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Chapter 1: Sociological Perspective and Research Methods

1.2 Understanding Society

We have just seen that sociology regards individuals as social beings influenced in many ways by their social environment and perhaps less free to behave and think than Americans ordinarily assume. If this insight suggests to you that sociology might have some other surprising things to say about the social world, you are certainly correct. Max Weber (1864–1920), a founder of sociology, wrote long ago that a major goal of sociology was to reveal and explain “inconvenient facts” (Gerth & Mills, 1946, p. 147). These facts include the profound influence of society on the individual and also, as we shall see throughout this book, the existence and extent of social inequality.

In line with Weber’s observation, as sociologists use the sociological perspective in their theory and research, they often challenge conventional understandings of how society works and of controversial social issues. This emphasis is referred to as the debunking motif, to which we now turn.

The Debunking Motif

As Peter L. Berger (1963, pp. 23–24) noted in his classic book Invitation to Sociology, “the first wisdom of sociology is this—things are not what they seem.” Social reality, he said, has “many layers of meaning,” and a goal of sociology is to help us discover these multiple meanings. He continued, “people who like to avoid shocking discoveries… should stay away from sociology.”

As Berger was emphasizing, sociology helps us see through conventional understandings of how society works. He referred to this theme of sociology as the . By “looking for levels of reality other than those given in the official interpretations of society” (p. 38), Berger said, sociology looks beyond the on-the-surface understanding of social reality and helps us recognize the value of alternative understandings. In this manner, sociology often challenges conventional understandings about social reality and social institutions.

For example, suppose two people meet at a college dance. They are interested in getting to know each other. What would be a surface-level understanding and description of their interaction over the next few minutes? What do they say? If they are like a typical couple who just met, they will ask questions like, “what’s your name, where are you from, and/or what’s your major?” Now, such a description of their interaction is okay as far as it goes, but what is really going on here? Does either of the two people really care that much about the other person’s answers to these questions? Isn’t each one more concerned about how the other person is responding, both verbally and non-verbally, during this brief interaction? For example, is the other person paying attention and smiling? Isn’t this kind of understanding a more complete analysis of these few minutes of interaction than an understanding based solely on the answers to questions like, “what’s your major?” For the most complete understanding of this brief encounter, then, we must look beyond the rather superficial things the two people are telling each other to uncover the true meaning of what is going on.

As another example, consider the power structure in a state. To know who has the power to make decisions, we would probably consult the state constitution that spells out the powers of the branches of government. This written document would indicate who makes decisions and has power, but what would it not talk about? To put it another way, who or what else has power to influence the decisions elected officials make? Big corporations? Labor unions? The media? Lobbying groups representing various interests? The state constitution may indicate who has the power to make decisions, but this understanding would be limited unless one looks beyond these written documents to get a deeper, more complete understanding of how power really operates in the setting being studied.

The Sociological Imagination

In addition to deploying the debunking motif to see through the conventional understandings of how society works, sociologists also adopt the . This term, coined by C. Wright Mills, refers to the ability to see societal patterns that influence individual and group life. Sociology stresses that individual problems are often rooted in issues stemming from the many facets of society. This key insight informed Mills’s (1959) classic distinction between and . Personal troubles refer to a problem affecting individuals that the affected individual, as well as other members of society, typically blame on the individual’s own failings. Examples include such different problems as eating disorders, divorce, and unemployment. Public issues, whose source lies in the and of a society, refer to social problems affecting many individuals. Thus problems in society help account for problems that individuals experience. Mills felt that many problems ordinarily considered private troubles are best understood as public issues.

To illustrate Mills’s viewpoint, let’s use our sociological imaginations to understand some important contemporary social problems. We will start with unemployment, which Mills himself discussed. If only a few people were unemployed, Mills wrote, we could reasonably explain their unemployment by saying they were lazy, lacked good work habits, and so forth. If so, their unemployment would be their own personal trouble. But when millions of people are out of work, unemployment is best understood as a public issue because, as Mills (1959, p. 9) put it, “the very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals.”

Spikes in the unemployment rate stemming from the severe economic recession that began in 2008, and due to the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2019-20, provide telling examples of the point Mills was making. In both cases, millions of people lost their jobs through no fault of their own. While some individuals are undoubtedly unemployed because they lack good work habits, a more structural explanation focusing on lack of opportunity is needed to explain why so many people were out of work in these two periods. In this, unemployment is best understood in this example as a public issue rather than a personal trouble.

