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Sociology Theoritical perspective

Sociology Theoritical perspective 1

In the most general sense, a theory is a framework that can be used to comprehend and explain events.

In every science, theories serve to organize and explain events going on around us.

A sociological theory is a set of principles and definitions that tell how societies operate and how people in them relate to one another and respond to the environment.


Theory: a framework that can be used to comprehend & explain events.

Sociological theory: a set of principles & definitions that tell how societies operate & how people relate to one another & respond to the environment.

Function: The contribution of a part to the order & stability within the larger system.

Three theories dominate the discipline of sociology:

the functionalist, the conflict, and the symbolic interactionist perspectives.

The Functionalist Perspective

We turn first to an overview of the functionalist perspective.

The central questions that functionalists ask are,

”Why does a particular arrangement exist?” and

“What are the consequences of this arragement for society?”

Functionalists focus on questions related to order and stability in society.

They define society as a system of interrelated, interdependent parts.

To illustrate this vision, early functionalists used the human body as an analogy for society.

The human body is composed of parts that include bones, cartilage, ligaments, muscles, a brain, a spinal cord, nerves, hormoes, blood, blood vessels, a heart, a spleen, kidneys, lungs, and chemicals, all of which work together in impressive harmony.

Each body part functions in a unique way to maintain the entire body, but it cannot be separated from other body parts that it affects and that in turn help it function.

Society, like the human body, is made up of parts, such as schools, automobiles and other modes of transportation, sports, medicine, bodily adornments such as tattoos, funeral rites, ways of greeting people, religious rituals, laws, language, household appliances, and tools.

Like the various body parts, each of the society’s parts functions to maintain a larger system.

Funcutionalists consider a function to be the contribution of a part to order and stability within the larger system.

Consider sports teams- whether they be Little League, grade school, high school, college, city, Olympic, or professional teams. Sports teams function to draw people together who are often extremely different from one another economically, culturally, linguistically, politically, religiously, and in other ways.

Loyalty to a sports sense of belonging to the school, a company, a city, or a country associated with it.

In the most controversial form of this perspective, functionalists argue that all parts of society –even those that seem not to serve a purpose, such as poverty, crime, illegal immigration, and drug addiction– contribute in some way to the larger system’s stability.

Functionalists maintain that a part would cease to exist if it did not serve some function.

Thus they strive to identify how any parts – even seemingly problematic ones—contribute to the stability of the larger society.

Functions of poverty

Herbert Gans (1972) argues in his classic analysis of the functions of poverty.

He asked; “Why does poverty exist?” he answered that poverty performs as:

The poor have no choice but to take on the unskilled, dangerous, temporary, dead-end, undignified, menial work of society at low pay.

Hospitals, hotels, restaurants, factories and farms draw their employees from a large pool of workers who are forced to work at minimum or below-minimum wages.

This hiring policy keeps the costs of their services reasonable and increases the employer’s profits.

Affluent persons contract out & pay low wages for many time-consuming activities, such as housecleaning, yard work and child care. This practice gives them time for other, more “important” activities.

The poor often volunteer for over-the-counter & prescription drug tests. Most new drugs, ranging from AIDS vaccines to cat allergy medicine, must eventually be tried on healty subjects to determine their potential side effects (for example, rashes, headaches, vomiting, constipation, drowsiness) & appropriate dosages.

Money motivates subjects to volunteer.

Because payment is relatively low, however, the tests attract a disproportionate share of low-income, unemployed, or underemployed people as subjects.

The occupations of some middle-class workers—police officers, psychologists, social workers, border patrol guards, & so on—exist to serve the needs or to monitor the behavior of poor people.

Poor people purchase goods & services that otherwise would go unused.

Day-old bread, used cars, and secondhand clothes are purchased by or donated to the poor.

In the realm of services, the labor of many less competent professionals (teachers, doctors, lawyers), who would not be hired in more affluent areas, is absorbed by low-income communities.

Critique of Functionalism

As you may have realized by now, the functionalist perspective has a number of shortcomings.

First, critics argue that the functionalist perspective is by nature conservative in that it defends existing arrangements.

