comparative and ethnographic research designs • the key research methods: interviews. Summary Research methods refer to how data is collected. most researchers have choice and discretion about most aspects of a research project.21 Principles of sociology • Funding body: sometimes the organisation funding the research will expect the research to be done in a certain way. theoretical preferences and by external constraints. 64 . This is what we shall be examining in the next chapter. some organisations have a preference for quantitative rather than qualitative research. A reminder of your learning outcomes Having completed this chapter.8. and the essential reading and activities. official statistics and documents. Researchers’ selection of methods is influenced by the nature of the problem. However. Here we have looked at four of the major research methods: interviews. the analysis of official statistics and documents • how to approach questions on sociological research. there is one thing about which they have no choice. experimental. for example.

J. New York: Longman. (London. (Cambridge: Polity Press.15–17 and 24–27. J. The key idea here is that there is no such thing as ‘theory-free’ research. 2008) pp. Giddens. Introduction So far. Learning objectives By the end of this chapter. (Oxford: Oxford University Press.77–78 Macionis.44–69 and (2008) pp. (Harlow: Prentice Hall. Essential reading The essential reading for this chapter of the unit is the subject guide. Aims of the chapter The aims of this chapter are to: • develop the idea of methodology introduced in Chapter 2 • introduce you to ontological and epistemological issues in sociology • outline the key aspects of positivism • outline the key aspects of interpretivism • outline the key aspects of realism.Chapter 3: Theory and research Chapter 3: Theory and research Written by Dr Steve Taylor. 65 . Sociology. but you must also supplement it with reading from your textbook. A. The key pages in the textbooks we have recommended are: Fulcher. J. 1997). as the very act of doing research involves making contested – that is. we’ve looked at the questions sociologists ask about human societies (Chapter 1) and how they do research (Chapter 2). and J. and K. and having completed the essential reading and activities. 2005) pp. Further reading It would also be helpful if you referred to: Hughes. In this chapter we’re going to dig deeper and look at some of the different theoretical ideas underpinning sociological thinking and social research. Plummer Sociology: a global introduction. 2007) pp. you should have a clearer idea of: • how research is underpinned by theoretical ideas • what is meant by an ontology/epistemology problem in sociology • the key aspects of positivist theory • the interpretivist critique of positivism and the key aspects of interpretivist approaches in sociology • what is meant by realism in sociology and how realism is different from both positivism and interpretivism. The philosophy of social research.50–57. theoretical – assumptions about the nature of social reality and how we obtain knowledge of it. Scott Sociology.

66 . Therefore. methods and process. 2002) Chapter 1. As Pawson (1999.1 The middle term. 3. (Oxford: Oxford University. Gieben (eds) Formations of modernity. A. 2003) Chapter 11. (Cambridge: Polity. Video/DVD ‘Theory and methods’ [from 8 www.2). what units make them up and how these units relate to each other. (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan. S. (Harlow: Prentice Hall. The thinking skills – that we shall be more concerned with in this section – involve things like excavating the underlying theoretical assumptions on which research is based.2 Ontology and epistemology are very important concepts in sociology (and in any other discipline) because they involve exploring the ‘core’ ideas and assumptions of the subject. Methodology. Methodology = Principles + Methods Figure 3. p. 1992). May. interpretivism and realism. then. (Buckingham: Open University. The ‘special tools of inquiry’ involve a combination of thinking skills and practical skills. Parker J. subjecting them to critical scrutiny and considering alternatives.20) has observed.halovine. an ontological question in sociology addresses the essential nature of human societies. 2001) Part 1. The practical skills – which we looked at the previous chapter – involve things like gaining access to research sites and selecting the right methods for the research problem. This video/DVD may be helpful to you as it explains and illustrates the three major theories considered here: positivism. Social research methods. ‘Principles’. (ed. Marsh. can be divided into two further categories called ontology and epistemology (Figure]. Ontology The term ontology originated in philosophy and is concerned with the essential nature of what is being studied. Here we are going to ‘unpick’ the idea of methodology and look at it in a little more detail. the assertion that sociology provides some authoritative understanding of the working of the social world is based on usage of some special tools of inquiry. Social research: issues. is about developing the principles and practice of social research (see Figure 3. and B. It is concerned with what societies are. ‘The Enlightenment and the birth of social science’ in Hall. I.1).1 Methodology revisited In Chapter 2 we introduced methodology as the study of the methods used by sociologists to find out about societies. Methodology is the analysis of these skills.21 Principles of sociology Other relevant textbooks are: Bryman. 2008) Part 1. Methodology = Ontology + Epistemology + Methods Figure 3. Social theory: a basic tool kit. Hamilton. T.) Theory and practice in sociology.

the key to understanding societies lay in their economic structures. sociologists should begin by studying individual social action and the meanings people give to these actions. He saw the morals and values of a society. Marx claimed that social change was caused primarily by changes and resulting tensions in the underlying economic structures of societies rather than by the outcomes of battles or the decisions of a few powerful people. A cluster of approaches in sociology. However. Action theorists sometimes suggest that structural theories reduce people to the mere puppets of societies. From this point of view differences in suicide rates were a consequence of different social structures rather than of the characteristics of individuals.2. social processes. as history books led people to believe. For example. For example. Thus the focus tends to be on large-scale. (You will be reading about these sociological theories in more detail in Chapter 4. sociologists have different ways of conceptualising these relationships. loosely described as social action theories. Weber disagreed with Marx that the rise of industrial capitalist 67 . Durkheim’s famous study of suicide – looked at briefly in Chapters 2 and 4 – was an attempt to demonstrate that social groups with more integrating social structures (that is.Chapter 3: Theory and research As we observed in Chapter 1. section 4. or macro. Just as gravity limits our power of movement. Sociological approaches that see values and beliefs as the ‘core’ elements of societies are called idealist. For Marx. the societies in which we live influence and constrain how we think and act.) For example. Sociologists adopting this approach try to show the ways that different social structures shape the behaviour of the individuals living within them. there are similarities between the natural world and the social world. where people are bound more closely together) have lower suicide rates. This is known as a materialist view of societies. (We will be going into more detail into the theories when we look at Weber in Chapter 4. transmitted from one generation to the next. sociology is about the relationships between individuals and societies. Many of those whose work helped to ‘found’ sociology in the nineteenth century viewed societies as social structures. Both are ‘external realities’ that constrain people’s actions in various ways. However. as social forces that regulate people’s behaviour and bind them to each other through shared membership of social institutions. despite the differences between Durkheim’s idealist theory focused on cultural values and beliefs and Marx’s materialist theory based on economic production. Marx and Durkheim conceptualised societies this way. both viewed people’s behaviour as the product of the structural organisation of societies. the wealth of a society. one key difference (that we shall be looking at in more detail in Chapter 4) is between sociologists who see societies as social structures and those who focus on social action. its productive processes and its customs and values shape people’s life experiences irrespective of their conscious wishes. From this point of view. view the relationships between the individuals and societies rather differently. For example. section 4. Durkheim took a different view of social structures. Action theorists argue that as societies are produced by the intentional activities of people.2). Sociologists who favour structural approaches conceptualise societies primarily as networks of social institutions and patterns of social relationships that are comparatively long lasting.

Another related epistemological question concerns what is called the subject/object dilemma. Whereas some sociologists argue that researchers should remain as detached as possible from the subjects of inquiry. there are those – sometimes referred to as naturalists – who argue that the best way for sociology to transcend subjectivity and produce more objective knowledge of social life. that valid knowledge of social groups comes from researchers immersing themselves as closely as possible in the lives of those they are studying. So we can see that there are differences in the way that sociologists view the social world. A major epistemological debate in sociology concerns the similarity of sociological knowledge and scientific knowledge. it explores the basis for knowledge – how we know what we know. sociology can develop methods of investigation based on the logic of experimentation and measurement found in the natural sciences. version of this epistemological position holds that you actually have to be a member of the social group being studied. Again. On the other hand. Another. others argue exactly the opposite. Epistemology Epistemology is another term from philosophy. This will affect the way that they believe that they can understand and know about the world. it follows that epistemological questions in sociology are investigations into how sociologists justify the knowledge they are providing of social life. He argued that this theory did not explain the motivation behind a new. there are those – sometimes referred to as antinaturalists – who argue that because nature and society are completely different from each other. Sociologists study people and. which we looked at briefly in Chapter 1. is to follow the logic and procedures of the natural sciences.21 Principles of sociology society in Western Europe could be explained merely by changes in economic structures. the principles and methods of the natural sciences have little or no application to the study of social life. more extreme. Weber used economic statistics and other documentary sources to suggest that an important factor in the success of many early capitalists was a religious conviction. sociologists have different views on this. Therefore. one where researchers transcend their subjectivity by interpreting the subjectivity of the people they are studying. Weber was able to highlight something absent in Marx’s theory – the relationship between religion and the rise of modern capitalism. This point of view holds that. sociology requires a very different approach from that of the natural sciences. more disciplined work ethic and the tendency of so many of the early industrial capitalists to work long hours and reinvest. or at 68 . their profits. arising from the Protestant doctrine of predestination where economic (or worldly) success came to be interpreted as a sign of God’s favour. By focusing more on the actions of individuals. as far as possible. On the one hand. rather than spend. In more simple terms. people are reflective and try to make sense of the situations in which they find themselves. Therefore. In between these extremes there are a variety of positions that accept the principles of scientific inquiry to a limited degree in relation to specific research questions. unlike the matter studied by most natural scientists. An epistemology is a theory that presents a view of what can be regarded as knowledge rather than belief.

For example. positivism. This means that although the content of the various sciences is obviously very different. Scientific inquiry is based on the systematic accumulation of ‘facts’ rather than on belief. opinion. before looking at these theories. 69 . as it would be quite wrong to see sociology as divided into three distinct and entirely separate approaches. as its logic suggests I can only ‘really’ understand suicide by committing suicide myself!) So.11–12. such as Auguste Comte (1798–1857) and Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) believed that by applying the principles and practices that had worked so well in natural sciences (especially physics. interpretivism and realism are very general descriptive terms and there are many different theoretical approaches within the general framework of each one. In simple terms you cannot really understand people without having ‘been there’ yourself. interpretivism and realism. create problems for me.46–47 or Macionis and Plummer (2008) pp. in summary. However. sociology could discover the ‘laws’ that explained how societies worked and changed. Its key idea is unity of scientific method. We will be examining these approaches in more detail in Chapter 4. section 4. realist ideas. many studies in sociology use a combination of positivist. 3. some interpretivists (following Weber) believe that understanding the meanings that people give to their actions is the first step towards explaining their behaviour. others (following Schutz) argue that sociology cannot move beyond people’s subjective meanings. more recently. chemistry and biology). to provide valid knowledge of their behaviour. • Secondly. • Thirdly. However. Most modern sociologists do not have such grand ambitions and tend to write about ‘trends’ or ‘probabilities’ in particular societies rather than ‘scientific laws’ of social development of all societies. just as they use different research methods. tradition or divine revelation. there are many different views in sociology about what societies are and the best ways of obtaining knowledge of them. However. interpretivist or realist.24–27 or Macionis and Plummer (2005) pp. interpretivist and. These are terms used primarily by methodologists and social theorists to try to describe and evaluate the theoretical assumptions underlying different approaches to research. incidentally. few sociologists would describe themselves as a positivist. a great deal of research in sociology (and other social sciences) is underpinned by positivist assumptions.3. it is important to put them into perspective. Many of the early sociologists writing in the nineteenth century. In the following sections we shall try to simplify matters to some extent by identifying three of the most influential theories of knowledge in sociology: positivism.2 Positivism Now read Fulcher and Scott (2007) pp. • First.54–55 or Giddens (2008) pp. Positivism originated as a philosophy of science.Chapter 3: Theory and research least have shared the same kind of experiences personally. the form of all scientific enterprise is essentially the same. (This epistemological position would. so it is important to identify some of the most important ones.

In fact. In spite of its determinist views. or choice. by finding the cause of a certain disease and developing an effective treatment – so sociological research into the causes of people’s behaviour can. positivism does not necessarily lead to a fatalistic acceptance of the way things are. For example. be used to engineer social change. Just as scientists can intervene in nature – for example. For positivists. to predict (what would happen in the future) and to control (what they discovered was wrong in the world). to some extent at least. How people really feel about things cannot be explained scientifically and is the proper subject for ‘arts’ subjects. an economic recession in a society may cause higher unemployment and poverty in some sections of a society. This means that the organisation of the societies in which people live causes them to think and act in the way they do. For example. in the case of crime given in Figure 3. science – and good social science – involves describing and trying to explain these causal relationships.3: How an effect may become a cause Determinism Another positivistic assumption underlying much sociological research is a deterministic view of the relationship between the individual and society. irrespective of their free will. understanding the causes of crime can lead to the development of policies that might reduce crime rates. In more simple language.1 Determinism and free will Write down some characteristics of your own behaviour. However. As you will have seen in your reading.3). what things (or factors) do you think have influenced your life? 70 . some of your behaviour has been determined by things outside your direct control? If so. Do you feel that you behave in the way that you do because you make a free choice? Or do you think that. such as literature or poetry. he went as far as suggesting that. and this may then be a cause of increasing rates of crime (Figure 3.21 Principles of sociology Causality Positivism sees the social world – like the natural world – as comprising phenomena (which is just a complicated technical way of saying ‘things’) that are causally related to each other. Comte argued that it was possible to know (about the world). as sociological expertise developed. a [economic recession] b [increased unemployment and economic deprivation] c [increased crime] Figure 3. Researchers adopting a positivist point of view may still be interested in finding out about people’s subjective views. they explore things such as attitudes and opinions through survey research.3 increasing unemployment and poverty and not free choice ‘causes’ the increase in crime. For example. in principle. future societies would be run on the advice and guidance of sociologists! Activity 3. this means that something (a cause) makes something else (an effect) happen and an effect of one thing can then be the cause of something else. they see the task of sociology as explaining why people behave in the way they do. For example.

This view can be summarised in the phrase ‘the facts speak for themselves’. value free. Theories are then tested out in research designs to see if the phenomena behave in the way predicted by the theory. If you cannot begin to answer this. Empiricist epistemology holds that the only valid source of knowledge is that based on experience. partly proven. According to this view.Chapter 3: Theory and research Empiricism Another characteristic of positivist approaches is the distinction researchers make between ‘theories’ (ideas) and ‘observations’ (empirical knowledge). as you are reading this. the goal of sociology is to produce an objective understanding of societies by following the principles of the natural sciences. as far as possible. or factual. Before reading on. ask yourself what research designs and methods you think would be most common in positivist research. This is known as an empiricist concept of knowledge. an empiricist epistemology means that research has to be grounded in concrete evidence that can be checked out. In scientific terms. if. For positivists.4: Theory. Favoured methods are those that are more likely to produce testable and quantifiable data.4). The theory can be tested and it is the evidence that shows whether or not it works. such as structured interviews. you are sitting on a chair. design and method 71 Research methods (most common) Structural interviews Structural observations Official statistics . Positivist research designs tend to be those that are closest to the logic of natural science research: surveys or experimental designs. For example. provides objective knowledge that is. you know the chair exists because you can see it and feel it. systematic collection of evidence. or epistemology. not the researcher’s subjective values or arguments. The important consequence of this sociologically is that positivist research is confined to relationships between observable social phenomena. Theory Positivism Research design (most common) Social surveys Experimental Comparative Figure 3. go back and reread about sociological research designs and methods in Chapter 2. The positivist view is that science (and ‘good’ social science) involves constructing theories that express relations between observable phenomena (or things). Empirical. Therefore positive research is guided primarily by the ‘scientific criteria’ of the measuring instruments of quantification. reliability and transparency. We do not have to take the researcher’s word for it. or even falsified. Theories may then be proven. structured observation and analysis of official statistics (Figure 3. What proves a scientific ‘truth’ is the empirical evidence. science and (good) social science. Methods There are clear links between positivist theory and the research designs and methods that we looked at in Chapter 2. knowledge is that which can be directly perceived. The links between positivist theory and research can be worked out logically from what we already know.

