Sociology as a field of study first emerged during the height of the industrial revolution. As noted above, significant changes occurred as a result of industrialization, including the transition from an agrarian economy to economic production based in manufacturing, as well as a sweeping political transformation, which saw the fall of monarchies and the rise of democracy. Other institutional changes were abundant, including the transition from religious belief to scientific research being used to study and understand the natural world. Out of this revolutionary transformation came the understanding that the social world could also be studied scientifically and this knowledge could then be used to address social problems and better human society.
Before we turn to a discussion of the dominant sociological thinkers and theoretical perspectives of the time, it’s important to first discuss the complexity of sociological thought, in general. We have talked repeatedly about “a” sociological perspective, as if all sociologists share the same beliefs on how society works. This implication is misleading. Although all sociologists would probably accept the basic premise that social backgrounds affect people’s attitudes, behavior, life choices, and life chances, their views as sociologists differ in many other ways.
Macro and Micro Approaches
Although this may be overly simplistic, sociologists’ views basically fall into two camps: and . Macrosociologists focus on the big picture, which usually means such things as social structure, social institutions, and social, political, and economic change. They look at the large-scale social forces that change the course of human society and the lives of individuals. In looking at the big picture, Macrosociologists ask questions such as, why does society exist in its current form, how and why does society change, how is social order maintained, and how do power and economic inequality shape experience?
Nicholas Upton — Black Lives Matter Protest-3656 — CC BY-SA 2.0
Microsociologists, on the other hand, study social interaction and construction of meaning. They look at how families, coworkers, and other small groups of people interact; why they interact the way they do; and how they interpret the meanings of their own interactions and of the social settings in which they find themselves. Often macrosociologists and microsociologists look at the same phenomena but do so in different ways. Their views taken together offer a fuller understanding of the phenomena than either approach can offer alone.
The different but complementary nature of these two approaches can be seen in the case of armed robbery. Macrosociologists would discuss such things as why robbery rates are higher in poorer communities and whether these rates change with changes in the national economy. Microsociologists would instead focus on such things as why individuals decide to commit a robbery and how they select their targets. Both types of approaches give us a valuable understanding of robbery, but together they offer an even richer understanding.
Within the broad macro camp, two theoretical perspectives dominate: functionalism and the conflict perspective. Within the micro camp, another perspective exists: symbolic interactionism. We now turn to these three theoretical perspectives, which are summarized below.
Table 1.2 Theory Snapshot
Functionalism is a macrosociological perspective that views society as a system of interrelated parts that interact in a harmonious way to maintain social stability. Social stability is seen as necessary for a strong and long-lived society and is achieved through adequate socialization and social integration.. Slow social change is desirable, because rapid social change threatens social order.
The conflict perspective has a macrosociological focus that views society as characterized by pervasive inequality based on social class, gender, and other factors due to competition over society’s scarce resources. Far-reaching social change is needed to reduce or eliminate social inequality and to create an egalitarian society.
Symbolic interactionism is a microsociological perspective that focuses on the way that people construct their roles as they interact. As this interaction occurs, individuals negotiate their definitions of the situations in which they find themselves and socially construct the reality of these situations. In so doing, they rely heavily on symbols such as words and gestures to reach a shared understanding of their interaction.
Functionalism, also known as the functionalist perspective, arose out of two great revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. The first was the French Revolution of 1789, whose intense violence and bloody terror shook Europe to its core. The aristocracy throughout Europe feared that revolution would spread to their own lands, and intellectuals feared that social order was crumbling.
The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century reinforced these concerns. Starting first in Europe and then in the United States, the Industrial Revolution led to many changes, including the rise and growth of cities as people left their farms to live near factories. As the cities grew, people lived in increasingly poor, crowded, and decrepit conditions. One result of these conditions was mass violence, as mobs of the poor roamed the streets of European and American cities. They attacked bystanders, destroyed property, and generally wreaked havoc. Here was additional evidence, if European intellectuals needed it, of the breakdown of social order.