In other words, when functionalists identify how a problematic part of society such as poverty contributes to the system’s stability, by definition they are justifying its existence and legitimating the status quo.

Functionalists, reject this criticism, claiming that they are not justifying poverty’s existence, but rather simply illustrating why such controversial practices or “parts” continue to exist despite efforts to change or eliminate them.

Second, critics take issue with the functionalist claim that “parts” exist because they serve a fuction.

Critics argue that a part may not serve any function when it is first introduced.

The conflict perspective

In contrast to functionalists, who emphasize order & stability, conflict theorist focus on conflict as an inevitable fact of social life & as the most important agent for social change.

Conflict can take many forms, including physical confrontation, manipulation, disagreement, dominance, tention, hostility, & direct competititon.

In any society, dominant & subordinate groups compete for scarce & valued resources (access to material wealth, education, health care, well-paying jobs, etc)

Those who gain control of these resources strive to protect their own interests against the resistance of others.

Conflict theorists ask this basic question:

Who benefits from a particular pattern or social arrangement and at whose expence?

In answering this question, they strive to identy

(1) dominant & subordinate groups, &

(2)practices that dominant groups have established, consciously or unconsciously, to promote & protect their interests.

Conflict theoriss draw their inspirations from Karl Marx, who focused on class conflict.

Marx maintained that two major social classes exist & that class membership is determined by relationship to the means of production.

The more powerful class is the bourgeoisie, or the owners of the means of production & the purchasers of labor.


Means of production: the land, machinery, buildings, tools, and other technologies needed to produce and distribute goods and services.

Bourgeoisie: the owners of the means of production (land, machinery, buildings, tools) who purchase labor.

Proletariat: A ess powerful class composed of workers who own nothing of the production process & who sell their labor to the bourgeoisie.

Facade of legitimacy: an explanation that members in dominant groups give to justify their actions.

The Bourgeoisie

Motivated by a desire for profit, need constantly to expand markets for their products.

In an effort to increase profits, they search for ways to make the production process more efficient and less dependent on human labor (using machines, robots, and automation, for example), and they strive to find the cheapest labor & raw materials.

This need for profit spread “the bourgeoisie over the whole surgace of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” (Marx, 1888)

Marx: “the bourgeoisie has created more massive & more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.”

The proletariat

The less powerful class, the proletariat, consists of the workers who own nothing of the production process except their labor.

The bourgeoisie view the proletariat’s labor no differently than they see machines or raw materials.

Mechanization combined ith the specialization of labor leaves the worker with no skills, according to Marx; the worker is an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack that is required of him.

As a result, workers produce goods that have no individual character and no sentimental value to either the worker or the consumer.

Conflict exists between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, because those who own the means of production exploit workers by stealing the value of their labor.

They do so by paying workers only a fraction of the profits they make from the workers’ labor and by pushing workers to increase output.

Increased output without a commensurate pay raise shrinks wages to an even smaller fraction of the profit.

Facade of legitimacy

The capitalists’ exploitation of the proletariat is disguised by a facade of legitimacy—an explanation that members in dominan groups give to justify their actions.

On close analysis, however, these explanations are based on “misleading arguments, incomplete analyses, unsupported assertions, and implausible premises” that ultimately support the interests of the dominant group.

To illustrate, consider that the bourgeoisie’s exploitation of the proletariat is justified by the explanation that members of the proletariat are free to take their labor elsewhere if they are not satisfied with their working conditions, salary, or benefits.

On the most basic level, employers have considerably more leverage over workers than workers enjoy demands or do not produce—or if business is slow or in need of restructuring— employers can fire or lay off their workers.

Workers have no comparable leverage against unreliable and overdemanding employers.

The most common methods of justifying exploitative practices are;

1. blaming the victims by proposing that character flaws impede their chances of success and

2. emphasizing that the less successful benefit from the system established by the powerful.

The symbolic interactionist perspective

In contrast to functionalists, who ask how parts contribute to order and stability, and to conflict theorists, who ask who benefits from a particular social arrangement, symbolic interactionists ask, how do people define reality?

In particular, they focus on how people make sense of the world, on how they experience and define what they and others are doing, and on how they influence and are influenced by others.

These theorists argue that something very important is overlooked if an analysis does not consider these issues.

