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Principles of sociology

R. Gosling (ed.) and S. Taylor with the

Department of Sociology, LSE

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.

The External System

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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
21 Principles of sociology

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

Section C.............................................................................................................. 185

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

Essential reading........................................................................................................ 251

Websites.................................................................................................................... 251
Further reading – detailed recommendations.............................................................. 252
Introduction............................................................................................................... 253
12.1 Defining ‘religion’............................................................................................... 257
12.2 Sociological research on religion......................................................................... 260
12.3 Religion and social integration............................................................................ 266
12.4 Religion and social conflict................................................................................. 268
12.5 Religion and economic culture............................................................................ 271
12.6 Secularisation..................................................................................................... 273
12.7 Religion, modernity and globalisation................................................................. 275
A reminder of your learning outcomes......................................................................... 278
Sample examination questions.................................................................................... 279
Chapter 13: Power in society............................................................................... 281
Aims of the chapter.................................................................................................... 281
Learning objectives..................................................................................................... 281
Reading advice........................................................................................................... 281
Essential reading........................................................................................................ 282
Further reading........................................................................................................... 282
Additional reading and other works cited.................................................................... 282
Structure of this chapter............................................................................................. 283
Introduction: power, modernity and sociology.............................................................. 283
13.1.1 Marxism and the analysis of power.................................................................. 286
13.1.2 Weber: power, stratification and domination..................................................... 290
13.1.3 The power of elites.......................................................................................... 293
13.2.1 The pluralist model of power............................................................................ 295
13.2.2 Power to and power over................................................................................. 298
13.3.1 Postmodernist perspectives on power............................................................... 299
Summary.................................................................................................................... 300
A reminder of your learning outcomes......................................................................... 301
Sample examination questions.................................................................................... 301
Chapter 14: The sociology of organisations........................................................ 303
Aims of the chapter.................................................................................................... 303
Learning objectives..................................................................................................... 303
Chapter structure....................................................................................................... 303
Essential reading........................................................................................................ 304
Further reading and works cited.................................................................................. 304
14.1 Introduction....................................................................................................... 305
14.2 Why do new types of organisation emerge?........................................................ 309
Conclusion................................................................................................................. 315
14.3 Power in organisations....................................................................................... 315
14.4 Organisational strategies and the environment.................................................... 321
Conclusion................................................................................................................. 329
A reminder of your learning outcomes......................................................................... 329
Sample examination questions.................................................................................... 329
Appendix 1: Approaching your examination....................................................... 331
Appendix 2: Sample examination paper............................................................. 335
Appendix 3: Full reading list............................................................................... 337
Essential reading........................................................................................................ 337
Further reading........................................................................................................... 338
2790021 Principles of sociology
Economics, Management, 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.

Section A: Social theory and research

Two of the essential textbooks are available to view online via the VLE:
Cuff, E., W.W. Sharrock and D.W. Francis Perspectives in sociology. (London:
Routledge, 2006) fifth edition [ISBN 9780415301114 (pbk)].
Lee, D. and H. Newby The problem of sociology. (London: Routledge, 2000)
[ISBN 9780415094535].

Chapter 2
Watch a video of Rosie Gosling interviewing Professor Eileen Barker, the
author of The making of a Moonie, one of the works cited in Chapter 2.

Chapter 4
Watch a video of Rosie Gosling and Dr Nigel Dodd discussing Durkheim
and Weber’s work.

Section B: Globalisation
Watch a video set of Rosie Gosling interviewing Simon Dickason, the
author of this section.

Test your understanding with self-quizzes for each chapter.

Note: Section B: Globalisation has been updated for 2010. The

Essential reading is now:
Waters, M. Globalization. (London: Routledge, 2001) second edition
[ISBN 9780415238540].

The full textbook is available to view online via the VLE.

Section C
Follow links to the BBC’s collection on second wave feminism.

Chapter 14
Note: This chapter – The sociology of organisations – has now been
completely rewritten. The essential textbook remains the same but the
approach is slightly different.
21 Principles of sociology



What this unit is about

Welcome to this unit – Principles of sociology. Some people worry about
sociology; some feel that it is ‘too theoretical’ or that it does not relate to
the ‘real world’, others suggest that there is too much reading and that
it requires great feats of memory. We hope to dispel these myths and
introduce you to a subject which is interesting and which will provide a
basis throughout your studies.
No formal prerequisites are required to study this unit, but you do need
to have an enquiring mind and be prepared to read and think. 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, as such, 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. 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
We have designed this unit to provide the necessary grounding in
sociological theory and methods of social research. Students will then be
required to apply this knowledge to substantive areas of sociology.
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, 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.
In all cases we hope you enjoy studying this subject.

What is sociology?
First we should start by attempting to define sociology. (Chapter 1
in Section A will go into much more detail as to the nature of this subject.)
The most basic view of sociology is that it is about understanding
relationships in human societies, but sociologists do not agree
about what societies are and how they should be studied and so no
one definition will suffice. However, 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. You will be introduced to different sociological theories and
to the ‘classical’ and more modern sociologists. You will be encouraged
to see the development of sociology as it developed from and reacted
to the Enlightenment. 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. We
have introduced globalisation as a compulsory topic to illustrate how
sociology can help in understanding and explaining this phenomenon.
In Section C you will be able to apply these theories and approaches to
particular areas in sociology which are of interest to you.

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, of course, 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
• to be challenged. 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. Do the best that you can
• to be co-operative and share ideas and materials. It is a good idea
to study with other students and friends, and to try to express your
ideas with them. (If this is not possible, try thinking aloud.) This is an
important skill for the world of work where you are often required to
work in teams.
Finally, LSE’s motto is rerum cognoscere causas which means ‘to know the
causes of things’. You should not be content with simplistic explanations
– you should always look beneath the explanations for a deeper
understanding of the social world.

The structure of the unit

Sections A and B are compulsory for everyone and make up 75 per cent
of the syllabus. Thereafter you are free to choose one option only from a
variety of topics.

Section A: Social theory and research: compulsory

This has been written by Dr Steve Taylor with Rosemary Gosling. It makes
up half the syllabus and concentrates on questions relating to the nature
of sociology; the methods which sociologists use; methodology and the
major sociological perspectives. The key aspects in relation to individuals
and society are examined through the concepts of role, socialisation and
identity. The chapters in Section A account for 50 per cent of the marks
and are examined by a compulsory question, which is subdivided into
questions requiring short answers and one longer question relating to a
particular sociologist or perspective.
You should spend at least half of your allocated study time on Section A.
This is not only because of its length and depth but because the subjects
covered are essential for the other sections of the syllabus.

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. 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. Globalisation is an important topic, 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. These disagreements have
their basis in the fundamental assumptions about what the motors of
social change are, and how do we ‘know’ if there has been such a change.


These are not difficult chapters, but you must read around the topic and,
of course, read the text allocated. You will be rewarded for your ability to
keep abreast of the debates which you will be introduced to in this unit.
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
• whether the nation state is becoming less or more important.
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.
This section has been written by Simon Dickason.

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. You may know already, because of
your own personal interests, which Section C topic you want to study, but if
you don’t, 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.
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. It is an opportunity to use the knowledge of sociology that
you will have gained from Section A, especially ontology and epistemology.
It is important that you understand that, for most of these chapters, 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.
You should be aware of how the sociologists mentioned in the chapters
have gathered their data and what theory has guided their research.
Knowledge of the key debates that have been discussed in Section A is
important, as in all cases you will be expected to use the key debates to
inform your reading of your chosen subject area. You will be expected to
demonstrate knowledge of the relevant sociological theories when writing
your examination answers.

This has been written by Dr Suki Ali of the Department of Sociology at
LSE. The reading is directed and draws on the work on epistemology and
ontology covered in Section A. 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.

‘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. The authors
address theoretical issues directly and give a fresh approach to the study
of this subject. The key texts give an in-depth approach to this subject and
will require a careful reading. You will be exposed to different definitions
of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ and the different approaches to the issues raised.
Dr Alexander’s major research is on ‘identity’ and this topic is examined in

21 Principles of sociology

this chapter.

Social inequality and social injustice

This has been written by Dr Angus Stewart. Although you must choose
only one topic to study, 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.

Religion and society

This chapter, which has been written by Dr David Palmer from the
Department of Sociology at LSE, puts a strong emphasis on research
methods, and considers religion in relation to social integration, social
conflict, economic culture, modernisation and globalisation. When taking
a sociological approach, it is important not to look at religion in isolation;
therefore, if you choose this chapter it would also be helpful, although
not required of you, to read some of the other topics for Section C, and
to think about how religion intersects with ethnicity, gender, power,
inequality and organisation.

Power in society
Dr Angus Stewart, who has taught political sociology at LSE for a number
of years, has written this chapter, and it is of particular relevance to
those of you who are studying for the politics and international relations
degree. There may be some overlap with the Politics foundation unit
(114 Democratic politics and the state) but the approach
will be different. 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.

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. The material is straightforward
but the examination questions will not ask you to describe a particular
theory without some criticism. You must locate your understanding of
organisations clearly within the sociological perspective and be aware of
the many different explanations involved. If you are studying unit 107
Introduction to business and management at the same time, you
should use relevant material on organisations from this chapter in that
unit and vice versa.

Reading advice and other resources

Reading for this unit is always split into two types; Essential and
Further reading. You will need to use your textbooks in a slightly
different way for Sections A and B than for section C.
You will find a full and detailed reading list for the whole unit at the end
of this subject guide on p.319. For full details of the editions and ISBNs
please check the reading list at the end of this subject guide. It is worth
noting that reading lists are updated annually and provided online even
when the subject guide is not fully revised that year.


Reading for Section A

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

21 Principles of sociology

This contains much more material than is required for this unit. However,
it approaches the subject historically and therefore it helps students
to locate the sociologists clearly within the society and time they were
writing. It is clearly written and you should have little problem in reading
it. However, as with all texts it should be read in relation to the topic
studied. Again we have indicated the relevant chapters in the textbook in
reading advice given in this subject guide.

Reading for Section B

There is one major text for this Section which you will need to buy or have
access to.
Waters, M. Globalization. (London: Routledge, 2001) second edition
[ISBN 9780415238540].

You will also need to refer to the relevant chapters in the compulsory
textbooks which you have bought for Section A.

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. 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. The authors have provided you with
some thinking points; 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. This will help your understanding
and provide you with the necessary critical skills required for these chapters.
You are given reading advice at the start of each chapter. 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.

Websites are increasingly sophisticated sources of information and there is
a great deal of material available. However, 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. The websites relating to the classical sociologists
are usually very good indeed. We have indicated some in the subject guide.
Some web page addresses may change during the life of this subject guide;
we have no control over this. If a page is no longer available please try an
Internet search to find its new location.

For some chapters we are able to recommend a video/DVD to you, which
may help you by giving you a chance to ‘see’ sociologists in action.

Online resources
An increasing number of resources, such as recordings of interviews
with academics and self-testing quizzes, are being made available to you
online via the University of London External System Virtual Learning
Environment (VLE). 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. 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 Portal. The Online Library can be accessed via the Student Portal

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 will need to read widely
and think deeply, discussing the issues raised with other students or
colleagues. You should practise answering the short questions in Section
A and gradually build up to answering the essays for Sections B and C.
You need to make sure that you have clearly understood Sections A and B
before moving on to Section C.
We have suggested a study schedule here to help you plan your time; this
is based on completing your unit in one year, starting in October. You will
need to adjust this for your own study year.

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. Please note that subject guides may be used for several
years. Because of this we strongly advise you to always check both the
current Regulations for relevant information about the examination, and
the current Examiners’ commentaries where you should be advised of
any forthcoming changes. You should also carefully check the rubric/
instructions on the paper you actually sit and follow those instructions.
We have provided you with a detailed examination advice section and a
full sample examination paper at the end of this subject guide (p.331).
There is also advice about how the marks are allocated to each style of
question in Section A.
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.
For Section A, we suggest that you might also like to look at the past years’
examination papers.
At the end of Sections B and C, sample examination questions have been
included for you to practise on.
You are required to know all the material that has been indicated in the
subject guide, but more importantly you should indicate that you can
understand this, especially the concepts involved and the perspectives
of the relevant sociologists. You can demonstrate understanding by
answering the question that you have been asked directly. You will
be rewarded if your essays are well structured and if you select and
use only material that is relevant to the question. You do not need to
mention everything that you have learnt and should answer the question
economically, using references and examples which indicate that you are
aware of the relative importance of each.
Remember: the examination tests your knowledge and
understanding of the subject, we do not need to know all you

21 Principles of sociology


Section A: Social theory and research

Section A: Social theory and research

In Section A, 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)

21 Principles of sociology


Chapter 1: What is sociology?

Chapter 1: What is sociology?

Written by Dr Steve Taylor.

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.

Learning objectives
By the end of this chapter, and having completed the essential reading and
activities, you should have a clearer idea of:
• how to study sociology, what is meant by active learning, 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, social change and the relationship between the individual
and society
• how our identities arise from social relationships
• what sociologists mean by socialisation and identity, and how Parsons
and Mead put forward different explanations of these processes.

Essential reading
For full edition details, please refer to the full reading lists in the Appendix
to this subject guide.
Choose one of:
Fulcher, J. and J. Scott Sociology. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)
Chapters 1 and 4.
or Giddens, A. Sociology. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008) Chapters 1 and 2.
or Macionis, J. and K. Plummer Sociology. A global introduction. (Harlow:
Prentice Hall, 2005 and 2008 editions) Chapters 1 and 7.

Further reading
It is worth dipping into any of the following classic introductions to help
give you a ‘feel’ of sociology and sociological thinking, but note that these
books can be a little more difficult to understand than the textbooks.
(A reminder: for full details of the editions and ISBNs please check the
reading list at the end of this subject guide. It is worth noting that reading
lists are updated annually and provided online even when the subject
guide is not fully revised that year.)

21 Principles of sociology

Bauman, Z. Thinking sociologically. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).

Berger, P. Invitation to sociology. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963).
Mills, C. Wright The sociological imagination. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970).

This website gives links to a range of other sociology resources.
This is a British sociology website, geared towards the British school
syllabuses but it has a lot of good introductory material and useful links to
specialist sociology websites.

Introducing Sociology (halo vine, 2004) [8].
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.

Works cited
Bowles, S. and H. Gintis Schooling in capitalist America. (London: Routledge,
1976) [ISBN 9780465097180 (pbk)].
Goffman, E. The presentation of the self in everyday life. (Harmondsworth:
Penguin, 1971) [ISBN 9780140213508 (pbk)].
Mead, G. Mind, self and society. (University of Chicago, 1934).
Parsons, T. The social system. (New York: Free Press, 1951).
Willis, P. Learning to labour. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1993) [ISBN

1.1 Introduction
We are living in a world of dramatic and unprecedented social change:
new technologies and cultural upheavals are transforming our lives. As
prosperity grows and cultural taboos break down, millions of people in
modern industrialised societies are confronted by more choices than ever
about how to live their lives. However, it seems that the drive for ever
greater prosperity and new-found freedoms and lifestyle choices come at
a price, as rates of crime, mental disorder, drug addiction and self harm
continue to rise.
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. Sociology is about trying to
understand the social world, but it is also about trying to understand
ourselves, and how societies make us who we are.
This chapter is designed to help you start thinking like a sociologist. It is
not about learning theories or facts and figures. It is about understanding
what it means to ‘think sociologically’. It is simple and, we hope, you
should find it quite easy to follow. 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.
To make the most of this chapter, take time out regularly to stop and
Chapter 1: What is sociology?

reflect on the points being made and attempt to answer the questions that
have been set in the Activities. Do not rush the chapter, but rather ask
yourself all the time, ‘What does this tell me about how a sociologist thinks
about the world?’
Let’s start with an example. Before reading any further attempt the Activity

Activity 1.1 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. If you cannot compare
yourself with a parent for some reason, then choose another relative or acquaintance
20–30 years older than you.

Look at your list. It doesn’t matter what you have written down. Obviously
there are all sorts of possibilities. 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. How would you explain them?
Are they just individual differences, or can you relate them to wider
changes in your society? For example, have educational opportunities,
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, by exploring how personal
lives may be influenced by wider social changes, you are already starting
to think like a sociologist.

1.2 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.
You also have to question things, compare different ideas and, sometimes,
you have to criticise what you read. 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. Lists of ‘learned’ points will not impress examiners.
Sociology is primarily about understanding ideas, and examiners will
be looking for evidence of this understanding.
More specifically, to do well in sociology, you must be able to:
• describe key sociological ideas, theories and studies
• discuss and compare sociological concepts, theories and studies
• apply sociological ideas, theories and studies to different aspects of
social life.
All these skills involve active learning and thinking.

Active learning
Some people may tell you that examinations are all about memory. This
is wrong. Obviously, you have to recall information in all subjects, but
the main emphasis in sociology is on testing your thinking abilities rather
than your memory. You have to apply your knowledge to the problem,
or question, that has been set. This involves actively thinking rather
than passively trying to absorb information as a sponge absorbs liquids.
The idea of actively thinking about a problem can be illustrated with an
21 Principles of sociology

example from everyday life.

Imagine you have returned to your house and found you have forgotten
your key and there is no one in. You have to ask yourself some questions
and work out the best solution. 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,
you are certainly drawing on your existing knowledge (for example, who
else has a key?) but you are doing much more than that, you are also
actively thinking about the problem and working out possible solutions.
Stop and think about this for a moment. How can this story help us to
tackle questions in sociology?
You certainly won’t be given a question asking you to, ‘Describe three ways
to get into your house.’ But you might be asked, for example, to ‘Identify
three ways sociologists can study the past’, or ‘Compare the costs and
benefits of using structured and unstructured interviews.’
Answering such questions well involves going through the same process
described above in relation to being locked out of your house. You have to
work out the possibilities, compare and contrast their relative merits and,
above all, focus on the problem you are confronted with.
This involves active processes throughout your period of study, such as
asking yourself questions, looking for links between different parts of the
subject, questioning the things you read about, noting down what you
do not understand and looking for the answers from your books or this
subject guide.
The first step on the road to understanding sociology is to ask ourselves
what the subject is about. Any subject is easier to understand once you
have some grasp of its field of inquiry and what it is trying to do.
Let’s begin by introducing some of the key ideas of sociology and the
questions it asks.

1.3 What is sociology?

Activity 1.2 What is sociology?
Before reading any further write down in one sentence what you think sociology is. Try
this even if you have never studied the subject before. It is a useful activity to try to think
about a topic first before reading something about it.
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’),
so the word literally means the study of companionship, or social
Sociologists are primarily interested in all that happens to people in terms
of their relationships with others. These may be:
• personal relationships with people we know well, such as family
members, friends and people we know at work or college
Chapter 1: What is sociology?

• impersonal relationships, such as those we have with people who serve

us in shops, take away our rubbish or drive the taxi we are in
• indirect relations with people we neither know nor see, but whose
actions influence our lives. For example, 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.
Sociologists are interested in the study of individuals’ personalities and
behaviour but they are also interested in how they relate to other people.
Therefore, the word relationship is very important in sociology. All
sociology is about relationships of one sort or another: for example,
relationships between different societies, between different parts of a
society and between individuals and societies.
The fact that sociology is about social relationships that can take many
different forms means that its scope is very wide. It can range from
things that affect large parts of the world over long periods of time,
such as industrialisation or globalisation, to the study of specific social
organisations, such as schools or families, right down to two people having
a brief conversation in an elevator.
Thus it is very difficult to give a precise definition of sociology because it
operates at different levels. However, 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, directly or indirectly.
From this starting point, sociologists want to know more about these social
contexts, how they are produced and how they shape people’s lives.

Social institutions
Social relationships are rarely random. Normally they are organised in
various ways. Sociologists refer to these patterns of behaviour as social
institutions. Types of family life, education and religious practice are
examples of social institutions, where behaviour tends to be regular or
patterned. What we loosely refer to as a ‘society’ is actually a complex
of many social institutions. In contemporary industrial societies we find,
for example, political, family, economic, educational, legal and religious
institutions. Although these institutions seem to be separate and distinct
they are also related to each other in various ways.
To give a simple example: productive institutions are dependent on
educational institutions for a skilled workforce, educational institutions
are dependent on the government for their funding, and government
institutions, in turn, rely on productive institutions to create the wealth
to finance government spending. Sociologists call this institutional


Workforce Taxes

Education Funding Government

Figure 1.1: Institutional interdependence

As a result of this institutional interdependence, many sociologists adopt
a structural, or macro, perspective that means looking at societies as

21 Principles of sociology

systems, and trying to work out how different institutions ‘function’ to

produce particular outcomes.
Sociologists in the UK and the USA studying the relationships between
the institutions of family and school have found that, on average, children
from lower-class or working-class backgrounds have more problems at
school and leave with fewer qualifications.
Think about this for a moment. Can you think of some reasons for this?
Two US sociologists, Bowles and Gintis (1976), adopted a structural
approach to explore this problem. They argued that schools prepared large
numbers of young people, usually from the more deprived backgrounds,
for low-paid, subordinate jobs.
However, as we shall see, this ‘structural approach’ tells only part of
the story. Sociologists are not only interested in exploring relationships
between social institutions, they are also interested in the relationship
between individuals and institutions. Exploring this question usually
involves adopting a micro, or small-scale, approach and looking at small
segments of institutions in much greater detail.
For example, in a famous sociological study called Learning to Labour,
Paul Willis (1977; reprinted 1993) made a detailed study of 12 British
working-class boys. He found that rather than simply being failed by
the school and the society, as Bowles and Gintis suggested, the boys he
studied deliberately failed themselves, by refusing to work at school. They
had already decided that education was irrelevant to their futures, which
they saw as being in manual labour. The only point in going to school
was to ‘have a laugh’ and make fun of those who did work. 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. This illustrates how sociological
research can help in the formation and analysis of government policy.

Sociology as a science?
Another question that is often asked about sociology is whether or not
it is a science. We shall be looking at this issue in much more detail in
Chapter 3, but it is important to note that there is an important difference
between sociology and natural sciences, such as physics or chemistry. The
subject of sociological research – social institutions – is cultural rather than
natural. This means that social institutions are produced by the conscious
activities of human beings, in contrast to things like gravity, the weather
and chemical processes within the body, which are natural processes. The
result of this is that sociologists are also interested in the subjective aspects
of life; that is how people interpret and make sense of the situations in
which they find themselves.
Sociology, then, is not just about just about the wider ‘outside’ picture of
patterns of social organisation and behaviour. It also explores the ‘inside
story’ of people’s lives, how they make sense of social situations, their values,
beliefs, prejudices and, if the research calls for it, even their darkest secrets.

Sociology may be generally defined as the study of the social relationships.
Sociologists explore different forms of social institutions, the relationships
between them and how individuals experience them.

Now read

Chapter 1: What is sociology?

This is a good place to start reading to develop your understanding of some of the issues
raised here, using any one of the textbooks we have recommended by Fulcher and Scott
(2007), Giddens (2008) or Macionis and Plummer (2005 or 2008). If you want to read a
little more deeply, look at Chapter 1 of Mills (1970), but note that this is more complex.
Berger’s Invitation to sociology takes a different approach and is very entertaining.

1.4 Sociology and commonsense

In the next three sections your main reading will be this subject
guide rather than your textbooks, although I shall suggest some
further reading throughout. 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.
Are we all sociologists?
It’s interesting how many people think that sociology is just commonsense.
It’s a perfectly fair assumption. After all, we cannot understand the
workings of things like atoms, molecules or cells simply from our everyday
experiences. They are not directly accessible to us. We can only know
about them from expert knowledge. Therefore, it is easy to justify the need
for specialist subjects like physics, chemistry and biology.
But we can’t say the same about the social world. Much of it is directly
accessible to us and we begin learning about it from the moment we are
born. In a way, we are all sociologists of a kind because, by the time we
are grown up, most of us have developed a number of social skills and an
extensive knowledge of the social world around us. We don’t just learn
about social life from our own experiences, we are also bombarded with
information about our own and other societies from newspapers, radio
and television and the Internet. People also have theories and opinions
about their society, what’s wrong with it, what’s causing these problems
and what could, and should, be done to make things better. We call this
‘lay’, or commonsense, knowledge of society.
So, is the sociologist’s understanding of societies any different from
everyday, 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, because answering it is a good way to
find out more about what sociologists do and how they think about the
But first, look back to the answer you gave to this question in Activity
1.2 on p.14 concerning how you think sociology is different from
So, 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, and I shall use the example of crime
to illustrate them. Sociology is different from commonsense because it
• asking distinct sociological questions
• doing research, and
• applying or testing sociological theories.

21 Principles of sociology

Asking sociological questions: making the familiar strange

Most people feel they have some understanding of crime and, certainly in
countries like the United States and the UK that have high reported crime
rates, people spend quite a lot of time talking about it. The conversations
you hear are usually about how bad crime is, why it happens and, above
all, what can be done to stop or at least reduce it.
Sociologists are also interested in these questions and a number of
sociologists work in crime prevention. However, thinking as a sociologist
also raises other questions. 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. This means trying to see the taken-for-
granted world around you afresh, by looking at it with the eyes of a
stranger, or a tourist in a foreign land.

Activity 1.3 Making the familiar strange

Try this yourself. If you have travelled to another country for work or a holiday, think
back to the first day or two when it was new to you. Recall how much you took in;
for example, how different the houses were, the streets, the people, or some of the
customs, or whatever. Making the familiar strange means learning to look at your familiar
environment in the same way. Select a setting that is very familiar to you, such as your
place of work, college or home, and spend a little time pretending you are a visitor from
another country and have never been here before. Write down what you notice. What
questions spring to mind? What do you find odd, amusing, interesting about this ‘new’
culture? What do you like or dislike about it? Finally, returning to your ‘real life’, is there
anything you might now question or do differently as a result of ‘your visit’? But be
careful here, some people may not understand that you are ‘doing’ sociology. They may
feel that you are playing tricks on them and may take exception to your behaviour.