In response, the intellectuals began to write that a strong society, as exemplified by strong social bonds and rules and effective socialization, was needed to prevent social order from disintegrating (Collins, 1994). In this regard, their view was similar to that of the 20th-century novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954), which many students read in high school. Some British boys are stranded on an island after a plane crash. No longer supervised by adults and no longer in a society as they once knew it, they are not sure how to proceed and come up with new rules for their behavior. These rules prove ineffective, and the boys slowly become savages, as the book calls them, and commit murder. However bleak, Golding’s view echoes that of the conservative intellectuals writing in the aftermath of the French and Industrial Revolutions. Without a strong society and effective socialization, they warned, social order breaks down, and violence and other signs of social disorder result.
This general framework reached fruition in the writings of Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), a French scholar largely responsible for the functional perspective as we now know it. Adopting the conservative intellectuals’ view of the need for a strong society, Durkheim felt that human beings have desires that result in chaos unless society limits them. He wrote, “To achieve any other result, the passions first must be limited.… But since the individual has no way of limiting them, this must be done by some force exterior to him” (Durkheim, 1897/1952, p. 274). This force, Durkheim continued, is the moral authority of society. How does society limit individual aspirations? Durkheim emphasized two related social mechanisms: socialization and social integration. Socialization helps us learn society’s rules and the need to cooperate, as people end up generally agreeing on important norms and values, while social integration, or our ties to other people and to social institutions such as religion and the family, helps socialize us and integrate us into society and reinforce our respect for its rules. In general, Durkheim added, society comprises many types of social facts, or forces external to the individual, that affect and constrain individual attitudes and behavior. The result is that socialization and social integration help establish a strong set of social rules—or, as Durkheim called it, a strong collective conscience—that is needed for a stable society. By so doing, society “creates a kind of cocoon around the individual, making him or her less individualistic, more a member of the group” (Collins, 1994, p. 181). Weak rules or social ties weaken this “moral cocoon” and lead to social disorder. In all of these respects, says Randall Collins (1994, p. 181), Durkheim’s view represents the “core tradition” of sociology that lies at the heart of the sociological perspective.
Durkheim used suicide to illustrate how social disorder can result from a weakening of society’s moral cocoon. Focusing on group rates of suicide, he felt they could not be explained simply in terms of individual unhappiness and instead resulted from external forces. One such force is , or normlessness, which results from situations, such as periods of rapid social change, when social norms are weak and unclear or social ties are weak. When anomie sets in, people become more unclear about how to deal with problems in their life. Their aspirations are no longer limited by society’s constraints and thus cannot be fulfilled. The frustration stemming from anomie leads some people to commit suicide (Durkheim, 1897/1952).
To test his theory, Durkheim gathered suicide rate data and found that Protestants had higher suicide rates than Catholics. To explain this difference, he rejected the idea that Protestants were less happy than Catholics and instead hypothesized that Catholic doctrine provides many more rules for behavior and thinking than does Protestant doctrine. Protestants’ aspirations were thus less constrained than Catholics’ desires. In times of trouble, Protestants also have fewer norms on which to rely for comfort and support than do Catholics. He also thought that Protestants’ ties to each other were weaker than those among Catholics, providing Protestants fewer social support networks to turn to when troubled. In addition, Protestant belief is ambivalent about suicide, while Catholic doctrine condemns it. All of these properties of religious group membership combine to produce higher suicide rates among Protestants than among Catholics.
Émile Durkheim was a founder of sociology and largely responsible for the functional perspective as we now know it. https://www.marxists.org/glossary/people/d/pics/durkheim.jpg – public domain.
In addition to applying his research on suicide to his theory that strong social bonds and rules and effective socialization helped prevent social order from disintegrating, Durkheim also examined how the roots of social solidarity are created in preindustrial versus industrial societies. In preindustrial societies (foraging, horticultural, pastoral and agrarian), Durkehim noted that community feeling and group commitment create social solidarity, or hold the society together. In these societies, deviance from the dominant culture is rarely tolerated. In contrast, industrial and postindustrial societies are more individualistic and impersonal, however cultural diversity is tolerated. So what holds industrialized societies together?
