[CHAPTER 1] Sociology: Theory and Method
WHAT IS SOCIOLOGY?
• Sociology is the scientific study of human social life, groups, and societies. • Sociology shows us that aspects of life we consider natural or take for granted are influenced by social and historical forces.
• Sociology is a discipline that insists on studying people within their social context. Your textbook begins by defining sociology and then by asking you to consider an unlikely topic—autism—sociologically. As sociologists we can look at virtually any topic and try to understand it in a new way. With autism, for example, we can ask questions about the rapid rise in diagnoses, about the gender and racial differences in diagnoses, and about the effects of mainstreaming autistic children in schools on classroom functioning. The point is that autism, a medical condition, is also a social issue, and as sociologists, we can examine it as such. At its core, then, sociology is a discipline that enacts systematic, objective analyses of the social world and that allows us the opportunity to pull back the curtain on nearly any topic.
THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION
• C. Wright Mills (1959) coined this phrase, which explained the need to move from away from viewing problems as personal troubles and toward recognizing them as public issues. • An important part of learning to think sociologically is to gain and utilize the sociological imagination.
What Mills recognized was that we have to step out of our own life experience to truly understand the social world. He said that we must understand history, biography, and society before delving into any particular social problem or issue, as context is critical to deeper understanding. Additionally, Mills emphasized the idea that as sociologists, we must investigate topics that might at first glance seem to be individual concerns. For example, sociologists can study topics like unemployment. We don’t study one man or woman who loses a job, but unemployment more broadly as a social concern. To return to a topic like autism: It does not affect only individual children, or even individual families, but entire communities, and should be studied in that light.
• Goal of sociology: to understand the connections between what society makes of us and what we make of ourselves.
• What we do both gives shape to and is shaped by society. That is, we structure society and at the same time are structured by society.
• Our lives are structured, or patterned, in particular, non-random, ways. • Social structures are dynamic. Societies are always in the process of structuration, which means they are constantly being affected by human actions.
The relationship between the individual and society is a crucial one for any student of sociology to consider. Certainly, individuals have an effect on societies, but as sociologists, we understand that societies also have significant effects—some positive, some negative—on individuals. In fact, in this relationship society is typically the stronger partner. It is also important to understand that the effects of society are not random, but patterned—structured. Our social lives, in fact, can be found to have many, many patterns based on social structures such as gender, social class, and race. What is also true is that even with the power society wields, it is not a static—stuck in place—reality. Societies are constantly in flux, as they are made up of individuals and social groups whose actions have meaningful impacts. The word sociologists use to describe this is structuration, which is meant to indicate the dialectical relationship between the individual and society.
A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE
• As sociologists, we must now be global observers.
• Globalization affects all of us every day, both as individuals and as members of nation-states, economic markets, and more.
• A global view offers insight into worldwide connections, as well as a point of comparison.
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Once we have a sense of what society is and how we, as individuals, relate to it, it’s also important to think about the scope of sociology. In recent years it has become increasingly important for us to take a global perspective on the social world. You’ve all heard the term globalization, and as sociologists we need to think of this as it relates to many, many social phenomena. Your textbook, for example, talks about the sociology of coffee, which illustrates, not only the global economics of a small brown bean, but also the history of global colonialism and its destructive force. Students like you have grown up in a largely globalized world, and as sociologists you will need to systematically consider social issues from a global perspective.
• Sociology was born during the upheaval that accompanied industrialization in Western Europe. • Many early social thinkers dedicated their research to better understanding the massive social change they witnessed.
• The discipline developed with an eye toward understanding history and change. Sociology is a discipline that was born of dual revolutions: the French and the industrial. The French Revolution was part of a major shift in ideas, including the rise of secular thinking, while the Industrial Revolution was a shift in the economy. The culmination of both was also a seismic change in political systems. Those thinkers sociologists consider “the classics”—Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber—spent much of their intellectual energy attempting to understand these changes. We’ll come back to them in just a moment.
SOCIAL CHANGE TODAY
• Social change continues: for most of human history, the vast majority of people lived in small, isolated groups. By 2050, nearly 70 percent of all people will live in urban settings. • The development of technology and communications capabilities continue to alter the way humans live.
Sociologists continue to investigate social change today. Our “world system” is one that keeps changing: Developing nations attempt to reduce their debt, leaders of various sorts come and go, young people change their means of communication, diseases reach epidemic proportions. As sociologists, we want to understand, not only what is happening, but also why. Consider taking the time to study the DIY box in this chapter, which illustrates the changes in the characteristics of college students in just the past 40 years.
• Social theories intend to explain, not what is happening, but why. • There are many theoretical approaches in sociology: sociologists do not all agree on any given topic, but theories must be based on facts.