Symbolic interactionists are concerned with how the selfdevelops, how people attach meanings to their own and other people’s actions, how people learn these meanings, and how meanings evolve.

Consequently, they focus on people and their relationships with one another.

Symbolic interactionists maintain that we learn meanings from others, that we organize our lives around those meanings, and that meanings are subject to change.

According to symbolic interactionists, symbols play a central role in social interaction, situations in which two people communicate, interpret and respond to each other’s words and actions.

A symbol is any kind of physical phenomenon—a word, object, color, sound, feling, odor, movement, taste—to which people assign a name, meaning, or value.

Meaning or value, however, is not evident from the physical phenomenon alone.

This deceptively simple idea suggests that people construct meaning—that is, they decide what something means.

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The information explosion The scientific method

Defining the topic for investigation Reviewing the literature İdentifying & defining core concepts Choosing a research design & data gathering strategies Analyzing the data & drawing conclusions

Research is a fact-gathering & fact- explaining enterprise governed by strict rules.

Research methods are the various techniques that sociologists and other investigators use to formulate meaningful research questions and to collect, analyze, and interpet facts in ways that allow other researchers to check their results.

We need to possess a working knowledge of research medhods even if e do not plan to become sociologists or to do research of our own.

One important reason is connected with a relatively new global phenomenon—the information explosion.

This term describes the unprecedented increase in the volume of informatıon made possible by the development of the computer & telecommunications.

In addition to coping with large quantities of information, we have to consider ints quality as well.

Most of what we hear, read, and see has bee created by others.

Consequently, we can never be sure that information is accurate.

The scientific method

Sociologists are guided by the scientific method when they investigate human behavior; in this sense they are scientists.

The Scientific method is an approach to data collection that relies on two assumptions:

(1) knowledge about the world is acquired through observation,

(2) the truth of the knowledge is confirmed by verification—that is, by others making the same observations.

Research collect data that they and others can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell (that is, observe through the senses).

They must report the process by which they make their obsrvations and present conclusions so that interested parties can duplicate or critique that process.

If observations can not be dublicated, or if repeating the study yields results that differ substantially from those of he original study, we consider the study to be suspect.

Findings endure as long as they can withstand continued reexamination and duplication by the scientific community.

When researchers know that others are critiquing and checking their work, it works to reinforce careful, thoughtful, honest, and conscientious behavior.

Moreover, this “checking” encourages researchers to maintain objectivity—that is, not to let personal and subjective views about the topic influence their observations or the outcome of the research.

Because of continued reexamination and revision, research is both a process and a dialogue.

It is a process because findings and conclusions are never considered final.

Research is a carefully planned, multistep, fact-gathering, and fact- explaining enterprise tht involves a number of interdependent steps:

1. choosing the topic for investigation/deciding on the research question

2. reviewing the literature 3. Identifying core concepts

4. choosing a research design, forming hypotheses, and collecting data

5. Analyzing the data 6. Drawing conclusions

Researhers do not always follow these six steps in sequence, however.

Sometimes they do not define the topic (step 1) until they have familiarized themselves with the literature (step2).

Sometimes an opportunity arises to gather information (step4), and a project is defined to fit that opportunity (step 1).

Although the six steps need not be followed in sequence, all must be completed at some point to ensure the quality of the project.

In the sections that follow, we will examine each stage individually, making reference to a variety of research projects comparing people living in the US with people living in Japan on some attribute, documenting some supposedly unique qualities about Japanese society, and investigating the US.- Japan trade deficit.

The method of data collection

Describes the procedures used to gher relevant data.

Researchers must decide who or what they are going to study. The most common “thing” social scientists study is individuals,

But, they may also decide to study traces, documents, territories, households, small groups or individuals.


Traces are materials or other evidence that yield information about human activity,

such as the items that people throw away, the number of lights on in a house, or changes in water pressure.


Documents are written or printed materials, such as magazines, books, calendars, graffiti, birth certificates and traffic tickets.


Territories are settings that have borders or that are set aside for particular activities.

Examples include countries, states, counties, cities, streets, neighborhoods, classrooms, and buildings.


Households include all related and unrelated persons who share the same dwelling.