Activity 3. Can you think of any other criticisms of positivist theory? (For a clue. We shall look at the alternative sociological theories of knowledge arising out of these critiques below. sociology involves the search for causal relationships between observable phenomena and theories are tested against observations. The interpretivist tradition in sociology developed largely as a criticism of the dominant theory of positivism. In the positivist view. 72 .81. but what they do question is the idea that the logic and methods of natural science can be imported into the study of societies. as we have seen. 3. Interpretivist sociologists do not necessarily reject the positivist account of scientific knowledge. ‘natural science’ and ‘social science’ are two very different enterprises requiring a different logic and different methods. Some of those favouring an interpretivist view of sociology have long argued that in their quest for a scientific explanation of social life. For him. Which of the following research projects is more likely to be underpinned by positivist theory? • An in-depth analysis using unstructured interviews to find out how the victims of crime really felt about their experiences. go back and look at the relation of theory to research on p. Now make of few notes to explain how these points are linked to each other. positivist sociologists have sometimes forgotten that they are studying people.21–25. positivist assumptions are important because they still underpin a great deal of empirical research. they have been subject to a great deal of criticism. However. particularly the second point on theory and data collection.3 Interpretivism Further reading Marsh (2002) pp. The humanist question At the heart of interpretivist critique of positivism is a humanist viewpoint. Some sociologists.) Summary Positivist theory argues that the methods of the natural sciences are applicable to the study of societies (naturalism).2 Positivism Can you write down three characteristics of positivist theory? Look at your list. Others suggest that the positivist interpretation of science is flawed. • A statistical study of crime rates amongst a city’s different ethnic populations. and to study people you need to get out and explore how they really think and act in everyday situations. argue that scientific methods have little or no application in sociology. Max Weber (1864–1920) was one of the main influences on the interpretivist tradition in sociology.21 Principles of sociology Positivist ideas are very important because they still underpin a great deal of research in sociology. Although very few sociologists today would describe themselves as positivists. and almost all research in psychology and in economics.

has a specific meaning and relevance structure for beings living. A problem at work Imagine you are working in a bank and your manager comes in and starts shouting at you about how bad your work is. human societies are essentially subjective realities. is starting to ask itself some similar questions. argued: The world of nature. (Schutz. some of which you may be studying at some time on your programme. Consumers.Chapter 3: Theory and research The same question is now being raised in other social sciences. The observational field of the social scientist. There are two points here that illustrate the interpretivist position: • The same stimulus – the angry manager – can produce different responses depending on how his anger is interpreted (i. As Schutz (1899–1959). 1954) As people engage in conscious. I have been making mistakes and causing him problems. as we illustrate below. one of the most important influences on interpretive sociology. For example: Interpretation He is quite right. often make very ‘irrational’ choices. Social institutions – the subject matter of sociology – cannot be divorced from the subjective understanding that people (including sociologists) have of them. there is now a flourishing humanist movement in psychology. for example. for it is this meaning that explains your response. You argue back and threaten to report him for bullying. 73 . as explored by the natural scientist. The key idea of interpretivist ontology is that there is a fundamental difference between the natural world and social world. The social world is meaningful. What you would do next depends on how you interpret his action. a researcher cannot really make sense of your behaviour without interpreting the meaning that you attributed to your manager’s actions. Action You apologise and promise to do better in future. they actively interpret the situations in which they find themselves and act on the basis of these interpretations. For example. acting and thinking therein. It is so unlike him to get angry like this. there is not necessarily a consistent cause–effect relationship). atoms and electrons therein. but does not apply in the social world.e. Interpretivists argue that the positivist idea of a chain of causation is quite logical in the natural world where a particular stimulus consistently produces a given effect. Economics. however. • Whatever your response. Rather. namely the social reality. intentional activities and attach meanings to their actions. A group of economists is now arguing that one of the weaknesses of economics has been its failure to get out into the world and see how people really behave in economic situations. You stay quiet and accept the criticism. People do not merely react to stimuli. but I know he has problems at home and this is why he has lost his temper. does not ‘mean’ anything to molecules. He is out of order and has no right to talk to me like that – the mistakes were mainly his fault anyway. traditionally the most complacent and self-consciously scientific of the social sciences.

section 4. particularly in Western societies. • Ask yourself what meaning the degree programme you are now taking has for you.3.2) is verstehen. you could do a little research and ask some of them. How to do you think a sociologist researching you could interpret and ‘make sense’ of these experiences? What do you think the limitations of such a study would be? Verstehen A key concept here (also described in Chapter 2 and Chapter 4. Sociologists adopting an interpretivist approach to study crime. a German word meaning ‘understanding’. They would start by trying to interpret criminal behaviour from the criminals’ point of view (see Activity below). that sociologists have to agree with those points of view but rather that they have to interpret them in order to understand crime. would not begin by asking what causes criminal behaviour. An important issue raised by Max Weber is that behaviour that seems the same ‘from the outside’ can have very different meanings when examined from the ‘inside’. associated particularly with the work of Alfred Schutz. sociology has to show how people come to construct these meanings for their actions. A phenomenological approach means studying everyday life. For example: • financial gain: the car can be changed and sold • revenge: people who have expensive cars deserve to have them taken and wrecked • convenience: ‘borrowing’ someone’s car to get somewhere else • danger: the motivation is the risk of getting caught and being chased by the police.4 The social meanings of actions Car theft is a growing crime. Interpretivist sociologists argue that these different meanings require different explanations.21 Principles of sociology Activity 3. focusing on people’s states of consciousness and ‘bracketing off’ judgments about what may be causing their behaviour. This does not mean.3 Your week Write down three experiences you have had in the past week. Activity 3. This is elaborated in Activity 3. of course. But the act of breaking into someone’s car and driving it away can have different meanings for different people. • Can you think of some different meanings that other students taking your degree programme may have? If you have time.4 below. We will be looking at phenomenology in more detail in Chapter 4. • How do you think these different meanings might influence students’ motivation for the degree programme? 74 . Phenomenology argues that it’s not enough simply to interpret the meanings people give to their actions. Phenomenology is another important concept in interpretivist epistemology. The idea of verstehen is that researchers. place themselves imaginatively in the position of those they are studying and ask how they see the world and what ends they believe are served by their actions. for example. section 4. as far as possible.

design and methods Interpretivism has provided a powerful critique of many of the taken-forgranted ideas of positivism that are widely used in sociology and in other social sciences. interpretivists’ accounts are criticised by some sociologists for not providing testable hypotheses that can be evaluated.Chapter 3: Theory and research Methods The aim of interpretivist approaches in sociology is to understand the subjective experiences of those being studied. the key criterion in interpretivist epistemology is validity.5). • Identify three research methods that are more likely to be favoured by interpretivist sociologists. • Now write down some arguments against this view. This can lead to relativism where one theory. Therefore.5: Theory.6 Sociology and science • Write down some arguments in favour of sociology as a science of society. It has also influenced a whole field of research illuminating people’s everyday life experiences. how they think and feel and how they act in their natural contexts. unstructured interviews and personal documents (Figure 3. 75 . Activity 3. • Can you think of any criticisms of interpretivist theory other than the two mentioned above? Activity 3. although interpretivists still try to be objective and systematic in their research. • Which view do you find more convincing and why? Summary Interpretivists argue that there are fundamental differences between the natural world and the social world and that the logic and methods of the natural sciences are not applicable to the study of societies. • Make some notes explaining how these characteristics are linked to each other. or study.5 Interpretivism • Identify three key characteristics of interpretivist theory. However. The favoured research design is ethnography and the main methods are ones that help researchers understand social life from the point of view of those being studied. such as unstructured observation. Theory Positivism Research design (most common) Social surveys Experimental Comparative Interpretivism Ethnography Research methods (most common) Structural interviews Structural observations Official statistics Participant observation Unstructured interviews Personal documents Figure 3. Sociological methods are primarily about investigating and understanding the meanings that people give to their actions. is seen as just as good as any other.

21 Principles of sociology

3.4 Realism
Further reading Parker (2003) Chapter 11 is also relevant to this section but it is not essential reading. Realist theory, like positivism, holds that sociology can, and should, follow the logic and methods of the natural sciences. Where realism differs from positivism is in its interpretation of science. Realists question positivism’s empiricist interpretation of the basis of scientific knowledge. (If you cannot remember what empiricism means go back and remind yourself, using section 3.2.) They argue that no form of science relies exclusively on observable empirical evidence. There are always aspects of any form of reality that remain hidden beneath the surface of what can be observed. According to realists, the aim of scientific work – rather than looking at relationships between observable phenomena as positivists argue – is to uncover the underlying causal mechanisms that bring about observable regularities. The idea of medical viruses was originally constructed to explain infections that could not be explained as a result of bacteria or germs. Thus, while the causal mechanisms were unobservable or ‘hidden’ they were nonetheless real and observable in the effect of the viruses. This is where the term realism comes from (Figure 3.6). Observable regularities underlying
Figure 3.6: Hidden causes



Realism has become quite fashionable in sociology. However, like positivism and interpretivism, it has a long history. For example, there were strong realist elements in the work of Karl Marx. Marx was particularly interested in the analysis of capital accumulation and the process of change. However, he argued that the observable features of capitalist society, such as economic fluctuation, capital growth and massive inequalities, could only be explained in terms of something called the mode of production; that is the relationship between how goods are produced and how production is organised. (However, the mode of production was a theoretical construct that could not be observed directly. Thus, for Marx, to understand how capitalism worked, you had to look beneath the surface.) In Chapter 4, section 4.2, we will be examining Marx’s theories in more detail and you will need to know why he has been described as a realist to be able to understand the idea of a mode of production which can only be seen by its effects. The development of a clear, realist epistemology is comparatively recent in sociology and owes much to ‘new realist’ writers like Bhaskar (1986) and Pawson (1989). The key to realist epistemology is that it is theory-driven and non-empiricist.

Chapter 3: Theory and research

Realists do not make the clear separation between theory (‘ideas’) and observation (‘facts’) found in positivism. In positivist research theories are tested against observations and found to be ‘true’ or ‘false’ or somewhere in between. In simple terms, the ‘facts’ are the judge of the theory. Realists do not make this clear-cut separation because they do not believe that ‘observations’ can be separated from ‘theories’. For realists, all data is theory-dependent. Before reading on, try Activity 3.7 below. Activity 3.7 The ‘facts’? Do you agree with the realist argument that there are no such ‘things’ as facts without theories? Can you find some examples of data that you think are theory free? As theory comes before data collection, theoretical concepts impose a frame of reference on the data rather like the way in which the rules of a game set parameters for the players. Theory thus orders data. However, if theory and observation cannot be separated, this raises the question of how theories can be evaluated. Realists address this question by looking at what happens in the natural sciences. They argue – in contrast to the positivist view – that data collection in science is also theory-dependent and that explanation does not involve testing theories against observations, but rather generating data to test theories against each other. Realists argue that this is what should happen in social sciences. As data never speak for themselves but can only be interpreted through theory, research should be about developing, refining and comparing theories in the following way: • a research problem is formulated • the most plausible theories are identified • research designs are constructed to compare the explanatory power of rival theories in given circumstances. As Pawson (1999, p.47) observes:
Data analysis whether quantitative or qualitative is about utilising evidence to choose between theories. The principle skill of data analysis is the refinement of theory.

Although realists see the structure and logic of scientific inquiry as being applicable in the social sciences, they recognise two important differences between the study of the social world and the natural world: • The social world is an ‘open system’ and the social contexts enabling (or preventing) the operation of causal mechanisms are subject to rapid and sometimes unpredictable change. This severely limits the scope for prediction and generalisation in social science compared to most natural sciences that can operate under experimental, or ‘closed’, systems. • The causal mechanisms in social life only operate through people’s intentions and thus, in contrast to positivists, realists argue that sociology involves the attempt to understand subjects’ interpretations of situations.


21 Principles of sociology

Realists, like positivists, see research being guided primarily by ‘scientific’ criteria, such as the systematic collection of evidence, reliability and transparency. However, because they recognise the importance of the subjective dimension of human action, they also include methods that document the validity of people’s experiences. Research designs are more likely to be experimental or comparative in realist research, but there is no particular commitment to either quantitative or qualitative methods. The focus of realist methodology, however, is on theory. Realists argue that as there is no such thing as theory-free data: sociological methods should be specifically focused on the evaluation and comparison of theoretical concepts, explanations and policies (Figure 3.7). Theory Positivism Research design (most common) Social surveys Experimental Comparative Ethnography Research methods (most common) Structural interviews Structural observations Official statistics Participant observation Unstructural interviews Personal documents Non-specific, but methods are theory-focused



Experimental Comparative

Figure 3.7: Theory, design and methods

‘New realism’ has provided a different – and what most commentators believe to be a valid – interpretation of science and its relationship to social sciences. It has also provided a (developing) alternative to the dominant theories of positivism and interpretivism and laid the foundations for a non-empiricist epistemology in social science. However, realism is also criticised for exaggerating the dependence of science and social science on theory, and realist epistemology offers, at best, very limited truths about the social world.

Realism holds that sociology involves trying to uncover the underlying mechanisms that generate observable events. It suggests that rather than testing theories against the ‘facts’, data is generated to evaluate theories against each other.

All sociological research designs and methods make certain assumptions about the nature of the social world and how knowledge is generated. One of the ways that research can be evaluated and improved is to make these assumptions more explicit. For example, one of the questions we have addressed here is about the nature of scientific knowledge and whether or not it is applicable to societies. As we have seen, positivism, interpretivism and realism give different answers to this question. However, while these theories have been separated out here in order to explain them more clearly, it is important to repeat a point made earlier in this section: that a great deal of sociological research contains elements of all three.


79 .Chapter 3: Theory and research A reminder of your learning outcomes Having completed this chapter. and the essential reading and activities. you should have a clearer idea of: • how research is underpinned by theoretical ideas • what is meant by an ontology/epistemology problem in sociology • the key aspects of positivist theory • the interpretivist critique of positivism and the key aspects of interpretivist approaches in sociology • what is meant by realism in sociology and how realism is different from both positivism and interpretivism.

21 Principles of Sociology Notes 80 .

It can be studied or read immediately after Chapter 2 if you would prefer to understand the history of sociology before you start understanding the subject in more detail. This chapter is particularly important for Section B. your main reading here. or perspectives. will be your textbooks.3 Bringing the individual back in 4. Durkheim and Weber. In this chapter we are going to look at some sociological theories. that have been specifically developed to describe and explain how societies work and change. Learning objectives By the end of this chapter. and to structural functionalism • introduce you to micro sociology and the phenomenological approach • identify some of the key theoretical dilemmas and developments in social theory • outline the postmodern critique of sociology. Introduction In the previous chapter we looked at theories of knowledge that have general implications for social sciences. you should: • understand the historical development of sociology and its roots in the Enlightenment • be aware of the influence of the major sociologists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and their contribution to social theory and substantive sociology • be able to compare and contrast the approaches of the major theorists • understand how sociology has developed since the 1980s into a more fragmented disciplinary. Aims of the chapter The aims of this chapter are to: • outline the origins of sociology and sociological thinking • introduce you to the classical sociological theory of Marx.2 Sociological theories 4. and having completed the essential reading and activities. Chapter structure 4. 81 .Chapter 4: Theories and developments Chapter 4: Theories and developments Written by Dr Steve Taylor and Rosemary Gosling.4 Postmodernity and sociology Essential reading Whereas in Chapter 3 your main reading was this subject guide. particularly on the theories themselves.1 Origins of sociology 4.

May. 4. 2003) Chapters 6–7.1 Origins of sociology This section is about some of the key sociological theories that sociologists have developed to help describe and explain the modern world. 6 and 7. D. Kumar.. or Lee. 8–9 and 12–13. T. A short history of sociological thought. E. or Giddens.halovine. (Basingstoke: Palgrave. pp. From post-industrial to post-modern society: new theories of the contemporary world.W. and Cuff. R.) Sociology: issues and debates.21 Principles of sociology Fulcher. Schutz. Parker. and K. (Buckingham: Open University 2008) Chapters 1. or Macionis. (London: Routledge. Situating social theory. J. 1986). Pawson. Scott Sociology. Macionis. Pawson. Marsh. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1999). Sociology. ‘Methodology’ in Taylor. 1989). 2005) third edition. Francis (London: Routledge. D. (Harlow: Prentice Hall. to begin to understand these theories. (Harlow: Prentice Hall. 2006) Chapters 1–6. Lyon. R. 2004). However. What was sociology trying to explain? Why did it develop when it did? What ideas influenced its development? 82 . Newby The problem of sociology. 2008) Chapters 1 and 4. A. 2008 edition) Chapters 2 and 7. Postmodernity. 1999). Sharrock and D. Videos/DVD There are three videos/DVDs that may be helpful to you for the material being covered in this chapter: Understanding sociological theory From modernity to postmodernity Anthony Giddens on Capitalism and modern social theory All produced by halovine – see 8 www. 2005 edition) Chapters 2 and 7.W. Kumar and Lyon first. 2007) Chapter 2. Theory and practice in sociology. Scientific realism and human emancipation. Measure for measures: a manifesto for an empirical sociology. 2002) Chapters 4. (London: Verso. (London: Routledge. The Journal of Philosophy 51(9) 1954. A. J. 2000) Parts 1 and 4–8. and H. A. 2 and 10. K. I. (Harlow: Prentice Hall. (Cambridge: Polity Press. Plummer Sociology: a global introduction. Swingewood. ‘Concept and theory formation’. and J. (Basingstoke: Macmillan. W. Parker. it is necessary first to look back to the origins of sociology. (Oxford: Blackwell. (ed. it should be Swingewood. J. and K. Social theory: a basic tool kit. J. R. Further reading We suggest that if you want to look for these in an order of preference. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. Plummer Sociology: a global introduction.257–73. Bhaskar. (Basingstoke: Palgrave.