• Research and theory cannot, and should not, be separate enterprises. Understanding social theory is an important part of an introduction to the field of sociology. Though of course we need to begin by knowing what is happening regarding any particular social issue or event, we also want to understand why. In other words, we not only collect facts, but we analyze them to gain a deeper understanding of the roots of some social problem or the causes of some event. Thus, although we often talk about research and theory as separate aspects of sociology, in reality, the two have to be considered side-by-side in practice.
Auguste Comte (1798–1857)
• French philosopher who is credited with giving the discipline its name. • Believed in creating a science of the social world to be used for improving people’s lives.
• Saw sociology as the “last science” to be developed. Comte is often referred to as the “father of sociology,” although that seems to be mostly related to his naming of the discipline and his insistence on a scientific approach rather than his empirical contributions. Comte was primarily a social policy maker, and as such it makes sense that he saw sociology as a tool for improving human welfare.
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Émile Durkheim (1858–1917)
• Drawing on Comte’s notion of sociology as a science, Durkheim set out to study social facts. These are those aspects of social life—for example, religion, the economy—that shape individual action.
• Saw society as a body that needed all its parts to function in harmony. Durkheim was, like Comte, a Frenchman who believed very much in the notion of a science of society. Durkheim elected to pursue this approach by using an analogy of society to the human body, and aspects of society like religion, the economy, politics—these are often referred to as social institutions—as parts of the body. He saw that these various social organs or parts had an effect on people, and also on society as a whole.
Durkheim wanted to understand what society needed to function harmoniously, and additionally wanted to be able to diagnose the problem when a social issue arose. One important example was Durkheim’s study of suicide, which is typically understood to be a personal problem, but which Durkheim approached sociologically. What he found was that people with either too much or too little connection to society or who, for whatever reason, felt a sense of normlessness (anomie) were more likely to commit suicide, as were people of certain religious traditions or those who lived under particular types of political systems. In all this, Durkheim was also busy trying to understand the way the changes wrought by industrialization were affecting individuals and societies. Durkheim’s theoretical perspective is often described as consensus theory.
Karl Marx (1818–1883)
• In seeking to explain social change Marx looked primarily to the economy. • Developed what is called a materialist conception of history, whereby the economy, and not values, culture, or ideas, drives social change. • Focused primarily on the ills of capitalism and its class system. Predicted that ultimately the class conflict built in to the capitalist system would lead to its demise and that a new, classless society would emerge.
Marx’s ideas have had a great deal of influence, both within sociology and in world political history.
Marx took a very different approach to understanding social change. Unlike Durkheim, Marx was never actually a professional sociologist. His training was largely in philosophy and economics, and his career was largely as a politically active journalist who found himself exiled from his native Germany. Marx eventually settled in England, where he became increasingly focused on the lives of urban laborers in the expanding factory system. He then spent much of his career describing in exquisite detail the workings of the capitalist system and the exploitation it wreaked on workers. He juxtaposed the wealth and power of the bourgeoisie (the capitalists) with the poverty and servile nature of the proletariat (the workers). What Marx saw was an inevitable revolution where the proletariat would rise up and overthrow the bourgeoisie. What followed would be a new kind of society where no single, small class would control all the resources. As you are likely aware, for much of the second half of the twentieth-century, an ideological Cold War was waged between democratic, capitalist countries (mostly in the West) and those that claimed communist or socialist forms of organization (mostly in the East). These communist and socialist regimes claimed a Marxist ideology, but in practice they deviated in significant ways from Marx’s own ideals.
Max Weber (1864–1920)
• Though he, too, was interested in explaining social change, Weber saw power, not only in the economy, but also in ideas and values.
• In particular Weber argued that Christianity, in the form of the Protestant work ethic, played an important role in the development of capitalism. • Was also interested in the increasing rationality of the social world and studied the structure of bureaucracies.
Studied many other aspects of social life, including religion, law, and power, and was always attuned to the ways people make meaning out of life.
Weber is said to have been arguing with the ghost of Marx in much of his work. While he surely agreed with Marx that changes in the economy—namely industrialization—played a critical role in the broader shifts taking place in society, Weber also
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emphasized the importance of culture and ideas. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber put forward a nowfamous thesis wherein certain aspects of Calvinist theology had an affinity with certain aspects of early capitalism. This was one example of how culture (in this case, Protestant Christianity) could play an important role in the development of a major social system (capitalism).