From this perspective, sociologists question some of the things that most
people just take for granted about crime.
For example, why are some actions defined as ‘crimes’ in the first place,
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, in the
UK 40 years ago, it was quite legal for a man to rape his wife but illegal to
be a practising homosexual. Now it is illegal for a man to rape his wife, but
in many countries, including the UK, the laws relating to the prohibiting
of homosexual relationships have been changed and it is not illegal to
be homosexual. What this shows is that what is defined as a crime is
socially defined. Sociologists are interested in how these definitions are
constructed in everyday life. For example, 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, by the legal
system, is what the law states is a crime. However laws are changed by
people and laws change over time.
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. From this point of view sociologists
are not just interested in how crime disrupts social order, they are also
interested in how crime contributes to social order. The famous French
sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1858–1917), observed that it is only by
identifying certain acts as crimes, and labelling certain people as criminals
and punishing them, that people are made aware of the boundaries
between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Thus, paradoxically,
Chapter 1: What is sociology?

crime actually plays a part in maintaining social order. You will be reading
more about this in Chapter 3, section 3.2.
So, 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.

Further reading
See Berger (1963) Chapter 2.

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, magazines and television.
Sociologists are also interested in how the media report crime. However,
sociologists studying crime would use many other sources of information.
How do you think sociologists might study crime?
• examine the official crime rates to see how crime is related to aspects
of society, such as geographical region or people’s age or social
• 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, sociologists studying crime have access to much wider sources
of information than most people who, unless they have been a victim of
crime or are criminals themselves, are dependent on what the media tell
However, it is not just that sociologists have access to more sources of
information, they also collect and organise this information in very specific
and systematic ways. The process of doing sociological research, like the
process speaking a foreign language or playing chess, involves applying
particular skills. In sociology these are called research methods and we
shall be looking at these in the next chapter.
So, 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.

Applying sociological theories

In everyday life we all draw on our commonsense understanding to
theorise about things that puzzle us. For example, I am standing at the
bus stop but my bus hasn’t arrived. 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. Maybe it’s because of the traffic.
Maybe the bus has broken down. Maybe it came early. My theorising may
then influence what I do next, such as carry on waiting or get a taxi.
21 Principles of sociology

Sociologists also draw on their commonsense understanding when

theorising about human behaviour. However, what makes sociological
theorising different from commonsense theorising is that sociologists have
another source of knowledge to draw upon. As the subject has evolved,
sociologists have developed very general frameworks of ideas called
sociological theories that help explain how societies work and change.
The fact that sociologists have access to this specialised knowledge means
that they can provide explanations of human behaviour that are different
from commonsense.
For example, a key concept in sociology is anomie. A person can be
said to be anomic, or deregulated, when they have aspirations, or goals,
without any obvious means of obtaining them. A US sociologist, Robert
Merton (1910–2003), used the concept of anomie to develop a sociological
theory of rising crime in US society. He argued that although the culture
of US society encourages everyone to pursue the ‘American dream’ of
achieving wealth, status and power, most people from disadvantaged
backgrounds, who do not have access to good educational institutions
or useful social contacts, have no legitimate means of achieving these
aspirations. Therefore, they are in a state of anomie and more likely to try
to obtain their goals by illegitimate means through crime.
So, although commonsense theories tend to explain crime in terms of the
characteristics of individuals – they are bad, have had a bad upbringing
and so on – Merton’s explanation locates the causes of crime in terms of
the organisation of wider society. Although criminals are clearly deviating
from society’s norms by committing crimes, they are also conforming to
US society’s norms by wanting greater material rewards.
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, crime will continue to rise. 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. You will be reading more about Merton
in the section on structural functionalism in Chapter 4.

Most people have some commonsense understanding of societies simply
by living in them. However, sociological understanding is different from
commonsense in at least three important respects: sociologists tend to ask
different questions, do systematic research and apply sociological theories.

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. In this section we shall look at this sociological thinking
in a little more detail.

Sociological problems
When most people think about society, or when we hear about social
issues in the press or on TV, it is usually about things that people feel
are going ‘wrong’ with society, increasing crime, growing ‘disrespectful
behaviour’ of young people, conflicts between different groups in 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. This is partly right. Sociologists are interested in social problems
and some work for organisations that address some of these problems.
However, sociology is about much more than this and its focus is much
wider. Although sociologists are interested in things that people feel are
‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ in societies, they are just as interested in things that are
seen to be ‘good’, ‘right’, ‘acceptable’, ‘normal’, ‘ordinary’ and so on.
For example, sociologists are interested in why people break the ‘rules’ of
a society – such as committing crimes or behaving in odd, anti-social ways
– but they are more interested in the rules themselves and how they work.
As Berger puts it in Invitation to sociology:

The fundamental sociological problem is not crime but law, not

divorce but marriage, not racial discrimination but racially de-
fined segregation, not revolution but government. (p.50)

Activity 1.4 Social and sociological problems

Which of the following do you think are better described as ‘social problems’, and
which do you think are better described as ‘sociological problems’?
•• Rising divorce rates in your society.
•• The role of educational institutions in modern societies.
•• How societies change.
•• The organisation of economic production in your society.
•• Unemployment.
•• Illegal drug use.

Sociological problems, then, are about how societies, or parts of societies,

work in the way they do. Thinking sociologically means being curious about
the order of everyday social life, how this order changes and its relationship
to the behaviour of individuals. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

The puzzle of social order

Next time you find yourself in a crowded place, such as a busy street, a
shopping mall or crowded subway, just take a few minutes to stop and
look. Imagine you are seeing it all for the first time. You’ll see evidence of
the social order that is all around you.
Pause and write down some examples of social order.
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.
Most people take this order for granted and the only time they notice
it is when someone breaks a rule, by driving through a red light or
going straight to the front of a queue rather than the back. However, for
sociologists, these rules are the starting point. We begin by asking why
the world is this way. 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 Principles of sociology

If we were to dig a little deeper and do some research, we would find

more evidence of the regularities of social life.
For example:
• economic data show that the patterns of employment, output, imports
and exports of a country are very similar from one year to the next
• demographic data – that is, information about the distribution of
populations – show that in any given country roughly the same number
of people are born each year, get married and get divorced
• rule breaking – reported crimes, arrests, 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, those from
economically poorer social backgrounds – sometimes referred to in
sociology as socially deprived or lower social class – are more likely, on
average, to end up with lower educational qualifications, work in low-
paid jobs, have worse health and die at younger ages.
Sociology is about documenting and explaining these kinds of regularities
and patterns. So, whereas journalists, the mass media and to some extent
the general public, are more interested in the unusual and troublesome,
sociologists are more interested the usual, the everyday, the ‘taken-for-

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. 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, such as the Church
and landed aristocracy, were losing much of their influence. The late
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were times of reform and revolution
and new sources of power, such as the property-owning capitalist class
and organised labour movements were beginning to emerge. 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, and the subject we now know as sociology was born.
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. We shall be looking at these
theories in more detail in Chapter 4, but we can introduce two of the most
influential figures here.
For Karl Marx (1818–1883), whose ideas were later to transform the
world, the modern age was characterised, above all, by a new form of
free market economy that he called industrial capitalism. Marx was
very critical of capitalism. 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. However, capitalist societies
were constantly changing, and Marx was optimistic that they were
sowing the seeds of their own destruction. The injustices they produced,
and people’s increasing awareness of them, 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. See the section on Karl Marx in Chapter 4 for further reading.

Chapter 1: What is sociology?

Max Weber (1864–1920), another key founder of sociology, took a

different and altogether more pessimistic view. He argued that the
modern age was characterised by a process of increasing rationalisation.
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). Other examples of the rationalisation of life included
the replacement of religion by science as the major source of intellectual
authority, the displacement of elites based on birth by ones based on
qualifications, and the increasing bureaucratic administration of life.
Weber was concerned that the remorseless spread of rational bureaucracy
was stifling individual initiative, creativity and imagination. He called this
the ‘iron cage’ of rationality. Weber believed that Marx could be right about
capitalism being replaced by communism. However, unlike Marx, Weber did
not think this would be any liberation. In fact he thought it would almost
certainly lead to an even more bureaucratic state having more control over
people’s lives. For Weber there was no way out of the ‘iron cage’.

Activity 1.5 Marx and Weber today: alienation and creativity

You will be reading much more about Marx and Weber later in your studies. It may
seem strange to be asked to read about theorists who were writing about societies in
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Therefore, it may be worth stopping for
a moment and thinking about one of their key ideas and seeing if it has any relevance
The term alienation means being separated, or estranged from our true selves. For
example, if you really want to be a musician but feel you have to study banking to get a
good job, you might be said to be alienated from your true vocation.
Marx argued that people are naturally creative. However, because the profit motive
predominates above all else in capitalist societies, few people have the opportunity to
realise their creativity. Thus, most people learn to evaluate their lives not so much in terms
of what they do, but in terms of what they own and what they consume. For Marx, they
are alienated from their natural selves. This is ‘caused’ by the way production is organised.
For Weber, modern life is characterised by increasing bureaucratic control and regulation
of people’s lives. The bureaucratic efficiency of the organisation can take away the
creativity of the people working in those organisations. They simply have to ‘follow the
rules’ and lose the ability to think for themselves. This is the effect of rationalisation,
which is also a form of alienation.
Do you think either, or both, 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, section 4.2.

Most sociologists today are not as ambitious as Marx or Weber. They tend
to focus on particular aspects of societies rather than trying to construct
such large-scale and general theories of social change. However, the
principle that studying societies (or parts of them) involves seeing them
as changing social processes is still an essential element of thinking
For example, I am a medical sociologist and that means I study health and
illness. Now if we just look at our contemporary world, the terms ‘health’
and ‘illness’ seem clear enough. However, looking back shows just how

21 Principles of sociology

much our ideas of what constitutes ‘health and ‘illness’ have changed over
time. In modern societies many things that were simply seen as part of life
a century ago – such as pregnancy, long-term unhappiness and disruptive
behaviour by children in school – are now seen as medical conditions
requiring treatments. Sociologists use the term medicalisation to
describe the process whereby more and more aspects of life are being
labelled as illnesses. This raises many questions for the sociologist, such
as: why this is happening, 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, then, involves moving to and fro between past,
present and developing ideas that help explain societies, or parts of
them, as continually changing social processes. Above all, sociologists
are interested in how this changing social order shapes our lives as
individuals. You will be looking at this topic in more detail in Section B on

Whereas social problems are about things people feel are ‘wrong’
with societies, sociological problems take a much wider focus and ask
how societies work and change in the ways they do. Sociologists are
particularly interested in documenting and explaining social order and the
processes by which this order changes over time.

Further reading
Berger (1963) Chapter 8.

1.6 The individual and society

Commonsense thinking holds that societies are all about individuals.
Many social scientists and scientists would agree with this, arguing that as
societies are clearly created by individuals, it is the study of the individual
– through biology, medicine and psychology, for example – that provides
the key to understanding human behaviour.
In questioning this view sociologists are not, as some claim, rejecting the
study of the ‘individual’ in favour of the ‘group’. Sociologists are interested
in studying individuals, and a lot of sociological research involves talking
to and observing individuals. Rather, thinking sociologically involves
seeing the relationship between the individual and society as a two-way,
rather than a one-way, street. As individuals we obviously create societies
but sociologists argue that, in important respects, societies also create us.
How does this happen?
We shall start exploring this process here by asking you to look at your
relationship to society. Maybe there is more of society ‘in you’ than you

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. Start by completing
Activity 1.6 below. We will come back to this activity again so it is
important you take a little time to fill it in now.

Chapter 1: What is sociology?

Activity 1.6 Self and society

Imagine you have 10 words to describe the person you are to someone who has
never met you. Write down the 10 words you would use. I am:

Check over your list and spend a few moments asking yourself why you have chosen
these words. If you can, add a few additional comments to your original list. 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, Julie. Don’t
worry if you put in things that are very different from her. There is no
‘right answer’ to the question: describe yourself. People have different
ways of doing it.

Julie’s list
I am:
1. British
2. Afro-Caribbean
3. female
4. hairdresser
5. student
6. wife
7. mother
8. intelligent
9. attractive
10. popular.

Let’s look at Julie’s answers in a little more detail.

Social identity
Julie’s first three answers are British, Afro-Caribbean and female,
characteristics she shares with millions of other people. These are familiar,
everyday words but, if you think about it, each of them has a social
component; that is, they refer to relationships with others. Sociologists
usually refer to these things as part of our social identity; that is a label
that places people in particular social categories.

21 Principles of sociology

Let’s take nationality first. You too may have put down your nationality. This
is because, for many people, their nationality is still an important statement
of their social identity. To say I am Malaysian, Indian, Singaporean or British
is to say much more than I live in a particular region of the world. Most
nation states, or countries, not only have their own language, government
and laws, they also have their own traditions, customs and generally
accepted ways of behaving. Sociologists refer to these as norms. Many
of these norms vary over time within a particular country and also vary
between countries. For example, smoking in public places or consuming
alcohol are legal in some countries but illegal in others. These cultural
norms have an important influence on us. They affect how we behave, how
we view the behaviour of others and how we ‘see’ the world.
However, although nationality is a very clear and unambiguous source
of identity for some people, it’s not the same for others. Many countries
are increasingly comprised of different ethnic groups. By an ethnic group,
sociologists mean a social group that has certain common characteristics,
such as a shared culture, history, language, customs and institutions. For
many people their ethnicity may be an equally, or more, important source
of identity than their national identity. Describing herself as British and
Afro-Caribbean suggests that, for Julie, both her nationality and ethnicity
are important sources of identity, as they are for many people. However,
whether a person identifies primarily with a nation or with an ethnic
group, or with a combination of the two, the same sociological ideas
apply. Nationality and ethnicity confer identities on people that influence
their relationships, values and behaviour. (See Chapter 10 on ‘Race’ and
ethnicity for a further discussion on this point.)
Like Julie, you probably put down your gender as one of the most
important ways of describing yourself. Although gender may appear to be
purely biological, as we are simply born either male or female, sociologists
have shown that gender has important social dimensions. 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. For example, in most cultures, boys are expected to be
‘tough’ and ‘masculine’, and boisterous and aggressive behaviour is usually
tolerated more in boys than in girls, whereas girls are usually expected to
be more mature, show a better standard of behaviour and help around the
house more. Thus, for sociologists, gender is not just a biological category.
It is also social. We don’t just become men or women. In important
respects we learn to be men or women through social interaction.

Activity 1.7 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, or female
rather than male.
Which of these differences do you think are primarily due to biological causes (for
example, men are physically stronger, 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, availability of employment opportunities, access to public places).

Social roles
Like Julie, you may also have put down some of the things you do. In
answers 4–7 she has told us about her occupation, that she is a student
and that she is a wife and a mother. These are also common everyday
words, but they have also have specific social expectations attached to

Chapter 1: What is sociology?

them. Sociologists sometimes refer to these as social roles, because it is as

if societies are giving people scripts they are expected to follow rather like
actors in a play.
Let’s take the ‘script’ of being a student. What do you think that involves?
Colleges obviously expect their students to do academic work. But, when
you think about it, they usually expect rather more than this. They expect
students to conduct themselves in certain ways, attend classes, listen to
their lecturers, work without the close supervision they had at school
and hand in work that is properly presented and referenced. Colleges,
then, are doing more than teaching students academic subjects. They are
also presenting them with an identity: ‘this is the sort of person you are
expected to be while you are here’.
Similarly, if like Julie, you are a mother, you are given a ‘mothering script’;
you are expected to love your child and (in most cases) take the main
responsibility for its upbringing and its day-to-day welfare. Of course, like
actors, people can interpret their scripts in different ways. One mother
may choose to stay at home, another may work part-time, while a third
works full-time and arranges childcare. You could even tear up your ‘social
script’ and do something entirely different. You may behave like a child
at college, shout at the teachers and do no work, or you may neglect your
children as a mother. However, social consequences will normally follow,
such as being thrown out of college or having your children taken away
from you. 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.

Activity 1.8 Roles

Have you put any of these social roles on your list? If so, make a few brief notes about
some of the expectations you think are placed on them.

Personal identity
Like Julie (answers 8–10), you may also have put some personal
characteristics on your list, things that say something about you as a
specific individual, rather than as a social role you share with millions of
others. Sociologists refer to these characteristics as aspects of our personal
identity. For example, you may have said that you are hardworking or lazy,
outgoing or shy, easy-going or stressed. At first sight these characteristics
appear to be purely ‘personal’ rather than social but, when you think about
it, they also have social aspects to them.
Julie has said she thinks she’s intelligent. But how does a person know
whether or not they are intelligent? If you are a student, for example,
there are certain social criteria by which you can judge this. For example,
if your teachers praise your contributions in class, 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. This may then be confirmed by getting good marks in the
Similarly, a person may see themselves as attractive, or beautiful, because
their face and body shape fit the cultural norms of attractiveness as
defined in magazines, cinema and on television. Other people then
confirm and reinforce this identity by looking at the person with approval
or admiration, asking them for dates and telling them how lovely they are.

21 Principles of sociology

In short, even the ideas we have about ourselves as individual people

– such as whether we think we are intelligent or stupid, attractive or
unattractive, fat or thin, outgoing or shy – arise from social relationships
and socially accepted norms and standards. When we think about what we
are, we compare ourselves with these social norms. How do we match up?
We also monitor other people’s reactions to us in daily life. How do others
see us? This in turn may influence our behaviour in all sorts of ways. For
example, we may try to make ourselves more clever, more assertive, or
more sociable and outgoing. Or we may go the other way and accept that
we can never be any of these things and adjust our behaviour accordingly,
perhaps by not working in class, or not trying to make friends.

Activity 1.9 Personal identity

Look at your list. Did you put in any of these more personal characteristics?
•• If so, ask yourself why you think you have developed this view of yourself.
•• 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.

Here we have asked you to describe yourself as a person and illustrated
just how much of ‘yourself’, your ethnicity, gender, occupation and
personal qualities are influenced by the society in which you live. For
sociologists, individuals and societies are inseparable. You cannot
understand one without the other.

Further reading
Berger (1963) Chapter 5.

1.7 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. In this section we
shall introduce some sociological concepts, and theories that help describe
and explain this process further.

We observed in the last section that a key sociological problem is the
relation between the individual and society. But how does this arise?
In very general terms, we are all born into societies where there are
already established patterns of organised behaviour that we referred to
earlier as social institutions, such as speaking a particular language
or organising ourselves into small groups called families. 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. These social practices, and the values and beliefs surrounding
them, make up the culture of a society, or sub-culture of a social group
and, as we saw in the previous section, these cultural practices and values
place expectations on how people should behave.

Chapter 1: What is sociology?

Sociologists use the term socialisation to describe the various processes

through which people learn about, and generally conform to, the norms
and values of the social groups in which they live. Socialisation processes
can be divided into three stages.
• Primary socialisation involves the socialisation of the young child by
the family.
• Secondary socialisation is socialisation by the school. Schools obviously
teach us academic skills but, as sociologists have shown, they are
teaching us a lot more. It is from school that we learn, for example,
punctuality, co-operation, team games, discipline and that good work
will be rewarded, bad work penalised. This is sometimes known as
the ‘hidden curriculum’. So, in number of ways, schools are trying to
socialise us for adulthood. However, socialisation doesn’t end when we
leave school.
• Tertiary, or adult, socialisation continues through our lives. For
example, as we saw in the previous section, people are socialised into
ethnic, gender and work identities. Another example is socialisation
into old age. People do not just get old. They also learn what is
expected of them when they are becoming old. In some societies
growing old gracefully means retreating into the background. Medical
sociologists have even shown that terminally ill people are socialised by
medical and nursing staff into dying in the ‘right way’. So socialisation
is a continuous process: it begins when we are born and only ends
when we die.

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. We explored some examples of
this in the previous section when you were asked how you would describe
As we saw, sociologists usually distinguish between social identity and
personal identity.
• Social identity refers to the ‘public self’, and is constructed around
characteristics that are attributed to a person by others and mark them
out as a member of a particular group, such as ethnicity, gender and
occupational roles.
• Personal identity refers to those qualities that mark a person out as
unique and set apart from others.
The distinction between social and personal identities is one of the ways
that sociologists have documented social change. In premodern or
traditional societies, there was relatively little movement, or mobility,
of people between different parts of society. Therefore, people’s social
identities, such as nobleman, or peasant, largely defined who they were
throughout their lives. Although social identities are still important sources
of identity in modern societies, 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.
So identities – especially personal identities – are not fixed but are rather
fluid and changing. In sociological terms, they are negotiated in everyday
life through social interaction. 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.

21 Principles of sociology

The role of others

Go back to the previous section and look at the list compiled by Julie.
Under personal identity she felt she was ‘popular’. However, to sustain
‘being popular’ as part of her identity requires people reacting to her
in certain ways, such as wanting and enjoying her company. If these
responses were to stop and people started avoiding her, then her idea of
herself as ‘popular’ would be threatened and may even break down.
Sociologists who research the area of identity are particularly interested in
exploring situations where people are suddenly and dramatically redefined
by others, such as when they are labelled as a criminal, bankrupt,
unemployed, mentally ill or disabled. People in these situations are
confronted with what the US sociologist, Erving Goffman (1922–1982),
has called ‘managing a spoiled identity’. (For more on the process of
identity formation and labelling, see Chapter 4, section 4.3.)

Activity 1.10 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. Think about why and
how it happened and try to recall if it affected your view of yourself.

The role of the individual

Although the reactions of others are clearly important, we are not simply
dealt our identities as if they were cards in a game. Socialisation also gives
us skills to exert some control over who we are and how others see us. For
example, we can influence the way others see us by buying new clothes,
becoming more sociable or driving ourselves on to success in our careers.
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, it is now
much easier for people to change where they live, how they live, who they
live with, how they look and what they believe in.

Activity 1.11 A new you?

Have you tried to change yourself in some way recently, such as changing your
appearance, behaviour or lifestyle? Did it work? If so, 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, and some would say cynical, twist
to the question of changing social identities. 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. Identities are
things we consciously manipulate, or present, in given situations. So, for
Goffman, we are rather like actors ‘playing’ the roles on stage, such as
the enthusiastic teacher, the caring nurse or lazy student, and we self-
consciously monitor our ‘performances’. However, not all social life is like
this. Goffman recognised that, like actors, people have time off stage,
or backstage, when they are less obviously presenting an identity. So
although people may still be playing roles backstage at home, for example
– husband, wife, daughter, etc. – they are doing so less self-consciously,
there is less deliberate ‘presentation of self’ and more congruence between
how we are seen and how we really are.

Chapter 1: What is sociology?

Activity 1.12 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, or to your professors if you are at college? Are you
conscious sometimes of thinking to yourself ‘Here is the identity I am presenting, 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, 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. 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, Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) and G.H. Mead (1863–1931).

Parsons (1951) saw societies as complex systems of parts working together
to promote social stability. Social institutions define roles for people and
socialisation is about learning these roles and the expectations surrounding
For Parsons, these social roles have a purpose. They arise and persist over
time because they help societies to function smoothly.
Consider illness, for example. Illness is dysfunctional because when people
are sick they do not go to work, look after their children, hand in their
essays and so on. In one of the most innovative and creative applications of
the idea of role, Parsons argued that in modern societies there is a distinct
‘sick role’ consisting of privileges and obligations. The privileges are that the
sick person is not held responsible for their condition and they are allowed
exemption from their usual obligations, such as going to work, going to
college and handing in essays. However, there are also obligations to the
sick role. The sick person must want to get better, follow medical advice
and accept treatment when necessary.
The sick role functions as a form of social control; that is, it helps to
maintain social order. It enables organisations to distinguish between those
who have a legitimate reason for not fulfilling their obligations and those
who do not. It also ensures that people do the ‘right things’ when they are
ill to enable them to recover as soon as possible. A person not fulfilling the
obligations of the sick role may lose the privileges.
Parsons’ insight here was to show that even sickness, which appears to be
purely biological, is also a social state surrounded by expectations about
how people should behave when they are ill. We don’t just become ill, we
are also socialised into sickness. So ‘society’ is influencing us even when
we’re sick.
But why do most people conform to these social obligations most of the
time? Parsons, following the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim,
argued that this happens because societies constrain us to act in certain
ways. This constraint is both external and internal.
With external constraint, people simply learn that acting one way (for
example, working hard at college and getting a good degree) will probably
bring rewards (for example, a good job); whereas acting another way (for

21 Principles of sociology

example, not working hard) will more likely bring failure (for example, no
degree and not being able to get a good job).
However, for societies to function effectively, there needs to be more than
external constraint. People have to want to behave in socially acceptable
ways. This happens, Parsons argued, because social norms become
internalised through socialisation. They become part of a person’s identity
and source of morality. 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, but because they believe that is the right
thing to do. Internalisation of values can even override survival instincts
when, for example, people willingly die for their country or their religion.