Durkheim suggests an explanation in his book The Division of Labour in Society, published in 1893. In this book, he highlights the degree of division of labor within these societies as a key difference. In preindustrial societies, there is little division of labor; there are not many types of labor besides maintaining a food source and taking care of children, and women and men work together for a lot of this. It is important for these societies to agree on cultural norms and beliefs; if they did not, they might not get along enough to accomplish their work! Durkheim would say that these societies have . Compare this to what you are familiar with: a society where there are thousands of occupations of varying prestige and power and available to men or women. Industrialized societies have extreme division of labor and, because of this, require a tolerance to cultural diversity. Durkheim theorized that this complex and hierarchical system of labor is what holds industrialized societies together and called this . The takeaway here is that, while these types of societies may appear dramatically different culturally, the people existing in them are still reliant on everyone else for survival. A functioning society requires some type of social solidarity.
Today’s functionalist perspective arises out of Durkheim’s work and that of other conservative intellectuals of the 19th century. It uses the human body as a model for understanding society. In the human body, our various organs and other body parts serve important functions for the ongoing health and stability of our body. Our eyes help us see, our ears help us hear, our heart circulates our blood, and so forth. Just as we can understand the body by describing and understanding the functions that its parts serve for its health and stability, so can we understand society by describing and understanding the functions that its “parts”—or, more accurately, its social institutions—serve for the ongoing health and stability of society. Thus functionalism emphasizes the importance of social institutions such as the family, religion, and education for producing a stable society. We look at these institutions in later chapters.
Similar to the view of the conservative intellectuals from which it grew, functionalism is skeptical of rapid social change and other major social upheaval. The analogy to the human body helps us understand this skepticism. In our bodies, any sudden, rapid change is a sign of danger to our health. If we break a bone in one of our legs, we have trouble walking; if we lose sight in both our eyes, we can no longer see. Slow changes, such as the growth of our hair and our nails, are fine and even normal, but sudden changes like those just described are obviously troublesome. By analogy, sudden and rapid changes in society and its social institutions are troublesome according to the functionalist perspective. If the human body evolved to its present form and functions because these made sense from an evolutionary perspective, so did society evolve to its present form and functions because these made sense. Any sudden change in society thus threatens its stability and future. An example of a theory that demonstrates these ideas is Talcott Parsons’ , which helps to explain social change through the maintenance of social order. According to Parsons, if there are changes within one social institution, other social institutions will adapt through changes until order is restored. For example, think of how dramatically the invention of the Internet has impacted our culture. Information is available within seconds online, so manufacturing and even reading books are unnecessary. Our education institution is one social institution that has adapted to this change by providing lessons, textbooks and entire courses online. A more dangerous outcome of the Internet has been the theft of individuals’ identities. The government, our society’s political institution, regularly works to create policies that prevent this from happening. From this perspective, society is continually adapting to changes, and therefore never completely predictable, but it naturally moves towards equilibrium. By taking a skeptical approach to social change, functionalism supports the status quo and is thus often regarded as a conservative perspective.
In many ways, the is the opposite of functionalism but ironically also grew out of the Industrial Revolution, thanks largely to Karl Marx (1818–1883) and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels (1820–1895). Whereas conservative intellectuals feared the mass violence resulting from industrialization, Marx and Engels deplored the conditions they felt were responsible for the mass violence and the capitalist society they felt was responsible for these conditions. Instead of fearing the breakdown of social order that mass violence represented, they felt that revolutionary violence was needed to eliminate capitalism and the poverty and misery they saw as its inevitable result (Marx, 1867/1906; Marx & Engels, 1848/1962).
Karl Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels were intense critics of capitalism. Their work inspired the later development of conflict theory in sociology. Wikimedia Commons – public domain.
According to Marx and Engels, every society is divided into two classes based on the ownership of the means of production (tools, factories, and the like). In a capitalist society, the , or ruling class, owns the means of production, while the , or working class, does not own the means of production and instead is oppressed and exploited by the bourgeoisie. This difference creates an automatic conflict of interests between the two groups. Simply put, the bourgeoisie is interested in maintaining its position at the top of society, while the proletariat’s interest lies in rising up from the bottom and overthrowing the bourgeoisie to create an egalitarian society.