Like Marx, Weber was not strictly a sociologist. He studied religion, law, and power and in innovative ways. For instance, Weber wrote a massive comparative study of world religions that continues to be important in religious studies today, and which offered an excellent example of comparative research methods for sociologists. Weber was also interested in politics and science and wrote on many more topics as well. A final thing that set Weber apart from the other early theorists was his interest in how individuals make meaning out of their lives. Though he was clearly focused in many ways on large-scale social institutions like religion and bureaucracy, he also wanted to understand how the changes in these aspects of the social institutions affected individuals and how they themselves would understand their lives.
• Harriet Martineau was a scholar and activist who introduced sociology to England. Among other things, she insisted on the significance of studying domestic life to better understand a society.
• W.E.B. Du Bois was the first significant African American sociologist. He made many contributions to the field, including the
notion of the “double consciousness”
experienced by all American blacks. Du
Bois was also a founding member of the
National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People (NAACP).
Martineau was a very important figure for several reasons, not least of which is that she was a prominent female scholar in an era where she was very much the exception. Martineau brought sociology from France and Germany to England, when she
translated Comte’s work. Among her contributions was the idea that sociologists must not only study important institutions in the public sphere—the economy, religion, politics—but must also look to the private sphere and examine families, children and the lives of women. Martineau was also a strong proponent of both women’s rights and the emancipation of slaves. Du Bois’s work has been profoundly important, not only in the sense of emphasizing the need to examine the history of groups in society, but also in study of the development of identity. The now-famous idea of “double consciousness” is intended to express the way in which all African Americans must see themselves, not only through their own eyes, but also through the eyes of a society that degrades them. His claim was that this necessarily led to the construction of a negative self-identity for those in the black community. What he wanted to bring to the fore was the reality that although slavery was over, the “color line” remained a major social problem in the United States. He remained involved in issues of race relations for most of his life, but ultimately, in a state of disenchantment, he left the country for Ghana.
• All social interaction involves an exchange of information via symbols. • This exchange may be through language, but may also be non-verbal or may be conveyed by setting.
• We learn about ourselves and the world through this meaningful interaction. • Key figure: George Herbert Mead
Mead was a pragmatist philosopher who was a key figure in developing the symbolic interactionist perspective. Mead’s interest was largely in the development of the self, and he showed that language, along with other exchanges of symbols, was paramount in this process. More broadly, symbolic interactionists study society by examining all aspects of interaction and are often able to learn a tremendous amount about culture, power, and relationships in doing so.
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• This perspective is derived from Comte and Durkheim and emphasizes large-scale social institutions and processes.
• Functionalist approaches are focus on understanding the role or contribution of some event, activity, or institution to the workings of society as a whole. • Modern figures: Talcott Parsons, Robert K. Merton
At its core, the functionalist perspective is one that seeks to understand society as a unified social system in which different social institutions and events serve particular functions, or roles, in maintaining societal harmony. Functionalism finds its earliest proponents in figures like Durkheim, but it was renewed in the mid-1950s under the leadership of Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton. Though there is, today, concern among some sociologists about an ideological conservatism in functionalist thought, systems theory (derived from Parsons), and middle-range theories (derived from Merton) have remained influential perspectives.
• Those working under this approach derive their approach from Marx, most significantly as regards concerns about power, conflict, and ideology.
• This perspective is most commonly applied to capitalism and economic systems. • Marxist thinkers tend to take on an activist stance in addition to a scholarly one. In many ways, Marxism is exactly what it sounds like: an approach that is based on the ideas of Karl Marx. Largely that is the case, but given the wide array of Marxist approaches, it is important to recognize that they are not all speaking for Marx. Marxism as a theoretical perspective is largely focused on the economy, on the power structures that result from particular economic systems, on the ideologies used to reproduce (maintain) these systems, and on the conflicts that arise and are built in to these systems. Those that utilize Marxist approaches are often what we might call scholar-activists, who believe that part of their work in examining economic systems is to expose and work to challenge inequality and exploitation.
Feminist theory begins from the perspective that women’s lives and experiences have largely been ignored and must be brought to the forefront of sociological thinking. For most of the history of sociology, as with most academic disciplines, the voices of women have been marginalized. Beginning with figures like Harriet Martineau, however, there has been an ever-growing movement toward the inclusion of women, not only as scholars, but also as subjects worthy of investigation. Today, feminist theory has grown to the point of being a full-fledged academic discipline, usually called Women’s Studies, and within sociology it is an important and expanding field of both theory and practice.
Postmodern theory takes the position that social life is not based on any kind of linear history, but is rather always in flux. The media is often seen as a key player in how people understand their lives. Postmodern theorists make the claim that the grand historical narratives of, for example, “modernity” and “industrialization” are no longer relevant or useful in people’s lives. Postmodernists argue that we are now in a new period in which there are a multitude of equally relevant (or irrelevant) stories, and that we are all subject to the many voices in the media, which tell us about the social world without the anchor of context or history. In this new social reality, there are no dominant stories, only more or less mobilized stories.