• Industrialisation: this describes a process of rapid economic growth arising from the increasingly sophisticated application of inanimate (i. • Capitalism: this is a form of economic organisation where the means of generating economic wealth are largely in private hands and are organised predominantly for profit. The distinction between ‘pre-modern’ and ‘modern’ is outlined below. However it is important. consumer goods. It has a rather different meaning in sociology. eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These changes were later described as ‘the great transition’ from ‘pre-modern’ to ‘modern’ societies.Chapter 4: Theories and developments From pre-modernity to modernity First. urban. • Modernisation: this means the processes of societies becoming modern. some key terms that you will encounter in your reading about the rise of modern societies are: • Modern: in everyday life ‘modern’ refers to something new and up to date.1. first. All historical periods are the legacy of what came before and the past doesn’t just disappear. As Francis has observed: The idea of a ‘great transition’ by which modern. Sociology developed in Europe in the nineteenth century. • Modernity: this describes the attributes of modern societies outlined above. Premodernity and modernity are very general terms used by sociologists to describe the key characteristics of societies and long processes of social change. For example. rural society is arguably the central motif of the history of sociology. • Urbanisation: a process where the proportion of people living in urban areas increases. Most modern societies have been characterised by the spread of market economics and this is reflected in sociological thinking.1 1 Francis (1987) p. mechanical) sources of power.e. urban living. Weber’s concept of social class was built on classifying people’s market situation. primarily as an attempt to understand the massive social and economic changes that had been sweeping across Western Europe in the seventeenth. Societies don’t suddenly just change from one form to another. 83 . The invention and development of the steam engine. In one form or another it has influenced every area of sociology and provided some of its most abiding theoretical and empirical questions. had a major impact on the process of industrialisation. for example. industrial society emerged from pre-modern society. A modern society is sociological shorthand to describe societies which are characterised by mass production. • Market: in its most general sense a market is an arena where goods and services are freely exchanged for money. to get these terms into perspective. Aspects of ‘modern’ societies (such as the growth of science) were developing in pre-modern societies and some characteristics of premodern societies (such as the continuation of monarchies in some societies) survive in the modern world. nation states and predominantly secular values.

the majority of the population lived and worked on the land. Although there were various occupational strata. This economic order was known as feudalism. and the peasants. there was a very limited division of labour with very little mobility (that is movement) between different strata. more on qualifications and achievement than on birth and privilege. As Karl Marx famously put it.1: Pre-modern and modern societies 84 . Modern economies are money-based market economies with mass production of goods organised in factories. giving the greater part of what they produced to the lords. that is. such as education. Justice and punishment depended largely on the personal views of those dispensing it. Social life is organised around formal rules and bureaucratic procedures rather than custom and tradition. soldiers. or aristocracy. pre-modern societies were largely decentralised with localised leadership and government was despotic. The lords owned the land and the peasants worked the land. There was a sense of permanence about social life: things were done in certain ways because they had always been done that way. providing employment for many and services. It was largely a non-market economy and production was based on small units. or serfs. Religion was the major source of intellectual authority. Modernity Modern societies are predominantly urban and industrial and the majority of them are capitalist. Politically. Pre-modern Agricultural production Small-scale units of production Village communities/small towns Traditional values and behaviour Religion major source of knowledge Dominant class: aristocracy Majority class: peasantry Despotic government Modern Industrial production Large-scale units of mass production Urban conurbations Rational. for example. merchants and craftsmen. Modern societies are characterised politically by centralised nation states that begin to play an increasingly large part in people’s lives by. health care and welfare to most citizens. In modern societies the pace of life increases: industrial societies are societies in a permanent state of change. and custom and tradition governed people’s everyday behaviour. ‘all that is solid melts into air’. the two major strata in Europe were the lords. at least in theory. The division of labour becomes increasingly complex and allocation to occupational roles is based. goal-orientated activity Science major source of knowledge Dominant class: capitalist class Majority class: industrial workers Democratic government Figure 4. such as clerics. and science replaces religion as the major source of intellectual authority. organised around the family.21 Principles of sociology Pre-modernity Pre-modern societies were predominantly rural and agricultural. or arbitrary.

and they began asking questions about the sources of social order and social change and the effect of these changes on people’s lives. superstition. Enlightenment philosophers shared two principles. more consumer goods. and scientific medicine would reduce disease. 85 .) What do you think are some of the benefits and some of the drawbacks of living in modern society? The Enlightenment Now read Macionis and Plummer (2005) pp.23–27 or Giddens (2008) p. Although it was a diverse movement spanning different subject areas in different countries in Europe. they had confidence that human beings would use this knowledge to transform the world for the better. Science was the epitome of reason and rationality because it produced objective knowledge of the world that was not conditioned by religious superstition. irrationality and. It was called the Enlightenment because scholars believed they were throwing light into the gloom of a world that for too long had been dominated by tradition. the fact that societies were changing so dramatically in such a short space of time led some scholars to become curious about societies. when do you think it became modern? (You would probably be describing a period of around 50 years or so here. and this power would be used to improve the human condition. above all. scientific developments would create more productive agriculture. However. so the ‘new’ subject of sociology drew on earlier influences. It championed the power of human reason. Scientific knowledge would give people more power and control over nature. For example.Chapter 4: Theories and developments Pre-modern societies were relatively static compared to modern societies and the world that people left was little changed from the one they were born into. However.1 Are you living in modernity? Different societies have ‘modernised’ at different times. Further reading Swingewood (2005) provides an excellent explanation of the Enlightenment. they believed in the power of the rationality of the human mind to understand the world.10.11–15 or Macionis and Plummer (2008) pp. These are questions that we identified in Chapter 1 as fundamental sociological questions. and writer Voltaire (1694–1778). the rights of the individual and a commitment to social progress. Would you describe your society as a ‘modern’ society? If so. Second. religious dogma. and one of the most significant of these was an intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. the scientist Isaac Newton (1643–1727). Major figures of the Enlightenment included philosophers Descartes (1596–1650) and Kant (1724–1804). First. just as modern societies developed out of pre-modern societies.12–17 or Fulcher and Scott (2007) pp. The Enlightenment was a name given to a philosophical and social movement in Europe roughly spanning the last quarter of the seventeenth century until the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Activity 4.

Embryonic sociological perspectives could be detected in the Enlightenment. to predict is to control’. committed to the idea of individuals as essentially rational and self-sufficient. (Hamilton. pp. Summary In nineteenth century Europe. However. sociology developed as an autonomous subject.2 Comte’s famous statement was ‘To know is to predict. However. not only inspired the genesis of sociology but continues to underpin the subject today. For the first time. be organised. Sociology was – and continues to be – profoundly influenced by the Enlightenment’s key values of rationality. they lacked a concept of ‘society’. ‘dare to know’. been a number of individual scholars who had challenged the Church’s view of the world long before the Enlightenment. Although created by individuals. How did Comte believe we could ‘know’? How did he believe sociology could predict? 86 . people could ‘dare to know’ about the social arrangements under which they lived rather than have them presented to them through the haze of a religious ideology. for most early sociologists. scientific understanding and the application of knowledge to improving the human condition. The idea that societies were subjects of study in their own right did not come until the nineteenth century when early sociologists. meant that the ideas of Enlightenment scholars were reaching a greater proportion of an increasingly literate population and the Church’s monopolistic position over knowledge and information was being challenged on a wider scale. although Enlightenment philosophers were interested in ‘the social’ and how it could.21 Principles of sociology The radical nature of these ideas should not be underestimated. separate from philosophy and economics. particularly in transport and printing. Technological developments. They constituted a direct challenge to the view of the world put forward by the Church that the order of the world was the result of God’s will and couldn’t be changed. the Enlightenment ideal of providing rational understanding of societies in order to improve them. as an attempt to make sense of the massive changes taking place in newly modernising societies. However. and should.55–56). This modern way of thinking was not only applied to the study of the natural world. used the concept of society to describe the new institutions. they also shaped the ways that people thought and acted. of course. There had. By knowing about these social arrangements. saw societies merely as collections of individuals. 1992. what was distinctive about the Enlightenment was that it was a social movement whose influence spread beyond the scholars themselves. This view represented a break with the Enlightenment. it was also increasingly applied to the social world. their operation would become clear and thus open to change. The Enlightenment thus brought about a cultural change in what constitutes knowledge and a distinctly ‘modern’ conception of knowledge was born. as scholars became more interested in how social life was organised. social groupings and productive processes arising out of the wreckage of the pre-modern European world. such as Henri St Simon (1760–1825) and Auguste Comte (1798–1857). societies were much more than this. While the Enlightenment philosophers. Activity 4. Hamilton (1992) suggests that the essence of this embryonic sociology is captured by Kant’s motto.

Weber. Elwell. 1975) [ISBN 9780140216684]. and Macionis and Plummer (2005 or 2008) provide good introductory material. • The second part will address theories which are broadly interpretivist. P Modern social theory. (London: Heinemann. 1989) [ISBN 9780415254069]. with an introduction by Anthony Giddens (London: Unwyn ~felwell/Theorists/Weber/Whome. Weber. Introduction We begin this section by reading about how social theory developed from – and in reaction to – the Enlightenment. E.1 very well to this section. but do not go into enough depth for this unit. 87 . Sharrock and Francis (2006) or Lee and Newby (2000). J. Talcott The structure of social action. 1968) . Translated by Talcott Parsons. If you have bought this text you will need to depend on one of the two texts below for most of the background reading on the sociologists discussed here. K.1984) second edition [ISBN 9780333339817]. Marx. Durkheim. This will provide you with most of the reading required for this section. 1949) [ISBN 9780029343609]. 1991) [ISBN 9780415060561 (pbk)]. section 4. Das Kapital. The German ideology. Modern social theory. [Most recent edition: London: Routledge. Parsons. 1992) second edition [ISBN 9780312086749].org/archive/marx/ works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a. Swingewood (2005) provides an excellent historical approach and links Chapter 3 and Chapter 4. Giddens (2008). K. H. [ISBN 9780710033116].marxists. Max The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. 1969) [ISBN 9780029242407]. K. (London: Routledge. ‘Preface to a contribution to the critique of political economy’ in Karl Marx: early writings. Durkheim. • In the first part of this section you will read about: the development of social theory in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries three of the major ‘classical’ sociologists – Marx. and C.H. See: 8 www. Works cited Cohen. (Free Press. www. (Glencoe: Free Press. 2002] Translated by Spaulding. Le suicide. (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf. Simpson. E. (1996). Max On the methodology of the social sciences. Marx. Frank The sociology of Max Weber. The division of labour.htm Gerth.htm Marx. Wright Mills (eds) From Max Weber. We have indicated two supporting texts: Cuff. For extra reading.2 Sociological theories Reading The best textbook for this section is Fulcher and Scott (2007) Chapter 2. Craib. Weber and Durkheim the structural functionalists. [ISBN 9780435821814].faculty. and G. (Basingstoke: Macmillan.rsu.Chapter 4: Theories and developments 4.A. (Harmondsworth: Penguin. I.

• In your reading do try to understand the major aspects of their approach to sociology rather than simply trying to categorise them into predetermined boxes. structural functionalism. etc. • Social theorists themselves were profoundly influenced by other social theorists and the times in which they wrote. While you are reading. • You are not learning about social theory for its own sake. think about and make notes on the following: • the assumptions each has about the nature of society • the assumptions they have about human nature and the role of the individual • their view of history and their explanation of social change • their explanation and understanding of social order • the role of ideas and ideology • their view of science and their prescriptions as to how to find out about society. compare them. symbolic interactionism. You will then be able to see clearly the relevance of each theory and be able to illustrate your answers with material from your chosen topic. After you have worked on Section C return to this section of Chapter 4. We are providing you with building blocks so that you can understand the contribution that each theorist has made to the subject of sociology and for your understanding of Section B on Globalisation and social change. You will have come across many of these theories in your initial reading but here we concentrate on their major contributions to social theory. We suggest therefore that you ensure that you have understood the major assumptions of each theory before you start on your chosen topic for Section C. so it is important that you have some knowledge of the history and the society in which they were writing.21 Principles of sociology • The third part of this section will link the two and introduce you to some new developments. Examination advice In the examination you will be expected to write about any one or more sociologists. This section of the subject guide is vital for the work that you will do on your Section C topic. think about how they address the key sociological problems which you encountered in Chapter 1. criticise their assumptions. for example: Marxism. assess their contribution to sociology. please remember the following: • This is not a unit in social theory and you will not be expected to know and understand each theorist in detail. The writers of Section C chapters have assumed that you will have knowledge of the sociological theory introduced here. The questions could ask you to describe and explain the major aspects of their perspective. • In order to study your chosen topic in Section C you will need to have a good understanding of the different approaches of the major sociologists. In short. You may also be asked to describe any one perspective. 88 . While you are reading about these sociologists.

We have created a flowchart (on p. Keep these aims in mind as you read about these sociologists and the other sociological perspectives you are introduced to.90) for you to track the sociologists that we will be discussing.2 Cohen believed that Marx. the Enlightenment. or on the website 8 www. or suggest ways of explaining. most importantly for this section. The major influences on his thought were: • The Scottish Enlightenment (Adam Smith and David Ricardo from whom he took ideas such as the division of labour and the idea of economic rent – extraction of surplus value). Use it to help you locate them in time. You read about the economic changes (industrialisation and urbanisation) and. look up and read the section on Marx in your chosen textbook or in any reference book. so it quite properly fits into sociology. Karl Marx (1818–1883) Reading Before you read this section on Marx. You should be aware of the major influences on his thought. and we will not give you a complete description of his work or the work of the later Marxists here. and particularly class relationships. Professor Percy Cohen suggested that all sociological theory should: • explain. especially historical materialism. A major aspect of his work concerned the nature of social relationships. Weber and Durkheim along with Comte.Chapter 4: Theories and developments Background In the first part of section 4.1 we described the great changes that occurred in Europe. 89 . His genius lay in his ability to ‘create’ new ideas from those existing in philosophy and economics and from the writings and observations of social activists. in part. influenced by them. We have provided you with some guidance for your reading and some description of his concepts.marxists. 2 Cohen (1968). so you should know about these social theorists and the influence they had on the development of sociology. why social phenomena have the characteristics they have • provide ideas for an analysis of complex social processes and events • aid in the construction of models of how social structures and social systems operate. indeed many revolutions in the twentieth century were. are often called ‘The founding fathers’ of sociology. Marx. Marx was one of the greatest social critics of the nineteenth century. • The Utopian Socialists. Marx’s ideas have had a profound influence not only on sociology but on many social and political movements. • German Idealism – Note: Cuff. This diagram has been left intentionally incomplete – feel free to add your own notes and links as you read. Sharrock and Francis (2006) or Lee and Newby (2000) provide a good deal of material on Marx. Weber and Durkheim were committed to these aims and that it should be possible to evaluate their theories in the light of these three aims. He wrote extensively on economics and philosophy and all these ideas have been incorporated in much twentieth century sociological theory.

1880) Durkheim (1858 .1831) Comte (1798 .1804) Hegel (1770 .1917) Weber (1864 .21 Principles of sociology The Enlightenment philosophers (1770-1831) Kant (1724 .1903) Marx (1818 .1931) Structural Functionalism Figure 4.1920) Meade (1863 .1857) Spencer (1820 .2 Marxism Symbolic Interactionism Ethnomethodology 90 .

thus he thought individuals would be increasingly able to understand the social and natural worlds and the processes and principles which lie behind their development. He accepted Feuerbach’s assertion that religion was a social creation. The dialectic The Hegelian notion of the dialectic holds that all matter (or the thesis) always and inevitably creates its own opposite (or antithesis). which he called the ‘opium of the people’. ‘What distinguishes humanity from other living things is its ability to conceptualise.’ Hegel believed in the ‘progression’ of humanity. Feuerbach suggested that people who had not yet developed the social and technical knowledge to understand the natural and social world attributed particular powers to these ‘social constructions’. as we have seen in Chapter 3. He called this phenomenon religious alienation. but he suggested that people create religion to deal with the real misery which confronts them. These two major aspects of Hegelian logic are central to Marx’s analysis.3 In your own words answer the following questions: • How did Feuerbach account for religious behaviour? • How do you think that Feuerbach would suggest that religious alienation could be overcome? Marx asked a key question of Hegel and the idealist philosophers: where do ideas come from? Marx rejected the notion that ideas determine the nature of social life. to construct categories of thought. These ‘gods’ were idealised creations of human thought. Idealism.3 3 Lee and Newby (2000).Chapter 4: Theories and developments Marx’s influences: Georg Hegel Georg Hegel (1770–1831) is important for an understanding of Marx’s historical materialism. Marx’s influences: Ludwig Feuerbach Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872) was a pupil of Hegel. Over time. who developed his ideas and suggested the following: Gods did not create humanity but humanity created gods.1 attempt to explain the nature of society in terms of human consciousness. section 3. Activity 4. (progress and human history) Idealists. From the contradiction between the thesis and the antithesis there emerges a transformation which becomes the new thesis. Early religions were based on attempts by their believers to make sense of the world especially in times of disruption. Change is seen as ‘progress’ but society changes dialectically through struggle and contradiction. How did he come to this conclusion? He asked the following question: ‘Why do people need religion?’ In particular. he asked why did the poor and the oppressed need religion. 91 . He further suggested that the ability to control the natural world would result in a creation of a ‘superior moral and social life’. these ‘social constructions’ became institutionalised into formidable belief systems which control their adherents.

the structure of society.4 you read about realism. You have to ‘look beneath the surface’ to find out how capitalism works.78–79). From these ideas follow Marx’s ontological assumptions about the nature of society. the production of material life itself. The first premise of all human existence and. ideology. The German Ideology – see www. section 3. But life involves before anything else. It is not enough to theorise about it. Marx rejected Feuerbach’s view of religious alienation. eating and drinking.10–20 or Lee and Newby (2000) pp. Everything else follows from this: social relationships. Marx and materialism In your reading you will have seen that Hegel’s idealism saw society as guided by and limited by the human ‘spirit’ or ‘Geist’. If they were unhappy then they turned to religion. He therefore suggested that it was necessary to examine the nature of the material conditions that faced the working class.htm 4 92 . which acted as an opiate and which would dull their pain. At its most basic in Marxist analysis. of all history. Now read At this point. Therefore Marx rejected the notion that ideas determine social life.4 From Marx. we should study society empirically and scientifically rather than by means of speculation or metaphysics. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs. religious ways of thought. org/archive/marx/works/1845/ german-ideology/ch01a. Marx and realism In Chapter 3. would constantly reproduce themselves. a habitation (shelter/home). independent of the material conditions that existed in a particular era. clothing and many other things.113–15. You will see here that the capitalist mode of production is an example of a theoretical construct which cannot be observed directly. (is that humans) must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history’. to uncover the real relationships between capital and labour. Ensure that you understand the influences of Hegel and the Idealists on Marx’s thought. therefore. it is the assumption that he developed from Henri de St Simon that the most important aspect of human existence is the necessity to produce the means of subsistence. as the idealists suggested. Sharrock and Francis (2006) pp.21 Principles of sociology As long as people were poor. Marx asks where does this spirit come from? Where do ideas come from? Marx believed that ideas are a product of society so we should not only study ideas.marxists. ignorant and needful of help. etc. He believed that the reason that people believed in supernatural forces was a result of their objective situation. Materialism is not an easy concept. reread the section on Epistemology in Chapter 3 (pp. Now read Cuff. however illusory. Religious beliefs and values were not. there is a real material world and in order to gain knowledge of this material world we must participate in it.