Another contemporary problem is crime. If crime were only a personal trouble, then we could blame crime on the moral failings of individuals, and some explanations of crime do precisely this. But such an approach ignores the fact that crime is a public issue, because structural factors such as inequality and the physical characteristics of communities contribute to higher crime rates among certain groups in American society. As an illustration, consider identical twins separated at birth. One twin grows up in a wealthy area, with a low rate of conventional (personal and property) crime, while the other twin grows up in a low income area with a higher rate of conventional crime. Twenty years later, which twin will be more likely to have committed a conventional crime? You probably answered the twin growing up in the low income neighborhood. If so, you recognize that there is something about growing up in such a neighborhood that increases the chances of a person committing conventional crimes. That “something” is the structural factors just mentioned, making criminal behavior a public issue, not just a personal trouble.

image of woman grabbing her stomach

Although eating disorders often stem from personal problems, they also may reflect a cultural emphasis for women to have slender bodies. Christy McKenna – grab – CC BY-SA 2.0.

A third problem is eating disorders. We usually consider a person’s eating disorder to be a personal trouble that stems from a lack of control, low self-esteem, or another personal problem. This explanation may be okay as far as it goes, but it does not help us understand why so many people have the personal problems that lead to eating disorders. Perhaps more important, this belief also neglects the larger social and cultural forces that help explain such disorders. For example, most Americans with eating disorders are women, not men. This gender difference forces us to ask what it is about being a woman in American society that makes eating disorders so much more common. To begin to answer this question, we need to look to the standard of beauty for women that emphasizes a slender body (Whitehead & Kurz, 2008). If this cultural standard did not exist, possibly far fewer American women would suffer from eating disorders than do now. Even if every girl and woman with an eating disorder were cured, others would take their places unless we could somehow change the cultural standard of female slenderness. To the extent this explanation makes sense, eating disorders can be understood as a public issue, not just as a personal trouble.

Think LIke a Sociologist Box. Chart shows U.S. rate of divorce more than double between 1965 and 1980 (when it started to stabilize). Discussion includes the fact that couple divorcing at the time were seen as immoral and at fault for the breakdown of their marriage. The reader is asked, using your sociological imagination, to explain divorce at the time as a public issue reflecting changes occurring within the culture and social structure.

Picking up on Mills’s insights, William Ryan (1976) pointed out that Americans typically think that social problems such as poverty and unemployment stem from personal failings of the people experiencing these problems, not from structural problems in the larger society. Using Mills’s terms, Americans tend to think of social problems as personal troubles rather than public issues (Mills 1959). As Ryan put it, they tend to believe in rather than (Ryan 1976).

To help us understand a blaming-the-victim ideology, let’s consider why impoverished children in urban areas may often learn very little in their schools. A blaming-the-victim approach, according to Ryan, would say that the children’s parents do not care about their learning, fail to teach them good study habits, and do not encourage them to take school seriously. This type of explanation may apply to some parents, but it ignores a much more important reason: the daunting shape of America’s urban schools, which are crumbling structures housing old textbooks and out-of-date equipment. To improve the schooling of children in urban areas, Ryan wrote, we must improve the schools themselves, and not just try to “improve” the parents.

As this example suggests, a blaming-the-victim approach points to solutions to social problems such as poverty and illiteracy that are very different from those suggested by a more structural approach that “blames the system.” If we blame the victim, we would spend our limited dollars to address the personal failings of individuals who suffer from poverty, illiteracy, poor health, eating disorders and other difficulties. If instead we blame the system, we would focus our attention on the various social conditions (deteriorating schools, cultural standards of female beauty, etc.) that account for these difficulties. A sociological perspective suggests that the latter approach is ultimately needed to help us deal successfully with the social problems we face.

Think Like A Sociologist Box. What are some of the arguments typically made in the U.S. to explain why some people are poor and some groups are disproportionately in poverty? Do we tend to blame the victim or blame the system? Why?