In a capitalist society, Marx and Engels wrote, revolution is inevitable because of structural contradictions arising from the very nature of capitalism. Because profit is the main goal of capitalism, the bourgeoisie’s interest lies in maximizing profit. To do so, capitalists try to keep wages as low as possible and to spend as little money as possible on working conditions. This central fact of capitalism, said Marx and Engels, eventually prompts the rise among workers of , or an awareness of the reasons for their oppression. Their class consciousness in turn leads them to revolt against the bourgeoisie to eliminate the oppression and exploitation they suffer.
Over the years, Marx and Engels’s views on the nature of capitalism and class relations have greatly influenced social, political, and economic theory and also inspired revolutionaries in nations around the world. However, history has not supported their prediction that capitalism will inevitably result in a revolution of the proletariat. For example, no such revolution has occurred in the United States, where workers never developed the degree of class consciousness envisioned by Marx and Engels. Because the United States is thought to be a free society where everyone has the opportunity to succeed, even poor Americans feel that the system is basically just. Thus various aspects of American society and ideology have helped minimize the development of class consciousness and prevent the revolution that Marx and Engels foresaw.
Despite this shortcoming, their basic view of conflict arising from unequal positions held by members of society lies at the heart of today’s conflict perspective. This perspective emphasizes that different groups in society have different interests stemming from their different social positions. These different interests in turn lead to different views on important social issues. Some versions of the theory root conflict in divisions based on race and ethnicity, gender, and other such differences, while other versions follow Marx and Engels in seeing conflict arising out of different positions in the economic structure. In general, however, conflict theory emphasizes that the various parts of society contribute to ongoing inequality, whereas functionalist theory, as we have seen, stresses that they contribute to the ongoing stability of society. Thus, while functionalist theory emphasizes the benefits of the various parts of society for ongoing social stability, conflict theory favors social change to reduce inequality.
Conflict theorists find Parsons’ Equilibrium Theory on social change (a functionalist theory discussed above) to be naïve. Karl Marx and C. Wright Mills among others would argue that Functionalists ignore the power of the dominant group and their justifications for maintaining order as a means of continued oppression. Instead of social change moving towards order, they would say that societies naturally move towards social change and not towards equilibrium. The force behind the social change is conflict, visible and invisible tension, between the ruling elite and the exploited working class. Marx theorized that, over time, the group in power changes when the exploited population rises up enough to remove the ruling group. Interestingly, he acknowledged that this does not remove inequality but only replaces the ruling group with a new ruling group. The exception is if the result of the conflict is a classless state, of which he outlined in The Communist Manifesto. In this regard, conflict theory may be considered a progressive perspective.
has developed in sociology and other disciplines since the 1970s and for our purposes will be considered a specific application of conflict theory. In this case, the conflict concerns gender inequality rather than the class inequality emphasized by Marx and Engels. Although many variations of feminist theory exist, they all emphasize that society is filled with gender inequality such that women are the subordinate sex in many dimensions of social, political, and economic life (Tong, 2009). Liberal feminists view gender inequality as arising out of gender differences in socialization, while Marxist feminists say that this inequality is a result of the rise of capitalism, which made women dependent on men for economic support. On the other hand, radical feminists see gender inequality present in all societies, not just capitalist ones.
Symbolic Interaction Perspective
Whereas the functionalist and conflict perspectives are macro approaches, is a micro approach that focuses on the interaction of individuals and on how they interpret their interaction. Its roots lie in the work in the early 1900s of American sociologists, social psychologists, and philosophers who were interested in human consciousness and action. Herbert Blumer (1969), a sociologist at the University of Chicago, built on their writings to develop symbolic interactionism, a term he coined. This view remains popular today, in part because many sociologists object to what they perceive as the overly deterministic view of human thought and action and passive view of the individual inherent in the sociological perspective derived from Durkheim.
Drawing on Blumer’s work, symbolic interactionists feel that people do not merely learn the roles that society has set out for them; instead they construct these roles as they interact. As they interact, they “negotiate” their definitions of the situations in which they find themselves and socially construct the reality of these situations. In so doing, they rely heavily on symbols such as words and gestures to reach a shared understanding of their interaction.