Conflict for Marx is the motor of history. The forces and relations of production make up the economic base (infrastructure). society and nature – between any given level of technology (the productive forces) and the conditions in which these productive forces appear b. the economic roles that are allowed by the state.Chapter 4: Theories and developments Activity 4. Changes occur in the way that goods are produced as a result of changes in technology. These changes give rise to tensions and contradictions between the productive relations and the productive forces (infrastructure). including law. nature controlled man. Marx: base and superstructure In your reading you will see that each type of society is characterised by a particular mode of production which determines the nature of class relationships and all other social institutions.115–20. the idea of progress and development was central to Marx’s writings. the level of technology and the existing social organisation (social relations) which prevent new forms of technology emerging c. Marx: conflict and contradictions Dialectical materialism At the centre of Marxist analysis is the concept of the dialectic (see Hegel). and other social institutions.21–22 or Lee and Newby (2000) pp.4 ‘Men distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they produce their means of subsistence. As with many social theorists of the nineteenth century. Sharrock and Francis (2006) pp. and human development involved man’s increasing ability to control nature. The superstructure is. Do you think that this is the case in the twenty-first century? Can people control nature? Think about the recent catastrophes such as SARS. The mode of production is made up of: • the forces of production – the way that goods are made in any epoch • relations of production – the productive relationships. the tsunami and other earthquakes. ‘determined’ by the infrastructure and is composed of the prevailing cultural ideas. Now read Cuff. He explains change dialectically. ownership and non-ownership of the productive forces. in agriculture during the agricultural revolution. the nature of the relationships between the major classes. or the steam engine in the industrial revolution. the newly developed productive relationships of production (classes) and the traditional system of political ideological institutions (superstructure).’ (Marx and Engels) Can you explain this statement? Why do you think the form of production makes a difference to how people think and behave? Marx suggested that in primitive communism. for example. Dialectic strains exist between: a. 93 . in the last instance. These tensions in turn give rise to changes in the superstructure.

Workers. indeed not only become alienated from the products of their labour.3 Source: Diagram adapted from: Sztompka. Developments in technology gradually allowed ‘man’ to control nature. endemic to capitalism.14–17. and to provide protection from the elements. 1993) [ISBN 0631182063 (pbk)] p.22–32 or Giddens (2008) pp. In your reading you will discover that there are at least two different readings of Marx: humanistic Marxism and scientific or structural Marxism.172. There have been many ‘readings’ of Marx’s works.117 94 . whereby the products of human labour become expropriated from and appear as opposed – ‘alien’ – to those who produce them.787–90 or Macionis and Plummer (2005) pp.5 5 Lee and Newby (2000) p. Others suggest that the economic base is the determining factor in explaining the prevailing legal and political arrangements in society (the Structuralists). Alienation refers to the process. The working class in capitalism became dehumanised. but from the labour process itself.101–06 or Cuff. industrialisation was occurring throughout Europe). (Oxford: Blackwell. from each other and ultimately from themselves. P. Sharrock and Francis (2006) pp.21 Principles of sociology Political and legal (ideological) superstructure Forms of social consciousness (art. 3 – Main dialectic strains Figure 4. Now read Fulcher and Scott (2007) pp. Some suggest that the real Marx did not believe that the mode of production determined everything in the superstructure (the Humanists).82–88 or Macionis and Plummer (2008) pp. literature. However Marx believed that the processes of production in capitalism increasingly alienated people. Humanistic Marxism Marx believed that the history of mankind had a ‘double aspect’. There was general optimism about people’s ability to develop natural resources to produce even more sophisticated goods. 2. religion) Socioeconomic formation Relations of production 3 Mode of production Productive forces 1 2 Nature (extra-social environment + human hereditary endowment) 1. (Remember that Marx was writing in the nineteenth century. The Sociology of Change.

6 6 Marx (1975). Humanist Marxists believe that the base/superstructure distinction is too deterministic and they believe that the working class can be liberated from this alienated state and realise its full potential. Marx suggested that the world would not be changed by simply ‘thinking about it’. They have to be encouraged and persuaded by political actors (like Marx). Marx’s early writings. It was not inevitable that the members of the working class would develop revolutionary consciousness and become fully aware of the nature of their condition. Think about this for a few minutes. Capitalism is a system of commodity production. Marx: the labour theory of value In your reading you will see that class positions/roles in Marxist analysis are seen to be determined by their position in relation to production. So Humanist Marxists concentrate on both superstructural and infrastructural elements. Marx suggested that Capitalism prevented the people of the working class from understanding their true nature and from understanding their real interests. What do you think he meant by this? We see science fiction films about aliens and find them fascinating because they are different from us. everything is produced for sale in the ‘market’.5 It is a strange idea to think that people could be alienated from themselves (what Marx described as being alienated from ‘their species being’). however is to change it. The products that the workers made are sold in the market and the capitalists receive profit from these transactions. Althusser suggested that there had been an epistemological break in Marx’s writings.Chapter 4: Theories and developments Activity 4. It is possible to measure the value of a commodity and the extent to which the capitalist has extracted surplus value. Marx believed that being in a state of alienation prevents us from knowing the real nature of the world and from ‘being’ our true selves. Therefore people were unaware of what they could achieve. He believed that without leadership. whereas in Das Kapital he was concerned with exploitation. The labour theory of value states that the value of any commodity is the value of the amount of labour required to produce it. the point. Structural Marxism Marxists such as Louis Althusser (1918–1990) believed that the Humanist Marxists laid too much emphasis on the superstructural aspects. A person’s class position depends on his relationship to the means of production – whether they are ‘owners’ or ‘nonowners’. were more philosophical and concerned with alienation and the possibility of emancipation. Note: Lenin took the concept of praxis further. Remember that he had rejected Hegel’s idealism: The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. They believe these have an independent role to play in the class struggle. The profit they receive is the part of the value of the work that is put into creating the profit. Labour itself is a commodity. he considered. The value of a product is the effort put into creating the product. This could be achieved by what Marx called praxis – putting theory into action. the working class will become economistic (they will simply struggle for money not political power). We cannot understand them. This exploitation could be understood and measured objectively. 95 .

in religious belief and practices in the last 30 years. and in the forms of inequality particularly in power. What is meant by the terms ‘dialectical materialism’ and ‘historical determinism’? 7. and when read with this section Cuff.22–34 or Lee and Newby (2000) pp. The section in Fulcher and Scott (2007) on Marx gives a good indication of the level required. What is the role of the individual in Marxism? 5. Does a Marxist analysis of class have relevance today? 4. who are the ones that create value. it will take time for you to understand some of this theory and you will need to reread this section in conjunction with your texts more than once. Fulcher and Scott (2007) provide a good introduction in Chapter 2. by not giving them the full value of their labour. and also for the Section C chapters on Power in society.124–32. Explain the concept ‘mode of production’. which is unaware of the true nature of the relationship. The interests of the capitalist class are opposed to the working class (zero-sum game). Chapter 1 of Giddens (2008) also provides some useful background. Sharrock and Francis (2006) covers all the materials necessary. Was Marx a humanist? 9. However. How does society change from one epoch to another? 6. Social inequality and social injustice. Why is Marx described as a conflict theorist? 8. 96 . Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) Reading First we suggest that you look up and read about Durkheim in your chosen textbook. Activity 4. The capitalist class exploits the workers. The capitalist class extracts ‘surplus value’ from the working class. What is meant by structural Marxism? You will need to have a good understanding of Marxism and the later Marxists for Section B Globalisation and social change. Now read Cuff. Macionis and Plummer (2005 or 2008) have written a short piece in Part 2 which provides a good account of the concept of function. the working class is a class of ‘non-ownership’. Sharrock and Francis (2006) pp. How did Marx view society? 2. You will not be required to know and understand all the material in Lee and Newby (2000). Further reading Lee and Newby (2000) Chapter 9 Think about how a Marxist would explain the changes in the family structure and relationships that have occurred in most societies in the last 50 years. What is meant by alienation and how does it occur? 3.6 See if you can answer these questions: 1. the Sociology of organisations and Religion and society.21 Principles of sociology In capitalism. gender and ethnic relationships.

societies become increasingly complex and specialised as they evolve. This has become known as the biological analogy. working in France. and Spencer in England. Durkheim’s key ideas Below we outline Durkheim’s key ideas – they will help guide your reading on the chapters indicated here. He was influenced by August Comte (1798–1857) and Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). pp. The example Durkheim used was the religious beliefs and practices of the aboriginal peoples of Australia. Norms and values are created by individuals acting in groups. and varies according to that society). The social should be separated from the psychological. once these causes were understood. they became more specialised. 97 .Chapter 4: Theories and developments Durkheim’s mission was to develop sociology as an academic discipline. pp. He believed that scientific sociology would enable the sociologist to distinguish between the sickness (pathology) and the health of a society. Spencer (see Fulcher and Scott. just as organisms grow and mature. Society is a moral force which acts on individuals. each institution playing a part to sustain society. Durkheim believed that man is only a moral being because he lives in society (since morality consists in solidarity of the group. Society exists and is observable in its effects (see Realism in Chapter 3). 2007. these induce individuals to conform to the society. Society exists sui generis. and working together to ensure that society ‘survives’. All the texts have a description of Suicide which is important for you as you study ‘Research Methods’. • Holism. Sociology would enable a diagnosis of the causes of pathology to be undertaken and. Comte. Durkheim saw the practical role of the sociologist as being similar to that of a physician. The individual cannot exist without society and society has a constraining influence on individual and group behaviour. He attempted to demonstrate that the causes of suicide were to be found in society and could not be reduced to the state of mind of the person who had committed suicide.27–28 or Lee and Newby (2000) pp. ‘Sociology as a Science’ and ‘Methodology’. • The scientific nature of sociology. You will have read in your texts that Durkheim wrote Suicide to demonstrate that the most individual of all acts – suicide – was in fact either caused or prevented by society. One of the greatest problems he identified was the growing individualism in nineteenth-century society and the withdrawal of individuals from public life. It views society as a system of interrelated parts.61–63 or Chapter 14 in Lee and Newby (2000) ‘Moral obligation and individual life’. Now read Cuff. Following on from Comte. remedies could be suggested. Durkheim believed that the methods that sociologists should use should be modelled on the methods used in the natural sciences (Naturalism). both developed the idea of comparing society to an organism.73–82) believed that as societies evolved. This moral force is also creative as it provides the cultural resources necessary for individuals to lead their lives in a group. Sharrock and Francis (2006) Chapter 4. They should seek to find out law-like relations between phenomena. Durkheim believed that society is more than the aggregate of individuals.

Activity 4. However. or war or internal struggles. Cuff. Durkheim did not explain the cause of social facts by their functions (unlike many later functionalists). Durkheim suggested that we must treat ‘social facts as things’. Durkheim set out two criteria: social facts must be external and also have constraining effects which set limits to our actions.7 If you are using Cuff. so that is why religion exists in society. geographical. Social facts can only be explained by other social facts. psychological. for example. The collective sentiment in society is the cause of the disapproval’. but not by other facts (biological. Activity 4. self-sufficient groups. • Functionalist method of explanation. 7 Fulcher and Scott (2003) p. In determining the nature/existence of social structures.8 Can you think how religion can help meets a society’s need for social cohesion? Think about times of natural disaster. These societies were small. not its causes. try the same activity with ‘fashion’ that they use with law to see if you understand the concept of a social fact. The solidarity in the society is a result of the likeness of the members. may express an intense collective sentiment of disapproval. Where most of the experiences of the individuals are similar. Here the explanation of the social fact/phenomenon is explained not in terms of what it is. The cause of a social fact must be accounted for in relation to other social facts.21 Principles of sociology Now read Look up and read about Durkheim’s work Suicide in your textbooks. Sharrock and Francis (2006) give the example of the law. Hence Durkheim suggests that religion helps to meet a society’s need for social cohesion.35. but what it does for the whole. they are therefore likely to hold similar value systems. Law is external to our perception of it and it certainly constrains our actions. ‘The punishment attached to a crime. there was little specialisation and thus a low division of labour. which he differentiated by their different forms of solidarity (cohesiveness): mechanical and organic solidarity. Sharrock and Francis (2006) as your main textbook. It explains the part that a social fact plays in relation to the needs of society. 98 . Society and social change Durkheim described two forms of society. • Social facts/society. There is a moral consensus which unites members of the society. Fashion would be another example. individuals did not depend on each other for their existence.7 Functional analysis is concerned with the effects of a social fact. etc). Mechanical solidarity This is a form of solidarity which Durkheim believed existed in very simple societies. Social phenomena and institutions can be explained in terms of their role in the maintenance of society as a whole (see above). He described this as the collective consciousness (the values and beliefs shared within a community) thus: society forms a determinate system which has its own life.

Organic solidarity occurs as a result of difference.8 From Durkheim (1893. Religion in these societies was a constraining force whereas in organic societies religion is less important in constraining people’s behaviour. arising from chance circumstances. which created pressures that could only be accommodated by greater specialisation. causing people to feel morally adrift and lacking moral direction. Durkheim used the concept of anomie in The division of labour in society (1893) and defined it as a ‘state where norms and expectations on behaviours are confused. The collective consciousness is strong in these societies and the law is repressive. Anomie The word anomie comes from the Greek word Anomos. However. and therefore derives from society rather than being outside or opposed to society. They are functionally interdependent on each other. Work is not shared out by independent individuals who are already differentiated from one another. The decline of mechanical societies was a result of increasing population growth. could be so accurately harmonised as to form a coherent whole.Chapter 4: Theories and developments The function of religion in these societies was to reinforce this consensus. The law in these societies is restitutive. In Suicide (1897) he describes it as ‘morally deregulated behaviour’. Durkheim believed that other sets of beliefs and values would develop. They can only occur within a society. it is through the division of labour in organic societies that society becomes cohesive and solidaristic. organic societies were characterised by greater differences between the members as a result of specialisation and a complex division of labour. Durkheim was worried about the effects of the rapid social changes that were occurring in the nineteenth century and believed that such changes could lead to a state of anomie. He believed that industrialisation and other political and social changes dissolve the restraints on behaviour. 99 . It would be a miracle if these differences. He believed these to be Nationalism and even the belief in the power of science. 1984).) For Durkheim. The division of labour Durkheim’s concept of the division of labour is different from Marx. which would serve to constrain behaviour and so prevent anomie. 8 Therefore. unclear or not present’. for Durkheim. Far from preceding collective life they derive from it. (Remember Marx believed that the division of labour through production was one of the factors that contributed to the alienation of the working class. who meet and associate together in order to pool their different abilities. which means ‘without laws’. the division of labour consists of moral as well as economic ties. under the pressure of social sentiments and needs. individuals rely on each other for their existence. Organic solidarity Whereas in simple societies there was a low division of labour.

21 Principles of sociology

Activity 4.9 How does Durkheim’s concept of anomie differ from Marx’s concept of alienation? If, at this point, you are finding that you are not sure how to start answering this question, or are finding it difficult, reread your notes, your textbooks and the previous section on alienation. You should think about the following: Many people have said that the concepts are broadly similar, because both describe people being detached from society. Marx used the concept of alienation to describe the situation of the workers in capitalism who had become increasingly estranged from each other, from the objects that they produced and finally from their real nature (their species being). As a materialist Marx therefore attributed the cause of alienation as the capitalist mode of production. The result was that workers became dehumanised. Alienation would disappear when the mode of production changed in a society, when private property was eliminated and there was minimal division of labour. For Durkheim the cause of anomie was a lack of moral guidelines brought about when society changes too rapidly. The cure for anomie would be a new moral force. In organic societies Durkheim believed that the individual was connected to society through the division of labour in work, and work was regulated through norms. An individual’s identification with a profession and its ethical values was a source of social solidarity and so professions and guilds functioned to prevent anomie and curb egoistical tendencies.

Social solidarity/cohesion
At this point, refer to your textbooks again for an account of Spencer and the biological analogy. Like Spencer, Durkheim had an organic view of society. To say that a society exists implies that it must have boundaries: these boundaries are created by a membership, and membership of a society implies that there are other people who are not members. Nonmembers are outside society; by differentiating between members and non-members the moral boundaries are maintained. Those people who do not conform to the norms, values and laws of a society are ‘outside’ society. Much of Durkheim’s work concentrated on the nature of social solidarity.

Summary: Durkheim’s legacy
Durkheim’s work influenced the Structural Functionalist anthropologists and Parsons. His concept of structure was important to structuralists, including Claude Levi Strauss, Louis Althusser and Ferdinand de Saussure. The concept of structure implies that there are underlying principles by which a system works and that it is the task of the social scientist to work out what these principles are. Durkheim’s work is an important antidote to some of the evolutionary theorists (such as Spencer) who were dominant in the nineteenth century. His stress on seeking the underlying causes of social phenomena have been further developed by realist sociologists (see Chapter 3, section 3.4). Activity 4.10 Write short answers to these questions: 1. Why did Durkheim write Suicide? 2. Why did Durkheim believe the division of labour was functional? 3. What did Durkheim mean by society being ‘a moral force’? 4. Why has Durkheim been described as a realist?