Social Structure and Social Inequality

In attempting to understand how the system underlies social problems such as disparities in educational outcomes, and to achieve a more complete understanding of social reality, sociologists focus on the importance of the social forces affecting our behavior, attitudes, life choices, and life chances. This focus involves an emphasis on both social inequality and social structureIn many societies, groups are ranked in a hierarchy, with some having greater access to power and resources than others. This is commonly known as . In the United States and most other industrial societies, such things as wealth, power, race, ethnicity and gender help determine one’s social ranking, or position. Some people are at the top of society, while many more are in the middle or at the bottom. People’s positions in society’s hierarchy in turn often have profound consequences for their attitudes, behaviors, life choices, and life chances, both for themselves and for their children. Similarly, , the building blocks or social patterns through which a society is organized, including status, social groups, social institutions and form of society, influences our opportunities and outcomes.

, the smallest building block of the social structure are the positions that individuals occupy in society. This could be a job title you hold, but many other types of positions exist: student, parent, sibling, relative, friend, and so forth. Our statuses influence the experiences we have in society, including placement within the social inequality hierarchy. Consider if you were born into slavery in the U.S. in 1850. As a slave, the expectations of your behavior, as well as your level of power, opportunities and life chances would be significantly different from someone who held the status of slave owner.

Statuses are typically embedded within social groups, the next component of the social structure. A consists of two or more people who regularly interact on the basis of mutual expectations and who share a common identity. For instance, your family is a social group, and you may hold the status of daughter or son within this social group. Most people are members of many groups, including families, friends, groups of coworkers in a workplace, etc.. Like the statuses that we hold, the social groups we belong to profoundly influence our experiences, attitudes and actions, such as the influence family has over our religious and political beliefs, or the ways in which our friends exert pressure on our decision making. Similarly, groups can provide us with opportunities, such as a student earning a scholarship due to their membership in the high school honor society, or limit our opportunities when the groups we belong to are held in low esteem by our society.

, the third building block of the social structure, involves the organized patterns of beliefs and behavior that help a society meet its basic needs. Societies are filled with numerous social institutions that all help society meet its needs and which exert influence not only on the society as a whole but also on virtually every individual in a society. Examples of social institutions include family, economy, education, government and religion. As discussed, statuses are found within social groups. Similarly, social groups are found within social institutions, each nesting in the other (shown in the diagram below). For instance, the U.S. Secretary of Education (a status) is a member of the presidential cabinet (a social group), which is part of the government (a social institution) and found in the U.S (a society). As such, like status and social groups, an individuals’ attitudes, opportunities and outcomes relate to their access to and position within social institutions. In addition, the shape and nature of social institutions reflects the form of society they are found within, and this also influences the experience of individuals. If you happen to be born in an agricultural society, your society, and the institutional structure along with it, would most certainly be patriarchal (male-dominant). In such a system, if you happen to be born a female, you would not be allowed to own land or inherit property due to the gender inequality present in the family, economic and government institutions.

Graphic. Graphic showing 4 circles, each embedded in the next, with labels: society, social institutions, social groups and statuses. This demonstrates the interrelationship between the parts of the social structure.

Parts of the social structure typically nest inside one another. The social structure is interconnected, each part influencing the other, and each shaping the experience of individuals.

The largest component of social structure is itself. Society is a group of people who live within a defined territory and who share a culture. Societies certainly differ in many ways; some are larger in population and some are smaller, some rely on the natural world to supply for their basic needs, while others use machines to drive the production of goods. Whichever form of society you live in, your experiences will be fundamentally shaped by your society. If you are born into a foraging society, you would live off the land, hunting and scavenging animals and gathering plants for food. The few material goods you had would be sourced from the natural environment and you would have no access to formal education and advanced healthcare. At the same time, you would live in a highly equal society, where hierarchy was limited and resources were shared. Conversely, if you live in a post-industrial society like the U.S., you would be surrounded by hundreds of millions of people and have access to abundant material goods, yet you would also exist within an unequal hierarchy, where some groups have far greater access to high quality institutional resources than others.

Forms of Society

To gain an in-depth understanding of the ways in which social structure affects the lives of individuals, we will now turn to an examination of the forms of society which have developed throughout human history. Since the origins of sociology during the 19th century, sociologists have tried to understand how and why societies developed and changed over time, and more specifically, how and why industrial society emerged in the 1700’s. Part of this understanding involves determining the differences between industrial societies and pre-industrial ones. To help understand how contemporary society developed, sociologists find it useful to distinguish societies according to their type of economy and technology, as well as their level of social inequality. One of the most useful schemes distinguishes the following types of societies: foraging, horticultural, pastoral, agricultural, industrial and postindustrial (Nolan & Lenski, 2009). We now outline the major features of each type in turn. Table 1.1 “Summary of Societal Development” summarizes these features.