LEVELS OF ANALYSIS
• Microsociology is the study of everyday, face-to-face interaction. Symbolic interactionists •
study primarily at this level of analysis.
Macrosociology is the analysis of large social systems and institutions. Functionalists and Marxists fall largely under this heading.
In practice, these two levels of analysis work best when applied in concert.
When we begin to think about the connections between theory and research, one of the first things to consider is the level of analysis. Some theories, like symbolic interactionism, are focused on small events: conversations between individuals in particular social roles, for example. Others, like functionalism, have a broader focus on entire social institutions: the role
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fundamentalist religions play in modern democratic societies. The first of these is what we call microsociology, and the second is called macrosociology. Though the two are different in important ways, in practice they inform each other, and in the best research both are addressed. An excellent example of both levels of analysis being investigated can be found in Elijah Anderson’s The Code of the Street, where he examined the broad problem of inner-city violence by looking at interactions in one neighborhood and simultaneously considering the massive loss of manufacturing jobs from the 1980s forward.
RESEARCH METHODS: QUESTIONS
• Sociology, as a social science, must take an empirical approach to answering questions about the world.
• Sociologists ask four primary types of questions: factual, comparative, developmental, and theoretical.
As sociologists there are innumerable questions we may have about the social world, but we must ask them in particular, agreedupon ways in order to work within a scientific framework. Our questions must be ones that we can answer empirically; we must go out and collect data, not just base our answers on our own experiences and philosophies. The four basic types of questions are factual: what happened or is happening; comparative: whether this happens everywhere; developmental: whether this has always happened; and theoretical: why this is happening.
RESEARCH METHODS: SEVEN STEPS
1. Define the research problem.
2. Review the evidence—do a literature review.
3. Make the problem precise—specify your hypothesis.
4. Work out a research design.
5. Carry out the research—collect your data.
6. Interpret the results—analyze your data.
7. Report the findings—publish or present them.
When actually working on a research project, there are seven basic steps to follow. If you pay careful attention to your textbook, what you will recognize is that sometimes there is some back and forth and some repetition of steps. That is fine as long as you do indeed work through them all. Each step is crucial to your work being acceptable as social scientific research.
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• Ethnography, or participant observation, is a method frequently used to study people in their own settings.
• Surveys are a more structured research method where specific, carefully constructed questions are asked to specific, carefully selected individuals.
• Sociologists occasionally use experimental designs when highly controlled conditions are necessary to answer research questions.
• Comparative and historical research are approaches that allow researchers to understand variations in social phenomena across both time and space.
Ethnographies and surveys are two commonly used research methods in sociology. Ethnography is a qualitative method that involves a researcher going into the field to study people or social groups in their own setting. This method comes from anthropology but has gained in usage and acceptance in sociology. Surveys are a quantitative research method that involve constructing questionnaires that ask questions about some topic, or topics. Typically, survey researchers work with as large a sample of participants as they can, as one goal is usually to generalize their findings. An example of a survey with which you are probably at least a bit familiar is the U.S. Census, which seeks basic information about everyone living in the United States. Three other methods, less frequent but not uncommon, are experimental, comparative, and historical research designs. Experimental designs are typically used when some very specific intervention is being studied that necessitates a highly controlled environment. Comparative approaches are common used alongside many other approaches in an effort to see variation across social space. For example, the same survey could be given to college students in the United States and to college students in China, and then we could make some comparisons about the two populations. Historical research allows us to consider change over time and to pay close attention to shifts in major social structures in terms of our own topic. For example, we could look at changes in family structure as it relates to changes in the labor market over the past two hundred years.
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RESEARCH METHODS: ETHICS
• Because sociologists are dealing with real people in their everyday lives, we must be very cautious in our work.
• All research that directly involves human subjects must first be approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB).
• Study participants must give informed consent prior to agreeing to participate and must be debriefed after.
Because we are often studying the lives of individuals, as sociologists we have important ethical responsibilities. Like the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians, as sociologists we must begin with the proposition to “do no harm.” As a result of experiments in earlier periods that did have negative impacts on study participants, today there are clearly defined rules that all researchers must follow and that are enforced via Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) at universities and hospitals. Your textbook gives the example of Humphrey’s study Tearoom Trade, which was an early investigation of gay behavior and culture. What did he do that might be ethically suspect? Go back, look at this section, and think about what ethical boundaries might have been breached, knowing that today an IRB would prohibit such approaches. All our research, no matter how important it seems to us, must take into account the rights of our research subjects and the potential for concerns about ethics.