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

5. What is the difference between anomie and egoism? 6. What is the role of the individual in Durkheim’s sociology? 7. How did Durkheim differentiate between causal analysis and functional analysis? 8. How did Durkheim account for social change?

Max Weber (1864–1920)
Weber’s sociology is important for many aspects of Section A, particularly for ‘Methodology’ and for illustrating some methods of social research. In Section C, all the chapters will require you to know, and apply, Weber’s theories and his ideas about the nature of the social world and how it should be studied. Now read Your chosen text will give you some general background about Weber’s life and approach, and we suggest that you read up on his biography now. Macionis and Plummer (2005) pp.88–91 or Macionis and Plummer (2005) pp.109–11 or Giddens (2008) pp.17–19 or Fulcher and Scott (2003) pp.39–42. You will see that Weber was not just a sociologist; he was a historian, a politician, a lawyer and an economist. As you read the chapters and pages indicated below you should recognise how he has linked economic ideas into his sociology. His work on the State and bureaucracy is based to a very great extent on his knowledge of the Law and the State, especially German law at a time when the German state was becoming particularly strong. His legacy is immense; he created a conceptual framework for the development of the social sciences that is still relevant for today’s sociologists. One of his major influences was Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and you should look this up in your texts now. Now read The Introduction to Chapter 3 in Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006) or Lee and Newby (2000) also have a clear introduction to the German Idealists in Chapter 11. Kant’s viewpoint was that there could be no knowledge of things as they exist independently of our thinking about them. In trying to understand the world the observer attempts to give meaning to the physical and social objects which s/he sees. Whereas Durkheim believed we should treat ‘social facts as things’, Kant believed that it was necessary to interpret these facts. In interpreting the world individuals select what is meaningful to them. You have already read about concepts earlier in Section A, and seen how many of these are ‘essentially contested’. Weber, following Kant, suggested that the concepts we use to understand the world derive from cultural values. These values tell us what is ‘significant’ and what is ‘insignificant’. Concepts are therefore value relevant. Thus in Weber’s view there can be no universally valid scientific concepts. This has profound implications for how we ‘do’ sociology. For example: it would be impossible to do research on children’s learning without having some understanding of the concept of education (note that this concept can be used in very different ways). Therefore the world is interpreted in the way that is significant for the observer. That is why Weber is often described as an interpretivist sociologist. The German idealistic tradition viewed people as active, purposive, free agents. Weber believed that the social sciences should not proceed in the

21 Principles of sociology

same way as the natural sciences. The reason was that if individuals are free to act, if they have agency, then they will act in unpredictable ways. It is impossible to control for this and therefore he rejected the ideal of creating nomothetic theories for the social sciences. Nomos comes from the Greek meaning ‘law’. These approaches create generalisations and produce laws. Examples of such theories include Marx’s explanation of social change and Comte’s law of the three stages. Weber suggested that social science should adopt an idiographic analysis which would particularise historical events. He rejected the possibility of developing laws, especially those relating to evolutionary processes. His work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism9 (see below) is an illustration of this. In this text, Weber described and explained the rise of capitalism in the West. He did not believe that this explanation was generalisable to other epochs Whereas Durkheim concentrated on social structures; Weber suggested that sociology should concentrate on social action and the interpretation of social action. Social sciences should be distinguished from the natural sciences because sociology involves the interpretation of subjective meanings given to action. An action such as falling off a chair when asleep is not social action! (Here the sleeper ‘relinquishes’ agency when s/he is asleep.) However, if someone deliberately fell off the chair then it would be social, as the individual ‘would attach meaning to his action’. Weber therefore had a very different approach to sociology to either Marx or Durkheim. Most of his work involved interpreting social action. He wrote extensively on how sociologists should go about their work and the tools they should use. In this section we will examine: • Weber’s concern with modernity and rationalisation • Idealism • Weber’s methodology. Weber’s main goal was to understand modernity; the major theme in his work is the growing disenchantment of the world. Unlike the Enlightenment philosophers who championed the ‘debunking’ of religious beliefs and superstitions, he was pessimistic about the effects of the increasing ‘use of reason in all things’. His view of the future is illustrated by the quote below:
Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness.10

The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism is one of Weber’s key texts. Most libraries have copies of this and we do advise you to read some of it to see Weber’s writing at first-hand.

Weber (1946/1958) p.120.

Weber and rationalisation
Rationalisation for Weber was a process in which social interaction and social institutions were being increasingly governed by methodical procedures and calculable rules. He believed that in modernity, traditional values and emotions gave way to formal and impersonal practices. These practices may encourage greater efficiency to achieve designated ends but they lead to a situation where one ‘can master all things by calculation’. Modernity allows people to ‘have mastery of the natural and social environment’, but the division of labour, bureaucratisation and mechanisation lead to individuals becoming ‘little cogs’ in a big machine. Rationality, which Weber described as the application of reason to achieve a desired end, leads to greater predictability, calculability, co-ordination and control in all spheres of social life. However this leads to individuals feeling trapped in an ‘iron cage’ with no room for creativity.

He was particularly concerned about the growing bureaucracy in modern society. Weber rejected all determinist models of social explanation but he accepted that material considerations were extremely important. from this supreme mastery of the bureaucratic way of life. Remember that for Marx. therefore. It is the willingness to use and adapt to new technologies. Weber focused on social action and saw social structures not as external to and independent of individuals. Social structures. the way that things are produced will determine the way that society is organised. according to Weber. being composed of a large number of continuing social relationships. that indicates how rational a society is. as in the Egyptian records. for example by adopting rational principles. and helpless if they are torn away from their total incorporation in it. and especially of its offspring. Then take any large-scale organisation that you know and see if it mirrors the situation described by Weber in the quote above. is enough to drive one to despair. For Weber. playing an ever increasing part in the spirit of our present administrative systems. were external to and coercive of social actors. become nervous and cowardly if for one moment this order wavers. in his work The McDonaldisation of society. George Ritzer suggested that rationalisation and bureaucratisation is a feature of many organisations in society.Chapter 4: Theories and developments Whereas science can provide the knowledge about how to do things.. That the world should know no men but these: it is in such an evolution that we are already caught up. The following quote illustrates Weber’s pessimism well: It is horrible to think that the world could one day be filled with nothing but those little cogs. He accepted that bureaucracy was the most technically efficient of all forms of organisation but he was concerned about the effect this would have on the people who were increasingly acting rationally. It is as if in politics … we were to deliberately to become men who need ‘order’ and nothing but order.11 Now look up rationalisation in your textbooks. change occurs first in the way that goods are produced. He described how McDonald’s organises every aspect of the work process into smaller parts which can be controlled and standardised. For materialists. scientific techniques are ‘empty of meaning’. the students. This passion for bureaucracy . little men clinging to little jobs and striving toward bigger ones – a state of affairs which is to be seen once more. In your own words attempt to write a definition of it. Weber also disagreed with Marx who believed that most structures. Weber and idealism You may have read that much of Weber’s sociology has been described as a ‘debate with the “Ghost of Marx”’. An example of this is his concern about the growing bureaucratisation of the modern world. Weber on the other hand suggests it is the change from traditional to rational thinking that makes the difference. ‘matter matters’. the basis of society is the way that material production is organised. but what can we oppose to this machinery in order to keep a portion of mankind free from this parcelling-out of the soul. For example.11 11 Elwell (1996). and the great question is. 103 . are formed by a complex interplay of social actions. human motivation and ideas were the major forces behind social change. Activity 4. not how we can promote and hasten it..

Lee and Newby are very careful to state that it was not Weber’s intention to refute Marx’s theory of the development of capitalism. Sharrock and Francis (2006) or Chapters 11 and 12 in Lee and Newby (2000). We ‘know’ that 2 + 2 = 4 without 104 . Try to see how these points compare with the notes that you will have made on Marx and Durkheim. Now read Cuff. We outline some of the most important methodological aspects of Weber’s sociology below. For Weber the central organising principle of the modern system was rational capitalism. A priori assumptions imply that knowledge exists prior to experience. Weber categorised societies by the differences in how they viewed the world. whereas in industrial/capitalist society individuals’ actions are goal-oriented. Now read Chapter 3 on Weber in Cuff.12 Now look up the four types of social action in your textbooks and make sure that you are able to link these to the particular forms of domination. traditional action was dominant and people’s actions were guided by the past. Weber was determined to argue against the economic determinism of the some of the later Marxists. In pre-industrial society. Sharrock and Francis (2006) or Lee and Newby (2000) on Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism. Thus: Traditional action Affective action Instrumentally rational action Value rational action Traditional domination Charismatic domination } Legal rational domination In traditional societies the dominant type of social action is tradition. not on a priori assumptions. Weber’s methodology Sociology should focus primarily on empirical research. Individuals give authority to those in power on the basis of their traditional right to rule. (A priori literally means ‘from the former’. Lee and Newby also give a good corrective to those texts. Weber described the first two forms of action as being non-rational. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was Weber’s attempt to explain how the process occurred.21 Principles of sociology Activity 4. We will use the example of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to illustrate these key ideas. The Protestant Ethic thesis demonstrates Weber’s ideas of rationality and rational action. formulating theories on the basis of this research. The importance of this work lies in Weber’s methodology and the comparison with Marx’s analysis of the development of capitalism. which state that Protestantism caused the development of capitalism. Weber demonstrated that human motivation and ideas were the forces behind social change – ‘ideas values and beliefs had the power to bring about social transformation’.

to place to one side judgments about what ought to be the case (normative statements). as they suggest that society is itself a ‘social construction’. These ideal types are important in comparative sociology as they allow social phenomena to be compared with the ideal type. social action. some barns/animal sheds. may have a distinctive smell of animals. believing that the explanations of sociologists must always be rooted in an interpretive understanding of the subjective meaning that individuals give to their actions. have a tractor or a horse. However objectivity in the social sciences should not be confused or treated as synonymous with political neutrality or ‘sitting on the fence’. An ideal typical farm for example would have: A farm house. Weber suggested that social scientists should. You should create a set of features.) Therefore sociologists should carry out research and not simply theorise about the world without any evidence or doing sociological research! Methodological individualism Weber has been described as a methodological individualist – unlike Durkheim who saw society as existing sui generis. 105 . Weber rejected all determinist theories. should be in the country. rational capitalism. Now read Look up descriptions of the ideal type and its use in the social sciences in your textbooks. he suggested that rational capitalism arose in part because of the behaviour of the Protestants. Examples of these include: bureaucracy. The changing belief systems caused changes in the way that the Protestants worked. Activity 4. Therefore we should use methods which can examine aggregate behaviour. This change in aggregate behaviour was one of the reasons behind the development of rational capitalism.Chapter 4: Theories and developments any further research. In this sense he is close to the social constructionists but he did not go as far as they do. seek to be value free – that is. Although ancient China and India had some of the essential features for rational capitalism to develop they lacked some key aspects and therefore could not be considered as capitalist societies. saved and spent their money. The comparative method The social sciences proceed through the construction of ‘ideal types’ which have been called ‘interpretive benchmarks’. as far as possible. which had changed. In The Protestant Ethic. As they saved and spent their resources wisely they were able to accumulate capital which could then be invested in rational projects. Weber saw society as an aggregate of individuals rather than an ‘entity’. Value freedom/value neutrality The social sciences should be principally concerned with addressing practical problems. The social scientist is concerned with the evaluation of means rather than ends or goals.13 Attempt to construct an ideal type – of a farm perhaps – or even an ideal type of a sociology student. However. be separated from the rest of the countryside by fences. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism his creation of an ideal type of rational capitalism allowed Weber to argue that northern Europe had all the features indicated in his ideal type. You should note that these ideal types were created by Weber. caste.

with others.14 Attempt to write short answers to the following questions: 1. It could be argued that he was a precursor of postmodernist theorising (see section 4. both in substantive sociology and in methodology. Marx and Durkheim. the social sciences can be distinguished from the natural sciences. In the social sciences we are concerned with mental phenomena. What is an ideal type? Why is it useful in comparative sociology? 7. Weber interpreted the works of Benjamin Franklin. His importance in political sociology has been immeasurable.12 12 Weber (1949). for bringing ‘the individual back in’ to social analysis and for demonstrating the importance of understanding the meaning behind action. He was responsible. What is meant by ‘elective affinity’? 5. using rationalised technology • rational organisation of free labour • unrestricted markets. His main influences were on Parsons and the symbolic interactionists whom we will be discussing in the next section. the branch of philosophy which involves ‘the human understanding and interpretation of texts’. and so doing caught ‘the essence of the capitalist spirit’. How does Weber explain conflict in society? 4.21 Principles of sociology The ideal type of rational capitalism for Weber had the following features: • the pursuit of profit – capital is organised entrepreneurially • rational enterprise. his analysis on power and the bureaucratic states has been a useful corrective to much Marxist theorising and has gone a long way to explaining the character of late capitalism. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. how did rational capitalism develop in Northern Europe? 6.4 of this chapter) as his work can be seen as an attack on the grand narrative theories of Comte. Outline Weber’s explanation of social action. Spencer. What is meant by verstehen? 8. What is meant by methodological individualism? 3. In sociology a hermeneutic study involves sociologists interpreting documents and attempting to understand what the authors meant by their writings. Weber was an advocate of hermeneutics. the empathetic ‘understanding’ of which is naturally a task of a specifically different type from those which the schemes of the exact natural sciences can seek to solve. Verstehen (empathetic understanding) You will have seen that for Weber. Activity 4. Social sciences are concerned with the interpretation of social action and sociology should be concerned with the interpretation of subjective meaning. 2. Weber’s legacy Weber’s influence on the twentieth century has been immense. According to Weber. Why was Weber worried about rationalisation in the modern world? 106 .

Sharrock and Francis (2006) or/and in Lee and Newby (2000). Introduction Structural functionalism in sociology rose to prominence in the United States after the Second World War. Instead he developed a grand model of how he believed society to be organised. he looked at how different parts of the society (social institutions) functioned to maintain the whole.6 on the individual in society. Its leading exponents were Parsons. see Chapter 1. He suggested that social institutions are the key to maintaining order and that it was possible to make generalisations about the functions of social structures across societies. He was interested in finding out what holds society together and prevents it from ‘falling apart’. with little empirical content. section 1. Smelser and Davis and Moore. The major influences on Parsons’ thought were Durkheim. ‘Religion and society’ or the ‘Sociology of organisations’ – you will need to have a good understanding of the major assumptions of Parsons and the structural functionalist approaches. Parsons did not create methodology for the study of society. A particularly good text from your Works cited. If you choose to study one of the following in Section C – ‘Power in society’. and. Structural functionalism has its roots in Comte and Spencer’s organic analogy and of course in Durkheim’s sociology. ‘Social inequality and social injustice’. Weber. ‘How is social order maintained in society?’ Most structural functionalists use a biological analogy. the set texts provide very little material on structural functionalism. is Ian Craib’s Modern Social Theory. The anthropologist A. which explains why structural functionalism is so difficult. With the exception of Fulcher and Scott (2003). Instead of looking at how societies evolve over time. Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) Parsons’ theory Parsons’ sociology was primarily theoretical. much of his work lay in a rejection 107 . unlike Weber or Durkheim. as you will read later in Cuff. In this section we will concentrate on Parsons but in your reading you should be aware of the work of other structural functionalists. The main task of a sociologist is to identify the parts or structures in society that function to maintain equilibrium.R. and indicate the areas which it would be helpful for you to know and understand now and what can be left for general reading later. Sharrock and Francis (2006) Chapter 5 or Lee and Newby (2000) Part 7. Sharrock and Francis (2006) and Lee and Newby (2000) – go into too much detail. Its main concern was to answer the sociological problem. and the key texts – Cuff. His theories owe a lot to the classical sociologists but. Radcliffe Brown (1881–1955) developed Durkheim’s functionalist framework. Pareto and Freud.Chapter 4: Theories and developments Structural functionalism and Parsons Now read Either Fulcher and Scott (2007) Chapter 2 or Cuff. You need to understand Parsons’ theory in relation to socialisation and role. Merton. You should be able to describe and evaluate these theories. In this section we will outline the key features of Parsonian functionalism. seeing society as an organism. especially the work of Parsons.