Table 1.1 Summary of Societal Development

Type of Society

Key Characteristics

Foraging

These are small, simple societies in which people hunt, scavenge and gather food. Because all people in these societies have few possessions, the societies are fairly egalitarian, with a low degree of inequality.

Horticultural and Pastoral

Horticultural and pastoral societies are larger than foraging societies. Horticultural societies grow crops with simple tools, while pastoral societies raise livestock. Both types of societies are wealthier than foraging societies, and they also have more inequality and greater conflict than foraging societies.

Agricultural

These societies grow a great amount of crops, thanks to the use of plows, oxen, and other devices. Compared to horticultural and pastoral societies, they are wealthier and have a far higher degree of conflict and inequality.

Industrial

Industrial societies feature factories and machines. They are wealthier than agricultural societies and have a greater sense of individualism and a somewhat lower degree of inequality that still remains substantial.

Postindustrial

These societies feature information technology and service jobs, and computers are a vital feature. Higher education is especially important in these societies for economic success.

Foraging Societies

Beginning about 250,000 years ago, are the oldest ones we know of; few of them remain today, partly because contemporary societies have encroached on their existence. As the name foraging implies, people in these societies forage for foods including meat, eggs, berries, nuts, tubers and other vegetation. They have few possessions other than some tools for harvesting or processing their food. To ensure their mutual survival, everyone is expected to help find food and also to share the food they find. To seek their food, foraging peoples often move from place to place. Because they are nomadic, their societies tend to be quite small, often consisting of only a few dozen people.

Beyond this summary of the type of life these societies lead, anthropologists have also charted the nature of social relationships in them. One of their most important findings is that foraging societies are fairly egalitarian. Although men do most of the hunting and scavenging of meat and women most of the gathering of plants, perhaps reflecting the biological differences between the sexes, women and men in these societies are roughly equal. Because foraging societies have few possessions, their members are also fairly equal in terms of wealth and power, as virtually no wealth exists.

Horticultural and Pastoral Societies

Horticultural and pastoral societies both appear in the archaeological record about 10,000–12,000 years ago. In , people use hoes and other simple hand tools to raise crops. In , people raise and herd sheep, goats, camels, or other domesticated animals and use them as their major source of food and also, depending on the animal, as a means of transportation. Some societies are either primarily horticultural or pastoral, while other societies combine both forms. Pastoral societies tend to be at least somewhat nomadic, as they often have to move to find better grazing land for their animals. Horticultural societies, on the other hand, tend to be less nomadic, as they are able to keep growing their crops in the same location for some time. Both types of societies often manage to produce a surplus of food from vegetable or animal sources, respectively, and this surplus allows them to trade their extra food with other societies. It also allows them to have a larger population size than foraging societies that can reach several hundred members.

Accompanying the greater complexity and wealth of horticultural and pastoral societies is greater inequality in terms of gender and wealth than is found in foraging societies. In pastoral societies, wealth stems from the number of animals a family owns, and families with more animals are wealthier and more powerful than families with fewer animals. In horticultural societies, wealth stems from the amount of land a family manages, and families with more land are wealthier and more powerful.

image of woman and child carrying harvested crop through terraced rice fields

Horticultural societies often produce an excess of food that allows them to trade with other societies and also to have more members than hunting-and-gathering societies. Photo by Thanhhoa Tran from Pexels

One other side effect of the greater wealth of horticultural and pastoral societies is greater conflict. As just mentioned, sharing of food is a key norm in foraging societies. In horticultural and pastoral societies, however, wealth (and more specifically, the differences in wealth) leads to disputes and even fighting over land and animals. Whereas foraging peoples tend to be very peaceful, horticultural and pastoral peoples tend to be more aggressive.

Agricultural Societies

developed some 5,000 years ago in the Middle East, thanks to the invention of the plow. When pulled by oxen and other large animals, the plow allowed for much more cultivation of crops than the simple tools of horticultural societies permitted. The wheel was also invented about the same time, and written language and numbers began to be used. The development of agricultural societies thus marked a watershed in the progression of human society. Ancient Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome were all agricultural societies, as were a number of societies in the Americas, such as the Maya, Aztec and Inca Empires, and many nations today remain primarily agricultural.