Although Parsons’ theory has been very influential in sociology, 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. For some insight into this question, we can turn to the work of Mead
For Mead, socialisation was not just a process of learning and internalising
the institutional expectations transmitted by families, schools, the mass
media and so on. It was rather about learning skills that then enable
people actively to interpret the expectations of other people and social
institutions and act accordingly. In simple terms, while Parsons’ theory
was more about ends (the desirability of socialisation), Mead’s was more
about means (how it happens).
Mead’s focus was on the social significance of (verbal and non-verbal)
language in both socialisation and identity formation. The crucial insight
provided by Mead was to show that we do not just use language to make
sense of the world around us, we also use it reflexively to monitor our
own behaviour. We begin to develop these skills in early childhood when
we start pretending to be other people, and over time we learn to see
ourselves as we believe others see us. We can then consciously monitor
our behaviour in social interaction.
In a very important phrase, Mead called this taking the role of the

Activity 1.13 Taking the role of the other – Daniel’s day

Taking the role of the other might sound complicated, but it is really quite a simple idea
and one which we can easily relate to our own experiences. Here we look at it though
a day in the life of Daniel, a young college lecturer.
Morning: Daniel is giving a lecture. He looks round the classroom, it is mid-morning but he
sees several of the students yawning, some actually seem to be asleep, others are looking
out of the window. The only students who seem awake are the ones texting on their
mobile phones. Daniel realises the lecture is not going well, so he decides to finish it early.
Anyway, he has an important interview for a new job this afternoon and he wants to think
about that.
Afternoon: Daniel is in his interview and a well-known professor has just asked him a
question. As he is answering, Daniel notices the professor is starting to frown. Daniel
quickly changes his answer.
Evening: Daniel is in a restaurant with a friend. As he is telling his friend about the
interview that he thinks did not go well, he suddenly notices the professor who had
interviewed him earlier in the day sitting at a nearby table. As their eyes meet, the
professor smiles and gives Daniel an encouraging nod. Daniel thinks that perhaps the
interview did not go that badly after all and maybe he will get the job.
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, I might as well cut it short
•• the professor doesn’t like this answer, I must change it quickly
•• the professor is smiling, maybe the interview went OK after all?
Notice, also, that communication doesn’t have to be verbal. Each time in the story Daniel
was responding to non-verbal communications.

When we take the role of the other we receive information from others
about ourselves that, over time, enables us to build up the concept of self
that we looked at earlier. Charles Cooley (1864– 1929), a colleague of
Mead, used the term looking-glass self to describe how the image we
have of ourselves is based on how we believe others see us. Just as the
mirror (looking-glass) reflects back to us an image of our physical self, so
others’ reactions to us reflect back an image of our social self, the kind of
person we are.
However, for Mead, this ‘social self’, with its capacity to take the role of the
other, was only part of the self. Mead’s view of the relationship between the
individual and society was rather different from that of Parsons. For Parsons,
society was dominant over the individual. Social institutions confront
people with sets of rules and expectations and most people simply conform
to them most of the time. However, for Mead, the relationship between
individual and society was rather more volatile and problematic. People
are obviously shaped by societies but they are not simply the puppets of
societies, they are also driven by sudden impulses, instincts and inspirations.
Mead expressed this ‘double centre of gravity’ in his concept of the self,
which he divided into the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’.


I Me

Has ideas, instincts, Takes role of the other,

initiates action reflects on intended actions


Figure 1.2: Mead’s concept of the self

The ‘I’ is the individual, spontaneous, creative and instinctive part of the
self that has ideas and imagination, while the ‘Me’ is the social self that
takes into account the reactions of others. What we call consciousness is a
form of a ‘conversation’ between the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’.
Imagine, for example, you were one of Daniel’s students sitting in his
lecture being very bored. ‘I want to get up, leave now and go for a cup of
coffee,’ says the ‘I’. ‘Wait a minute,’ says the ‘Me’, taking the role of the
other, ‘He’s sure to notice and he will be marking your examination paper!
It’s better to wait.’ So you sit quietly in the class. From a Meadian point of
view, you have conformed to normative expectations not just because you
have internalised the value, ‘It’s rude to walk out of classes’, but because
you have actively made a decision to stay. However, on another day if
things got really bad, then you might just walk out. For Mead, although

21 Principles of sociology

we are social beings, 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.

Activity 1.14 Parsons and Mead

In this section on socialisation and identity, we implicitly touched on some of the ideas of
Parsons and Mead. See if you can identify any of them. It is a good way to help you clarify
your understanding and revise the ideas we have looked at here.

Activity 1.15
Look back at Activity 1.2 on p.14. Try to answer the questions again. Compare your
answers now with the ones you wrote at the start of the chapter. It is a good way of
monitoring your progress.

Socialisation describes the processes by which people learn social
behaviour. It is through socialisation that people develop a sense of social
and personal identity, and these identities can change through social
interaction. Whereas Parsons saw socialisation arising from internalisation
of social norms, Mead suggested it arose primarily from people’s ability to
take the role of the other.
We shall be returning to the theories of Parsons and Mead in Chapter 4,
sections 4.2 and 4.3.

Here it is important that you supplement what you have read on socialisation and identity
with some textbook reading. The relevant sections from introductory texts are:
Fulcher and Scott (2007) Chapter 4.
Giddens (2008) pp.22–24, pp.163–69 and p.238
Macionis and Plummer (2005 and 2008 editions) Chapter 7.

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.

A reminder of your learning outcomes

Having completed this chapter, and the essential reading and activities,
you should have a clearer idea of:
• how to study sociology, what is meant by active learning, 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, social change and the relationship between the individual
and society
• how our identities arise from social relationships
• what sociologists mean by socialisation and identity, and how Parsons
and Mead put forward different explanations of these processes.

Chapter 2: Sociological research

Chapter 2: Sociological research

Written by Dr Steve Taylor.

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, and identify some of the
key research designs and strategies in sociology
• to introduce you to the main methods of sociological research.
Note: It is very important that you supplement what you read here with
the recommended reading, particularly on research design and research

Learning objectives
By the end of this chapter, and having completed the essential reading and
activities, 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, experimental, comparative and
ethnographic research designs
• the key research methods: interviews, observations, the analysis of
official statistics and documents
• how to approach questions on sociological research.

Essential reading
One of:
Fulcher, J. and J. Scott Sociology. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)
Chapter 3.
or Giddens, A. Sociology. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008) Chapter 3.
or Macionis, J. and K. Plummer Sociology. A global introduction. (Harlow:
Prentice Hall, 2005 and 2008 editions) Chapter 3.

Further reading
Denscombe, M. The good research guide. (Buckingham: Open University Press,
2007) Chapters 1, 3, 4, 9–12.
Marsh, I. et al. Theory and practice in sociology. (Harlow: Prentice Hall, 2002)
Chapters 1 and 2.
McNeil, P. Research Methods. (London: Routledge, 2005).

21 Principles of sociology

Works cited
Barker, E. The making of a Moonie: choice or brainwashing? (Oxford: Blackwell,
1984) [ISBN 9781851681617].
Braithwaite, J. Crime, shame and reintegration. (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1989) [ISBN 9780521356688].
Charlton, T., B. Gunter and D. Coles ‘Broadcast television as a cause of
aggression: recent findings from a naturalistic study’, Emotional and
Behavioural Difficulties (3) 1998, pp.5–13.
Durkheim, E. Suicide: a study in sociology. (London: Routledge, 1952).
Goffman, E. Asylums. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987) [ISBN
Gordon, S. History, philosophy and science. (London: Routledge, 1993)
[ISBN 9780415096706].
Holdaway, S. Inside the British police. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983)
[ISBN 9780631131120].
Rosenthal, R. and L. Jacobson Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation
and pupils’ intellectual development. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston,
Stanworth, M. Gender and schooling: a study of sexual divisions in the classroom.
(London: Hutchinson, 1983) [ISBN 9780091511616].
Taylor, S. Durkheim and the study of suicide. (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1982)
[ISBN 9780333286463 (pbk)].
Taylor, S. ‘Researching child abuse’ in Burgess, R. (ed.) Investigating society.
(London: Longman, 1989) [ISBN 9780582355958].
Townsend, P. Poverty in the United Kingdom. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979)
[ISBN 9780140221398].

It is often helpful to supplement what you read in the subject guide
and your Sociology textbooks by watching a video. 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, how it was done
and what they found. Videos available in halovine’s Classic Collection
series are:
Eileen Barker The making of a Moonie
Michelle Stanworth Gender and schooling
Peter Townsend Poverty in the UK
Paul Willis Learning to labour
All available from halovine 8

2.1 Introduction
In Chapter 1 we saw that sociology is about understanding how societies,
or parts of them, work, change and influence how people think and act.
In Chapter 2 we shall be looking at how sociologists find out about
The discipline of sociology is based on the claim that sociologists offer
some kind of expert understanding of social life. To evaluate this claim, we
need to know how this ‘expert knowledge’ is generated, how well it stands
up to critical scrutiny and what assumptions it makes about the nature
of the social world. This is why understanding social research is such a
central part of understanding sociology.

Chapter 2: Sociological research

2.2 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
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.
It is also helpful to remember that although research seems to be something
only undertaken by specialists, at various times in our everyday lives, most
of us do it.
For example, someone thinking of studying for a degree may do some
research before applying for a course. This might involve looking at
websites, visiting different departments, talking to some current students
and so on. This information may help them make a more informed choice.
Everyday research, then, usually involves a problem or question, the
collection of information and the application of this information to the
The process of undertaking sociological research is broadly similar. There
are usually three key stages. See Figure 2.1.

1. Formulation and design: research begins with questions that then need to be
translated into a researchable form.
2. Data collection: the research has to be organised and data collected through
various research strategies and methods.
3. Data interpretation: the information that is collected has to be presented,
analysed and related to the question that is being investigated.
Figure 2.1: 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. However, this tells only part of the story. Look
again at Figure 2.1. It is clear that sociological research also involves a
number of particular decisions, such as working out how research questions
can be translated into a researchable project, deciding how data is to be
collected and organised, and thinking about how it is to be interpreted.
Doing sociological research, then, is a reflexive process. It involves the
researcher not only looking out at the part of the social world being studied,
but also looking inwards and continually reflecting on the processes by
which the research is being undertaken. In planning and carrying out
research, sociologists are confronted by a number of choices and each
choice brings advantages and limitations. The analysis of these choices and
their consequences is what we mean by methodology.

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, it is helpful to begin thinking about an area before
you start reading about it. So try Activity 2.1 below. It is important to look
carefully at this example because we are going to be using it in different
ways throughout this chapter.

Activity 2.1 Researching students taking sociology

Your local university has asked us to do some research on students studying sociology as
part of their degree course. 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
•• How do students from different social backgrounds relate to each other in
sociology classes?
Write down how you could study these problems. Identify the options that are open to
you. 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. Some research
techniques are more appropriate than others to particular research
problems. For example, 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.
• Practical considerations. The researcher must work out what
is possible in terms of such things as the amount of time and money
available, access to sources of data and the requirements of those
funding the research.
• Existing research. Much research is undertaken to extend, check or
question existing work in the field.
• Theoretical considerations. Sociologists have different theoretical
ideas about the nature of human societies and the best ways of
generating knowledge about them, and these theoretical preferences
influence their choice of research methods.
The consequence of these choices and constraints is that there is no single
‘correct way’ of doing sociological research. Rather there are a number of
different ways, each with their benefits and costs and their advocates and
critics. Therefore, understanding sociological research, and giving good
answers to ‘theory and methods’ questions, involves being able to compare
and contrast different approaches. This involves the active learning talked
about in Chapter 1.
This critical thinking means that sociology students learn to look for
‘the story behind’ the data. For example, rather than simply taking a set
of statistics at face value and trying to explain it, as economists tend to
do, sociologists ask questions about how it was collected and how much
confidence we should have in it. This critical evaluation of data is not only
valuable in sociology, it can also be applied to most of the other subjects
you will study. Sociology teaches us that nothing should be taken for
granted, nothing is quite as it seems. When confronted by some data, the

Chapter 2: Sociological research

person with sociological training should automatically be asking questions.

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; it will also help you for the rest of
your life.

Aims and criteria in research

I have drawn attention above to the importance of evaluating both specific
data and sociological research methods. But how are we to do this?
Let me start by asking you a question. What qualities make someone
attractive to you as a friend? Stop and think for a moment. Maybe it is
intelligence, maybe sense of humour, maybe good looks, maybe kindness,
maybe it is just that they look rich! It could be all sorts of things, but
whatever you have written down are criteria, or benchmarks, by which
you are likely to judge people. Similarly, 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. Subjectivity and objectivity are
very important terms in sociology, so I shall spend a little time explaining
Subjective knowledge is literally knowledge belonging to the subject.
It refers to individual’s perceptions, including their values, opinions and
preferences. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with subjective knowledge and
understanding. Everyone – including the sociologist – draws on their
subjective understanding to make sense of the world around them.
However, to justify itself as an academic subject, sociologists have to
provide knowledge of societies that is something more than their own
opinions and prejudices. This is where objectivity comes in.
Objective knowledge is knowledge that is more than personal
perceptions; it is knowledge that is free from bias, opinion and prejudice.
The scientific laboratory experiment is typically seen as the ideal form of
generating objective knowledge. Scientists are emotionally detached
from the objects of their research, sociologists should aim to do the same.
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.
However, even if sociology cannot be truly objective, as most sociologists
believe, objectivity remains a goal of sociology and research has to provide
an understanding of societies that goes beyond mere subjectivity. As
Gordon (1992) observed:
That objectivity cannot be attained is not a reason for disregarding it.
Perfect cleanliness is also impossible but it does not serve as warrant for not
washing, much less for rolling around in the manure pile [dirt].
The aim of social research is to move from a subjective understanding to a
more objective understanding of how societies work. However, this raises
the question of how researchers try to be more objective.

Your mother is complaining about your behaviour again and she brings in
evidence to support her complaints. She tells you that you’re not working
hard enough at college and you’re rude to your father. All that she says

21 Principles of sociology

may be true, but her use of evidence is highly selective. She only refers to
things that support the point she is making. This is typical of the way we
behave in everyday life. We tend to look mainly for things that confirm
what we believe.
Sociological research cannot – or certainly should not – be carried out
in this way. If sociologists simply grab at evidence that supports their
favourite point of view then their accounts of social life would be highly
subjective. 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. This means that rather than having their views
consistently confirmed by the evidence, sociologists may be surprised by
what they discover, even to the point of having their favoured theories
challenged or overturned.
We can illustrate this point from our earlier example of studying sociology
students. The researcher will have to make compromises when doing
research. If we use a questionnaire and give it to all students taking
sociology, the data collection is standardised: that is, it is done in a
consistent fashion. This means there is less opportunity for the researchers
simply to take data that suits their own point of view. So if, for example,
a majority of students tell me that they dislike sociology and find it ‘very
boring’ I am stuck with the results, even though my subjective view is that
sociology is a fascinating subject and they should all love it.
However, supposing we choose an alternative method and, instead of
giving out questionnaires, we observe sociology classes and talk informally
to students. Here, even if we record our observations as systematically as
we can, the data collection will be less standardised than the questionnaire
data. We won’t be able to remember everything and we can’t even write
down everything we do remember. Therefore, there is more risk of our
subjective view influencing the data.
However, although this observational approach does not do so well in
terms of the criterion of standardisation, it does not necessarily make
it the ‘wrong’ choice. It may well bring benefits, such as knowledge of
how students actually behave in class, that would not be obtained by a
standardised questionnaire-based study.
So, just as a person choosing friends may have to sacrifice one desired
criterion, such as kindness, in order to obtain others, such as a sense of
humour and lots of money, sociologists may also have to compromise on
key research criteria.

Reliability is concerned with the question of whether research is repeatable
and is most commonly used in relation to quantitative research (see below).
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. This criterion is important because people have more
confidence in research that can be repeated and the results checked out.
If the research is repeatable and produces the same results each time, this
suggests that researchers have been able to detach themselves from the
object of their research – indicating objectivity.
Replication, which is very close to reliability, is when one researcher
chooses to repeat the research of another. There are many reasons for
doing this. The findings of the original research may be unusual, or a
researcher may want to find out if the same results still apply after a
time lag.
Chapter 2: Sociological research

Activity 2.2 Reliability and replication

In our research example of what students think about studying sociology, 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. Grade these
methods in terms of their reliability, with the most reliable method given 1 and
the least reliable given 3.
Can you think of three reasons why another researcher might want to replicate
our study in five years’ time?

Transparency means that a researcher has shown exactly how the research
was done. For example, if interview methods were used, the research
methods are transparent if the researcher has provided the questions,
explained how they were asked, indicated the numbers of people who
replied and so on. If possible, the transcriptions or tape recordings should
also be available. 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. (For example, a lot of original research
from British sociological studies is stored at the University of Essex in
England and can be accessed at8 For research
to be reliable and replicable the research methods must be transparent.

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. In sociology it has a slightly more specific meaning. The
issue of validity is concerned with the correspondence between a piece
of data and the conclusions that are drawn from it. In other words, how
justified are we in drawing these conclusions from this data?
From this basis we can distinguish between construct validity, internal
validity and ecological validity.
Construct validity is concerned with whether data represents what it is
supposed to represent. At first reading, this may seem a strange criterion.
How can data not be what it is? After all, facts are facts, aren’t they?
As we shall see in more detail in the next chapter, sociological thinking
shows it is not quite that simple. The data that sociologists (and other
researchers) collect is not simply ‘discovered’. Rather, it is constructed
through the ideas being used by the researcher, and these ideas are open
to question.
We can illustrate this problem with a further example from our study of
students taking sociology.

Research example: construct validity

The second question we were asked to look at by the university was the wide variation
in grading in sociology exams. (By the way, don’t worry, this isn’t really the case!)
Supposing, in exploring this question, we wanted to measure the students’ intelligence to
see if there was a relationship between natural intelligence and exam results.
We could use standardised IQ (intelligence quotient) tests that are designed to measure
people’s natural intelligence. However, some people have questioned the construct
validity of IQ tests, arguing that they do not really measure natural intelligence as they
21 Principles of sociology

favour middle-class children over working-class children and favour abstract thinking
skills as opposed to practical skills. So although IQ data may well be reliable, with
researchers using the same methods getting the same results, they may not be a valid
measures of intelligence.

Internal validity is concerned with whether the conclusion that is drawn

about the relationship between two or more different things is justified.
For example, a researcher may claim that (a) causes (b). However, the
relationship between (a) and (b) may be the result of something else.
Again we can illustrate this with a problem from our study of sociology

Research example: internal validity

We were also asked to see if there was any relationship between students’ social
background and their exam performance. Suppose we find that students from ethnic
group A get higher marks on average than students in ethnic group B. We might then
conclude that there is a relationship – or correlation – between ethnicity and educational
However, such a conclusion might not be justified. Further research, might show that
students in the ‘underachieving’ ethnic group B are also, on average, much poorer. They
have less money for books, less space at home to study and the have to work longer
hours outside college to afford the fees. Therefore, we might conclude that differences
we observed are the results of relative poverty rather than ethnicity and the original
conclusion lacks internal validity.

Activity 2.3 Reliability and construct and internal validity

Without looking back:
•• Try to explain the difference between reliability and validity.
•• 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.
The question you should be asking yourself is not, ‘Have I learned this?’
but rather, ‘Have I understood this?’ This is why attempting the third
question is particularly important, because being able to answer it shows
Don’t worry if you are finding some of this puzzling. We shall be looking
at reliability and validity again. Some of you will have sociology teachers.
Although they are not there to ‘spoon-feed’ you with the answers, they will
help you with things you don’t understand.
You will also have encountered these ideas when you studied 04A
Statistics 1.

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. This is a criterion that is much more specific to sociology
than to the other social sciences.
Again, we can illustrate ecological validity with an example and an activity
from our study of sociology students.

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,
the data collection is both standardised and reliable.
However, some sociologists would claim that this research has limited authenticity. For
example, 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, or they may exaggerate the amount of
work they do. Therefore, the data we obtain may not reflect how things really are. They
lack authenticity.

Activity 2.4 Ecological validity

The final question the university wanted addressing was how students from
different backgrounds relate to each in other in sociology classes.
We could interview students about this issue, but can you think of a problem with using
interview methods here?
Students may give us socially acceptable answers.
Even if students answer our questions honestly and frankly, the interview method doesn’t
really tell us how they really behave in day-to-day classroom situations.
Another way to explore this question is to go into the classes and observe them. This may
well give us more ecologically valid data. But, going back to the criteria outlined in the
previous section, can you think of some limitations with this method?
We shall be looking at observational methods in more detail later in the section but, as
we have noted, it is always helpful to start thinking about things in advance.

Sociological research often involves making choices between the different

options. Some methods work better than others for some problems.
However, there is not necessarily always a ‘right’ option. Sometimes,
it’s just down to the researcher’s preferences. Some think validity is
the most important criterion in social research while others argue that
standardisation and reliability are more important. We shall be
looking further at these differences in Chapter 3, but first we have to look
at how research is planned and carried out.

Research is the systematic investigation of a problem. 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.
Planning and undertaking research involves making strategic decisions
and these decisions are influenced by a number of factors. Some of the
key criteria by which research studies and research methods can be
evaluated are objectivity, standardisation, reliability, transparency and

2.3 Research designs: planning and choice

What is a research design?
It’s very rare just to drop everything and dash off on holiday. Holidays are
usually planned in advance. Similarly a sociologist can’t just suddenly start
doing research. Research journeys also need to be planned and organised
in advance. Although doing sociological research never felt much like a
holiday to me, there are similarities between going on holiday and doing
research. Both of them usually involve going on a ‘journey’ to somewhere

21 Principles of sociology

different. Holidays begin with a desire to take time out and go somewhere,
and research begins with the desire to find something out.
Research always begins with questions. Sociologists ask all sorts of
questions about social life, such as why societies are different from each
other, why social groups within the same society have different life
chances, or why societies change in the way they do. It is the researcher’s
questions that give research its sense of purpose and direction.
However, the sociologist’s general questions need to be narrowed down
into something that can actually be researched. For example, a sociologist
who is interested in how a society has changed in the last 25 years cannot
possibly study every change. They will have to narrow this down into
something manageable by focusing on specific changes in particular
institutions, such as family life, work and leisure activities.
What we call a research design is the process of translating a researcher’s
original ideas and interests into a researchable ‘journey’. It involves
making a number of strategic decisions and provides an overall framework
for the research, in the same way as travel itineraries provide frameworks
for holidays.
In this section, we start by examining some of the key choices facing
researchers and then we look at some of the most commonly used research
designs, or approaches, in sociology.

Concepts and conceptual thinking

If you were asked to write an account of a particular day at your college,
your account would actually be a simplified version of what ‘really’ went
on. This is because there are many things you would simply not know
about. Your account would also be very different from those of other
students. You might choose to write about different things, depending
on what you felt was important and, even when you were writing about
the same incident, you would probably interpret it differently. Therefore,
people’s accounts of things tend to be different because they are selective
reconstructions of a set of real events, and the selection process is shaped
by people’s subjective views of what they consider to be important and
It is much the same for researchers. They also have to select evidence in
their accounts of social life and, like everyone else, they are influenced by
their subjective views. However, as we have already observed, researchers
have to move beyond their own subjective views and provide more
objective accounts of social life. This means they have to find ways of
making the selection process more systematic and standardised. One of the
ways they try to do this is by using theoretical categories called concepts.
Concepts are the theoretical tools sociologists use to describe and explain
the social world. They are clearly defined categories given to aspects of the
social world that have significant common features. Concepts are the most
important tools of social research. They are the building blocks around
which theory and research are organised.
We can illustrate this by looking at researching social and economic
inequality through the concept of social class. You will know from your
own experience that some groups in your society have more wealth and
opportunity than other groups. 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.
Social classes are groups of people who share a similar economic position
in a society. Different social class groupings can be identified in a society
Chapter 2: Sociological research

and this can provide a basis for exploring patterns of inequality. For
example, sociologists have explored relationships between people’s social
class and their values, political beliefs, educational achievements and life
However, social class is an abstract, theoretical term and sociologists
wanting to do quantitative research have to find ways of measuring,
or operationalising, the concept, in much the same way that the
mercury in the thermometer measures the concept of temperature. These
operationalising devices are called indicators.
For example, a sociologist wanting to explore the relationship between
the concepts of ‘class’ and ‘educational achievement’, would have to find
indicators of these concepts. As occupation is the major source of income
for most people, most sociologists have typically used various forms of
‘occupational ranking’ as indicators of class (see Figure 2.2), whereas
attendance, reports and academic qualifications gained at school can be
used as indicators of educational success.

Concept Indicator Example

Social class Occupational ranking Operationalising
For example:
That is, people who 1. Professional Doctors, senior managers
share a similar 2. Semi-professional Teachers, administrators
economic market 3. Skilled/intermediate Clerical workers,
position technicians, electricians
4. Semi-skilled Bus drivers, postal workers
5. Unskilled Cleaners, labourers

Figure 2.2: Concepts and indicators: measuring social class

By looking at rates of educational performance in each occupational
group, the sociologist is able to examine the relationship between ‘class’
and ‘educational performance’ in a way that is standardised, reliable and
potentially replicable. See Figure 2.3.

Concept 1 Concept 2
Theoretical Social class Educational
1 achievement

2 Operationalisation Indicator Indicator

Parents’ School grades;
occupational qualifications
Theoretical analysis ranking
of results
Statistical correlations

Figure 2.3: Conceptual analysis example: social class and educational achievements
Concepts are the most important aspect of research design. They define
what the sociologist studies and provide the basis for organising and
presenting data. The important thing to understand here is that concepts
do not just reflect data, they shape it and this is one of the main ways that
theory is linked to research. In this context, it is important to note that
concepts are contested categories. That is, sociologists do not all agree
about how things like ‘class’ should be defined or measured.

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.
Descriptive research is about trying to construct a much clearer and
more comprehensive picture of how something works, often on the basis
of earlier exploratory studies. For example, a descriptive study of social
change might ask how family life, work and leisure have changed over the
last 25 years. Descriptive research studies are more likely to be inductive;
this means that a researcher may draw out possible explanations from
their observations.
Explanatory research asks why something happens and identifies possible
‘causal mechanisms’. For example, an explanatory research study of social
change might ask why family life, work and leisure have changed in the
last 25 years. Explanatory research studies are more likely to be deductive;
this means that a researcher is testing a theory, or hypothesis, against the
Although there are sociological studies that are either purely deductive or
inductive, many move between the two. For example, a descriptive study
might suggest explanations that are then ‘tested’ by further explanatory
research (see Figure 2.4).