There are some theories that are structuralist. Structures 108 . Parsons’ ideas on the social system and social structure Parsons’ major aim was to analyse the social system as a whole and hence he can be described as a macro sociologist. (As you have seen in section 4. for example Louis Althusser’s Structuralist Marxism which we have discussed in the section on Marx. sociology in the nineteenth century reacted against the individualisation of the Enlightenment. Parsons’ influences Parsons’ theories owe much to Durkheim’s concept of structure and Durkheim’s functional analysis by which he describes social facts by their contribution to the working of society as a whole. like Durkheim. 2007. a social institution is described by the role it plays in maintaining the stability of the wider society. they aimed to demonstrate how changes in one part of the social system could be explained in relation to changes in other parts. Now read Look up the biological analogy and details of Parsons’ biography in your textbooks. he recognized that all observations were dependent on concepts.) Parsons created a synthesis of ideas from these social scientists and created a theory that was to dominate US sociology for three decades. in Fulcher and Scott. In their fieldwork. The structural functionalist perspective Students often have difficulty with the structural functionalist perspective. like Weber. form or structure of a social institution by its ‘function’.) The anthropologists advocated a synchronic approach to the study of societies. Structuralist theories suggest that social institutions are ‘structured’/determined by society.45). he saw these observations telling us something about what the world is really like’ (Scott.21 Principles of sociology of Thomas Hobbes’ individualistic conception of the human being. 1995. Rather than explaining why and how societies changed over time. structural functionalists believed that individuals and groups are constrained by structures. p. (They believed that it was impossible to know what previous societies were like and that it was impossible to predict how they would develop. Parsons believed that the task of sociology was to analyse society as a system of interrelated variables. He was also influenced by the work of some social anthropologists (Radcliffe Brown and Malinowski) who were concerned about the epistemological problems arising out of the evolutionary theories of the nineteenth century. There are also many explanations in sociology that explain the shape.1. However. structural functionalist is a name given to a particular group of sociologists who are both structuralist and functionalist and most of whom described themselves as such. they explained how each institution changed in response to changes in other institutions at that particular point in time. therefore he sought to show how each social institution functioned to maintain the whole society. Like Durkheim. He sought to explain the nature of society and the role of individuals within it – a grand plan indeed! Parsons’ theory is analytical ‘in that. But it was also realist in that. It also owes much to the work of Comte and Spencer’s ideas of organicism and equilibrium. leaving the individual with little autonomy. In the structural functionalist approach.

These means are not always available. legal and cultural factors (environmental factors) which limit the opportunities available to the actors. social systems and cultural systems. Like Weber. This gives rise to a set of expectations relating to similar exchanges. so he would need to find out why people act in the way that they do. Activity 4. these parts work together to form a social structure. especially The structure of social action written in 1937. Means: the resources available to achieve these ends/goals. legal. which contain mutually dependent parts. Structural functionalists believe that social systems have certain needs. societies are seen as a mixture of personality systems. Parsons believed that understanding the way that people make these choices is the most important task of any social scientist. social. Parsons’ major assumption in explaining social action is that the ‘actor’ aims to maximise his/her gratification. which we describe below. In the model of social action. he describes action as ‘the unit act’. These expectations build up into sets of rules and norms. Like Weber. so these choices are constrained by physical. he believed that a sociologist must attempt to understand social phenomena as they appear to the actors.Chapter 4: Theories and developments include economic. it is a simple exchange: if the actor receives satisfaction in an exchange then this action will be repeated. by environmentalist ideas that it is not good to waste petrol driving fast cars and by the fact that you have a job and a family to support. the cultural system playing the most important part. If these needs are to be met. you will see that action is governed by the prevailing norms and values in a society. The unit act Individuals make choices – they choose between different goals and they choose between different ways of achieving these goals. Parsons’ voluntaristic theory of social action In Parsons’ early work. educational and political structures. These norms will in turn be influenced by the prevailing values in society. This normative framework or cultural system (very like Durkheim’s concept of moral regulation) is important in defining the expectations that are attached to each role in a social institution. Parsons viewed the structure of society as a normative framework.15 Can you think of something that you would like to do and cannot do? What are the constraints which prevent you from doing this? Example 1 You may want to drive a Ferrari across Africa but you may be constrained by your inability to drive a car. Unlike Weber he was not an Interpretivist aiming to understand meaning behind the action. In structural functionalism. by your lack of finances. First. The components of the unit act are: Actors: the people who make choices (in choosing the ends/goals and the means to achieve the ends/goals). it is the social structures that meets these needs. 109 . Parsons believed that the sociologist should analyse social action rather than physical events and biological behaviour.

‘Society can be considered as a network of social roles.21 Principles of sociology Here the constraints relate to your skills. section 1. the choices available to them are limited by the prevailing norms and values in a society (as well as financial and legal constraints). These values and norms are the basis for order in society. Social institutions Now reread Chapter 1. These norms and values structure individual choices. Here the constraints are very strong and smoking may incur punishment. This is a difficult concept in Parsons’ work. a role is a ‘cluster of normative expectations’ which exist prior to an individual taking up a role.42. 110 . how can there be social order? Social action is not simply a reaction to external stimuli. Actors take account of the expectations of others. 13 Craib (1992) p. Example 2 You may want to smoke in a restaurant after having a very good meal. the values regarding the environment and your duty to support your family. your companion hates smoking. ‘I act towards you in respect of how I expect you to act. You will know how to play different roles through a socialising process which ensures that you understand the expectations attached to each role. However you are constrained because the restaurant has a no smoking policy. each governed by established norms and values. as a student you will play your role in relation to others playing their role. In structural functionalism an institution is described as the ‘generalised norms and practices’ which are shared by many members of a society. The key institutions in society which help to define the social roles within these institutions are: the market. marriage and kinship. Actors are constrained by the values and norms of the people around them. We expect an institution to be like a school or a bank. and you believe that you should not smoke. individuals are not autonomous actors. You may be asked to leave the restaurant and your friend will probably be very offended. In front of your friends you will act informally but in a large lecture theatre you will be much more formal and will not be expected to interact with the lecturer unless asked to do so.’ Parsons believed that people tend to co-operate on the basis of these values. each actor develops a system of expectations in choosing how to act and what goals to aim for. Hence roles are taken in a structural functionalist model.13 Now reread Chapter 1. your financial situation.6 – The individual and society – which compares Parsons’ and Mead’s ideas of socialisation and role. Status roles For Parsons. contract. as we have seen. You will behave differently in each case. However. For example. These norms are normally well-established and settled and help tie the various social roles in society together. Question: If people pursue their individual self-interest. section 1. property.3 which explains how sociologists define a social institution.

In order for society to survive each of the sub-systems – and the sub-systems of sub-systems – it must satisfy four functional prerequisites: Latency/ Pattern Maintenance. Integration. Goal Attainment and Adaptation (LIGA). A person’s personality is affected by all the conditioning and learning that occurs in a ‘hers’ or ‘his’ life. For social interaction to occur over time there must be some stability in the symbolic system. and in joint families parents and brothers and sisters-in-law. According to Parsons the sub-systems of the social system are: • the economic system • the political system • the societal community • the socialisation system. 111 . • The cultural system: Parsons can be described as a consensus theorist. The personality system was made up of a mixture of biological drives and culture but cannot be reduced to biology. Human beings are seen as essentially passive and reactive in the Parsonion model. Without some degree of conformity to the ‘conventions’ in the society. • The personality system: the personality system was concerned with human motivation. individuals seek approval in social relationships. the political sub-system sets the goals in a society. • The social system: patterns of activity resulting from the sum of social interactions in the society. This ensures that the culture of a society is internalised by members of a society. In a marriage.Chapter 4: Theories and developments In a market there are buyers and sellers – each role carrying a role set of expectations and behaviours. There are also subsystems of each of the above systems! You will have read that structural functionalists use a biological analogy. Hence one of the major functions of the family and education is ‘pattern maintenance’ (see below). The general system of action Social institutions tend to be arranged in groups which make up subsystems. • The biological system: this provides the biological link between the physical world and the meanings that make up the ‘world of action’. communication would be impossible. Note: Parsons believed that women tended to play ‘expressive’ roles whereas men would play ‘instrumental roles’ in the social division of labour. the stratification system serves to integrate people into the society. People conform because there is a consensus (agreement) over the prevailing set of norms and values in a society. Each of these systems relates to each other and adapts in response to changes in the other systems. For example. On the next page the chart indicates how these prerequisites are met. the roles relate to husband and wife. Culture is a symbolic system but people in different situations will read symbols differently.

112 .4 Source: Generated from Fulcher and Scott (2007) p. POWER Met by: the Economy – structures of production distribution and exchange. Using the idea of cybernetics (the science of systems and their ability to be self-regulating) Parsons attempted to demonstrate how each system is controlled by another system.21 Principles of sociology Structures related to External needs These relate to the facilities and resources that must be generated from the environment. Means of action Ends of action Adaptation (The need to accumulate and control resources from the natural environment.) Met by: the family and education – people are socialised into the generalised values and norms in a society. MONEY Internal needs Relating to the integrity and cohesion of the social system. Thus a hierarchy emerges: • the cultural system is high on information • the social system is high on information • the personality system is high on energy • the biological organism is high on energy.) Goal attainment (The need to mobilise existing resources to achieve individual and collective goals. but also larger bonds of ethnic and national community. The cybernetic hierarchy The systems illustrated above are related through the exchange of symbolic information.49.) Met by: The societal community – this includes localised structures such as kinship and neighbourhood.) Met by: the Polity – political structures of decision-making and control. Latency and Pattern Maintenance: (The need to build up a store of commitment in a society and to ensure stability of the system as a whole. Each of the sub-systems has an equivalent ‘symbol’ which is indicated in CAPITAL LETTERS in the above boxes. Integration: (The need to integrate individuals into the society. Symbols are exchanged and each system remains in equilibrium with the other systems. which ensures both the stability of the system and the perpetuation of its culture. Social stratification is an important mechanism INFLUENCE COMMITMENT Figure 4.

even thought this conflict may not be overt. The more these resources are utilised. The task of the education system is to socialise the young into this generalised culture. As social systems become more specialised. Resources. This triggers changes in the sub-systems to rectify the situation and conflict also contributes to social change. classes have oppositional interests (even though. The other functions have been taken over by the education system and the state. the cultural system has to adapt to these changes and becomes more abstract and more generalised. These interests cannot be reconciled and so society is normally in a state of conflict. they were scarce and there would be competition over them.Chapter 4: Theories and developments Those systems which are highest on information control those who have high energy. therefore the cultural system controls the personality and biological systems. the family remains in Parsons’ model the ‘cornerstone of society’. the functions of the family are reduced to two important functions – the socialisation of the young and the stabilisation of ‘adult personalities’.or constant-sum view. In Marx’s analysis of social class. with one part of the system adapting to changes in another. As societies become more complex and differentiated. In adapting to the conflict situation the society will change in some way. the more is available to pursue collective goals. They had a zero. Change is generally ordered and evolutionary. Parsons’ theory of the family illustrates this well. were material resources. society adapts to deal with the tension (tension management) and moves back to a state of moving equilibrium. Parsons described this process as ‘moving equilibrium’. Moving equilibrium The sub-systems above are constantly adapting to changes within the social system (endogenous changes) and from outside the system (exogenous changes). The normative system ensures that individuals are socialised into the rules of the society and so society is normally in a state of solidarity of equilibrium. the functions that an institution is left with are more effective than when that institution was carrying out multiple functions. for Marx. When there is overt conflict. the working class is generally unaware of these opposing interests). Parsons attempted to demonstrate how a change or ‘disturbance’ in one system induces a reaction in another which maintains equilibrium. in capitalism. As societies develop. 113 . However. in Marx and Weber’s analyses. conflict is endemic. Those with highest energy (the personality and biological organisms) push energy up through the system and those with high information push information down through the system. Remember the cultural system has to ensure that there is a general consensus and agreement in society. Parsons’ concept of moving equilibrium can serve to indicate how the various sub-systems react to these changes. Change in one system will affect changes in another system which will react and restore the original situation. Parsons assumed a variable-sum view of society: there are enough power resources. and societal resources in a society if the society is organised to properly utilise them. However. Specialisation Social systems change as they become more differentiated and as structures become more specialised. They account for conflict as an indication that the system is not working effectively. the number of the functions that an institution can achieve decreases. In contrast.

Specialisation. This brings us quite close to the postmodernist theory which suggests that culture is ‘fractured’ and there is no one point of reference for social behaviour. We should ask questions of both Merton’s and Luhmann’s positions. Sharrock and Francis (2006) and Lee and Newby (2000).21 Principles of sociology Robert Merton (1910–2003) Now read The descriptions of Merton you will find in your main textbook. society will die or the equilibrium will be destroyed and society would be reborn. Now read Cuff.16 Think of a society in which there has been continuous open conflict for over 10 years. created a situation where social institutions became so specialised that they developed different value systems. Here you will see that Nikolas Luhmann developed Parsons’ ideas but suggested that social systems were very often unstable and that they often failed to adapt. Sharrock and Francis (2006) Chapter 5 or Lee and Newby (2000) Chapter 16. Merton’s development of Parsons’ work on social action has been used extensively in the study of organisations and crime (see p. since the 1980s there has been a re-emergence of this tradition with the development of neofunctionalism around people such as Nicholas Luhmann. Do you think that the structuralist functionalists can account for this situation? Summary Structural functionalism dominated US sociology until the late 1960s (although there were other paradigms which were dominant in some univerisites: phenomenology and other interpretivist traditions in Chicago. far from ensuring social cohesion.102 on anomie). If you have chosen the study of organisations or religion in Section C. if this conflict persists. 114 . However. How do structural functionalists explain the existence of conflict in so many societies? They can explain it using the concept of ‘function’ but.50–51) on this topic. Activity 4. and also in Cuff. Neofunctionalism Reading If you are using Fulcher and Scott (2007) we suggest that you read their background material (pp. Merton’s theory will be very helpful to you. Use the above notes to guide you in your reading. His work as been used to describe deviant behaviour and even revolutionary change. for instance). He took Durkheim’s concept of anomie as a starting point but developed this to include a typology of the different responses to anomic situations. Other paradigms became more popular and there was little work done using the structural functionalist perspective. then what? In the organic model.

However. (London and New York: Methuen. (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf. The presentation of self in everyday life. there are differences between these approaches that you should be aware of. (Englewood Cliffs. W. (Englewood Cliffs. Harold Studies in Ethnomethodology. 1967) [ISBN 9780745600611]. 1928) [ISBN 9780384601789]. This is not only in terms of causes but in terms of the ends that social institutions and practices have for the maintenance of society. Symbolic interactionism. 1959) [ISBN 9780385094023]. and Florian Zaniecki The Polish peasant in Europe and America.Chapter 4: Theories and developments Much of the material in Sections B and C depends on a thorough understanding of structural functionalism as a perspective and its concern with explaining social phenomena. Fry. Bogdan Autobiography of Jane Fry. NJ: Prentice Hall. Thomas The child in America: behavior problems and programs. Social interactionism Now read Fulcher and Scott (2007) pp.33–36 and reread Chapter 1. (New York: Wiley Interscience. In order to understand the meaning that the actor was giving to her or his behaviour. Maxwell Our masters’ voices: the language and body language of politics. (Anchor. 1974) [IBSN 9780471085706]. 4. (Boston: Richard G.3 Bringing the individual back in Works cited Atkinson. Modern social theory. W. For Weber. Goffman.51–54 or Giddens (2008) pp. E. Thomas.22–24 or Macionis and Plummer (2005) pp. For the next group of social scientists this did not go far enough.I. Craib. section 1. Social interactionism. Badger. and D. for behaviour to be social ‘meaning had to be attached to it’. as Parsons and Durkheim did. I. (New York: Alfred A.28–30 or Macionis and Plummer (2008) pp. Introduction Most sociology in the nineteenth century could be described as macro sociology. Knopf. 1992) second edition [ISBN 9780312086749]. Sociologists such as Comte and Durkheim were committed to the idea that there was such a thing as ‘society’.S. Jane and Robert C. Garfinkel. H. symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology This group of sociological perspectives can be described as ‘micro sociology’ because they stress the importance of looking at the individual in society. In your reading you will have seen that Weber moved away from this structural approach. this group believed that we need to understand the processes by which individuals come to understand the behaviour of others and how individuals identified themselves through interaction. J. Interactionists did not try to create a theory of society. NJ: Prentice Hall. Blumer. 115 . Thomas.7.I. 1969) [ISBN 0138799245]. we had to ‘put ourselves in the shoes of the other’ (verstehen). 1918) [ISBN 9780252010903]. and society structured individual behaviour and consciousness. 1984) [ISBN 9780415018753].

An example of this is the Thomas Theorem. especially in relation to Mead’s view of the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’.I. ‘If men define situations as real. Self and Society by Jacob Robert Kantor: 8 http://spartan. and particularly people’s ability to manipulate symbols. They wrote this up in a book The Polish peasant in Europe and America (1918). Mead. having migrated from small rural communities.14 Pragmatism is a theory of meaning. Thomas. He therefore attacks them and in some cases kills them. they are real in their consequences. but is generally applied to theorists who stress the importance of looking beyond action and structure to the way in which people create their identities and define the situations/ reality in which they find themselves in. like other sociologists. 14 15 Here Thomas and Thomas take the example of a prisoner who interprets the behaviour of people talking to themselves (aloud) in negative terms. please read this now.’15 Fulcher and Scott (2003) pp. section 1. They examined his interpretation of his situation and how this changed over time. Things are what they mean to people. So he acts on his perception of the situation. Thomas were working. what was new in the Chicago School was the development of a department which was interested in finding out how people define and interpret the social environment. These perspectives were developed in the University of Chicago where George Herbert Mead and They were particularly interested in the way that different social groups struggled over resources in the rapidly developing city in the time of mass migration.brocku. To 116 .I. Kantor (see above). which suggests that there are no abstract definitions of things as they really are. attempted to find out the nature of the relationship between society and the individual. Now the idea of interpreting behaviour was not new.52–53.7.html Now read You need to reread the material on Mead in Chapter 1.S. They did this through a content analysis of one migrant’s (a Polish peasant) letters home to Poland. In his book review. Whereas Weber and Parsons stressed social action. but the problem has been that he actually wrote very little and most of his work has been gathered together by his students. If you have access to Fulcher and Scott (2007). You may like to look up some of these notes on the web. George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) Mead has been very influential in both sociology and social psychology. W. W.I. It had its roots in the work of William James (1842–1910) and Charles Peirce (1839–1914) and the theory of Pragmatism.572. explains how Mead suggests that we should study ‘the inner experience of activity which arises in the social process of interaction’.21 Principles of sociology Social interactionism is a loose and D. You will have seen that Mead is usually described as a social psychologist. Thomas and Florian Zaniecki examined the way that these migrants perceived their situation and how they adapted to the different social environment of the large city. Mead believed that the field methods of anthropology should be used to understand the process of interaction between the self/mind (the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’) and society. The prisoner believes that these people are making disparaging remarks about him. particularly the review of Mind. Thomas (1928) p.