We have already seen that the greater food production of horticultural and pastoral societies led them to become larger than foraging societies and to have more trade and greater inequality and conflict. Agricultural societies continue all these trends. First, because they produce so much more food than horticultural and pastoral societies, they often become quite large, with their numbers sometimes reaching into the millions. Second, their huge food surpluses lead to extensive trade, both within the society itself and with other societies. Third, the surpluses and trade both lead to degrees of wealth unknown in the earlier types of societies and thus to unprecedented inequality, exemplified in the appearance for the first time of peasants, people who work on the land of rich landowners. Finally, agricultural societies’ greater size and inequality also produce more conflict. Some of this conflict is internal, as rich landowners struggle with each other for even greater wealth and power, and peasants sometimes engage in revolts. Other conflict is external, as the governments of these societies seek other markets for trade and greater wealth.

If gender inequality becomes somewhat greater in horticultural and pastoral societies than in foraging ones, it becomes very pronounced in agricultural societies. An important reason for this is the hard, physically taxing work in the fields, much of it using large plow animals, that characterizes these societies. Then, too, women are often pregnant in these societies, because large families provide more bodies to work in the fields and thus more income. Because men do more of the physical labor in agricultural societies—labor on which these societies depend—they have acquired greater power over women (Brettell & Sargent, 2009). In the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, agricultural societies are much more likely than foraging ones to believe men should dominate women (see Figure 4.2 “Type of Society and Presence of Cultural Belief That Men Should Dominate Women”).

Figure 1.1 Type of Society and Presence of Cultural Belief That Men Should Dominate Women

Graph showing that 72% of survey respondents living in agricultural societies believe that men should dominate women, compared to only 37% in foraging societies.

Source: Data from Standard Cross-Cultural Sample.

Industrial Societies

emerged in the 1700s as the development of machines and then factories replaced the plow and other agricultural equipment as the primary mode of production. The first machines were steam- and water-powered, but eventually, of course, electricity became the main source of power. The growth of industrial societies marked such a great transformation in many of the world’s societies that we now call the period from about 1750 to the late 1800s the Industrial Revolution. This revolution, similar to the agricultural revolution before, had enormous consequences in almost every aspect of society.

Industrialization brought about technological advances that improved people’s health and expanded their life spans. As noted earlier, there is also a greater emphasis in industrial societies on individualism, and people in these societies typically enjoy greater political and economic freedom than those in preindustrial societies. Compared to agricultural societies, industrial societies also have lowered economic and gender inequality. In industrialized societies, people do have a greater chance to achieve a higher social status than was true in earlier societies, and rags-to-riches stories continue to illustrate the opportunity available under industrialization. That said, we will see in later chapters that economic and gender inequality remains substantial in many industrial societies.

Industrialization has also meant the rise and growth of large cities and concentrated poverty and degrading conditions in these cities. This urbanization changed the character of social life by creating a more impersonal society. It also led to riots and other urban violence that, among other things, helped fuel the rise of the modern police force and forced factory owners to improve workplace conditions. Today industrialized societies consume most of the world’s resources, pollute its environment to an unprecedented degree, and have compiled nuclear arsenals that could undo thousands of years of human society in an instant.

Postindustrial Societies

We are increasingly living in what has been called the information technology age (or just information age), as wireless technology vies with machines and factories as the basis for our economy. Compared to industrial economies, we now have many more service jobs, ranging from housecleaning to secretarial work to repairing computers. Societies in which this transition is happening are moving from an industrial to a postindustrial phase of development. In , then, information technology and service jobs have replaced machines and manufacturing jobs as the primary dimension of the economy (Bell, 1999). If the car was the sign of the economic and social times back in the 1920s, then the smartphone or laptop is the sign of the economic and social future in the early years of the 21st century. If the factory was the dominant workplace at the beginning of the 20th century, with workers standing at their positions by conveyor belts, then cell phone, computer, and software companies are dominant industries at the beginning of the 21st century, with workers, almost all of them much better educated than their earlier factory counterparts, huddled over their wireless technology at home, at work, or on the road. In short, the Industrial Revolution has been replaced by the Information Revolution, and we now have what has been called an information society (Hassan, 2008).

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