Deductive: Theory Observations

Inductive: Observations Theory

Observations  Observations 


Figure 2.4: Deductive and inductive research

Quantitative and qualitative research designs

Another important distinction is between quantitative and qualitative
research designs. In very simple terms, quantitative data can be measured
whereas qualitative data cannot, but the term has much wider implications
(see below). Sometimes a researcher’s decision to use quantitative
or qualitative designs is shaped by the nature of the problem being
researched. For example, studying poverty levels in a society will almost
certainly require a quantitative research design, whereas exploring the
inner world of a religious cult or a criminal gang will almost certainly
require a qualitative design.
However, 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). Quantitative data is closer to the scientific ideal of
research. 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.
Quantitative research designs have a number of important advantages. See
if you can think of some before reading further.

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,
reliability and transparency
• give data more authority, especially with government departments and
the media.
Stop and think for a moment: if quantitative research designs have all
these advantages why isn’t all sociological research quantitative? After all,
measurement is synonymous with science and some social sciences, such
as economics and psychology, are based almost exclusively on quantitative
The simple answer to this question is that there are many important
sociological questions that simply cannot be answered with quantitative
methods. We can illustrate this point by returning to our earlier example of
the relationship between social class and educational achievement.
A quantitative research design using concepts and indicators in the way
described above can provide valuable data about relationships between
class background and education. But when it comes to trying to explain
this relationship there are some questions that cannot be answered very
well by quantitative research designs. For example, 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.
Qualitative research also allows us to examine the processes by which
individuals and groups come to understand their roles and identities. It
can also be used to criticise the use of statistics in social research to see
how they are socially constructed – see Chapter 4, section 4.3.
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.

The expected and the unexpected in social research

We conclude this section where we started it by comparing the holiday and
the research project. There is usually a sense of adventure about going on
holiday. You may be going to an unfamiliar place and unexpected things
can, and often do, happen. Much the same is true of research. You are
often surprised by some of the things you discover.
However, by planning a holiday and deciding to stay in a particular place
at a given time of year, most holidaymakers narrow the possibilities of
what might happen. Therefore, the holiday experience is a product of
the unexpected and the expected. The plans made in advance provide a
framework for what actually happens. Much the same is true of research.
Sociologists’ research designs provide the framework for the things they
find out about social life. So just as the holidaymaker expects certain things
from their holiday, such as sandy beaches or snowy mountains, sociologists
usually have some idea of what they are going to find from their research.
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. They are doing much more than this. 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. (See Figure 2.5.)

Researcher’s Data in
theory and design the world

Research data

Figure 2.5: How research data is constructed

This is why it is so important to know about research designs and research
methods. By understanding how research was done, we are in a position
to evaluate it.
Sociological thinking teaches us always to look behind the
data to find out how it was produced.

2.4 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, or approaches, in

In everyday language to survey something is to take a general view. In
geography, for example, surveys map out a landscape or a town. Similarly,
in social sciences, surveys try to map out aspects of the social world.
Surveys offer breadth of view at a specific point in time, rather like a
photograph of a landscape or townscape from a distance. Surveys are
usually – but not necessarily – quantitative. They are used for simply
collecting information, testing peoples’ opinions or attitudes and mapping
out relationships between things in a quantifiable form.
Survey data are most commonly collected by asking people questions,
usually administered by questionnaires or face-to-face interviews.
However, the survey is a research design or strategy and not a research
method, and survey data can be collected through other methods such as
using documents or making observations.

Survey research is usually undertaken in relation to large populations, and
researchers cannot collect data from everyone in the population. Therefore
they use a sample: this is a part of a population being studied. You will
have studied this in unit 04A Statistics 1.
Probability sampling means that the sample has been selected
Simple random sampling means that everyone in the population has
an equal (non-zero) chance of being selected.

Chapter 2: Sociological research

Stratified random sampling is a special case of sampling, 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. For example, 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. The more the sample surveyed
represents the population being studied, especially in terms of key
variables such as age, class, ethnicity, gender and professional status, then
the more confident the researcher will feel in generalising from the results.
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. 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, for example,
in studies of drug use, crime and self-harm. In non-probability sampling
researchers will simply contact whom they can and this is known as
convenience sampling.
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, where a researcher makes contact with a small group, gains
their confidence and uses that to make further contacts and enlarge the
sample. (Figure 2.6.)
A quota sample represents a group of people that a sociologist wants to
make statements about. They divide the population into parts on the basis
of the population. 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, for
example choosing any 110 girls and 88 boys.
The subject guide for unit 04A Statistics 1 has more material on
sampling, validity and reliability.



Probability Non -probability

Stratified random / random Convenience Snowball Quota

Can generalise statistically Cannot generalise statistically

Figure 2.6: Types of sampling

21 Principles of sociology

Activity 2.5 Sampling

Look at the four research topics listed below. 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.
•• Homeless people in your town or city.
•• Victims of domestic violence.
•• The lifestyle choices of footballers registered at your local football club.
Is a national census a sample?
•• No. A national census is a survey of the total population but it is not a sample
because everyone is asked to provide information. So, here the sample is the
sample frame.

Longitudinal approaches
A longitudinal research design involves collecting data from the same
source at intervals over time. 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. 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, health and educational
We conclude this section with a real example of sociological survey
research to illustrate some of the points that have been raised.

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. 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. 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. This concept
was measured by a number of indicators, including the lack of a holiday in the last year,
lack of fresh meat on a regular basis and an absence of household amenities such as a
refrigerator or a bath.
Townsend and his researchers then made a stratified random survey of over 6,000 adults
living in 2,052 households. They calculated that almost 20 per cent of the population
were living in poverty, which was much higher than the government’s official figure of
six per cent. This was not because the government statisticians made a ‘mistake’ and
miscalculated their figures; it is because Townsend and the government statisticians were
using different concepts of poverty. The government statisticians were using an absolute
definition – that is, being poor is having an income less than a certain level, while
Townsend was using a relative definition – that is, being unable to afford things that
most people in a society consider normal.
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,
illustrating how sociological research can influence public opinion and public policy.

Chapter 2: Sociological research

Experimental and evaluative research

The laboratory experiment is the key method in scientific research. In the
experiment a possible causal influence, called an independent variable, is
manipulated under controlled conditions to see if it produces a change in
another factor, called a dependent variable.

Smoking Cancer
Independent variable Dependent variable

Laboratory experiments are rare in sociology. Nonetheless the classic

experimental design is seen by some researchers as an important
yardstick against which other methods can be assessed. Field, or ‘quasi-
experimental’, research designs that attempt to explore relationships
between independent and dependent variables in more natural settings
are becoming increasingly common in sociology, particularly in evaluative
research. The aim of evaluative research is to examine different social
programmes, such as crime prevention strategies or health promotion
policies, to see if they ‘work’ or to find out if one works better than another.
The most common type of experimental research design uses a control
group. 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). The aim is to see if there
are differences in the behaviour of the experimental group and the control
group. Here is an example.

Research example: Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) on teacher expectations

In this famous study the researchers were interested in whether teachers’ expectations
influenced students’ performance. 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.
In fact no such test had been done, and students had just been randomly assigned to
the ‘highly intelligent’ group. However, as a result of increased teacher expectations, the
intelligence scores of the experimental group really increased in the short run. The study
showed how much teacher expectations influenced students’ educational performance.

Experimental research designs give researchers much greater control

of the research situation. They also fulfil the criteria of reliability and

However, there are some criteria that they do not usually fulfil so well. Can
you think of any? If necessary, turn back to the criteria outlined in section
2.2. (Looking back like this helps both understanding and revision.)
• One criticism of field or quasi-experimental methods is that the data
collection is often difficult to standardise.
• 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.
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. A natural experimental design has
the disadvantage that the researcher has much less control over events,
but it has the advantage of high ecological validity as the events are
occurring naturally. Here is an example.

21 Principles of sociology

Research example: Charlton et al. (1998) on the coming of television

Many people blame television, and particularly violence on television, for producing anti-
social and violent behaviour in children. 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. 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. To date there is no evidence from the study that the introduction of television
has caused more antisocial behaviour in children.

Activity 2.6 Experiments and ethics

Laboratory experiments are rare in sociology, give two reasons why you think this is so.
(Again, if necessary, look back at the criteria discussed in section 2.2.)
1. __________________________________________________________
2. __________________________________________________________

Look again at the famous school study by Rosenthal and Jacobson outlined on the
previous page.
It was obviously a very valuable study, 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 children’s educational environment was changed just to accommodate the
The concerns expressed above are examples of ethical issues in social research. Ethics
refer to responsibilities researchers have to the researched. Ethical guidelines state that
the subjects of research should not be harmed or have their lives disrupted in any way
and, unless it is unavoidable, they should be fully informed about the purpose of the
research. 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.

Ethical considerations apply to all research, but are most commonly raised
in connection to experimental designs that often set out to manipulate
people’s behaviour in various ways. Most people would consider Rosenthal
and Jacobson’s research ethical because of its contribution to educational
research and because the deception was unavoidable. However, ethical
guidelines mean that researchers cannot do anything they want in the
name of research, and ethical considerations have to be taken into account
in planning research designs.

Comparative research
Another limitation of experimental research designs is that they are
invariably small-scale, or micro. This means that many of the large-scale,
or macro, questions that interest many sociologists – such as why societies
change, why societies are different from each other, or why rates of health
and illness, crime, or suicide vary between societies – cannot be studied
by experimental designs. To examine these larger cultural and historical
questions, researchers are more likely to use what is called a comparative,
or cross-cultural, research design.
Comparative research is much wider in scope than other research designs,
because the units of analysis are often whole societies, or even groups of
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
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
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
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 1
You will find that an
increasing amount of
• formal face-to-face interviews research is conducted
• asking questions informally in the context of field work. online, including re-
search by the University
There are many different types of interview methods in sociology but of London.
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:
‰‰ Excellent
‰‰ Quite good
‰‰ Don’t know/neutral
‰‰ Quite poor
‰‰ U seless.

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.

21 Principles of sociology

However, in spite of its benefits, some sociologists are very critical of the
widespread use of structured interviews in sociology. Why do you think
this is?
• The meaning problem. The main reason for questioning the
structured interview is found in what I’m doing now, using language.
To write an interview question I have to use words, and a major
problem with the structured interview method is that the same word
can mean different things to different people.
Stop and look again at the question reproduced above (Figure 2.7).
Some of the students may have said that their teacher is ‘excellent’. Try
to think of some different meanings the word ‘excellent’ could have in
this context.
For example, 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.
The problem here is that people who might mean very different things
by ‘excellent’ would still be included in the same percentage figure.
Therefore, the data will lack construct validity. It does not represent
what it is supposed to represent – that is – a consistent and similar set of
• The problem of depth and ecological validity. Another limitation of
the structured interview method is that it lacks depth. As researchers
are detached from the people they are studying, 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. In
sociological terms, this means that it is low in ecological validity.

Unstructured interviews
One way round some of the limitations of the structured interview is to use
an unstructured interview. Unstructured interviews are more like ordinary
conversations; there is no set interview structure and interviewees answer
in their own words. Unstructured interviews are sometimes used in survey
designs, but they are most frequently used in ethnographic research.
The effectiveness of unstructured, qualitative interviews often depends on
the rapport and trust that is built up between researcher and respondent.
The aim of such interviews is to allow respondents to reconstruct their
experiences in as much detail as possible, giving the researcher, and
ultimately the reader, an insight into how they experienced particular
events. You will see in Chapter 4, section 4.3 that unstructured interviews
can allow the researcher to understand the processes by which people
came to understand social situations.
Unstructured interviews have more depth and flexibility than structured
interviews. They are also normally more valid as they give greater insight
into the meanings of a subject’s experiences. However, they also have
important limitations. The data collection is not standardised and is
thus hard to generalise from and, as there is usually far too much data
to reproduce in full, readers are dependent on the researcher’s selection
of data. Unstructured interviews are also less reliable than structured
interviews as the results cannot be quantified and re-tested.

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, using
structured questions to obtain factual information, such as age or income,
and unstructured questions to probe deeper into people’s experiences.
Alternatively, they may use semi-structured interviews where the questions
are closed, but interviewees are given space (in questionnaires) or time (in
face-to-face interviews) to elaborate on their answers.
However, despite their many benefits, there are certain limitations with all
interview methods.
• People may simply have problems in recalling information accurately.
A great deal of psychological research has shown just how unreliable
memory can be.
• There is something known as the interview effect. This means that
interviewees may give the more ‘socially acceptable’ answer, or they
answer a question in the way they think the interviewer wants.
• With all interviews (structured, unstructured or semi-structured)
researchers are dependent on what people tell them. If researchers
want to find out how people really behave in their daily lives, then they
have to go and take a look.

Observational methods
Watching people is another important way that sociologists find out about
social life. Researchers using observational methods do not have to rely on
what people say they do. They can see for themselves.
Like interviews, observation can be structured or unstructured, or
semi-structured, that is, it uses a combination of both. Structured
observations are most commonly associated with experimental or
evaluative research designs. For example, subjects may be given
certain tests or tasks to do as part of an experiment and the researcher
systematically records the results. Structured observation can also take
place in naturalistic settings. For example, as part of her research on
gender and schooling, Michelle Stanworth (1983) systematically recorded
the amount of direct contact time teachers give to male and to female
However, the vast majority of observational research studies in sociology
are unstructured, and most of them use a method called participant
observation where the researcher participates directly in the life of the
people being studied.
This technique was first used by Western anthropologists who joined tribal
societies, learning their language and customs in order to document ways
of life that were disappearing with colonisation and the relentless advance
of industrialisation. Like anthropologists, 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, persistence and the cultivation of
helpful contacts. Once established, the research work involves detailing
observations, listening to what is being said and asking questions. This is
easier said than done. It requires both an attachment to and a detachment
from those you are studying. I described this process in relation to research
I did on social workers’ management of cases of child abuse (Taylor, 1989).
As a student of child abuse, I regularly encountered forms of
cruelty to children I hardly thought were possible. I watched,
amazed, as children who had been brought into care because

21 Principles of sociology

they had been abused, ran with open arms to hug the ‘abusing’
parents who had been allowed to visit them. I have seen social
workers and police having to drag screaming children away
from their parents. While a ‘lay’ person witnessing such things
would probably react emotionally, the professional social workers
remained detached and unemotional. It was as if nothing that
happened to children could surprise them any more. Neither of
these reactions is suitable for the sociological observer. On the one
hand, the researcher should take nothing for granted, but rather
be surprised and intrigued by what is observed. On the other
hand, while it is impossible to keep your values out of research,
the more you let your own values and feelings take over, the more
you will write about your own values and reactions, and the less
you will see of what is going on around you. 2 2
Taylor (1989) pp.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.
However, this is not strictly accurate. Participant observation can be used
in experimental designs and ethnographic research can, and sometimes
has to, be done by other methods, such as unstructured interviews or
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. Some of the most vivid and interesting studies
in sociology have used participant observation. For example, sociologists
have worked in factories, offices, schools, prisons and mental hospitals;
they’ve made observations in clinics, clubs, call centres, on street corners
and in public toilets; and they’ve joined political parties, criminal gangs
and religious cults, all in the name of research.
In participant observation sociologists are able to see for themselves how
people behave in their natural contexts. 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. It also offers flexibility and can provide the basis for
inductively generating new theoretical explanations.
The famous ‘Chicago School’ of sociology, which encouraged observational
work and despatched its sociologists into every corner of the city, used to
claim that participant observation ‘tells it like it is’. We will be discussing
the Chicago School in Chapter 4, section 4.3.

Activity 2.8 ‘Telling it as it is’

Stop and think for a moment about the claim that being somewhere allows you see
things as they are. 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, try to identify some of the reasons. 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.

The idea that participant observation ‘tells it like it is’ is challenged by

something known as the observer effect. In essence, this means that those
being observed may change their behaviour simply because they are being
studied. If this happens, and the researcher is not seeing the subjects

Chapter 2: Sociological research

of the research as they really are but as they want to be seen, then the
ecological validity of the research is compromised. Sometimes researchers
try to get round this problem by using covert observational methods and
concealing their true identity from the group being studied. For example,
in his classic study of a state mental hospital in the United States, Goffman
(1987) worked as a games teacher in the institution, while Holdaway
(1983) made a study of the police force he was serving in at the time.
This ‘undercover’ research raises ethical issues, as those being studied
have not given their consent to the research, and it has the limitation that
the researcher is unable to ‘stop the action’ and ask questions freely and
Participant observation methods also tend to be unreliable, data collection
is not standardised and, like the unstructured interview, selection of data is
very much dependent on the researcher’s subjective views of what should
(and should not) be included. It is also time consuming and, because it
is often based on a single case study or a small and non-representative
sample, it is hard to generalise from the results. Furthermore, there
are many areas of social life – domestic violence, sexuality, suicide and
childhood experiences – that cannot usually be studied in this way.

Secondary sources
A great deal of sociological research involves the analysis of secondary
data; that is, data not generated by the researcher. 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. Two of the most important sources of secondary data are
official statistics and documents.

The analysis of official statistics

The term official statistics refers to the mass of data collected by the
state and its various agencies. For example, a national census is held in
developed countries, usually every 10 years. This provides information
about the composition of the population in terms of factors such as births,
marriages, divorces, ethnicity and the structure of families. State sources
also regularly produce economic statistics on patterns of employment
and unemployment, income and expenditure, as well as publishing rates
of crime, illness, suicides and the like. In addition to state-generated
data, other organisations such as hospitals, economic organisations and
voluntary agencies provide important sources of statistical information.
Official statistics are a major source of information for sociologists and are
widely used, especially in large-scale comparative research designs. They
are plentiful, cheap and available; they can provide a picture of a society
at a given time, enable comparisons to be made and help document
important changes in societies and social groups over time.
However, sociologists have to approach the analysis of official statistics
cautiously. They are not self-evident ‘facts’ simply waiting for researchers
to use. They are social constructions that reflect the conceptual categories
and bureaucratic procedures through which they are collected. 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. For example, some governments often change
the way in which unemployment is classified, and a comparative study
of unemployment based on official statistics that have been compiled in
different ways will be neither standardised nor valid.

21 Principles of sociology

Another problem with official statistics may be under-reporting. It is

generally accepted that official statistics – such as those recording people’s
incomes, personal assets, companies’ profits, rates of immigration, crime,
illness and suicide – are far lower than the real levels. Therefore, an
increase in the official crime rates, for example, could mean either that
crime has risen or it could simply mean that more crime has been reported
and recorded.
These observations do not mean that sociologists cannot, or should not,
use official statistics.
• Not all official statistics have the problems of classification and under-
reporting outlined above. For example, in many societies, birth rates,
death rates and murder rates are taken to be accurate representations
of the true numbers.
• If a researcher who is comparing different sets of official statistics is
sure that they have been compiled in much the same way, then the data
will still be valid.
• Researchers have access to different data sets, some of which can
offset the limitations of the others. For example, many governments
undertake annual victim surveys, where a random sample of the
population are asked if they have been the victims of crime. These
statistics give a much more accurate estimate of the level of crime than
the official crime rates.
Therefore, when writing about the limitations of official statistics, do not
simply state, for example, that they ‘lack validity’. It is much better to say
they ‘may lack validity’ and then go to explain why this could be the case.

Activity 2.9 Official statistics

Critically evaluate the following statements:
•• Government statistics have shown that there has been a sharp rise in crime this
•• Sociologists should never use official statistics, because they are not valid.
•• Townsend’s research on poverty showed that the official statistics were wrong.
(Look back to the example of Townsend’s research on p.50)

The analysis of documents

In its widest sense a document simply means anything that contains text.
Official reports, records from schools, hospitals, law courts, films,
photographs, reports from journals, magazines, newspapers, letters, diaries,
emails, and even graffiti scrawled on a wall, are examples of documents.
The analysis of documents is the major method used in comparative
and historical research designs, but documents are also widely used in
ethnographic research. Documents are used when subjects cannot be
observed or interviewed, but it would be wrong to see them merely as a
substitute for primary data. For example, 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.
Documents can be classified in many ways but a useful classification is:
• official documents: for example, government reports, legal reports,
company accounts
• cultural documents: for example, newspapers, magazines, TV
programmes, films, art works

Chapter 2: Sociological research

• personal documents: for example, letters, diaries, emails.

A key question in documentary research is the authenticity of the
document. Researchers generally prefer first-hand accounts, written by
people who witnessed something personally, rather than documents
derived from earlier sources. Another important question in the context
of authenticity is whether or not a document is a forgery. Even with
relatively recent documents this is not always clear. For example, 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. The diaries were being sold round the world when
it was revealed that they had not been written by Hitler, 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. A document may be both authentic and first hand but,
for various reasons, the content may be distorted, exaggerated, or simply
false. Therefore, researchers usually examine a number of documentary
sources looking for accounts that confirm, or corroborate, each other.
Like interviews and observational methods, documentary methods can be
structured or unstructured. In structured, or content analysis sociologists
systematically analyse documents in terms of certain pre-determined
criteria. For example, researchers might monitor the output of TV stations
at regular intervals to calculate the proportion of violence, sexuality or
stereotyping in programmes.

Activity 2.10 Content analysis

Imagine you are doing a content analysis study of the news programmes on your local TV
stations, looking at the proportions of time given to:
a. local
b. national
c. international news stories.
Using the criteria outlined in Section 2.2, and any other material you think is relevant
here, write down what you think are the advantages and limitations of this approach.

Unstructured, or textual, documentary methods use qualitative techniques

to explore the meanings of texts. This may involve examining the literal
meaning of the document, or it could mean looking beneath the actual
words or images, to interpret the contexts that give them meaning. To
illustrate this latter approach, look at the following news item from a
British newspaper.
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., 19, who has
never done a day’s work, said he would not take the job in case
his state benefits were cut. Mike and his wife Kathleen, 23, receive
£1,150 a month in state benefits and live rent free. They are now
demanding a bigger house when their new baby arrives in October.
On the surface this is simply an account of a young man with four children
who turned down a job. But what else do you think the story is saying?
Can you see a hidden meaning, or sub-text?
The story is not just about Mike and Kathleen. 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. Look back at the

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
Here are some suggestions below.
• People who work for a living and pay taxes.
• People who ‘really’ need state benefits because they cannot work.
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

Activity 2.11 Textual analysis

Take a story from your local newspaper and see if you can interpret its underlying subtext.

Many studies in sociology, particularly historical studies, are based

almost exclusively on documents. Vast amounts of information are held
in documents, many of which are easily accessible and in a form that
can be examined and checked out by other researchers. Documents can
also be used when observational or interview methods are not possible
because people cannot be contacted or observed. For example, the
autobiographical accounts by adults who have tried to harm themselves,
been anorexic or been abused in their childhood provide an invaluable
source of information for sociologists researching these areas.

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.

Research design Typical subjects Typical methods

Survey Samples of large Structured interview

populations questionnaire

Experimental/ Small groups of subjects Structured observation


Comparative/cross cultural Institutions, societies, Official statistics,

groups of societies documents

Ethnographic Case studies Participant observation,

unstructured interview,
personal documents

Figure 2.8: 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, researchers will usually use more than one method to fulfil
different aims of the research design. Often methods will be combined in a

Chapter 2: Sociological research

way where the strengths of one method can be used to offset some of the
limitations of another. This is known as triangulation, a term borrowed
from navigation where the position of a ship is plotted from two fixed
points. Eileen Barker’s study The Making of a Moonie (1984) is a classic
example of the use of multiple methods in research.

Research example: Barker (1984) on the Moonies

The Moonies, or Unification Church, have followers and business interests all over the
world. The founder, the reverend Moon, tells followers, ‘I am your brain, when you join
you do everything in utter obedience to me’. Eileen Barker wanted to find out what sort
of people join the Moonies, whether they are different from ‘ordinary people’ and if they
are ‘brainwashed’ by the organisation as many people believed.
She explored these questions using three different methods.
1. She carried out detailed interviews with a random sample of Moonies to
explore their motivations for joining.
2. 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.
3. 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.
In spite of so much criticism of the Moonies in the press, Barker found that were no
significant personality differences between Moonies and non-Moonies and also little
evidence of ‘brainwashing’. She found that the Moonies chose to be members of the
group.The sociological question she asked, which is the subtitle of her book, is ‘… choice
or brainwashing?’; she found that the Moonies had actively chosen to be Moonies.

Activity 2.12 Revision check

In the above example there are four terms in bold type:
•• random sample
•• structured questionnaire
•• control group
•• participant observation.
Write down what you understand by these terms and then check your answers by looking
back at the subject guide and using your textbooks.

As I observed above, choice of research methods is influenced primarily

by the aims of the research design. However, they are not always simply
decided by what the researcher would like to do. Sometimes, there are
external factors that also have to be taken into consideration in planning
and undertaking research. 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, so they have to find alternative methods, such as interviewing
people who worked for the organisation or were members of the social
group under consideration.
• Time and money: lack of time or funding means that researchers
sometimes have to select the cheaper option; for example, using
questionnaires instead of detailed unstructured interviews.
• Ethics: as we have already observed, ethical considerations might
constrain research.

21 Principles of sociology

• Funding body: sometimes the organisation funding the research will

expect the research to be done in a certain way; for example, some
organisations have a preference for quantitative rather than qualitative

The various factors influencing selection of methods are summarised in

Figure 2.8. Although it is important to mention the influence of external
influences on research, they should not be exaggerated. Most of the
time, most researchers have choice and discretion about most aspects
of a research project. However, there is one thing about which they
have no choice, and that is that all research involves making theoretical
assumptions about the nature of the social world. This is what we shall be
examining in the next chapter.

Research methods refer to how data is collected. Here we have looked
at four of the major research methods: interviews, observation, official
statistics and documents. It is important to appreciate the strengths and
limitations of each method. Researchers’ selection of methods is influenced
by the nature of the problem, theoretical preferences and by external
If you would like to understand more about the history of sociology before
you begin working on the subject in more detail, you can turn to Chapter
4 now.