Now read Fulcher and Scott (2007) pp. known and reflected upon. There cannot be a mind in the absence of society. is characterised by the processes of meaning. Erving Goffman (1922–1982) Goffman was a Canadian sociologist who studied in Chicago. so that they can understand the processes by which individuals develop a sense of self through the processes of communication and interaction. Gestures have meaning to social actors.7). Interaction is by definition a dynamic process. The social self emerges only through social experience and the self will not emerge unless individuals are able to interact with others and ‘see themselves as others see them’. Mead said that ‘the mind should be studied scientifically (because) its workings are displayed in human contact not concealed behind it’ and that ‘the content of the mind is only a development and product of social interaction’. An individual’s gesture indicates subsequent behaviour to another.116–29 or Macionis and Plummer (2005 or 2008) Chapter 7 or Giddens (2008) pp. All these processes assume that there is an external environment (society) which can be understood. for Mead. section 1.Chapter 4: Theories and developments understand Mead it is important to be aware of the concept of gesture. For Mead. face-to-face interaction. therefore. 117 . The self The ‘self’ arises in the process of gesture conversation in social interaction – the self is reflexive. They observe the processes by which people are socialised. The mind arises through communication which is result of the interplay of gestures in the form of significant symbols. and the processes by which individuals come to understand ‘their’ social reality. significance and reflection. particularly The presentation of self in everyday life. In order to understand gestures. The most important category of symbols is language. The mind. You should be aware of Goffman’s empirical work and try to read some of it. He used a phenomenological approach – see below – to understand how individuals perceive the interactions they observe and take part in. Mead believed that individuals can control their behaviour and act according to their interpretation of the meanings of the gestures and events that they are exposed to. and are central to Meade’s analysis of social interaction. Interactionists therefore use ethnographic methods. Her/his identity is given by her/his reactions to others. The social environment.126–33. Gestures include all verbal and non-verbal communication. the individual cannot be detached from the environment. when an individual responds to a gesture it is regarded as a significant gesture. He concentrated on small-scale. What differentiates men from animals is man’s ability to reflect on past activities and anticipate and prepare for future situations. Whereas behaviouralists believed that humans react directly to external stimuli and events. shapes human thinking. you need see how they are interpreted – and to see how the process of interaction occurs. particularly participant observation. Therefore interactionists do not simply seek to understand a single action through verstehen. The social self takes on the role of others (see Chapter 1. knowing.

Individuals aim to create an impression on others. Therefore individuals learn about the ‘front’ through socialisation and act to standardise their behaviour so that others can understand it. pp. Roles are not given. Power Much of the work of the symbolic interactionists concentrates on the individual. Individuals learn their role and the context in which the role is played. They can manipulate symbols to create a particular response to their behaviour.54. Actors act towards an audience to make an impression. an audience can influence the actors to act in a way that is expected of them. Yet their work has addressed power especially through labelling theory. In the Shetland Islands.21 Principles of sociology Goffman described his work as a dramaturgical approach. and this impression is called the self. A definition of the situation is the joint construction of the participants in interaction. Front The process of establishing a social identity is linked to the concept of ‘front’ which is ‘that part of the individual’s performance which functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance’. However as we have seen in the example of the ‘dumb girls’. young girls ‘acted dumb’ (i. stupid) to impress their boyfriends. 118 . the poor crofters deliberately let their houses get run down because they wanted to create an ‘impression’ that they were so poor that the landlord would believe that they could not afford to pay any extra rent. ‘appearance’ and ‘manner’ for the social role. so they acted accordingly. an interplay in which each actor interprets and responds to all others. Consensus exists only when this definition has been established and agreed by all involved. The girls believed that their boyfriends liked dumb girls. to illustrate his idea of impression management. The social process The social process is an interplay of action and reaction. they are the sets of expectations which others have of our behaviour.128–29. The image the actors present will vary according to the impression that the actors believe is expected by the audience. Reading note Fulcher and Scott (2007) have a good section of Goffman in Chapter 4.e. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. and this performance is shaped by the external environment and the audience of the action. So the actor has to fulfil the duties of a social role and be able to communicate the characteristics of the role to others. A ‘front’ is a collective representation which provides the ‘proper setting’. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) was a largely descriptive study of the way that individuals engage in presentation management. Goffman undertook a participant observation study in the Shetland Islands (in the far north of Scotland). Goffman suggests that interaction is a performance. it is an analogy taken from the theatre. and they have been accused of neglecting the constraints under which actors perform. Interaction is a reciprocal and continuous negotiation over how situations are defined.16 16 Fulcher and Scott (2003) p. they are learnt through a process of interaction.

17 Can you explain how the term symbolic interactionism was derived? Blumer outlines the following assumptions of symbolic interactionism. Its empirical world is the natural world of such group life and conduct.565–67 or Cuff. The researchers then reported to the teachers that Fulcher and Scott (2003) p. in the chapters of the textbook relating to labelling theory you will see that the locus of research is on the people with the power to label.7) on socialisation. Blumer developed many of Mead’s ideas and formalised them. Labelling theory has also been used in understanding educational success and failure. For example.) Note also the descriptions of gesture. • Thought: These meanings are modified and handled through an interpretive process that is used by each individual in dealing with the signs each encounters.54. most of which he developed from Mead’s ideas. Rosenthal and Jacobson and their team organised an experiment with Mexican children to test the reasons certain groups of children failed at school.Chapter 4: Theories and developments Now read Fulcher and Scott (2007) pp.799–803 or Macionis and Plummer (2005) pp.87. Society is a fluid and flexible network of interactions within which we act. • Human beings act towards things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them. (We have described this in relation to the Thomas Theorem above. • These meanings are a product of social interaction and negotiation in human society (see Chapter 1. Symbolic interactionism Herbert Blumer (1900–1987) Symbolic interactionism is a term created by Hebert Blumer.447–50 or Macionis and Plummer (2008) pp.53–54 or Giddens (2008) pp. section 1. Sharrock and Francis (2006) pp. 19 119 . Becker (who was a member of the Chicago School) described deviant behaviour as that behaviour which people label as deviant. This test was given to all the children in the class.136–41. conducts its studies in it.19 Labelling theory Unlike Goffman’s work which concentrates more on the impression management of the actor.’18 Look back at the section on Parsons – for Parsons these networks made up ‘society’ and society constrained an individual’s actions. who was a student of Mead. Here the authors explain how symbolic interactions have explained deviant behaviour through the process of labelling. Howard S. Blumer described symbolic interactionism as: ……a down-to-earth approach to the scientific study of human group life and human conduct.17 17 Blumer (1969) ‘Societies for Blumer were not fixed objective structures. Activity 4. They posed as psychologists and gave the children a dummy test. Blumer believed that Durkheim and the structural functionalists had ‘reified’ society. Reificiation means treating a phenomenon (a thing) as an occurrence that has no concrete existence. and derives its interpretations from such naturalistic studies. It lodges its problems in this natural world. 18 Adapted from Craib (1992) p.

21 Principles of sociology some children who had been labelled ‘slow learners’ were in fact late developers. However.’ Husserl criticised the positivists of the nineteenth century because they believed that the social world existed sui generis. The social construction of reality In 1966 Peter Berger (who worked with Schutz) and Thomas Luckmann wrote this important text.20 120 20 Berger (1963) p. Schutz (1899–1959) further developed Husserl’s ideas. the effect was not lasting and there was no subsequent improvement in the pupils’ performance. The labels did make a difference. Everyday life presents itself as a reality interpreted by men and subjectively meaningful to them as a coherent world. Rosenthal and Jacobson left the school for six months and when they returned they re-tested all the pupils. Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) is considered to be the founder of phenomenology. the task of the social scientist is to understand the processes by which we come to know social reality. Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness. Activity 4. Now read Chapter 3 for a discussion on interpretivist ontology and epistemology for a description of Schutz’s phenomenology. although meaningful to social actors. Society. Two major aspects of his work are: • ‘The world we live in is created by our consciousness.’ • ‘The outside world only has meaning through our consciousness of it. This indicated to Rosenthal and Jacobson that the teachers had acted towards the pupils as if they were late developers rather than slow learners. Husserl pointed out that Weber’s theory of action was one-sided as Weber did not attempt to explain how the individual came to understand the meanings of social action. They describe this both as a systematic treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Husserl was concerned with studying the structures and workings of human consciousness. . is nonetheless socially constructed. They found that those children who had been relabelled as late developers had done significantly better than was originally expected of them and much better than their peers who had not been labelled ‘late developers’.18 Think back to the time when you were at school. He aimed to create a radical philosophy whose task was to restore ‘the connection between knowledge and everyday experience’. Its major aim was to demonstrate that the social world does not exist sui generis as Durkheim suggested.54–55. Were there instances where teachers labelled pupils? Do you think this made a difference to their performance? Phenomenology You have been introduced to phenomenology in Chapter 3. Therefore. the task of the phenomenological sociologist is see how people make sense of their lives. Now read If you have a copy of Fulcher and Scott (2007) read pp.33. They termed this process a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The chapter in Cuff. This process is known as typification. studying how people judge social situations. Ethnomethodology takes the philosophical standpoint of the phenomenologists. Sharrock and Francis (2006). 121 . between what really happened and what was a dream. Sociologists such as J. Ethnie = people methodology = the science of methods. as you will have seen in Chapter 3. Atkinson observed coroners in England and Denmark and he found that British and Danish coroners gave different typifications of typical suicidal behaviour when presented with similar biographies. There you will have read that ethnography involved studying people in their own environments. In Cuff. that society is socially constructed and that the task of the social scientist is to find out how people construct their world.21 Jane Fry was a transsexual and this text is a day-to-day record of his/her perceptions as she ‘became’ a woman. Maxwell Atkinson and Jack Douglas have cricitised Durkheim’s use of statistics and demonstrate how statistical data is socially created. In Chapter 2 you were introduced to the concept of Ethnography. that is. Reading note The only textbook to have some description of this approach is Fulcher and Scott (2007). Berger and Luckmann believe commonsense is simply ‘senses held in common’. which they describe as social constructions. between the possible and the impossible. in a particular situation would be a suicidal type. Atkinson in his text Discovering Suicide demonstrated that those who had power to label a suicide as a suicide – the coroners – came to their conclusions on the basis of ‘biographies’. This can be achieved by setting aside what we know (bracketing) and see how we come to know it. are distrustful of statistics. 21 Ethnomethodology Students are often worried about this term because it sounds rather daunting. how we evaluate the methods that sociologists use. Knowledge can therefore be achieved by trying to find out how individuals come to perceive social reality. One famous study which used this approach was The autobiography of Jane Fry. Ethnomethodologists attempt to find out the methods that individuals use to decide whether something is real or not. Hence sociologists should engage in trying to understand how people have developed their understanding of reality. They would therefore label the death as a suicide of people who ‘fitted’ into these types. Here the process of becoming was the main focus. Fry and Bogdan (1974) . Over time they came to understand that a particular type of person. Sharrock and Francis (2006) on ethnomethodology is useful but contains more than is required for this unit.Chapter 4: Theories and developments The task of the sociologist is to take this reality as the object of analysis and see how this reality is constructed. Harold Garfinkel and Aaron Cicourel who were writing in the 1950s and 1960s were its main exponents. They used in-depth interviews and other ethnographic methods to uncover the taken-for-granted assumptions that people have. Phenomenologists. they give an example of how people judge between fact and fiction. Hence the study of perception is at the forefront of their analysis.

we need to understand the methods that actors use to organise their interactions and how they judge what is real or not. as you now know. s: (He listened to me with a puzzled look) What came over you? We never talk this way. Garfinkel called these experiments ‘breaching experiments’. The breaching experiments involved his students ‘bringing conversations to a halt and refusing to take for granted that they knew what the other person was saying’ (Garfinkel 1967). You should be able to relate to this case. The ethnomethodologists examined transcripts of conversations and analysed how this turn taking was managed.21 Principles of sociology Garfinkel criticised the structural functionalists who. However. My friend expressed his feeling: s: I’m sick of him. When you say ‘hello’ to someone or ‘how are you?’ you do not expect to have a long description of their illnesses. Ethnomethodologists believe that the way to discover these rules and regularities is to break them and to lay bare the taken-forgranted assumptions that people use to make sense of the situations in which they interact with others. In a conversation each person ‘takes a turn’ in the conversation. He believed that we cannot simply look at action. or interpret action. They included acts such as interrupting lectures. This allowed them to ask for explanations. Frankly I don’t give a damn how you are.. Their methods were sometimes experimental. Case 7 My friend and I were talking about a man whose overbearing attitude annoyed us. my. s: Are you kidding me? You know what I mean. The social world is made up of rules and regularities and the task of the sociologist is to understand how these come about and how they operate. 122 . We need to go beyond this and understand not just the meanings of social actions and how the social world is constructed. most of his work was an analysis of conversations.. believed that individuals had little or no autonomy and were like ‘puppets’.? s: (Red in the face and suddenly out of control) Look I was just trying to be polite. People in conversation can create an illusion of social order even though they may not understand each other fully. my school work. my peace of mind. and then ask for explanations of the explanations! Garfinkel asked his students to talk to their friends and deviate from the normal conventions of conversation – we give two examples here. e: Would you explain what is wrong with you that you are sick. and suggesting to students that they should act ‘as if they were lodgers’ in their own homes. Case 6 The ‘victim’ waved his hand cheerily: s: How are you? e: How am I in regard to what? My health. e: Please explain your ailment. In Chapter 1. you learnt about the nature of sociology and that sociologists’ main focus is on studying the nature of relationships in society. my finances.

e. according to Garfinkel. However. is getting confused. Giddens has developed a way out of this ‘dualism’ and suggests that ‘we should bridge the gap between structure and action’. It did not seem to matter what the content of the speech was. J. In his textbook he uses the case of the monetary system. does not know how to answer this second question and starts getting angry. In your reading you should now try to compare them in relation to whether they believe that individuals are constrained by the society or actively create their own understanding of ‘reality’. According to Parsons. The first part on phenomenology is the most important. If a speech contained a comparison – ‘we do this’. but ‘they do that’ – then the audience would also clap. is not acting according to the rules of normal conversation and s. other speech structures were not so successful.Chapter 4: Theories and developments Here you can see the breaching experiment. Both cases from Garfinkel (1967). is not going to take this for granted and asks for further information. Individuals would find it very difficult if they did not use the monetary system (a structure) – unless they opt out of society completely or are completely dependent on others who do! Yet individuals can make choices. In using the monetary system. Most of the textbooks try to compare these theories in terms of structure and action (agency). According to ethnomethodology.23 Now read If you have Cuff. they could decide not to use money. 22 23 Atkinson (1984). Partners in a conversation interpret what they think the other person means. there are many matters that the partners don’t understand but act as if they understand what the other is talking about. Maxwell Atkinson has developed a similar approach to conversational analysis in his studies of how politicians can ensure participation in public meetings. individuals contribute to its continued existence and development. read Chapter 7. However e. knows what ‘I’m sick of him’ means. 123 .22 In conversations there are many gaps. Structure or action? Structuration We have now introduced you to two very different approaches: at one extreme. the individual is actively involved in making sense of the situation she or he finds her or himself in. s. believes that e. The question he asked was ‘How does an audience know when to clap?’ He found that if a speech contained three points the audience would clap more enthusiastically than two points. In speech there are gaps in information and in conversation people fill these in and assume that this is what the other meant! The idea that there is a shared agreement between partners in a conversation is a myth. Therefore he concluded that the audiences fill in gaps in speeches as dictated by their structure. it was the structure that mattered. the individual is constrained by the culture of the society and is socialised into a role having little autonomy. There is a dynamic process involved. Garfinkel’s task lay in attempting to understand the conditions under which people can make sense of one another’s activities and act accordingly. and they also make choices as to how to use it. structural functionalism and at the other ethnomethodology. s. Sharrock and Francis (2006). By analysing the speeches he was able to demonstrate that the content of the speech matters less than the structure of the speech.

or Macionis. 2008) pp. 9. What is meant by bracketing? 6. What methods would phenomenologists use and why? 5. Why do phenomenologists believe it is important to analyse conversation? 11.21 Principles of sociology Structuration refers to the process whereby individuals make and remake social structure during the course of their daily lives. as he states. What is meant by ‘gesture’ in symbolic interactionism? 3. It provides some important social theory for your work on methodology and will be very important if you have chosen either ‘Race’ and ethnicity or Gender as your Section C topic. What is meant by labelling in sociology? Illustrate your answer with some examples. and K. has the everyday language of communication changed? If so. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. J. In his textbook Giddens uses the idea of language. or Giddens. Vocabulary changes through interaction. (Harlow: Prentice Hall. (Cambridge: Polity Press. J. Societies only have structure if people behave in regular ways.33–34 and 686–88.115–16. Activity 4. Activity 4. 2005 edition) pp. Scott Sociology. in what way has it changed? Summary In this section we have described how the interactionists brought the individual back into sociological analysis. 2007) pp. How did Garfinkel conduct his experiments? 7. However individuals are only able to act in predictable ways if they are aware and have a great deal of ‘socially’ structured knowledge. languages are constantly changing. Explain the phrase ‘the world we live in is created by our consciousness’.38–39 and 848–50. Individuals learn language.20 Attempt the following questions: 1.64–66 and 386–87. (2008 edition) pp. A. and J. Plummer Sociology: a global introduction. and although many people are concerned about proper grammatical forms the structure of our language changes over time. How does structuration theory attempt to link structure and agency? 4. What is meant by the phrase ‘the presentation of self in everyday life’? 12. people do not receive language passively. What is pragmatism in philosophy? 10.19 In your society. Language can only exist if people use the language and abide by its rules. Sociology.4 Postmodernity and sociology Essential reading Fulcher. 124 . 8. Why do phenomenologists criticise statistical methods? 2. Why is phenomenology sometimes called ‘a sociology of knowledge’? 4. However. Language vocabulary and structure pre-exist the individual.