Small Groups

Small groups are defined as two to about twenty people who interact with one another in meaningful ways.

Examples include father-child pairs, doctor-patient pairs, families, sports teams, cihcles of friends, and committees

Populations & samples

Because of time constraints alone, researchers annot study entire populations—the total number of individuals, traces, documents, territories, households, or groups that could be studied.

Instead, they study a sample, or a portion of the cases from a larger population.


A sample should be a random sample, with every case in the population having an equal chance of being selected.

The classic, if inefficient, way of selecting a random sample is to assign every case a number, place the cards or slips of paper on which the numbers are written into a container, thoroughly mix the cards and pull out one card at a time ntil the desired sample size is achieved.

representative sample

Rather than follow this tedious system, most of today’s researchers use computer programs to generate their samples.

If every case has an equal chance of becoming part of the sample, than theoretically the sample should be a representative sample—that is, one with the same distribution of characteristics (such as age, gender, and ethnic composition) as the population from which it is selected.

Sampling frame

Obtaining a random sample is not as easy as it might appear.

For one thing, researchers must begin with a sampling frame—a complete list of every case in the population—and each member of the population must have an equal chance of being selected.

Securing such a complete list can be difficult. Campus & city telephone directories are easy to acquire, but lists of, for example, US citizens, adopted childen in the US etc are more difficult to obtain. Almost all lists omit some people (such as persons with unlisted numbers, members too new to be listed) and include some people who no longer belong (such as individuals who hae moved, died, or dropped out).

What is important is that the researcher consider the extent to which the list is incomplete and update it before drawing a sample.

Even if the list is complete, the researcher also must think of the cost and time required o take random samples and consider the problems of inducing all sampled persons to participate.

Nonrandom samples

Researchers sometimes select nonrandom samples to study people ho they know are not representative of the larger population but who are easily accessible

For example, they often use high school and college students as a sample because they are a captive audience.

Some resarchers may choose nonrepresentative samples for other important reasons:

little is known about them, They have special characteristics Their experiences clarify important social issues.

Data gathering methods

In addition to identifying who or what is to be studied, the design must include a plan for collecting information.

Researchers can choose from a variety of data-gathering methods, including self- admisinistered questionnaires, interviews, observations, and secondary sources.

Self-administered questionnaire is a set of questions given (or mailed) to respondents, who read the instructions and fill in the answers themselves.

The questions may require respondents to write out answers (open-ended) or to select from a list of responses the one that best reflects their answer (forced choice).

This method of data collection is probably most common.

The questionnaires found in magazines or books, displayed on tables or racks in service-oriented establishments (hospitals, garages, restaurants, groceries, physicians’ offices), and mailed to households are all self-administered questionnaires

This medhod of data collection has a number of advantages.

No interviewers are needed to ask respondents questions: the questionnaires can be given o large numbers of people at one-time; and an interviewer’s facial expressions or body language cannot influence respondents, so they feel more free to give unpopular or controversial responses.

Self-administered questionnaires pose some problems, however. Respondents can misundertand or skip over some questions.

Often questionnaires are mailed, set out on a table or counter, or published in a magazine or newspaper.

Researcher must than wonder whether the people who volunteer or choose to fill out questionnaire have different opinions than those who ignore the survey.

The results of a questionnaire depend not only on respondent’s decisions to fill it out, answer questions conscientiously and honestly, and return it, but also on the quality of the survey questions asked and a host of other considerations.


Face-to-face or telephone conversations between an interviewer and a respondent in which the interviewer asks and records the respondent’s answers.

Structured interview: An interview in which the wording and sequence of questions are set in advance and cannot be changed during the interview.

Unstructured interview: an interview in which the question-answer sequnce is spontaneous, open-ended, and flexible.


A research technique involving watching, listening to and recording behavior and conversations as they happen.

Observation techniques are especially useful for:

Studying behavior as it occurs. Learning things that cannot be surveyed easily

Acquiring the viewpoint of the persons under observation.


Observation can take two forms:

Participant observation: a research technique in which researchers iteract directly with study participants.

Nonparticipant observation: consists of detached watching and listening in which the researcher does not interact with the study participants.

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