A reminder of your learning outcomes

Having completed this chapter, and the essential reading and activities,
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, experimental, comparative and
ethnographic research designs
• the key research methods: interviews, observations, the analysis of
official statistics and documents
• how to approach questions on sociological research.

Chapter 3: Theory and research

Chapter 3: Theory and research

Written by Dr Steve Taylor.

So far, we’ve looked at the questions sociologists ask about human
societies (Chapter 1) and how they do research (Chapter 2).
In this chapter we’re going to dig deeper and look at some of the different
theoretical ideas underpinning sociological thinking and social research.
The key idea here is that there is no such thing as ‘theory-free’ research,
as the very act of doing research involves making contested – that is,
theoretical – assumptions about the nature of social reality and how we
obtain knowledge of it.

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.

Learning objectives
By the end of this chapter, and having completed 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.

Essential reading
The essential reading for this chapter of the unit is the subject guide, but
you must also supplement it with reading from your textbook. The key
pages in the textbooks we have recommended are:
Fulcher, J. and J. Scott Sociology. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)
pp.15–17 and 24–27.
Giddens, A. Sociology. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008) pp.77–78
Macionis, J. and K. Plummer Sociology: a global introduction. (Harlow: Prentice
Hall, 2005) pp.44–69 and (2008) pp.50–57.

Further reading
It would also be helpful if you referred to:
Hughes, J. The philosophy of social research. (London; New York: Longman,
21 Principles of sociology

Other relevant textbooks are:

Bryman, A. Social research methods. (Oxford: Oxford University, 2008) Part 1.
Hamilton, ‘The Enlightenment and the birth of social science’ in Hall, S. and
B. Gieben (eds) Formations of modernity. (Cambridge: Polity, 1992).
Marsh, I. (ed.) Theory and practice in sociology. (Harlow: Prentice Hall, 2002)
Chapter 1.
May, T. Social research: issues, methods and process. (Buckingham:
Open University, 2001) Part 1.
Parker J. Social theory: a basic tool kit. (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)
Chapter 11.

‘Theory and methods’ [from 8]. This video/DVD may
be helpful to you as it explains and illustrates the three major theories
considered here: positivism, interpretivism and realism.

3.1 Methodology revisited

In Chapter 2 we introduced methodology as the study of the methods used
by sociologists to find out about societies. Here we are going to ‘unpick’
the idea of methodology and look at it in a little more detail.
As Pawson (1999, p.20) has observed, 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. The ‘special tools
of inquiry’ involve a combination of thinking skills and practical
skills. Methodology is the analysis of these skills. 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. 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, subjecting them to critical
scrutiny and considering alternatives.
Methodology, then, is about developing the principles and practice of
social research (see Figure 3.1).

Methodology = Principles + Methods

Figure 3.1
The middle term, ‘Principles’, can be divided into two further categories
called ontology and epistemology (Figure 3.2).

Methodology = Ontology + Epistemology + Methods

Figure 3.2
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.

The term ontology originated in philosophy and is concerned with the
essential nature of what is being studied. Therefore, an ontological
question in sociology addresses the essential nature of human societies. It
is concerned with what societies are, what units make them up and how
these units relate to each other.

Chapter 3: Theory and research

As we observed in Chapter 1, sociology is about the relationships between

individuals and societies. However, sociologists have different ways of
conceptualising these relationships. For example, 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
Sociologists who favour structural approaches conceptualise societies
primarily as networks of social institutions and patterns of social
relationships that are comparatively long lasting. Sociologists adopting this
approach try to show the ways that different social structures shape the
behaviour of the individuals living within them. Thus the focus tends to be
on large-scale, or macro, social processes.
From this point of view, there are similarities between the natural world
and the social world. Both are ‘external realities’ that constrain people’s
actions in various ways. Just as gravity limits our power of movement,
the societies in which we live influence and constrain how we think and
act. For example, the wealth of a society, its productive processes and its
customs and values shape people’s life experiences irrespective of their
conscious wishes.
Many of those whose work helped to ‘found’ sociology in the nineteenth
century viewed societies as social structures. (You will be reading about
these sociological theories in more detail in Chapter 4, section 4.2). For
example, Marx and Durkheim conceptualised societies this way. For Marx,
the key to understanding societies lay in their economic structures. This is
known as a materialist view of societies. 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, as history books led people to
Durkheim took a different view of social structures. He saw the morals
and values of a society, transmitted from one generation to the next, as
social forces that regulate people’s behaviour and bind them to each other
through shared membership of social institutions. Sociological approaches
that see values and beliefs as the ‘core’ elements of societies are called
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, where people are bound more closely together)
have lower suicide rates. From this point of view differences in suicide
rates were a consequence of different social structures rather than of the
characteristics of individuals.
However, despite the differences between Durkheim’s idealist theory
focused on cultural values and beliefs and Marx’s materialist theory based
on economic production, both viewed people’s behaviour as the product of
the structural organisation of societies.
A cluster of approaches in sociology, loosely described as social action
theories, view the relationships between the individuals and societies
rather differently. Action theorists argue that as societies are produced by
the intentional activities of people, sociologists should begin by studying
individual social action and the meanings people give to these actions.
Action theorists sometimes suggest that structural theories reduce people
to the mere puppets of societies. (We will be going into more detail
into the theories when we look at Weber in Chapter 4, section 4.2.) For
example, Weber disagreed with Marx that the rise of industrial capitalist
21 Principles of sociology

society in Western Europe could be explained merely by changes in

economic structures. He argued that this theory did not explain the
motivation behind a new, more disciplined work ethic and the tendency of
so many of the early industrial capitalists to work long hours and reinvest,
rather than spend, their profits. 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, 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, Weber was able to highlight something absent in
Marx’s theory – the relationship between religion and the rise of modern
So we can see that there are differences in the way that sociologists view
the social world. This will affect the way that they believe that they can
understand and know about the world.

Epistemology is another term from philosophy. An epistemology is a theory
that presents a view of what can be regarded as knowledge rather than
belief. In more simple terms, it explores the basis for knowledge – how we
know what we know.
Therefore, it follows that epistemological questions in sociology are
investigations into how sociologists justify the knowledge they are
providing of social life.
Again, sociologists have different views on this. A major epistemological
debate in sociology concerns the similarity of sociological knowledge and
scientific knowledge.
On the one hand, 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, is to follow the logic and
procedures of the natural sciences.
This point of view holds that, as far as possible, sociology can develop
methods of investigation based on the logic of experimentation and
measurement found in the natural sciences.
On the other hand, there are those – sometimes referred to as anti-
naturalists – who argue that because nature and society are completely
different from each other, the principles and methods of the natural
sciences have little or no application to the study of social life. Sociologists
study people and, unlike the matter studied by most natural scientists,
people are reflective and try to make sense of the situations in which they
find themselves. Therefore, sociology requires a very different approach
from that of the natural sciences, one where researchers transcend their
subjectivity by interpreting the subjectivity of the people they are studying.
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.
Another related epistemological question concerns what is called the
subject/object dilemma, which we looked at briefly in Chapter 1. Whereas
some sociologists argue that researchers should remain as detached as
possible from the subjects of inquiry, others argue exactly the opposite,
that valid knowledge of social groups comes from researchers immersing
themselves as closely as possible in the lives of those they are studying.
Another, more extreme, version of this epistemological position holds that
you actually have to be a member of the social group being studied, or at
Chapter 3: Theory and research

least have shared the same kind of experiences personally, to provide valid
knowledge of their behaviour. In simple terms you cannot really understand
people without having ‘been there’ yourself. (This epistemological position
would, incidentally, create problems for me, as its logic suggests I can only
‘really’ understand suicide by committing suicide myself!)
So, in summary, there are many different views in sociology about what
societies are and the best ways of obtaining knowledge of them. 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, interpretivism and realism.
However, before looking at these theories, it is important to put them into
perspective, as it would be quite wrong to see sociology as divided into
three distinct and entirely separate approaches.
• First, few sociologists would describe themselves as a positivist,
interpretivist or realist. These are terms used primarily by
methodologists and social theorists to try to describe and evaluate the
theoretical assumptions underlying different approaches to research.
• Secondly, many studies in sociology use a combination of positivist,
interpretivist and, more recently, realist ideas, just as they use different
research methods.
• Thirdly, positivism, interpretivism and realism are very general
descriptive terms and there are many different theoretical approaches
within the general framework of each one.
For example, some interpretivists (following Weber) believe that
understanding the meanings that people give to their actions is the first
step towards explaining their behaviour. However, others (following
Schutz) argue that sociology cannot move beyond people’s subjective
meanings. We will be examining these approaches in more detail in
Chapter 4, section 4.3.

3.2 Positivism
Now read
Fulcher and Scott (2007) pp.24–27 or Macionis and Plummer (2005) pp.46–47 or
Macionis and Plummer (2008) pp.54–55 or Giddens (2008) pp.11–12.

Positivism originated as a philosophy of science. Its key idea is unity of

scientific method. This means that although the content of the various
sciences is obviously very different, the form of all scientific enterprise
is essentially the same. Scientific inquiry is based on the systematic
accumulation of ‘facts’ rather than on belief, opinion, tradition or divine
Many of the early sociologists writing in the nineteenth century, 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, chemistry and biology), sociology
could discover the ‘laws’ that explained how societies worked and changed.
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. However, a great
deal of research in sociology (and other social sciences) is underpinned
by positivist assumptions, so it is important to identify some of the most
important ones.
21 Principles of sociology

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. In more simple language, 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. For
positivists, science – and good social science – involves describing and
trying to explain these causal relationships.
For example, an economic recession in a society may cause higher
unemployment and poverty in some sections of a society, and this may
then be a cause of increasing rates of crime (Figure 3.3).

a b c
[economic [increased unemployment [increased crime]
recession] and economic deprivation]

Figure 3.3: How an effect may become a cause

Another positivistic assumption underlying much sociological research
is a deterministic view of the relationship between the individual and
society. This means that the organisation of the societies in which people
live causes them to think and act in the way they do, irrespective of their
free will, or choice. For example, in the case of crime given in Figure 3.3
increasing unemployment and poverty and not free choice ‘causes’ the
increase in crime.
Researchers adopting a positivist point of view may still be interested in
finding out about people’s subjective views. For example, they explore
things such as attitudes and opinions through survey research. However,
they see the task of sociology as explaining why people behave in the
way they do. How people really feel about things cannot be explained
scientifically and is the proper subject for ‘arts’ subjects, such as literature
or poetry.
In spite of its determinist views, positivism does not necessarily lead to a
fatalistic acceptance of the way things are. Just as scientists can intervene
in nature – for example, by finding the cause of a certain disease and
developing an effective treatment – so sociological research into the
causes of people’s behaviour can, in principle, be used to engineer social
change. For example, understanding the causes of crime can lead to the
development of policies that might reduce crime rates.
As you will have seen in your reading, Comte argued that it was possible
to know (about the world), to predict (what would happen in the future)
and to control (what they discovered was wrong in the world). In fact, he
went as far as suggesting that, as sociological expertise developed, future
societies would be run on the advice and guidance of sociologists!

Activity 3.1 Determinism and free will

Write down some characteristics of your own behaviour.
Do you feel that you behave in the way that you do because you make a free choice? Or
do you think that, to some extent at least, some of your behaviour has been determined
by things outside your direct control?
If so, what things (or factors) do you think have influenced your life?

Chapter 3: Theory and research

Another characteristic of positivist approaches is the distinction researchers
make between ‘theories’ (ideas) and ‘observations’ (empirical knowledge).
Empirical, or factual, knowledge is that which can be directly perceived.
This is known as an empiricist concept of knowledge, or epistemology.
Empiricist epistemology holds that the only valid source of knowledge is that
based on experience. For example, if, as you are reading this, you are sitting
on a chair, you know the chair exists because you can see it and feel it.
In scientific terms, an empiricist epistemology means that research has to
be grounded in concrete evidence that can be checked out. The positivist
view is that science (and ‘good’ social science) involves constructing
theories that express relations between observable phenomena (or things).
Theories are then tested out in research designs to see if the phenomena
behave in the way predicted by the theory. Theories may then be proven,
partly proven, or even falsified.
The important consequence of this sociologically is that positivist research
is confined to relationships between observable social phenomena.
According to this view, science and (good) social science, provides objective
knowledge that is, as far as possible, value free. What proves a scientific
‘truth’ is the empirical evidence, not the researcher’s subjective values or
arguments. We do not have to take the researcher’s word for it. The theory
can be tested and it is the evidence that shows whether or not it works. This
view can be summarised in the phrase ‘the facts speak for themselves’.

There are clear links between positivist theory and the research designs
and methods that we looked at in Chapter 2.
Before reading on, ask yourself what research designs and methods you
think would be most common in positivist research. If you cannot begin to
answer this, go back and reread about sociological research designs and
methods in Chapter 2.
The links between positivist theory and research can be worked out
logically from what we already know.
For positivists, the goal of sociology is to produce an objective
understanding of societies by following the principles of the natural
Therefore positive research is guided primarily by the ‘scientific criteria’
of the measuring instruments of quantification, systematic collection of
evidence, reliability and transparency. Positivist research designs tend to
be those that are closest to the logic of natural science research: surveys or
experimental designs.
Favoured methods are those that are more likely to produce testable and
quantifiable data, such as structured interviews, structured observation
and analysis of official statistics (Figure 3.4).

Theory Research design Research methods

(most common) (most common)

Positivism Social surveys Structural interviews

Experimental Structural observations
Comparative Official statistics

Figure 3.4: Theory, design and method

21 Principles of sociology

Positivist ideas are very important because they still underpin a great
deal of research in sociology, and almost all research in psychology and in
economics. However, they have been subject to a great deal of criticism.
Some sociologists, as we have seen, argue that scientific methods have
little or no application in sociology. Others suggest that the positivist
interpretation of science is flawed. We shall look at the alternative
sociological theories of knowledge arising out of these critiques below.

Activity 3.2 Positivism

Can you write down three characteristics of positivist theory?
Look at your list. Now make of few notes to explain how these points are linked to
each other.
Which of the following research projects is more likely to be underpinned by positivist
•• An in-depth analysis using unstructured interviews to find out how the victims
of crime really felt about their experiences.
•• A statistical study of crime rates amongst a city’s different ethnic populations.
Can you think of any other criticisms of positivist theory?
(For a clue, go back and look at the relation of theory to research on p.81, particularly
the second point on theory and data collection.)

Positivist theory argues that the methods of the natural sciences are
applicable to the study of societies (naturalism). In the positivist view,
sociology involves the search for causal relationships between observable
phenomena and theories are tested against observations. Although very
few sociologists today would describe themselves as positivists, positivist
assumptions are important because they still underpin a great deal of
empirical research.

3.3 Interpretivism
Further reading
Marsh (2002) pp.21–25.

The interpretivist tradition in sociology developed largely as a criticism of

the dominant theory of positivism.
Interpretivist sociologists do not necessarily reject the positivist account
of scientific knowledge, but what they do question is the idea that the
logic and methods of natural science can be imported into the study of
societies. Max Weber (1864–1920) was one of the main influences on the
interpretivist tradition in sociology. For him, ‘natural science’ and ‘social
science’ are two very different enterprises requiring a different logic and
different methods.

The humanist question

At the heart of interpretivist critique of positivism is a humanist viewpoint. Some of those
favouring an interpretivist view of sociology have long argued that in their quest for a
scientific explanation of social life, positivist sociologists have sometimes forgotten that
they are studying people, and to study people you need to get out and explore how they
really think and act in everyday situations.

Chapter 3: Theory and research

The same question is now being raised in other social sciences, some of which you may
be studying at some time on your programme. For example, there is now a flourishing
humanist movement in psychology. Economics, traditionally the most complacent and
self-consciously scientific of the social sciences, is starting to ask itself some similar
questions. 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. Consumers, for example, often make very ‘irrational’

The key idea of interpretivist ontology is that there is a fundamental

difference between the natural world and social world. The social world is
As Schutz (1899–1959), one of the most important influences on
interpretive sociology, argued:
The world of nature, as explored by the natural scientist, does
not ‘mean’ anything to molecules, atoms and electrons therein.
The observational field of the social scientist, however, namely
the social reality, has a specific meaning and relevance structure
for beings living, acting and thinking therein. (Schutz, 1954)

As people engage in conscious, intentional activities and attach meanings

to their actions, human societies are essentially subjective realities. Social
institutions – the subject matter of sociology – cannot be divorced from
the subjective understanding that people (including sociologists) have of
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, but does not apply in the social world. People do
not merely react to stimuli. Rather, they actively interpret the situations in
which they find themselves and act on the basis of these interpretations, as
we illustrate below.

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. What you would do next depends on how you interpret
his action. For example:

Interpretation Action
He is quite right. I have been making You apologise and promise to do
mistakes and causing him problems. better in future.

He is out of order and has no right to You argue back and threaten to
talk to me like that – the mistakes report him for bullying.
were mainly his fault anyway.

It is so unlike him to get angry like this, You stay quiet and accept the criticism.
but I know he has problems at home
and this is why he has lost his temper.

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.e. there is not necessarily a
consistent cause–effect relationship).
•• Whatever your response, a researcher cannot really make sense of your behaviour
without interpreting the meaning that you attributed to your manager’s actions,
for it is this meaning that explains your response.
21 Principles of sociology

Activity 3.3 Your week

Write down three experiences you have had in the past week.
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?

A key concept here (also described in Chapter 2 and Chapter 4, section
4.2) is verstehen, a German word meaning ‘understanding’. The idea
of verstehen is that researchers, as far as possible, 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.
Phenomenology is another important concept in interpretivist
epistemology, associated particularly with the work of Alfred Schutz. A
phenomenological approach means studying everyday life, focusing on
people’s states of consciousness and ‘bracketing off’ judgments about
what may be causing their behaviour. Phenomenology argues that it’s
not enough simply to interpret the meanings people give to their actions,
sociology has to show how people come to construct these meanings for
their actions. We will be looking at phenomenology in more detail in
Chapter 4, section 4.3.
Sociologists adopting an interpretivist approach to study crime, for
example, would not begin by asking what causes criminal behaviour. They
would start by trying to interpret criminal behaviour from the criminals’
point of view (see Activity below). This does not mean, of course, that
sociologists have to agree with those points of view but rather that they
have to interpret them in order to understand crime.
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’. This is elaborated in Activity 3.4 below.

Activity 3.4 The social meanings of actions

Car theft is a growing crime, particularly in Western societies. But the act of breaking into
someone’s car and driving it away can have different meanings for different people. For
•• financial gain: the car can be changed and sold
•• revenge: people who have expensive cars deserve to have them taken and
•• convenience: ‘borrowing’ someone’s car to get somewhere else
•• danger: the motivation is the risk of getting caught and being chased by the
Interpretivist sociologists argue that these different meanings require different
•• Ask yourself what meaning the degree programme you are now taking has for
•• Can you think of some different meanings that other students taking your degree
programme may have? If you have time, you could do a little research and ask
some of them.
•• How do you think these different meanings might influence students’ motivation
for the degree programme?

Chapter 3: Theory and research

The aim of interpretivist approaches in sociology is to understand the
subjective experiences of those being studied, how they think and feel and
how they act in their natural contexts.
Therefore, although interpretivists still try to be objective and systematic
in their research, the key criterion in interpretivist epistemology is validity.
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, unstructured
interviews and personal documents (Figure 3.5).

Theory Research design Research methods

(most common) (most common)

Positivism Social surveys Structural interviews

Experimental Structural observations
Comparative Official statistics

Interpretivism Ethnography Participant observation

Unstructured interviews
Personal documents

Figure 3.5: Theory, design and methods

Interpretivism has provided a powerful critique of many of the taken-for-
granted ideas of positivism that are widely used in sociology and in other
social sciences. It has also influenced a whole field of research illuminating
people’s everyday life experiences.
However, interpretivists’ accounts are criticised by some sociologists for
not providing testable hypotheses that can be evaluated. This can lead
to relativism where one theory, or study, is seen as just as good as any

Activity 3.5 Interpretivism

•• Identify three key characteristics of interpretivist theory.
•• Make some notes explaining how these characteristics are linked to each other.
•• Identify three research methods that are more likely to be favoured by
interpretivist sociologists.
•• Can you think of any criticisms of interpretivist theory other than the two
mentioned above?

Activity 3.6 Sociology and science

•• Write down some arguments in favour of sociology as a science of society.
•• Now write down some arguments against this view.
•• Which view do you find more convincing and why?

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. Sociological
methods are primarily about investigating and understanding the
meanings that people give to their actions.

21 Principles of sociology

3.4 Realism
Further reading
Parker (2003) Chapter 11 is also relevant to this section but it is not essential

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 generative mechanisms

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
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
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’,
• 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 Research design Research methods

(most common) (most common)
Positivism Social surveys Structural interviews
Experimental Structural observations
Comparative Official statistics

Interpretivism Ethnography Participant observation

Unstructural interviews
Personal documents
Realism Experimental Non-specific, but methods
Comparative are theory-focused

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.

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


Chapter 4: Theories and developments

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

Written by Dr Steve Taylor and Rosemary Gosling.

In the previous chapter we looked at theories of knowledge that have
general implications for social sciences. In this chapter we are going
to look at some sociological theories, or perspectives, that have been
specifically developed to describe and explain how societies work and
change. This chapter is particularly important for Section B. 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.

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, Durkheim
and Weber, 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.

Learning objectives
By the end of this chapter, and having completed the essential reading and
activities, you should:
• understand the historical development of sociology and its roots in the
• 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.

Chapter structure
4.1 Origins of sociology
4.2 Sociological theories
4.3 Bringing the individual back in
4.4 Postmodernity and sociology

Essential reading
Whereas in Chapter 3 your main reading was this subject guide, your
main reading here, particularly on the theories themselves, will be your

21 Principles of sociology

Fulcher, J. and J. Scott Sociology. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Chapter 2.
Giddens, A. Sociology. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008) Chapters 1 and 4.
Macionis, J. and K. Plummer Sociology: a global introduction. (Harlow: Prentice
Hall, 2005 edition) Chapters 2 and 7.
Macionis, J. and K. Plummer Sociology: a global introduction. (Harlow: Prentice
Hall, 2008 edition) Chapters 2 and 7.
Cuff, E., W.W. Sharrock and D.W. Francis (London: Routledge, 2006) Chapters
1–6, 8–9 and 12–13.
Lee, D. and H. Newby The problem of sociology. (London: Routledge, 2000)
Parts 1 and 4–8.

Further reading
We suggest that if you want to look for these in an order of preference, it
should be Swingewood, Parker, Kumar and Lyon first.
Bhaskar, R. Scientific realism and human emancipation. (London: Verso, 1986).
Kumar, K. From post-industrial to post-modern society: new theories of the
contemporary world. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).
Lyon, D. Postmodernity. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1999).
Marsh, I. Theory and practice in sociology. (Harlow: Prentice Hall, 2002)
Chapters 4, 6 and 7.
May, T. Situating social theory. (Buckingham: Open University 2008) Chapters
1, 2 and 10.
Parker, J. Social theory: a basic tool kit. (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003) Chapters
Pawson, R. ‘Methodology’ in Taylor, S. (ed.) Sociology: issues and debates.
(Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1999).
Pawson, R. Measure for measures: a manifesto for an empirical sociology.
(London: Routledge, 1989).
Schutz, A. ‘Concept and theory formation’, The Journal of Philosophy 51(9)
1954, pp.257–73.
Swingewood, A. A short history of sociological thought. (Basingstoke:
Macmillan, 2005) third edition.

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

4.1 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. However,
to begin to understand these theories, it is necessary first to look back to
the origins of sociology. What was sociology trying to explain? Why did it
develop when it did? What ideas influenced its development?

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

From pre-modernity to modernity

First, 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. It has a rather different meaning in sociology. A modern society
is sociological shorthand to describe societies which are characterised
by mass production, consumer goods, urban living, nation states and
predominantly secular values.
• Modernity: this describes the attributes of modern societies outlined
• Modernisation: this means the processes of societies becoming
• Industrialisation: this describes a process of rapid economic growth
arising from the increasingly sophisticated application of inanimate
(i.e. mechanical) sources of power. The invention and development of
the steam engine, for example, had a major impact on the process of
• Urbanisation: a process where the proportion of people living in
urban areas increases.
• Market: in its most general sense a market is an arena where goods
and services are freely exchanged for money. Most modern societies
have been characterised by the spread of market economics and this
is reflected in sociological thinking. For example, Weber’s concept of
social class was built on classifying people’s market situation.
• 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.
Sociology developed in Europe in the nineteenth century, primarily as an
attempt to understand the massive social and economic changes that had
been sweeping across Western Europe in the seventeenth, eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries. These changes were later described as ‘the great
transition’ from ‘pre-modern’ to ‘modern’ societies.
As Francis has observed:
The idea of a ‘great transition’ by which modern, urban, industrial
society emerged from pre-modern society, rural society is arguably
the central motif of the history of sociology. In one form or another
it has influenced every area of sociology and provided some of its
most abiding theoretical and empirical questions.1 1
Francis (1987) p.1.

The distinction between ‘pre-modern’ and ‘modern’ is outlined below.

However it is important, first, to get these terms into perspective. Pre-
modernity and modernity are very general terms used by sociologists to
describe the key characteristics of societies and long processes of social
change. Societies don’t suddenly just change from one form to another.
All historical periods are the legacy of what came before and the past
doesn’t just disappear. 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.