E. S. So. • Sociological knowledge. ‘Feminism. fill in any gaps. Theory and Practice in Sociology. The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge. Hall. Harvey. S. J.286–99. D. 2002) [ISBN 0130265535] Chapter 7. postmodernism and the sociology of gender’ in Owen. ‘The question of cultural identity’ in Hall. 125 . 1997) [ISBN 9780803975149]. try Activity 4. 1992) [ISBN 9780745609669]. Marsh. Held and T. Sharrock and D.21 below: Activity 4. revealing inequalities or disarming prejudices. for example. (London: Routledge. with theorists questioning. sociological theory (like theory in any subject) is a dialogue.W. are all characterised by the ideals of the Enlightenment and all of them are based on three fundamental ‘modernist’ assumptions that were outlined earlier. Jameson. Francis Perspectives in Sociology. The condition of postmodernity.Chapter 4: Theories and developments Further reading Cuff. (London: Sage. (London: Verso Press. (Manchester: Manchester University Press. McGrew Modernity and its futures. 1989) [ISBN 9780631162940]. • There is an order to social life and social change. Therefore. can lead to improvements in society by.21: Modernity and the Enlightenment revisited Try to answer the following questions before going back to look at the subject guide or your textbooks. • This order can be illuminated by rational understanding which provides a knowledge of societies that is superior to commonsense. informing social policies. I. once validated and acted upon. D. Postmodernism or the cultural logic of late capitalism. 1991) [ISBN 9780860915379]. Lyotard. D.. if necessary. (Harlow: Prentice Hall. (Oxford: Blackwell. Works cited Ashenden. opinion and prejudice. 1984) [ISBN 9780816611737].) Sociology after postmodernism. F. criticising or developing earlier theoretical ideas. The theoretical approaches we have looked at so far. religion. • What do sociologists mean by modernity? • What is meant by a ‘modern’ way of thinking? • Can you identify the key ideas of the Enlightenment? • How did the Enlightenment influence the development of sociology? • What did the Enlightenment philosophers mean by reason? • What did Weber mean by rationality? Now go back to Chapter 1 of this subject guide and your textbooks to check out your answers and. the best way to begin to understand postmodern social theory is first to be clear about the theoretical ideas and assumptions it is questioning. Postmodern theory: a challenge to sociology? As you will know by now. before reading on. (Cambridge: Polity. (ed. W. S. although different from each other. 2006) pp..

It raises important questions about: • the nature of contemporary societies • the status of sociological knowledge • the purpose of sociological research. In reading about postmodern theory it is also important to distinguish between some terms that sound similar but are actually different from each other. Terrestrial. Postmodernism: This refers to cultural and social beliefs and ways of behaving that result from living in postmodernity. For example.21 Principles of sociology Postmodern theory rejects all these assumptions. Postmodern theorist Harvey (1989) refers to this as ‘space-time compression’. the most advanced societies have tended to de-industrialise. chat . and can refer to divergent areas such as music and architecture as well as the way social life is ordered. rooms and digital radio stations bombard people with sounds and images from around the globe that cut across and blur boundaries of time and space. 126 . it also very important that you supplement what you read in this subject guide with the textbook reading indicated above. We shall introduce you to the postmodern critique below. Postmodern theory in sociology is based on two key arguments. in contrast. emails. However. it is not just another new theory. Therefore. argue that the most ‘developed’ societies have become postmodern and this represents a clear break with the past era of modernity. the world has become increasingly globalised (see Section B). The first is that we are living through another period of intense social change in which modern societies are being transformed into something different called postmodern societies. competitiveness and private enterprise. It is also a challenge to existing sociological theory and research. Postmodernists. A postmodern world? It is important to make clear that it is not just postmodernists who realise that the latter part of the twentieth century was a period of dramatic change. Postmodern theory: This refers to a new way of theorising that some sociologists argue has to be used to understand the postmodern world. However. most sociologists see these developments as changes in the nature of modern societies and some. satellite and cable TV websites. and a new form of sociological thinking is required to understand this new world. All sociologists realise that many modern societies had been transformed. class boundaries have become much less clear and nation states have disposed of many of their assets and actively encourage more self-reliance. The second argument is that many of sociology’s most influential theories and concepts are now out of date. The key to postmodern theory is in its interpretation of the effects of living in a media saturated society. Postmodernity: This describes a social formation coming after modernity. refer to the contemporary world as ‘late modernity’. Contemporary societies are dominated by new information technologies that bring the world into people’s homes and consciousness. like Anthony Giddens.

In the postmodern world people’s sense of identity now comes less from ‘social’ things like where they live. 127 . the football teams they support and so on. Identity becomes a ‘movable feast’: formed and transformed continuously in relation to the ways in which we are represented or addressed in the cultural systems which surround us…We are confronted by a bewildering. their family. like social class. class. where people shop not only for consumer goods. Postmodernists further argue that. have become so diversified and fragmented and are now much less important in shaping how people think about themselves and the world. in a book that had a profound influence on the development of ‘postmodern sociology’. As Hall (1992. knowledge of societies. fleeting multiplicity of possible identities. Postmodernists argue that these changes have important implications for the ontological basis of sociology: the relationship between the individual and society. education. They are past their sell-by date and. The effect of this has been to transform contemporary societies into something resembling endless shopping malls. the generalisations sociologists typically make about the relationship between institutions (such as family or education) and individual behaviour and the comparisons they make between different social groups have become increasingly difficult to sustain.277) puts it: The postmodern subject is conceptualised as having no fixed or permanent identity. ethnicity or gender. Thus the ‘postmodern condition’ has been described as one unending choice for increasing numbers of people. they have to be deconstructed. fragmented and uncertain. Identity is therefore much more precarious. no longer work. as many ‘modernist’ sociologists feared. beliefs. People’s identities are thus formed in the interaction between self and society. people define themselves much more in terms of the lifestyle choices they make about their clothes. any one of which we could identify with – at least temporarily. in the technical language of postmodernism.Chapter 4: Theories and developments Postmodernists argue that the ‘information explosion’ of the last two or three decades has not led to increasing conformity and acceptance of ‘dominant values’. Thus ‘modernist’ sociological concepts. This loss of a stable sense of self is described by postmodernists as a decentring of the subject. Sociological knowledge and progress A second – epistemological – part of the postmodern critique concerns sociology’s claims to produce some expert. or specialist. images and identities. Lyotard (1984). or family. or social structures. the cornerstone of sociology is that there is an institutional order to societies which. as the social order that once characterised modern societies has fragmented. Postmodernists argue that this no longer holds: what sociologists call societies. although created by people also shapes how they think about themselves and the world. In a postmodern world. gender. cars. As we have seen. and much more from the images and choices presented to them via the media. but has in fact led to a massive increase in diversity and choice. p. compared the status of knowledge in ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ societies. but also for new lifestyles.

Postmodernists argue that in an increasingly fluid and fragmented social world. according to Lyotard. sociological knowledge can only be assessed in terms of how useful people find it. as we have seen. and the social sciences would produce better organised and fairer societies. scientific truths are increasingly called into question and. it had to be supported by what he calls a meta-narrative. They argue that these are simply further metanarratives and the only purpose of so-called research is to convince people of the truth of the basic ‘story’. Thus the meta-narrative of the Enlightenment was that scholars and scientists were liberating people from the darkness of superstition. as sociologists cannot obtain special. Postmodernists argue that sociological concepts. ‘patriarchy’ and ‘gender’ are far too general to do justice to the complexity and diversity of contemporary societies. through science in particular. medical sciences would give people healthier and longer lives. understanding of societies. In the contemporary world.21 Principles of sociology In modern societies. The most the sociologist can do is to offer ideas about the social world which people can take or leave as they see fit. ‘capitalism’. Postmodernists challenge sociology’s claim to be about improving societies in the name of social progress. people are no longer convinced it is necessarily transforming it for the better. They argue that. Not only have most people in contemporary societies lost interest in religious and political meta-narratives. they have also now become more sceptical of scientific meta-narratives. although science is certainly transforming the world. the postmodern condition can be defined as a scepticism towards meta-narratives. to uncover the truth about the world and change it. Like any other commodity. such as ‘social institution’. or ‘true’. this faith in science and various scientific enterprises did not just happen automatically. They argue that in an increasingly fragmented and sceptical world there are no longer any clear criteria for determining whether one theory or piece of research is better than another. In the postmodern world. For example. sociological research cannot be evaluated in terms of key criteria such as objectivity. Like any other major ‘belief system’. For Lyotard. a set of ideas and assumptions woven into a story that provides a justification for the beliefs. the value of which is determined by whether or not people want it. engineering sciences would transform environments for the better. However. For example. They argue that sociological theories can only be about providing specific interpretations of particular aspects of the social world. reliability and authenticity. Postmodernists are particularly critical of structural theories such as structural functionalism. it is no longer possible to develop general explanatory theories of the type we have looked at in this chapter. Knowledge is simply a commodity. it is simply arrogance on their part to presume to tell people how societies ought to be improved. Marxists only find evidence of class inequality and some feminists only find evidence of patriarchal domination. a faith in the truth of the word of God was replaced by a new faith in the power of the human mind. 128 . that is. Postmodernist sociologists have developed Lyotard’s ideas into a critique of sociology’s meta-narrative of producing expert knowledge of societies in order to improve them. Marxism and some feminisms. tradition and irrational beliefs and progressively laying the foundations for a more rational and improved world. Therefore. no form of knowledge – not even ‘expert knowledge’ – has privileged status.

Activity 4. For example. Four of the more important ones are outlined below. 129 . this does not mean that sociology has to descend into relativism. • The postmodern critique of the possibility of discovering ‘true’ and ‘universal’ knowledge of societies is hardly original. ask yourself if you know what they mean and.Chapter 4: Theories and developments Evaluation of postmodern theory Before reading on.22 Postmodernity • What do sociologists mean by postmodernity? • Why is postmodern social theory a challenge to sociology? • What are some of the differences between conventional sociology’s view of identity and postmodernists’ view of identity formation? • Would you describe your society as ‘modern’ or ‘postmodern’? Alternatively. People might have more choice in contemporary societies. where one theory. or research study. For example. do you feel there are some aspects of your society that are (or are becoming) postmodern? • Can you think of some criticisms of postmodern theory? As you might imagine. most sociologists are very critical of postmodern theory and have raised a number of valid points in response to its claims. or find others in your textbooks.23 Revision In the evaluation of postmodern theory above. Activity 4. Phenomenologists can explain the changes in the way people identify themselves. Weber was deeply critical of nomothetic approaches to sociology. • There is a contradiction in the postmodern position. • Many of the things that postmodernists see as characteristics of a new ‘postmodern condition’ – such as greater choice and the ability to construct and consume identities – tend to apply only (or at least mainly) to the better off groups in the most affluent societies. As we saw in Chapter 3. but it seems that some have more choice than others. but see if you can think of. As a revision activity. However. and nation states still remain strong and continue to play an important part in regulating people’s lives. yet they make a major generalisation themselves by claiming that the whole of Western society has been transformed from modernity to postmodernity! In fact postmodern theory could itself be described as another metanarrative! • Postmodernists are very selective in their use of evidence and tend to ignore the many aspects of modernity that remain relatively unchanged. Postmodernists are critical of the generalisations made in sociological theory. the economic organisations that produce goods and services are still characterised by rational planning and systematic organisation. this anti-empiricist view is shared by many sociologists. try the following activity to check your understanding. but argue that theories can still be found to be more or less valid. is as good as any other. people’s socioeconomic backgrounds still have a major and measurable influence on their life chances. I used some important technical conceptual terms that we have encountered before in this and earlier chapters. if not. go back and check them out. realists also recognise the impossibility of obtaining absolute knowledge of the social world.

gender divisions and gender identities are much less clear-cut. it is suggested that ‘organisations are still characterised by rational planning’. Many ‘postmodern ideas’ have been incorporated into ‘modernist’ sociological theories.e. images and style are no longer promotional accessories to economic products. They accept that many societies have been transformed into something different from modernity (i. in particular. although not postmodernists themselves. in contemporary societies at least. Chapter 9). What did he mean by this? What is empiricism (and anti-empiricism)? Can you explain the key features of realist epistemology? Sociology of postmodernity? In spite of the reservations that most sociologists have about aspects of postmodern theory. many agree that it has made a number of valuable contributions towards understanding contemporary societies. how the media images we consume can become more ‘real’ than the things they are supposed to represent. For example. They argue that in the postmodern world there are no such things as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ identities. Jameson (1991) argued that postmodernism is the expression of a new form of ‘late capitalism’ where the production of culture has been integrated into commodity production. Some sociologists. Rather there are many different feminine and masculine identities that people construct for themselves in different situations and at different times in their lives (see Section C. such as organisation. identities are becoming more fluid. especially its relativism. something postmodernists call hyper-reality. gender. • It has provided a new way of looking at culture and identity in contemporary societies and. postmodernist feminists reject this view as oversimplified (Ashenden 1997). They argue that. 130 . Two examples of this are Marxist and feminist theories of postmodernity. that have led many sociologists to reconsider their relevance to understanding contemporary societies. postmodernity) but they argue that this means transforming rather than abandoning existing sociological theories. social class. (See Section C chapters on Gender and ‘Race’ and ethnicity. Marxist theories of postmodernity explore links between economic factors and postmodernism. • It has raised important critical questions about some of sociology’s most established concepts. For example. have developed a sociology of postmodernity. You will find there is a ‘postmodern approach’ to the topics examined in the Section C chapters in this subject guide. but are the products themselves.) • It has also provided a new way of looking at the mass media and the effects of living in ‘mass mediated society’ and. fragile and precarious.21 Principles of sociology What is a meta-narrative? Can you remember who first used this term? And why might postmodern theory be described as a meta-narrative? In the second point of the evaluation above. ethnicity and power. Modern feminist theories of gender tend to be based on the assumption of clear differences between the experiences of men and women. However. in particular. Giddens (1991) and Hall (1992) use postmodernist ideas in their discussions of cultural identities. What does this mean? Weber referred to the modern world as being characterised by the progressive rationalisation of life. while rejecting the totality of postmodern theory.

Most sociologists reject this idea. What are meant by the terms. However. What is meant by a meta-narrative? This list is not exhaustive. identity and media and has had a significant effect on contemporary sociological theory.’ Discuss this statement.) 7. Activity 4. Explain the concept the social construction of reality. Weber or Durkheim? 8. How do feminists explain postmodernity? 22. Is there a difference between Durkheim’s idea of the collective consciousness and Berger and Luckmann’s social construction of reality? 6. and having done all the reading indicated. you should be able to answer the following questions. Weber and Durkheim’s views on the nature of society. 14. but should be used as a check to see whether you can explain in your own words what you have read. or ask your tutor (if you are studying in a college). the point is that you understand why these questions are important. What is meant by postmodernity? 20. Compare Marx. Why did some sociologists turn away from developing grand explanations of social change? 3. Compare a structural functionalist view of socialisation with an interactionist account. 18. What is meant by phenomenology? 15. What did Durkheim mean by the phrase: we should treat ‘social facts as things’? Why do the phenomenologists believe that this is impossible? 19. postmodern theory has opened up new questions on issues such as culture. What is meant by the terms bracketing and typification? 17. 12. ‘Sociologists are influenced by other sociologists’. Take one sociologist and explain how other social scientists or philosophers influenced their work. 10.24 By the end of Chapter 4. 11. What is meant by a meta-narrative? Give some examples of such explanations? 4. How do Marxists explain postmodernity? 21. Durkheim and Parsons explain social order? 9. What is the difference between a consensus and an ideology? 13. You are not expected to write long answers. If you cannot answer any of them return to your reading. 131 . These questions could usefully be used as tutorial or discussion questions. How did one of the following sociologists explain change in society: Marx.Chapter 4: Theories and developments Summary Postmodern theory argues that many modern societies are becoming transformed into postmodern societies and this requires a different form of sociological theory reflecting the fragmentation and diversity of the contemporary world. 5. How did Marx. What is meant by rational action? Compare any two theories of rational behaviour. ‘Conflict is normal. What is meant by the term ‘structuration’? 16. 1. What was the Enlightenment? 2. agency and structure? (Use the work of any two sociologists to illustrate your answer.

132 . you should be able to: • understand the historical development of sociology and its roots in the Enlightenment • be aware of the influence of the major sociologists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and their contribution to social theory and substantive sociology • be able to compare and contrast the approaches of the major theorists • understand how sociology has developed since the 1980s into a more fragmented disciplinary. and the essential reading and activities.21 Principles of sociology A reminder of your learning outcomes Having completed this chapter.

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