21 Principles of sociology

Pre-modern societies were predominantly rural and agricultural; that
is, the majority of the population lived and worked on the land. It was
largely a non-market economy and production was based on small units,
organised around the family; there was a very limited division of labour
with very little mobility (that is movement) between different strata.
Although there were various occupational strata, such as clerics, soldiers,
merchants and craftsmen, the two major strata in Europe were the lords,
or aristocracy, and the peasants, or serfs. The lords owned the land and the
peasants worked the land, giving the greater part of what they produced
to the lords. This economic order was known as feudalism.
Politically, pre-modern societies were largely decentralised with localised
leadership and government was despotic, or arbitrary. Justice and
punishment depended largely on the personal views of those dispensing it.
Religion was the major source of intellectual authority, and custom and
tradition governed people’s everyday behaviour. There was a sense of
permanence about social life: things were done in certain ways because
they had always been done that way.

Modern societies are predominantly urban and industrial and the
majority of them are capitalist. Modern economies are money-based
market economies with mass production of goods organised in factories.
The division of labour becomes increasingly complex and allocation to
occupational roles is based, at least in theory, more on qualifications and
achievement than on birth and privilege.
Modern societies are characterised politically by centralised nation states
that begin to play an increasingly large part in people’s lives by, for
example, providing employment for many and services, such as education,
health care and welfare to most citizens. Social life is organised around
formal rules and bureaucratic procedures rather than custom and tradition,
and science replaces religion as the major source of intellectual authority.
In modern societies the pace of life increases: industrial societies are
societies in a permanent state of change. As Karl Marx famously put it, ‘all
that is solid melts into air’.

Pre-modern Modern
Agricultural production Industrial production
Small-scale units of production Large-scale units of mass production
Village communities/small towns Urban conurbations
Traditional values and behaviour Rational, goal-orientated activity
Religion major source of knowledge Science major source of knowledge
Dominant class: aristocracy Dominant class: capitalist class
Majority class: peasantry Majority class: industrial workers
Despotic government Democratic government

Figure 4.1: Pre-modern and modern societies

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, the fact that societies were changing so dramatically in such
a short space of time led some scholars to become curious about societies,
and they began asking questions about the sources of social order and social
change and the effect of these changes on people’s lives. These are questions
that we identified in Chapter 1 as fundamental sociological questions.
However, just as modern societies developed out of pre-modern societies,
so the ‘new’ subject of sociology drew on earlier influences, and one of
the most significant of these was an intellectual movement known as the

Activity 4.1 Are you living in modernity?

Different societies have ‘modernised’ at different times.
Would you describe your society as a ‘modern’ society? If so, when do you think it
became modern? (You would probably be describing a period of around 50 years or so
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.11–15 or Macionis and Plummer (2008) pp.12–17 or
Fulcher and Scott (2007) pp.23–27 or Giddens (2008) p.10.

Further reading
Swingewood (2005) provides an excellent explanation of the Enlightenment.

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. It championed the
power of human reason, the rights of the individual and a commitment to
social progress.
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, superstition, irrationality and, above all, religious
dogma. Major figures of the Enlightenment included philosophers
Descartes (1596–1650) and Kant (1724–1804), the scientist Isaac Newton
(1643–1727), and writer Voltaire (1694–1778).
Although it was a diverse movement spanning different subject areas in
different countries in Europe, Enlightenment philosophers shared two
First, they believed in the power of the rationality of the human mind to
understand the world. Science was the epitome of reason and rationality
because it produced objective knowledge of the world that was not
conditioned by religious superstition.
Second, they had confidence that human beings would use this knowledge
to transform the world for the better. Scientific knowledge would give
people more power and control over nature, and this power would be used
to improve the human condition. For example, scientific developments
would create more productive agriculture, more consumer goods, and
scientific medicine would reduce disease.
21 Principles of sociology

The radical nature of these ideas should not be underestimated. 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.
There had, of course, been a number of individual scholars who had
challenged the Church’s view of the world long before the Enlightenment.
However, what was distinctive about the Enlightenment was that it was a
social movement whose influence spread beyond the scholars themselves.
Technological developments, particularly in transport and printing, 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.
The Enlightenment thus brought about a cultural change in what constitutes
knowledge and a distinctly ‘modern’ conception of knowledge was born.
This modern way of thinking was not only applied to the study
of the natural world, it was also increasingly applied to the social
world. Embryonic sociological perspectives could be detected in the
Enlightenment, as scholars became more interested in how social life was
organised. Hamilton (1992) suggests that the essence of this embryonic
sociology is captured by Kant’s motto, ‘dare to know’.
For the first time, 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. By knowing about these
social arrangements, their operation would become clear and thus open to
change. (Hamilton, 1992, pp.55–56).
However, although Enlightenment philosophers were interested in ‘the
social’ and how it could, and should, be organised, they lacked a concept of
‘society’. The idea that societies were subjects of study in their own right did
not come until the nineteenth century when early sociologists, such as Henri
St Simon (1760–1825) and Auguste Comte (1798–1857), used the concept
of society to describe the new institutions, social groupings and productive
processes arising out of the wreckage of the pre-modern European world.
This view represented a break with the Enlightenment. While the
Enlightenment philosophers, committed to the idea of individuals as
essentially rational and self-sufficient, saw societies merely as collections
of individuals, for most early sociologists, societies were much more than
this. Although created by individuals, they also shaped the ways that
people thought and acted.
However, the Enlightenment ideal of providing rational understanding
of societies in order to improve them, not only inspired the genesis of
sociology but continues to underpin the subject today.

In nineteenth century Europe, as an attempt to make sense of the massive
changes taking place in newly modernising societies, sociology developed
as an autonomous subject, separate from philosophy and economics.
Sociology was – and continues to be – profoundly influenced by the
Enlightenment’s key values of rationality, scientific understanding and the
application of knowledge to improving the human condition.

Activity 4.2
Comte’s famous statement was ‘To know is to predict, to predict is to control’. How did
Comte believe we could ‘know’? How did he believe sociology could predict?

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

4.2 Sociological theories

The best textbook for this section is Fulcher and Scott (2007) Chapter 2. This will provide
you with most of the reading required for this section.
Giddens (2008), and Macionis and Plummer (2005 or 2008) provide good introductory
material, but do not go into enough depth for this unit. 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.
We have indicated two supporting texts:
Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006) or Lee and Newby (2000).
For extra reading, Swingewood (2005) provides an excellent historical approach and links
Chapter 3 and Chapter 4, section 4.1 very well to this section.

Works cited
Cohen, P. Modern social theory. (London: Heinemann, 1968)
[ISBN 9780435821814].
Craib, I. Modern social theory. (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992) second
edition [ISBN 9780312086749].
Durkheim, E. Le suicide. [Most recent edition: London: Routledge, 2002]
Translated by Spaulding, J.A. and G. Simpson. [ISBN 9780710033116].
Durkheim, E. The division of labour. (Basingstoke: Macmillan,1984) second
edition [ISBN 9780333339817].
Elwell, Frank The sociology of Max Weber. (1996).
Gerth, H.H. and C. Wright Mills (eds) From Max Weber. (London: Routledge,
1991) [ISBN 9780415060561 (pbk)].
Marx, K. Das Kapital.
Marx, K. The German ideology. See: 8
Marx, K. ‘Preface to a contribution to the critique of political economy’ in Karl
Marx: early writings. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975)
[ISBN 9780140216684].
Parsons, Talcott The structure of social action. (Free Press, 1969)
[ISBN 9780029242407].
Weber, Max On the methodology of the social sciences. (Glencoe: Free Press,
1949) [ISBN 9780029343609].
Weber, Max The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Translated by
Talcott Parsons, with an introduction by Anthony Giddens (London: Unwyn
Hyman, 1989) [ISBN 9780415254069].

We begin this section by reading about how social theory developed from –
and in reaction to – the Enlightenment.
• 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, Weber and
the structural functionalists.
• The second part will address theories which are broadly interpretivist.

21 Principles of sociology

• The third part of this section will link the two and introduce you to
some new developments. You will have come across many of these
theories in your initial reading but here we concentrate on their major
contributions to social theory.
While you are reading, 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.
• Social theorists themselves were profoundly influenced by other social
theorists and the times in which they wrote, so it is important that you
have some knowledge of the history and the society in which they were
• You are not learning about social theory for its own sake. 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.
• 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
• 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.
While you are reading about these sociologists, 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
• 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
In short, think about how they address the key sociological
problems which you encountered in Chapter 1.
This section of the subject guide is vital for the work that you will do on your
Section C topic. The writers of Section C chapters have assumed that you
will have knowledge of the sociological theory introduced here. 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.
After you have worked on Section C return to this section of
Chapter 4. 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.

Examination advice
In the examination you will be expected to write about any one or more
sociologists. The questions could ask you to describe and explain the
major aspects of their perspective, criticise their assumptions, compare
them, assess their contribution to sociology, etc. You may also be asked
to describe any one perspective, for example: Marxism, structural
functionalism, symbolic interactionism.

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

In the first part of section 4.1 we described the great changes that occurred
in Europe. You read about the economic changes (industrialisation and
urbanisation) and, most importantly for this section, the Enlightenment.
We have created a flowchart (on p.90) for you to track the sociologists that
we will be discussing. Use it to help you locate them in time. This diagram
has been left intentionally incomplete – feel free to add your own notes
and links as you read.
Professor Percy Cohen suggested that all sociological theory should:
• explain, or suggest ways of explaining, 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.2 2
Cohen (1968).

Cohen believed that 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. Marx, Weber and Durkheim along with Comte, are often
called ‘The founding fathers’ of sociology, so you should know about
these social theorists and the influence they had on the development of
sociology. Keep these aims in mind as you read about these sociologists
and the other sociological perspectives you are introduced to.

Karl Marx (1818–1883)

Before you read this section on Marx, look up and read the section on Marx in your
chosen textbook or in any reference book, or on the website 8
Note: Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006) or Lee and Newby (2000) provide a good deal
of material on Marx, and we will not give you a complete description of his work or
the work of the later Marxists here. We have provided you with some guidance for your
reading and some description of his concepts, especially historical materialism.

Marx was one of the greatest social critics of the nineteenth century.
Marx’s ideas have had a profound influence not only on sociology but
on many social and political movements, indeed many revolutions in the
twentieth century were, in part, influenced by them.
He wrote extensively on economics and philosophy and all these ideas
have been incorporated in much twentieth century sociological theory. A
major aspect of his work concerned the nature of social relationships, and
particularly class relationships, so it quite properly fits into sociology.
You should be aware of the major influences on his thought. 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. 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).
• The Utopian Socialists.
• German Idealism – Hegel.

21 Principles of sociology

The Enlightenment philosophers


(1724 - 1804)

(1770 - 1831)

(1798 - 1857)

Spencer (1818 - 1880)
(1820 - 1903)

(1858 - 1917)
Weber Meade
(1864 - 1920) (1863 - 1931)

Structural Symbolic
Marxism Ethnomethodology
Functionalism Interactionism

Figure 4.2

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

Marx’s influences: Georg Hegel

Georg Hegel (1770–1831) is important for an understanding of Marx’s
historical materialism.

Idealism, (progress and human history)

Idealists, as we have seen in Chapter 3, section 3.1 attempt to explain the
nature of society in terms of human consciousness. ‘What distinguishes
humanity from other living things is its ability to conceptualise, to construct
categories of thought.’ Hegel believed in the ‘progression’ of humanity, 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 further suggested that the ability to control the natural
world would result in a creation of a ‘superior moral and social life’.

The dialectic
The Hegelian notion of the dialectic holds that all matter (or the
thesis) always and inevitably creates its own opposite (or antithesis).
From the contradiction between the thesis and the antithesis there
emerges a transformation which becomes the new thesis.3 3
Lee and Newby (2000).

These two major aspects of Hegelian logic are central to Marx’s analysis.
Change is seen as ‘progress’ but society changes dialectically through
struggle and contradiction.

Marx’s influences: Ludwig Feuerbach

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872) was a pupil of Hegel, who developed
his ideas and suggested the following: Gods did not create humanity but
humanity created gods. These ‘gods’ were idealised creations of human
Early religions were based on attempts by their believers to make sense
of the world especially in times of disruption. 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’. Over time, these ‘social constructions’
became institutionalised into formidable belief systems which control their
adherents. He called this phenomenon religious alienation.

Activity 4.3
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. 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,
which he called the ‘opium of the people’. He accepted Feuerbach’s
assertion that religion was a social creation, but he suggested that people
create religion to deal with the real misery which confronts them.

21 Principles of sociology

As long as people were poor, ignorant and needful of help, religious

ways of thought, however illusory, would constantly reproduce

Marx rejected Feuerbach’s view of religious alienation. He believed that

the reason that people believed in supernatural forces was a result of their
objective situation. If they were unhappy then they turned to religion,
which acted as an opiate and which would dull their pain. Religious
beliefs and values were not, as the idealists suggested, independent of the
material conditions that existed in a particular era.
Therefore Marx rejected the notion that ideas determine social life;
there is a real material world and in order to gain knowledge of this
material world we must participate in it. It is not enough to theorise about
it. He therefore suggested that it was necessary to examine the nature of
the material conditions that faced the working class, to uncover the real
relationships between capital and labour.

Marx and realism

In Chapter 3, section 3.4 you read about realism. You will see here that
the capitalist mode of production is an example of a theoretical construct
which cannot be observed directly. You have to ‘look beneath the surface’
to find out how capitalism works.

Now read
Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006) pp.10–20 or Lee and Newby (2000) pp.113–15. Ensure
that you understand the influences of Hegel and the Idealists on Marx’s thought.

From these ideas follow Marx’s ontological assumptions about the nature
of society.

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’. 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, we
should study society empirically and scientifically rather than by means of
speculation or metaphysics.

Now read
At this point, reread the section on Epistemology in Chapter 3 (pp.78–79).

Materialism is not an easy concept. At its most basic in Marxist analysis, 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. Everything else follows from this: social relationships, the
structure of society, ideology, etc.
The first premise of all human existence and, therefore, of all
history, (is that humans) must be in a position to live in order to be
able to ‘make history’. But life involves before anything else, eating
From Marx, The German
and drinking, a habitation (shelter/home), clothing and many other
Ideology – see www.marxists.
things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to org/archive/marx/works/1845/
satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself.4 german-ideology/ch01a.htm

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

Activity 4.4
‘Men distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they produce their means of
subsistence.’ (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, nature controlled man, and

human development involved man’s increasing ability to control nature.
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
tsunami and other earthquakes.

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. 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; ownership and
non-ownership of the productive forces; the nature of the relationships
between the major classes, the economic roles that are allowed by the
The forces and relations of production make up the economic base
(infrastructure). The superstructure is, in the last instance, ‘determined’
by the infrastructure and is composed of the prevailing cultural ideas, and
other social institutions, including law.

Now read
Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006) pp.21–22 or Lee and Newby (2000) pp.115–20.

As with many social theorists of the nineteenth century, the idea of

progress and development was central to Marx’s writings. He explains
change dialectically. Changes occur in the way that goods are produced as
a result of changes in technology, for example, in agriculture during the
agricultural revolution, or the steam engine in the industrial revolution.
These changes give rise to tensions and contradictions between the
productive relations and the productive forces (infrastructure). These
tensions in turn give rise to changes in the superstructure.

Marx: conflict and contradictions

Dialectical materialism
At the centre of Marxist analysis is the concept of the dialectic (see Hegel).
Conflict for Marx is the motor of history. Dialectic strains exist between:
a. society and nature – between any given level of technology (the
productive forces) and the conditions in which these productive forces
b. the level of technology and the existing social organisation (social
relations) which prevent new forms of technology emerging
c. the newly developed productive relationships of production (classes)
and the traditional system of political ideological institutions

21 Principles of sociology

Political and legal Forms of social

(ideological) consciousness (art, Socioeconomic
superstructure literature, religion) formation

Relations of production

Mode of
3 production
Productive forces
(extra-social environment + human hereditary endowment)
1, 2, 3 – Main dialectic strains
Figure 4.3
Source: Diagram adapted from: Sztompka, P. The Sociology of Change. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993)
[ISBN 0631182063 (pbk)] p.172.

Now read
Fulcher and Scott (2007) pp.787–90 or Macionis and Plummer (2005) pp.82–88 or
Macionis and Plummer (2008) pp.101–06 or Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006) pp.22–32
or Giddens (2008) pp.14–17.

In your reading you will discover that there are at least two different
readings of Marx: humanistic Marxism and scientific or structural
Marxism. There have been many ‘readings’ of Marx’s works. Some suggest
that the real Marx did not believe that the mode of production determined
everything in the superstructure (the Humanists). Others suggest that the
economic base is the determining factor in explaining the prevailing legal
and political arrangements in society (the Structuralists).
Humanistic Marxism
Marx believed that the history of mankind had a ‘double aspect’.
Developments in technology gradually allowed ‘man’ to control
nature. (Remember that Marx was writing in the nineteenth century;
industrialisation was occurring throughout Europe). There was general
optimism about people’s ability to develop natural resources to produce
even more sophisticated goods, and to provide protection from the
elements. However Marx believed that the processes of production in
capitalism increasingly alienated people. The working class in capitalism
became dehumanised.
Alienation refers to the process, endemic to capitalism,
whereby the products of human labour become expropriated
from and appear as opposed – ‘alien’ – to those who produce
them. Workers, indeed not only become alienated from the
products of their labour, but from the labour process itself, from
each other and ultimately from themselves.5 5
Lee and Newby (2000) p.117

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

Activity 4.5
It is a strange idea to think that people could be alienated from themselves (what Marx
described as being alienated from ‘their species being’).
Think about this for a few minutes. 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. We cannot understand them. 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.

Marx suggested that Capitalism prevented the people of the working class
from understanding their true nature and from understanding their real
interests. Therefore people were unaware of what they could achieve.
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. This could be achieved by
what Marx called praxis – putting theory into action.
Marx suggested that the world would not be changed by simply ‘thinking
about it’. Remember that he had rejected Hegel’s idealism:
The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various
ways; the point, however is to change it.6 6
Marx (1975).

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. They have to be encouraged and persuaded by political actors
(like Marx).
Note: Lenin took the concept of praxis further. He believed that without
leadership, the working class will become economistic (they will simply
struggle for money not political power). So Humanist Marxists concentrate
on both superstructural and infrastructural elements. They believe these
have an independent role to play in the class struggle.
Structural Marxism
Marxists such as Louis Althusser (1918–1990) believed that the Humanist
Marxists laid too much emphasis on the superstructural aspects. Althusser
suggested that there had been an epistemological break in Marx’s writings.
Marx’s early writings, he considered, were more philosophical and concerned
with alienation and the possibility of emancipation, whereas in Das Kapital
he was concerned with exploitation. This exploitation could be understood
and measured objectively. It is possible to measure the value of a commodity
and the extent to which the capitalist has extracted surplus value.

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.
A person’s class position depends on his relationship to the means of
production – whether they are ‘owners’ or ‘nonowners’.
Capitalism is a system of commodity production, everything is produced
for sale in the ‘market’. Labour itself is a commodity. 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 value of a product is the effort put into
creating the product. The products that the workers made are sold in the
market and the capitalists receive profit from these transactions. The profit
they receive is the part of the value of the work that is put into creating
the profit.

21 Principles of sociology

In capitalism, the working class is a class of ‘non-ownership’. The interests

of the capitalist class are opposed to the working class (zero-sum game).
The capitalist class extracts ‘surplus value’ from the working class, which is
unaware of the true nature of the relationship. The capitalist class exploits
the workers, who are the ones that create value, by not giving them the
full value of their labour.

Now read
Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006) pp.22–34 or Lee and Newby (2000) pp.124–32.
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, in religious belief and practices in the last 30 years, and in the
forms of inequality particularly in power, gender and ethnic relationships.

Activity 4.6
See if you can answer these questions:
1. How did Marx view society?
2. What is meant by alienation and how does it occur?
3. Does a Marxist analysis of class have relevance today?
4. What is the role of the individual in Marxism?
5. Explain the concept ‘mode of production’. How does society change from one
epoch to another?
6. What is meant by the terms ‘dialectical materialism’ and ‘historical determinism’?
7. Why is Marx described as a conflict theorist?
8. Was Marx a humanist?
9. 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, and also for
the Section C chapters on Power in society, Social inequality and social
injustice, the Sociology of organisations and Religion and society.
However, 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. You will not be required to know and understand all
the material in Lee and Newby (2000). The section in Fulcher and Scott
(2007) on Marx gives a good indication of the level required, and when
read with this section Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006) covers all the
materials necessary.

Emile Durkheim (1858–1917)

First we suggest that you look up and read about Durkheim in your chosen textbook.
Fulcher and Scott (2007) provide a good introduction in Chapter 2. Chapter 1 of Giddens
(2008) also provides some useful background. Macionis and Plummer (2005 or 2008)
have written a short piece in Part 2 which provides a good account of the concept of

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

Durkheim’s mission was to develop sociology as an academic discipline.

He was influenced by August Comte (1798–1857) and Herbert Spencer
(1820–1903). Comte, working in France, and Spencer in England, both
developed the idea of comparing society to an organism. This has become
known as the biological analogy. It views society as a system of
interrelated parts, each institution playing a part to sustain society, and
working together to ensure that society ‘survives’. Spencer (see Fulcher
and Scott, 2007, pp.27–28 or Lee and Newby (2000) pp.73–82) believed
that as societies evolved, they became more specialised, just as organisms
grow and mature, societies become increasingly complex and specialised
as they evolve.
Durkheim saw the practical role of the sociologist as being similar to that
of a physician. He believed that scientific sociology would enable the
sociologist to distinguish between the sickness (pathology) and the health
of a society. Sociology would enable a diagnosis of the causes of pathology
to be undertaken and, once these causes were understood, remedies could
be suggested. One of the greatest problems he identified was the growing
individualism in nineteenth-century society and the withdrawal of
individuals from public life.

Durkheim’s key ideas

Below we outline Durkheim’s key ideas – they will help guide your reading
on the chapters indicated here. All the texts have a description of Suicide
which is important for you as you study ‘Research Methods’, ‘Sociology as
a Science’ and ‘Methodology’.

Now read
Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006) Chapter 4, pp.61–63 or Chapter 14 in Lee and Newby
(2000) ‘Moral obligation and individual life’.

• The scientific nature of sociology. Following on from Comte,

Durkheim believed that the methods that sociologists should use should
be modelled on the methods used in the natural sciences (Naturalism).
They should seek to find out law-like relations between phenomena.
• Holism. Durkheim believed that society is more than the aggregate of
individuals. Society exists and is observable in its effects (see Realism
in Chapter 3). Society exists sui generis. The individual cannot exist
without society and society has a constraining influence on individual
and group behaviour.
Society is a moral force which acts on individuals. Norms and values
are created by individuals acting in groups, these induce individuals to
conform to the society. The example Durkheim used was the religious
beliefs and practices of the aboriginal peoples of Australia. This moral
force is also creative as it provides the cultural resources necessary for
individuals to lead their lives in a group. Durkheim believed that man
is only a moral being because he lives in society (since morality consists
in solidarity of the group, and varies according to that society).
The social should be separated from the psychological. 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. 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.

21 Principles of sociology

Now read
Look up and read about Durkheim’s work Suicide in your textbooks.

• Social facts/society. In determining the nature/existence of social

structures, Durkheim set out two criteria: social facts must be external
and also have constraining effects which set limits to our actions.
Durkheim suggested that we must treat ‘social facts as things’. Cuff,
Sharrock and Francis (2006) give the example of the law. Law is
external to our perception of it and it certainly constrains our actions.
Fashion would be another example. Social facts can only be explained
by other social facts, but not by other facts (biological, geographical,
psychological, etc).

Activity 4.7
If you are using Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006) as your main textbook, try the same
activity with ‘fashion’ that they use with law to see if you understand the concept of a
social fact.

• Functionalist method of explanation. Social phenomena and

institutions can be explained in terms of their role in the maintenance
of society as a whole (see above). However, Durkheim did not explain
the cause of social facts by their functions (unlike many later
functionalists). The cause of a social fact must be accounted for in
relation to other social facts. ‘The punishment attached to a crime, for
example, may express an intense collective sentiment of disapproval.
The collective sentiment in society is the cause of the disapproval’.7 7
Fulcher and Scott (2003) p.35.
Functional analysis is concerned with the effects of a social fact, not
its causes. It explains the part that a social fact plays in relation to the
needs of society. Here the explanation of the social fact/phenomenon
is explained not in terms of what it is, but what it does for the whole.
Hence Durkheim suggests that religion helps to meet a society’s need
for social cohesion, so that is why religion exists in society.

Activity 4.8
Can you think how religion can help meets a society’s need for social cohesion? Think
about times of natural disaster, or war or internal struggles.

Society and social change

Durkheim described two forms of society, which he differentiated by their
different forms of solidarity (cohesiveness): mechanical and organic
Mechanical solidarity
This is a form of solidarity which Durkheim believed existed in very simple
societies. These societies were small, self-sufficient groups; there was little
specialisation and thus a low division of labour, individuals did not depend
on each other for their existence. The solidarity in the society is a result of
the likeness of the members.
Where most of the experiences of the individuals are similar, they are
therefore likely to hold similar value systems. There is a moral consensus
which unites members of the society. 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.

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

The function of religion in these societies was to reinforce this consensus.

The collective consciousness is strong in these societies and the law is
The decline of mechanical societies was a result of increasing population
growth, which created pressures that could only be accommodated by
greater specialisation.
Organic solidarity
Whereas in simple societies there was a low division of labour, organic
societies were characterised by greater differences between the members
as a result of specialisation and a complex division of labour. Organic
solidarity occurs as a result of difference, individuals rely on each other for
their existence. They are functionally interdependent on each other.
The law in these societies is restitutive.

The division of labour

Durkheim’s concept of the division of labour is different from Marx.
(Remember Marx believed that the division of labour through production
was one of the factors that contributed to the alienation of the working
class.) For Durkheim, the division of labour consists of moral as well as
economic ties, and therefore derives from society rather than being outside
or opposed to society.
Work is not shared out by independent individuals who are
already differentiated from one another, who meet and
associate together in order to pool their different abilities. It
would be a miracle if these differences, arising from chance
circumstances, could be so accurately harmonised as to form a
coherent whole. Far from preceding collective life they derive
from it. They can only occur within a society, under the pressure
of social sentiments and needs.8 8
From Durkheim (1893;
Therefore, for Durkheim, it is through the division of labour in organic
societies that society becomes cohesive and solidaristic.

The word anomie comes from the Greek word Anomos, which means
‘without laws’.
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, unclear or not present’. In Suicide (1897) he
describes it as ‘morally deregulated behaviour’.
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,
causing people to feel morally adrift and lacking moral direction.
Religion in these societies was a constraining force whereas in organic
societies religion is less important in constraining people’s behaviour.
However, Durkheim believed that other sets of beliefs and values would
develop, which would serve to constrain behaviour and so prevent anomie.
He believed these to be Nationalism and even the belief in the power of

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. Non-
members 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 9
The Protestant ethic and the
illustration of this. In this text, Weber described and explained the rise spirit of capitalism is one of
Weber’s key texts. Most libraries
of capitalism in the West. He did not believe that this explanation was
have copies of this and we do
generalisable to other epochs advise you to read some of it to
Whereas Durkheim concentrated on social structures; Weber see Weber’s writing at first-hand.
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 10
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.
Chapter 4: Theories and developments

Whereas science can provide the knowledge about how to do things, for
example by adopting rational principles, scientific techniques are ‘empty of
meaning’. He was particularly concerned about the growing bureaucracy
in modern society. An example of this is his concern about the growing
bureaucratisation of the modern world. 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.
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, little men clinging to little
jobs and striving toward bigger ones – a state of affairs which
is to be seen once more, as in the Egyptian records, playing an
ever increasing part in the spirit of our present administrative
systems, and especially of its offspring, the students. This passion
for bureaucracy ... is enough to drive one to despair. It is as if
in politics … we were to deliberately to become men who need
‘order’ and nothing but order, become nervous and cowardly if for
one moment this order wavers, and helpless if they are torn away
from their total incorporation in it. That the world should know no
men but these: it is in such an evolution that we are already caught
up, and the great question is, therefore, not how we can promote
and hasten it, but what can we oppose to this machinery in order
to keep a portion of mankind free from this parcelling-out of the
soul, from this supreme mastery of the bureaucratic way of life.11 11
Elwell (1996).

Activity 4.11
Now look up rationalisation in your textbooks. In your own words attempt to write a
definition of it. Then take any large-scale organisation that you know and see if it mirrors
the situation described by Weber in the quote above.
For example, in his work The McDonaldisation of society, George Ritzer suggested that
rationalisation and bureaucratisation is a feature of many organisations in society. He
described how McDonald’s organises every aspect of the work process into smaller parts
which can be controlled and standardised.

Weber and idealism

You may have read that much of Weber’s sociology has been described as
a ‘debate with the “Ghost of Marx”’. Remember that for Marx, the basis of
society is the way that material production is organised; change occurs
first in the way that goods are produced. For Weber, human motivation
and ideas were the major forces behind social change. Weber also
disagreed with Marx who believed that most structures, being composed
of a large number of continuing social relationships, were external to
and coercive of social actors. Weber focused on social action and saw
social structures not as external to and independent of individuals. Social
structures, according to Weber, are formed by a complex interplay of social
For materialists, ‘matter matters’; the way that things are produced will
determine the way that society is organised. Weber on the other hand
suggests it is the change from traditional to rational thinking that makes
the difference. It is the willingness to use and adapt to new technologies,
that indicates how rational a society is. Weber rejected all determinist
models of social explanation but he accepted that material considerations
were extremely important.
21 Principles of sociology

Activity 4.12
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. Thus:

Traditional action Traditional domination

Affective action Charismatic domination
Instrumentally rational action
Value rational action } Legal rational domination

In traditional societies the dominant type of social action is tradition.

Individuals give authority to those in power on the basis of their
traditional right to rule. Weber described the first two forms of action as
being non-rational.
Weber categorised societies by the differences in how they viewed the
world. In pre-industrial society, traditional action was dominant and
people’s actions were guided by the past, whereas in industrial/capitalist
society individuals’ actions are goal-oriented.

Now read
Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006) or Lee and Newby (2000) on Weber’s The Protestant
Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism.

The importance of this work lies in Weber’s methodology and the

comparison with Marx’s analysis of 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’.
For Weber the central organising principle of the modern system was
rational capitalism. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
was Weber’s attempt to explain how the process occurred.
The Protestant Ethic thesis demonstrates Weber’s ideas of rationality and
rational action.
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. Weber was
determined to argue against the economic determinism of the some of the
later Marxists. Lee and Newby also give a good corrective to those texts,
which state that Protestantism caused the development of capitalism.

Now read
Chapter 3 on Weber in Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006) or Chapters 11 and 12 in Lee
and Newby (2000). We outline some of the most important methodological aspects of
Weber’s sociology below. Try to see how these points compare with the notes that you
will have made on Marx and Durkheim. We will use the example of The Protestant Ethic
and the Spirit of Capitalism to illustrate these key ideas.

Weber’s methodology
Sociology should focus primarily on empirical research, formulating
theories on the basis of this research, not on a priori assumptions. (A
priori literally means ‘from the former’. A priori assumptions imply that
knowledge exists prior to experience. We ‘know’ that 2 + 2 = 4 without

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

any further research.) 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. Weber saw society as
an aggregate of individuals rather than an ‘entity’. In this sense he is close
to the social constructionists but he did not go as far as they do, as
they suggest that society is itself a ‘social construction’. Therefore we
should use methods which can examine aggregate behaviour.
In The Protestant Ethic, he suggested that rational capitalism arose in
part because of the behaviour of the Protestants, which had changed. The
changing belief systems caused changes in the way that the Protestants
worked, saved and spent their money. As they saved and spent their
resources wisely they were able to accumulate capital which could then
be invested in rational projects. This change in aggregate behaviour was
one of the reasons behind the development of rational capitalism.
Value freedom/value neutrality
The social sciences should be principally concerned with addressing
practical problems. However, Weber suggested that social scientists should,
as far as possible, seek to be value free – that is, to place to one side
judgments about what ought to be the case (normative statements). The
social scientist is concerned with the evaluation of means rather than ends
or goals.
However objectivity in the social sciences should not be confused or
treated as synonymous with political neutrality or ‘sitting on the fence’.
Weber rejected all determinist theories, believing that the explanations of
sociologists must always be rooted in an interpretive understanding of the
subjective meaning that individuals give to their actions.
The comparative method
The social sciences proceed through the construction of ‘ideal types’
which have been called ‘interpretive benchmarks’. Examples of these
include: bureaucracy, caste, social action, rational capitalism. You should
note that these ideal types were created by Weber. These ideal types
are important in comparative sociology as they allow social phenomena
to be compared with the ideal type. 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. 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.

Now read
Look up descriptions of the ideal type and its use in the social sciences in your textbooks.

Activity 4.13
Attempt to construct an ideal type – of a farm perhaps – or even an ideal type of a
sociology student. You should create a set of features. An ideal typical farm for example
would have:
A farm house, some barns/animal sheds; should be in the country; may have a distinctive
smell of animals; have a tractor or a horse; be separated from the rest of the countryside
by fences.

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, using rationalised technology
• rational organisation of free labour
• unrestricted markets.
Verstehen (empathetic understanding)
You will have seen that for Weber, the social sciences can be distinguished
from the natural sciences. Social sciences are concerned with the
interpretation of social action and sociology should be concerned with the
interpretation of subjective meaning.
In the social sciences we are concerned with mental phenomena,
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.12 12
Weber (1949).

Weber was an advocate of hermeneutics, the branch of philosophy

which involves ‘the human understanding and interpretation of texts’. In
sociology a hermeneutic study involves sociologists interpreting documents
and attempting to understand what the authors meant by their writings.
In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber interpreted
the works of Benjamin Franklin, and so doing caught ‘the essence of the
capitalist spirit’.

Weber’s legacy
Weber’s influence on the twentieth century has been immense, both in
substantive sociology and in methodology.
He was responsible, with others, for bringing ‘the individual back in’ to
social analysis and for demonstrating the importance of understanding
the meaning behind action. It could be argued that he was a precursor of
postmodernist theorising (see section 4.4 of this chapter) as his work can
be seen as an attack on the grand narrative theories of Comte, Spencer,
Marx and Durkheim.
His main influences were on Parsons and the symbolic interactionists
whom we will be discussing in the next section. His importance in
political sociology has been immeasurable; 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.

Activity 4.14
Attempt to write short answers to the following questions:
1. Outline Weber’s explanation of social action.
2. What is meant by methodological individualism?
3. How does Weber explain conflict in society?
4. What is meant by ‘elective affinity’?
5. According to Weber, how did rational capitalism develop in Northern Europe?
6. What is an ideal type? Why is it useful in comparative sociology?
7. What is meant by verstehen?
8. Why was Weber worried about rationalisation in the modern world?

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

Structural functionalism and Parsons

Now read
Either Fulcher and Scott (2007) Chapter 2 or Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006) Chapter 5
or Lee and Newby (2000) Part 7.
With the exception of Fulcher and Scott (2003), the set texts provide very little material
on structural functionalism, and the key texts – Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006) and
Lee and Newby (2000) – go into too much detail. In this section we will outline the key
features of Parsonian functionalism, 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.
A particularly good text from your Works cited, which explains why structural
functionalism is so difficult, is Ian Craib’s Modern Social Theory.
If you choose to study one of the following in Section C – ‘Power in society’, ‘Social
inequality and social injustice’, ‘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.
You should be able to describe and evaluate these theories, especially the work of
Parsons. You need to understand Parsons’ theory in relation to socialisation and role; see
Chapter 1, section 1.6 on the individual in society.

Structural functionalism in sociology rose to prominence in the United
States after the Second World War. Its leading exponents were Parsons,
Merton, Smelser and Davis and Moore. Its main concern was to answer
the sociological problem, ‘How is social order maintained in society?’
Most structural functionalists use a biological analogy, seeing society as
an organism. The main task of a sociologist is to identify the parts or
structures in society that function to maintain equilibrium.
In this section we will concentrate on Parsons but in your reading you
should be aware of the work of other structural functionalists.
Structural functionalism has its roots in Comte and Spencer’s organic
analogy and of course in Durkheim’s sociology. The anthropologist
A.R. Radcliffe Brown (1881–1955) developed Durkheim’s functionalist
framework. He was interested in finding out what holds society together
and prevents it from ‘falling apart’. 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.
Instead of looking at how societies evolve over time, he looked at how
different parts of the society (social institutions) functioned to maintain
the whole.

Talcott Parsons (1902–1979)

Parsons’ theory
Parsons’ sociology was primarily theoretical, with little empirical content.
His theories owe a lot to the classical sociologists but, unlike Weber or
Durkheim, Parsons did not create methodology for the study of society.
Instead he developed a grand model of how he believed society to be
The major influences on Parsons’ thought were Durkheim, Weber, Pareto
and Freud, and, as you will read later in Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006)
or/and in Lee and Newby (2000), much of his work lay in a rejection

21 Principles of sociology

of Thomas Hobbes’ individualistic conception of the human being. (As

you have seen in section 4.1, sociology in the nineteenth century reacted
against the individualisation of the Enlightenment.) Parsons created a
synthesis of ideas from these social scientists and created a theory that
was to dominate US sociology for three decades. He sought to explain
the nature of society and the role of individuals within it – a grand plan
Parsons’ theory is analytical ‘in that, like Weber, he recognized that all
observations were dependent on concepts. But it was also realist in that,
like Durkheim, he saw these observations telling us something about what
the world is really like’ (Scott, 1995, in Fulcher and Scott, 2007, p.45).

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. It also owes much to
the work of Comte and Spencer’s ideas of organicism and equilibrium. 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.
(They believed that it was impossible to know what previous societies
were like and that it was impossible to predict how they would develop.)
The anthropologists advocated a synchronic approach to the study of
societies. In their fieldwork, they aimed to demonstrate how changes in
one part of the social system could be explained in relation to changes in
other parts. Rather than explaining why and how societies changed over
time, they explained how each institution changed in response to changes
in other institutions at that particular point in time.

The structural functionalist perspective

Students often have difficulty with the structural functionalist
perspective. There are some theories that are structuralist, for example
Louis Althusser’s Structuralist Marxism which we have discussed in the
section on Marx. Structuralist theories suggest that social institutions
are ‘structured’/determined by society, leaving the individual with little
autonomy. There are also many explanations in sociology that explain the
shape, form or structure of a social institution by its ‘function’.
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.
In the structural functionalist approach, a social institution is described
by the role it plays in maintaining the stability of the wider society. Like
Durkheim, structural functionalists believed that individuals and groups
are constrained by structures. Parsons believed that the task of sociology
was to analyse society as a system of interrelated variables, therefore he
sought to show how each social institution functioned to maintain the
whole society.

Now read
Look up the biological analogy and details of Parsons’ biography in your textbooks.

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. Structures

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

include economic, legal, educational and political structures. Structural

functionalists believe that social systems have certain needs. If these
needs are to be met, it is the social structures that meets these needs.
In structural functionalism, societies are seen as a mixture of personality
systems, social systems and cultural systems, which contain
mutually dependent parts; these parts work together to form a social
Parsons viewed the structure of society as a normative framework,
the cultural system playing the most important part. In the model of social
action, which we describe below, you will see that action is governed by
the prevailing norms and values in a 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’ voluntaristic theory of social action

In Parsons’ early work, especially The structure of social action
written in 1937, he describes action as ‘the unit act’.
Like Weber, Parsons believed that the sociologist should analyse social
action rather than physical events and biological behaviour. Unlike
Weber he was not an Interpretivist aiming to understand meaning behind
the action. Like Weber, he believed that a sociologist must attempt to
understand social phenomena as they appear to the actors, so he would
need to find out why people act in the way that they do.
Parsons’ major assumption in explaining social action is that the ‘actor’
aims to maximise his/her gratification. First, it is a simple exchange: if the
actor receives satisfaction in an exchange then this action will be repeated.
This gives rise to a set of expectations relating to similar exchanges.
These expectations build up into sets of rules and norms. These norms will
in turn be influenced by the prevailing values in society.

The unit act

Individuals make choices – they choose between different goals and they
choose between different ways of achieving these goals. Parsons believed
that understanding the way that people make these choices is the most
important task of any social scientist.
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).
Means: the resources available to achieve these ends/goals. These means
are not always available, so these choices are constrained by physical,
social, legal and cultural factors (environmental factors) which limit the
opportunities available to the actors.

Activity 4.15
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; by your lack of finances; 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

21 Principles of sociology

Here the constraints relate to your skills, your financial situation, the values regarding the
environment and your duty to support your family.
Example 2
You may want to smoke in a restaurant after having a very good meal. However you are
constrained because the restaurant has a no smoking policy; your companion hates
smoking; and you believe that you should not smoke.
Here the constraints are very strong and smoking may incur punishment. You may be
asked to leave the restaurant and your friend will probably be very offended.
Question: If people pursue their individual self-interest, how can there be social order?

Social action is not simply a reaction to external stimuli, each actor

develops a system of expectations in choosing how to act and what goals
to aim for. However, as we have seen, individuals are not autonomous
actors, the choices available to them are limited by the prevailing norms
and values in a society (as well as financial and legal constraints). These
norms and values structure individual choices. Actors take account of the
expectations of others. ‘I act towards you in respect of how I expect you
to act.’
Parsons believed that people tend to co-operate on the basis of these
values. Actors are constrained by the values and norms of the people
around them. These values and norms are the basis for order in society.

Status roles
For Parsons, a role is a ‘cluster of normative expectations’ which
exist prior to an individual taking up a role. Hence roles are taken
in a structural functionalist model. For example, as a student you will
play your role in relation to others playing their role. You will behave
differently in each case. 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. You will know
how to play different roles through a socialising process which ensures
that you understand the expectations attached to each role. ‘Society can
be considered as a network of social roles, each governed by established
norms and values.13 13
Craib (1992) p.42.

Now reread
Chapter 1, section 1.6 – The individual and society – which compares Parsons’ and
Mead’s ideas of socialisation and role.

Social institutions
Now reread
Chapter 1, section 1.3 which explains how sociologists define a social institution.

This is a difficult concept in Parsons’ work. We expect an institution to

be like a school or a bank. In structural functionalism an institution is
described as the ‘generalised norms and practices’ which are shared by
many members of a society. These norms are normally well-established
and settled and help tie the various social roles in society together. The
key institutions in society which help to define the social roles within these
institutions are: the market, property, contract, marriage and kinship.

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

In a market there are buyers and sellers – each role carrying a role set
of expectations and behaviours. In a marriage, the roles relate to husband
and wife, and in joint families parents and brothers and sisters-in-law.
Note: Parsons believed that women tended to play ‘expressive’ roles
whereas men would play ‘instrumental roles’ in the social division of

The general system of action

Social institutions tend to be arranged in groups which make up sub-
systems. For example, the political sub-system sets the goals in a society;
the stratification system serves to integrate people into the society. Each of
these systems relates to each other and adapts in response to changes in
the other systems.
• The biological system: this provides the biological link between the
physical world and the meanings that make up the ‘world of action’.
• The personality system: the personality system was concerned
with human motivation. Human beings are seen as essentially passive
and reactive in the Parsonion model, individuals seek approval in
social relationships. The personality system was made up of a mixture
of biological drives and culture but cannot be reduced to biology. A
person’s personality is affected by all the conditioning and learning that
occurs in a ‘hers’ or ‘his’ life.
• The social system: patterns of activity resulting from the sum of
social interactions in the society.
• The cultural system: Parsons can be described as a consensus
theorist. People conform because there is a consensus (agreement)
over the prevailing set of norms and values in a society. Without some
degree of conformity to the ‘conventions’ in the society, communication
would be impossible. Culture is a symbolic system but people in
different situations will read symbols differently. For social interaction
to occur over time there must be some stability in the symbolic system.
Hence one of the major functions of the family and education is
‘pattern maintenance’ (see below). This ensures that the culture of
a society is internalised by members of a society.
According to Parsons the sub-systems of the social system are:
• the economic system
• the political system
• the societal community
• the socialisation system.
There are also subsystems of each of the above systems!
You will have read that structural functionalists use a biological analogy. 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).
On the next page the chart indicates how these prerequisites are met.

21 Principles of sociology

Structures Means of action Ends of action

related to
External needs Adaptation Goal attainment
These relate to the (The need to (The need to
facilities and accumulate and control mobilise existing
resources that must resources from the resources to achieve
be generated from natural environment.) individual and
the environment. collective goals.)

Met by: Met by:

the Economy – the Polity – political
structures of production structures of
distribution and decision-making and
exchange. control.

Internal needs Latency and Pattern Integration:

Relating to the (The need to build up a (The need to
integrity and store of commitment in integrate individuals
cohesion of the a society and to ensure into the society.)
social system. stability of the system
as a whole.)
Met by: Met by:
the family and The societal
education – people are community – this
socialised into the includes localised
generalised values and structures such as
norms in a society, kinship and
which ensures both the neighbourhood, but
stability of the system also larger bonds of
and the perpetuation ethnic and national
of its culture. community. Social
stratification is an

Figure 4.4
Source: Generated from Fulcher and Scott (2007) p.49.

The cybernetic hierarchy

The systems illustrated above are related through the exchange of
symbolic information. Each of the sub-systems has an equivalent ‘symbol’
which is indicated in CAPITAL LETTERS in the above boxes. Symbols are
exchanged and each system remains in equilibrium with the other systems.
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. 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.
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. 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.
Change in one system will affect changes in another system which will
react and restore the original situation. 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). Parsons’ concept of moving equilibrium can
serve to indicate how the various sub-systems react to these changes.
Parsons attempted to demonstrate how a change or ‘disturbance’ in
one system induces a reaction in another which maintains equilibrium.
Change is generally ordered and evolutionary, with one part of the system
adapting to changes in another.
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. When there is overt conflict, society adapts to deal with
the tension (tension management) and moves back to a state of moving
equilibrium. 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. The more these resources are
utilised, the more is available to pursue collective goals. They account for
conflict as an indication that the system is not working effectively. This
triggers changes in the sub-systems to rectify the situation and conflict
also contributes to social change. In adapting to the conflict situation the
society will change in some way.
In contrast, in Marx and Weber’s analyses, conflict is endemic. They had
a zero- or constant-sum view. Resources, for Marx, were material
resources, they were scarce and there would be competition over them.
In Marx’s analysis of social class, classes have oppositional interests (even
though, in capitalism, the working class is generally unaware of these
opposing interests). These interests cannot be reconciled and so society is
normally in a state of conflict, even thought this conflict may not be overt.

Social systems change as they become more differentiated and as
structures become more specialised. As social systems become more
specialised, the number of the functions that an institution can achieve
decreases. However, the functions that an institution is left with are more
effective than when that institution was carrying out multiple functions.
Parsons’ theory of the family illustrates this well. As societies develop,
the functions of the family are reduced to two important functions – the
socialisation of the young and the stabilisation of ‘adult personalities’. The
other functions have been taken over by the education system and the state.
However, the family remains in Parsons’ model the ‘cornerstone of society’.
As societies become more complex and differentiated, the cultural system
has to adapt to these changes and becomes more abstract and more
generalised. Remember the cultural system has to ensure that there is a
general consensus and agreement in society. The task of the education
system is to socialise the young into this generalised culture.

21 Principles of sociology

Robert Merton (1910–2003)

Now read
The descriptions of Merton you will find in your main textbook, and also in Cuff, Sharrock
and Francis (2006) and Lee and Newby (2000).

Merton’s development of Parsons’ work on social action has been used

extensively in the study of organisations and crime (see p.102 on
anomie). 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. His work as been used to describe deviant behaviour and even
revolutionary change.
If you have chosen the study of organisations or religion in Section C,
Merton’s theory will be very helpful to you.

If you are using Fulcher and Scott (2007) we suggest that you read their background
material (pp.50–51) on this topic.

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. Specialisation, far from ensuring social cohesion,
created a situation where social institutions became so specialised that
they developed different value systems. 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.

Now read
Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006) Chapter 5 or Lee and Newby (2000) Chapter 16. Use
the above notes to guide you in your reading.

We should ask questions of both Merton’s and Luhmann’s positions.

How do structural functionalists explain the existence of conflict in so
many societies? They can explain it using the concept of ‘function’ but, if
this conflict persists, then what? In the organic model, society will die or
the equilibrium will be destroyed and society would be reborn.

Activity 4.16
Think of a society in which there has been continuous open conflict for over 10 years. Do
you think that the structuralist functionalists can account for this situation?

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,
for instance).
Other paradigms became more popular and there was little work done
using the structural functionalist perspective. However, since the 1980s
there has been a re-emergence of this tradition with the development of
neofunctionalism around people such as Nicholas Luhmann.

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. 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.

4.3 Bringing the individual back in

Works cited
Atkinson, J. Maxwell Our masters’ voices: the language and body language of
politics. (London and New York: Methuen, 1984) [ISBN 9780415018753].
Blumer, H. Symbolic interactionism. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1969)
[ISBN 0138799245].
Craib, I. Modern social theory. (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992) second
edition [ISBN 9780312086749].
Fry, Jane and Robert C. Bogdan Autobiography of Jane Fry. (New York:
Wiley Interscience, 1974) [IBSN 9780471085706].
Garfinkel, Harold Studies in Ethnomethodology. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Prentice Hall, 1967) [ISBN 9780745600611].
Goffman, E. The presentation of self in everyday life. (Anchor, 1959)
[ISBN 9780385094023].
Thomas, W.I. and D.S. Thomas The child in America: behavior problems and
programs. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928) [ISBN 9780384601789].
Thomas, W.I. and Florian Zaniecki The Polish peasant in Europe and America.
(Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1918) [ISBN 9780252010903].

Most sociology in the nineteenth century could be described as macro
sociology. Sociologists such as Comte and Durkheim were committed to
the idea that there was such a thing as ‘society’, and society structured
individual behaviour and consciousness. Interactionists did not try to
create a theory of society, as Parsons and Durkheim did. In your reading
you will have seen that Weber moved away from this structural approach.
For Weber, for behaviour to be social ‘meaning had to be attached to it’.
In order to understand the meaning that the actor was giving to her or his
behaviour, we had to ‘put ourselves in the shoes of the other’ (verstehen).
For the next group of social scientists this did not go far enough, 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.

Social interactionism, symbolic interactionism and

This group of sociological perspectives can be described as ‘micro
sociology’ because they stress the importance of looking at the individual
in society. However, there are differences between these approaches that
you should be aware of.

Social interactionism
Now read
Fulcher and Scott (2007) pp.51–54 or Giddens (2008) pp.22–24 or Macionis and
Plummer (2005) pp.28–30 or Macionis and Plummer (2008) pp.33–36 and reread
Chapter 1, section 1.7.

21 Principles of sociology

Social interactionism is a loose term, 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. These perspectives were
developed in the University of Chicago where George Herbert Mead
and W.I. Thomas were working. It had its roots in the work of William
James (1842–1910) and Charles Peirce (1839–1914) and the theory of
Pragmatism. If you have access to Fulcher and Scott (2007), please read
this now.14 Pragmatism is a theory of meaning, which suggests that there 14
Fulcher and Scott
are no abstract definitions of things as they really are. Things are what (2003) pp.52–53.
they mean to people.
An example of this is the Thomas Theorem.
‘If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.’15 15
Thomas, W.I. and D.S.
Thomas (1928) p.572.
Here Thomas and Thomas take the example of a prisoner who interprets
the behaviour of people talking to themselves (aloud) in negative terms.
The prisoner believes that these people are making disparaging remarks
about him. He therefore attacks them and in some cases kills them. So he
acts on his perception of the situation.
Now the idea of interpreting behaviour was not new; 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
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. W.I. 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, having migrated from small rural
communities. They did this through a content analysis of one migrant’s (a
Polish peasant) letters home to Poland. They examined his interpretation
of his situation and how this changed over time. They wrote this up in a
book The Polish peasant in Europe and America (1918).

George Herbert Mead (1863–1931)

Mead has been very influential in both sociology and social psychology,
but the problem has been that he actually wrote very little and most of his
work has been gathered together by his students. You may like to look up
some of these notes on the web, particularly the review of Mind, Self and
Society by Jacob Robert Kantor:

Now read
You need to reread the material on Mead in Chapter 1, section 1.7, especially in relation
to Mead’s view of the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’.

You will have seen that Mead is usually described as a social psychologist.
In his book review, Kantor (see above), explains how Mead suggests that
we should study ‘the inner experience of activity which arises in the social
process of interaction’. Mead, like other sociologists, attempted to find
out the nature of the relationship between society and the individual, and
particularly people’s ability to manipulate symbols.
Whereas Weber and Parsons stressed social action, 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. To

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

understand Mead it is important to be aware of the concept of gesture.

Gestures include all verbal and non-verbal communication, and are central
to Meade’s analysis of social interaction. Gestures have meaning to social
actors. An individual’s gesture indicates subsequent behaviour to another.
For Mead, when an individual responds to a gesture it is regarded as a
significant gesture.
The mind arises through communication which is result of the interplay
of gestures in the form of significant symbols. The most important
category of symbols is language. The mind, for Mead, is characterised by
the processes of meaning, knowing, significance and reflection.
All these processes assume that there is an external environment (society)
which can be understood, known and reflected upon. 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’. There
cannot be a mind in the absence of society. What differentiates men from
animals is man’s ability to reflect on past activities and anticipate and
prepare for future situations. The social environment, therefore, shapes
human thinking; the individual cannot be detached from the environment.
Her/his identity is given by her/his reactions to others.
Whereas behaviouralists believed that humans react directly to external
stimuli and events, 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.

The self
The ‘self’ arises in the process of gesture conversation in social
interaction – the self is reflexive. The social self takes on the role of others
(see Chapter 1, section 1.7). 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’.
Interaction is by definition a dynamic process. In order to understand
gestures, you need see how they are interpreted – and to see how the
process of interaction occurs. Therefore interactionists do not simply
seek to understand a single action through verstehen. They observe the
processes by which people are socialised; and the processes by which
individuals come to understand ‘their’ social reality.
Interactionists therefore use ethnographic methods, particularly
participant observation, so that they can understand the processes by
which individuals develop a sense of self through the processes of
communication and interaction.

Now read
Fulcher and Scott (2007) pp.116–29 or Macionis and Plummer (2005 or 2008) Chapter 7
or Giddens (2008) pp.126–33.

Erving Goffman (1922–1982)

Goffman was a Canadian sociologist who studied in Chicago. He used a
phenomenological approach – see below – to understand how individuals
perceive the interactions they observe and take part in. He concentrated
on small-scale, face-to-face interaction. You should be aware of Goffman’s
empirical work and try to read some of it, particularly The presentation of
self in everyday life.

21 Principles of sociology

Goffman described his work as a dramaturgical approach, it is an

analogy taken from the theatre. Individuals learn their role and the
context in which the role is played. Roles are not given, they are learnt
through a process of interaction, they are the sets of expectations which
others have of our behaviour.
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) was a largely
descriptive study of the way that individuals engage in presentation
management. Goffman suggests that interaction is a performance, and
this performance is shaped by the external environment and the audience
of the action. Individuals aim to create an impression on others, and this
impression is called the self. The image the actors present will vary
according to the impression that the actors believe is expected by the
audience. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, young girls ‘acted
dumb’ (i.e. stupid) to impress their boyfriends. The girls believed that their
boyfriends liked dumb girls, so they acted accordingly.
Actors act towards an audience to make an impression. They can
manipulate symbols to create a particular response to their behaviour.
Goffman undertook a participant observation study in the Shetland
Islands (in the far north of Scotland), to illustrate his idea of impression
management. In the Shetland Islands, 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.

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’.
Therefore individuals learn about the ‘front’ through socialisation and act
to standardise their behaviour so that others can understand it. A ‘front’ is
a collective representation which provides the ‘proper setting’, ‘appearance’
and ‘manner’ for the social role. So the actor has to fulfil the duties of a social
role and be able to communicate the characteristics of the role to others.
However as we have seen in the example of the ‘dumb girls’, an audience
can influence the actors to act in a way that is expected of them.

Reading note
Fulcher and Scott (2007) have a good section of Goffman in Chapter 4, pp.128–29.

The social process

The social process is an interplay of action and reaction, an
interplay in which each actor interprets and responds to all
others. Interaction is a reciprocal and continuous negotiation
over how situations are defined. A definition of the situation
is the joint construction of the participants in interaction.
Consensus exists only when this definition has been established
and agreed by all involved.16 16
Fulcher and Scott (2003) p.54.

Much of the work of the symbolic interactionists concentrates on the
individual, and they have been accused of neglecting the constraints under
which actors perform. Yet their work has addressed power especially
through labelling theory.
Chapter 4: Theories and developments

Now read
Fulcher and Scott (2007) pp.53–54 or Giddens (2008) pp.799–803 or Macionis and
Plummer (2005) pp.447–50 or Macionis and Plummer (2008) pp.565–67 or Cuff,
Sharrock and Francis (2006) pp.136–41. Here the authors explain how symbolic
interactions have explained deviant behaviour through the process of labelling.

Symbolic interactionism

Herbert Blumer (1900–1987)

Symbolic interactionism is a term created by Hebert Blumer, who was a
student of Mead. Blumer developed many of Mead’s ideas and formalised
them. Blumer described symbolic interactionism as:
……a down-to-earth approach to the scientific study of human
group life and human conduct. Its empirical world is the natural
world of such group life and conduct. It lodges its problems
in this natural world, conducts its studies in it, and derives its
interpretations from such naturalistic studies.17 17
Blumer (1969)

‘Societies for Blumer were not fixed objective structures. Society is a fluid
and flexible network of interactions within which we act.’18 Look back at
Fulcher and Scott
(2003) p.54.
the section on Parsons – for Parsons these networks made up ‘society’ and
society constrained an individual’s actions.
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.

Activity 4.17
Can you explain how the term symbolic interactionism was derived?

Blumer outlines the following assumptions of symbolic interactionism,

most of which he developed from Mead’s ideas.
• 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.) Note also the descriptions of gesture.
• These meanings are a product of social interaction and negotiation
in human society (see Chapter 1, section 1.7) on socialisation.
• Thought: These meanings are modified and handled through an
interpretive process that is used by each individual in dealing with
the signs each encounters.19 19
Adapted from Craib
(1992) p.87.
Labelling theory
Unlike Goffman’s work which concentrates more on the impression
management of the actor, 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. Howard S. Becker (who was a member of
the Chicago School) described deviant behaviour as that behaviour which
people label as deviant.
Labelling theory has also been used in understanding educational
success and failure. For example, Rosenthal and Jacobson and their
team organised an experiment with Mexican children to test the reasons
certain groups of children failed at school. They posed as psychologists
and gave the children a dummy test. This test was given to all the
children in the class. The researchers then reported to the teachers that
21 Principles of sociology

some children who had been labelled ‘slow learners’ were in fact late
developers. Rosenthal and Jacobson left the school for six months and
when they returned they re-tested all the pupils. 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’. This indicated to
Rosenthal and Jacobson that the teachers had acted towards the pupils
as if they were late developers rather than slow learners. The labels did
make a difference. However, the effect was not lasting and there was no
subsequent improvement in the pupils’ performance. They termed this
process a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Activity 4.18
Think back to the time when you were at school. Were there instances where teachers
labelled pupils? Do you think this made a difference to their performance?

You have been introduced to phenomenology in Chapter 3.
Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness, 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.54–55.

Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) is considered to be the founder of

phenomenology. He aimed to create a radical philosophy whose task was
to restore ‘the connection between knowledge and everyday experience’.
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.’
Husserl criticised the positivists of the nineteenth century because they
believed that the social world existed sui generis. 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. Husserl was concerned with studying the structures and workings
of human consciousness.
Therefore, the task of the social scientist is to understand the processes
by which we come to know social reality.

Now read
Chapter 3 for a discussion on interpretivist ontology and epistemology for a description of
Schutz’s phenomenology. Schutz (1899–1959) further developed Husserl’s ideas.

The social construction of reality

In 1966 Peter Berger (who worked with Schutz) and Thomas Luckmann
wrote this important text. They describe this both as a systematic treatise
in the sociology of knowledge. Its major aim was to demonstrate that the
social world does not exist sui generis as Durkheim suggested. Society,
although meaningful to social actors, is nonetheless socially constructed.
Everyday life presents itself as a reality interpreted by men
and subjectively meaningful to them as a coherent world.20 20
Berger (1963) p.33.

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. This can be achieved by setting
aside what we know (bracketing) and see how we come to know it. Hence
sociologists should engage in trying to understand how people have
developed their understanding of reality. Berger and Luckmann believe
commonsense is simply ‘senses held in common’.
Knowledge can therefore be achieved by trying to find out how individuals
come to perceive social reality. Hence the study of perception is at
the forefront of their analysis. They used in-depth interviews and other
ethnographic methods to uncover the taken-for-granted assumptions
that people have.
One famous study which used this approach was The autobiography of
Jane Fry.21 Jane Fry was a transsexual and this text is a day-to-day record 21
Fry and Bogdan
of his/her perceptions as she ‘became’ a woman. Here the process of (1974) .
becoming was the main focus.
Phenomenologists, as you will have seen in Chapter 3, are distrustful of
statistics, which they describe as social constructions. Sociologists such as
J. Maxwell Atkinson and Jack Douglas have cricitised Durkheim’s use of
statistics and demonstrate how statistical data is socially created. 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’. Over time they came to understand that a
particular type of person, in a particular situation would be a suicidal
type. They would therefore label the death as a suicide of people who
‘fitted’ into these types. This process is known as typification. 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.

Students are often worried about this term because it sounds rather
daunting. In Chapter 2 you were introduced to the concept of
Ethnography. There you will have read that ethnography involved studying
people in their own environments.
Ethnie = people
methodology = the science of methods, how we evaluate the methods
that sociologists use.
Ethnomethodologists attempt to find out the methods that individuals
use to decide whether something is real or not, studying how people
judge social situations. In Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006), they give
an example of how people judge between fact and fiction, between the
possible and the impossible, between what really happened and what was
a dream.

Reading note
The only textbook to have some description of this approach is Fulcher and Scott (2007).
The chapter in Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006) on ethnomethodology is useful but
contains more than is required for this unit.

Ethnomethodology takes the philosophical standpoint of the

phenomenologists, that is, that society is socially constructed and that the
task of the social scientist is to find out how people construct their world.
Harold Garfinkel and Aaron Cicourel who were writing in the 1950s and
1960s were its main exponents.
21 Principles of sociology

Garfinkel criticised the structural functionalists who, as you now know,

believed that individuals had little or no autonomy and were like ‘puppets’.
He believed that we cannot simply look at action, or interpret action. We
need to go beyond this and understand not just the meanings of social
actions and how the social world is constructed, we need to understand
the methods that actors use to organise their interactions and how they
judge what is real or not.
In Chapter 1, you learnt about the nature of sociology and that
sociologists’ main focus is on studying the nature of relationships in
society. 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. Ethnomethodologists believe that the way to discover these
rules and regularities is to break them and to lay bare the taken-for-
granted assumptions that people use to make sense of the situations
in which they interact with others.
Their methods were sometimes experimental. Garfinkel called these
experiments ‘breaching experiments’. They included acts such as
interrupting lectures, and suggesting to students that they should act
‘as if they were lodgers’ in their own homes. However, most of his work
was an analysis of conversations. People in conversation can create an
illusion of social order even though they may not understand each other
fully. In a conversation each person ‘takes a turn’ in the conversation. The
ethnomethodologists examined transcripts of conversations and analysed
how this turn taking was managed. 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). This allowed them to ask for explanations, 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.

Case 6
The ‘victim’ waved his hand cheerily:
s: How are you?
e: How am I in regard to what? My health, my finances, my school work, my peace of
mind, my...?
s: (Red in the face and suddenly out of control) Look I was just trying to be polite. Frankly
I don’t give a damn how you are.
You should be able to relate to this case. When you say ‘hello’ to someone or ‘how are
you?’ you do not expect to have a long description of their illnesses.

Case 7
My friend and I were talking about a man whose overbearing attitude annoyed us. My
friend expressed his feeling:
s: I’m sick of him.
e: Would you explain what is wrong with you that you are sick.
s: Are you kidding me? You know what I mean.
e: Please explain your ailment.
s: (He listened to me with a puzzled look) What came over you? We never talk this way.

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

Here you can see the breaching experiment. e. is not acting according to the rules of
normal conversation and s. is getting confused. s. believes that e. knows what ‘I’m sick
of him’ means. However e. is not going to take this for granted and asks for further
information. s. does not know how to answer this second question and starts getting
angry.22 22
Both cases from Garfinkel

In conversations there are many gaps; there are many matters that the
partners don’t understand but act as if they understand what the other is
talking about. 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, according to Garfinkel. Partners in a conversation interpret what
they think the other person means. Garfinkel’s task lay in attempting to
understand the conditions under which people can make sense of one
another’s activities and act accordingly.
J. Maxwell Atkinson has developed a similar approach to conversational
analysis in his studies of how politicians can ensure participation in public
meetings. By analysing the speeches he was able to demonstrate that the
content of the speech matters less than the structure of the speech. 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. If a speech contained a comparison
– ‘we do this’, but ‘they do that’ – then the audience would also clap.
However, other speech structures were not so successful. It did not
seem to matter what the content of the speech was, it was the structure
that mattered. Therefore he concluded that the audiences fill in gaps in
speeches as dictated by their structure.23 23
Atkinson (1984).

Now read
If you have Cuff, Sharrock and Francis (2006), read Chapter 7. The first part on
phenomenology is the most important.

Structure or action? Structuration

We have now introduced you to two very different approaches: at one
extreme, structural functionalism and at the other ethnomethodology.
Most of the textbooks try to compare these theories in terms of structure
and action (agency). 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 individual is constrained by the culture of the
society and is socialised into a role having little autonomy. According to
ethnomethodology, the individual is actively involved in making sense of
the situation she or he finds her or himself in.
Giddens has developed a way out of this ‘dualism’ and suggests that ‘we
should bridge the gap between structure and action’. There is a dynamic
process involved. In his textbook he uses the case of the monetary system.
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,
they could decide not to use money, and they also make choices as to
how to use it. In using the monetary system, individuals contribute to its
continued existence and development.

21 Principles of sociology

Structuration refers to the process whereby individuals make and remake

social structure during the course of their daily lives. Societies only have
structure if people behave in regular ways. However individuals are only
able to act in predictable ways if they are aware and have a great deal of
‘socially’ structured knowledge.
In his textbook Giddens uses the idea of language. Language vocabulary
and structure pre-exist the individual. Individuals learn language.
Language can only exist if people use the language and abide by its rules.
However, as he states, languages are constantly changing; people do not
receive language passively. Vocabulary changes through interaction, and
although many people are concerned about proper grammatical forms the
structure of our language changes over time.

Activity 4.19
In your society, has the everyday language of communication changed? If so, in what way
has it changed?

In this section we have described how the interactionists brought the
individual back into sociological analysis. 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.

Activity 4.20
Attempt the following questions:
1. Why do phenomenologists criticise statistical methods?
2. What is meant by ‘gesture’ in symbolic interactionism?
3. Why is phenomenology sometimes called ‘a sociology of knowledge’?
4. What methods would phenomenologists use and why?
5. What is meant by bracketing?
6. How did Garfinkel conduct his experiments?
7. Explain the phrase ‘the world we live in is created by our consciousness’.
8. What is meant by labelling in sociology? Illustrate your answer with some
9. What is pragmatism in philosophy?
10. Why do phenomenologists believe it is important to analyse conversation?
11. What is meant by the phrase ‘the presentation of self in everyday life’?
12. How does structuration theory attempt to link structure and agency?

4.4 Postmodernity and sociology

Essential reading
Fulcher, J. and J. Scott Sociology. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)
pp.64–66 and 386–87.
or Giddens, A. Sociology. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008) pp.115–16.
or Macionis, J. and K. Plummer Sociology: a global introduction. (Harlow:
Prentice Hall, 2005 edition) pp.33–34 and 686–88; (2008 edition)
pp.38–39 and 848–50.

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

Further reading
Cuff, E., W.W. Sharrock and D. Francis Perspectives in Sociology. (London:
Routledge, 2006) pp.286–99.
Marsh, I. Theory and Practice in Sociology. (Harlow: Prentice Hall, 2002) [ISBN
0130265535] Chapter 7.

Works cited
Ashenden, S. ‘Feminism, postmodernism and the sociology of gender’ in
Owen, D. (ed.) Sociology after postmodernism. (London: Sage, 1997)
[ISBN 9780803975149].
Hall, S. ‘The question of cultural identity’ in Hall, S., D. Held and T. McGrew
Modernity and its futures. (Cambridge: Polity, 1992)
[ISBN 9780745609669].
Harvey, D. The condition of postmodernity. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989)
[ISBN 9780631162940].
Jameson, F. Postmodernism or the cultural logic of late capitalism. (London:
Verso Press, 1991) [ISBN 9780860915379].
Lyotard, J. The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge. (Manchester:
Manchester University Press, 1984) [ISBN 9780816611737].

Postmodern theory: a challenge to sociology?

As you will know by now, sociological theory (like theory in any subject)
is a dialogue, with theorists questioning, criticising or developing
earlier theoretical ideas. Therefore, the best way to begin to understand
postmodern social theory is first to be clear about the theoretical ideas
and assumptions it is questioning. So, before reading on, try Activity 4.21

Activity 4.21: Modernity and the Enlightenment revisited

Try to answer the following questions before going back to look at the subject guide or
your textbooks.
•• 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, if necessary, fill in any gaps.

The theoretical approaches we have looked at so far, although different

from each other, are all characterised by the ideals of the Enlightenment
and all of them are based on three fundamental ‘modernist’ assumptions
that were outlined earlier.
• There is an order to social life and social change.
• This order can be illuminated by rational understanding which provides
a knowledge of societies that is superior to commonsense, religion,
opinion and prejudice.
• Sociological knowledge, once validated and acted upon, can lead to
improvements in society by, for example, informing social policies,
revealing inequalities or disarming prejudices.

21 Principles of sociology

Postmodern theory rejects all these assumptions. Therefore, it is not just

another new theory. It is also a challenge to existing sociological theory
and research. It raises important questions about:
• the nature of contemporary societies
• the status of sociological knowledge
• the purpose of sociological research.

We shall introduce you to the postmodern critique below. However, it also

very important that you supplement what you read in this subject guide
with the textbook reading indicated above.
In reading about postmodern theory it is also important to distinguish
between some terms that sound similar but are actually different from
each other.
Postmodernity: This describes a social formation coming after
Postmodernism: This refers to cultural and social beliefs and ways
of behaving that result from living in postmodernity, and can refer to
divergent areas such as music and architecture as well as the way social
life is ordered.
Postmodern theory: This refers to a new way of theorising that some
sociologists argue has to be used to understand the postmodern world.
Postmodern theory in sociology is based on two key arguments. 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.
The second argument is that many of sociology’s most influential theories
and concepts are now out of date, and a new form of sociological thinking
is required to understand this new world.

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. All sociologists realise that many modern societies
had been transformed. For example, the world has become increasingly
globalised (see Section B), the most advanced societies have tended to
de-industrialise, class boundaries have become much less clear and nation
states have disposed of many of their assets and actively encourage more
self-reliance, competitiveness and private enterprise.
However, most sociologists see these developments as changes in the
nature of modern societies and some, like Anthony Giddens, refer to the
contemporary world as ‘late modernity’.
Postmodernists, in contrast, argue that the most ‘developed’ societies have
become postmodern and this represents a clear break with the past era of
The key to postmodern theory is in its interpretation of the effects of living
in a media saturated society. Contemporary societies are dominated by
new information technologies that bring the world into people’s homes
and consciousness. Terrestrial, satellite and cable TV, websites, emails, chat
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. Postmodern theorist Harvey (1989) refers to this as ‘space-time

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’, as many ‘modernist’ sociologists feared, but has in fact
led to a massive increase in diversity and choice. The effect of this has
been to transform contemporary societies into something resembling
endless shopping malls, where people shop not only for consumer
goods, but also for new lifestyles, beliefs, images and identities. Thus the
‘postmodern condition’ has been described as one unending choice for
increasing numbers of people.
Postmodernists argue that these changes have important implications for
the ontological basis of sociology: the relationship between the individual
and society.
As we have seen, the cornerstone of sociology is that there is an
institutional order to societies which, although created by people also
shapes how they think about themselves and the world. People’s identities
are thus formed in the interaction between self and society.
Postmodernists argue that this no longer holds: what sociologists call
societies, or social structures, have become so diversified and fragmented
and are now much less important in shaping how people think about
themselves and the world. In the postmodern world people’s sense of
identity now comes less from ‘social’ things like where they live, their family,
education, class, ethnicity or gender, and much more from the images and
choices presented to them via the media. In a postmodern world, people
define themselves much more in terms of the lifestyle choices they make
about their clothes, cars, the football teams they support and so on.
Identity is therefore much more precarious, fragmented and uncertain.
This loss of a stable sense of self is described by postmodernists as a de-
centring of the subject.
As Hall (1992, p.277) puts it:
The postmodern subject is conceptualised as having no fixed or
permanent identity. 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, fleeting
multiplicity of possible identities, any one of which we could
identify with – at least temporarily.
Postmodernists further argue that, as the social order that once
characterised modern societies has fragmented, 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. Thus ‘modernist’ sociological concepts, like
social class, gender, or family, no longer work. They are past their sell-by
date and, in the technical language of postmodernism, they have to be

Sociological knowledge and progress

A second – epistemological – part of the postmodern critique concerns
sociology’s claims to produce some expert, or specialist, knowledge of
Lyotard (1984), in a book that had a profound influence on the
development of ‘postmodern sociology’, compared the status of knowledge
in ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ societies.

21 Principles of sociology

In modern societies, as we have seen, a faith in the truth of the word of

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

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

Evaluation of postmodern theory

Before reading on, try the following activity to check your understanding.

Activity 4.22 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,
do you feel there are some aspects of your society that are (or are becoming)
•• 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.
Four of the more important ones are outlined below, but see if you can
think of, or find others in your textbooks.
• There is a contradiction in the postmodern position. Postmodernists
are critical of the generalisations made in sociological theory, 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. For example, people’s socioeconomic backgrounds still
have a major and measurable influence on their life chances, the
economic organisations that produce goods and services are still
characterised by rational planning and systematic organisation, and
nation states still remain strong and continue to play an important part
in regulating people’s lives.
• 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. People
might have more choice in contemporary societies, but it seems that
some have more choice than others.
• The postmodern critique of the possibility of discovering ‘true’ and
‘universal’ knowledge of societies is hardly original. As we saw in
Chapter 3, this anti-empiricist view is shared by many sociologists.
Weber was deeply critical of nomothetic approaches to sociology.
Phenomenologists can explain the changes in the way people identify
themselves. However, this does not mean that sociology has to descend
into relativism, where one theory, or research study, is as good as any
other. For example, realists also recognise the impossibility of obtaining
absolute knowledge of the social world, but argue that theories can still
be found to be more or less valid.

Activity 4.23 Revision

In the evaluation of postmodern theory above, I used some important technical conceptual
terms that we have encountered before in this and earlier chapters. As a revision activity, ask
yourself if you know what they mean and, if not, go back and check them out.

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

Chapter 4: Theories and developments

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. Most sociologists reject this idea. However,
postmodern theory has opened up new questions on issues such as culture,
identity and media and has had a significant effect on contemporary
sociological theory.

Activity 4.24
By the end of Chapter 4, and having done all the reading indicated, you should be able
to answer the following questions. You are not expected to write long answers, the point
is that you understand why these questions are important. If you cannot answer any of
them return to your reading, or ask your tutor (if you are studying in a college). These
questions could usefully be used as tutorial or discussion questions.
1. What was the Enlightenment?
2. Why did some sociologists turn away from developing grand explanations of
social change?
3. What is meant by a meta-narrative? Give some examples of such explanations?
4. Compare Marx, Weber and Durkheim’s views on the nature of society.
5. Is there a difference between Durkheim’s idea of the collective consciousness and
Berger and Luckmann’s social construction of reality?
6. What are meant by the terms, agency and structure? (Use the work of any two
sociologists to illustrate your answer.)
7. How did one of the following sociologists explain change in society: Marx, Weber
or Durkheim?
8. How did Marx, Durkheim and Parsons explain social order?
9. Compare a structural functionalist view of socialisation with an interactionist
10. ‘Sociologists are influenced by other sociologists’. Take one sociologist and
explain how other social scientists or philosophers influenced their work.
11. What is meant by rational action? Compare any two theories of rational
12. What is the difference between a consensus and an ideology?
13. ‘Conflict is normal.’ Discuss this statement.
14. What is meant by phenomenology?
15. What is meant by the term ‘structuration’?
16. What is meant by the terms bracketing and typification?
17. Explain the concept the social construction of reality.
18. What did Durkheim mean by the phrase: we should treat ‘social facts as things’?
Why do the phenomenologists believe that this is impossible?
19. What is meant by postmodernity?
20. How do Marxists explain postmodernity?
21. How do feminists explain postmodernity?
22. What is meant by a meta-narrative?
This list is not exhaustive, but should be used as a check to see whether you can explain
in your own words what you have read.

21 Principles of sociology

A reminder of your learning outcomes

Having completed this chapter, and the essential reading and activities,
you should be able to:
• understand the historical development of sociology and its roots in the
• 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.