An example is the familiar symbol of shaking hands. In the United States and many other societies, shaking hands is a symbol of greeting and friendship. This simple act indicates that you are a nice, polite person with whom someone should feel comfortable. To reinforce this symbol’s importance for understanding a bit of interaction, consider a situation where someone refuses to shake hands. This action is usually intended as a sign of dislike or as an insult, and the other person interprets it as such. Their understanding of the situation and subsequent interaction will be very different from those arising from the more typical shaking of hands.
Now let’s say that someone does not shake hands, but this time the reason is that the person’s right arm is broken. Because the other person realizes this, no snub or insult is inferred, and the two people can then proceed to have a comfortable encounter. Their definition of the situation depends not only on whether they shake hands but also, if they do not shake hands, on why they do not. As the term symbolic interactionism implies, their understanding of this encounter arises from what they do when they interact and their use and interpretation of the various symbols included in their interaction. According to symbolic interactionists, social order is possible because people learn what various symbols (such as shaking hands) mean and apply these meanings to different kinds of situations. If you visited a society where sticking your right hand out to greet someone was interpreted as a threatening gesture, you would quickly learn the value of common understandings of symbols.
Comparing the Perspectives
This brief presentation of the three major theoretical perspectives in sociology outlines their basic points. Each perspective has its proponents, and each has its detractors. We will return to them in many of the chapters ahead, but a brief critique is in order here.
A major criticism with functionalist theory is that it tends to support the status quo and thus seems to favor existing inequalities based on race, social class, and gender. By emphasizing the contributions of social institutions such as the family and education to social stability, functionalist theory minimizes the ways in which these institutions contribute to social inequality.
Conflict theory also has its criticisms. By emphasizing inequality and dissensus in society, conflict theory overlooks the large degree of consensus on many important issues. And by emphasizing the ways in which social institutions contribute to social inequality, conflict theory minimizes the ways in which these institutions are necessary for society’s stability.
Neither of these two macro perspectives has very much to say about social interaction, one of the most important building blocks of society. In this regard, the micro perspective, symbolic interactionism, offers significant advantages over its macro cousins. Yet the very micro focus leads symbolic interactionists to pay relatively little attention to the reasons for, and possible solutions to, such broad and fundamentally important issues as poverty, racism, sexism, and social change, which are all addressed by functionalism and conflict theory. In this regard, the two macro perspectives offer significant advantages over their micro cousin.
These criticisms aside, all three perspectives taken together offer a more comprehensive understanding of social phenomena than any one perspective can offer alone. To illustrate this, let’s return to our armed robbery example. A functionalist approach might suggest that armed robbery and other crimes actually serve positive functions for society. As one function, fear of crime ironically strengthens social bonds by uniting the law-abiding public against the criminal elements in society. As a second function, armed robbery and other crimes create many jobs for police officers, judges, lawyers, prison guards, the construction companies that build prisons, and the various businesses that provide products the public buys to help protect against crime.
Conflict theory would take a very different but no less helpful approach to understanding armed robbery. It might note that most street criminals are poor and thus emphasize that armed robbery and other crimes are the result of the despair and frustration of living in poverty and facing a lack of jobs and other opportunities for economic and social success. The roots of street crime, from the perspective of conflict theory, thus lie in society at least as much as they lie in the individuals committing such crime.
To explain armed robbery, symbolic interactionists focus on how armed robbers decide when and where to rob a victim and on how interactions with other criminals reinforce their own criminal tendencies. Geoffrey Fairchild – The Robbery – CC BY 2.0.
In explaining armed robbery, symbolic interactionism would focus on how armed robbers make such decisions as when and where to rob someone and on how their interactions with other criminals reinforce their own criminal tendencies.
Sociology and Social Reform: Public Sociology
A final critique that could be levied on the theoretical perspectives is that they are theoretical in nature and merely observational, rather than action-oriented. However, from the founding of the field of sociology, there has been interest in not only studying social issues and problems from a theoretical point-of-view, but also in using this knowledge to solve social ills. In fact, the use of sociological knowledge to achieve social reform was a key theme of sociology as it developed in the United States after emerging at the University of Chicago in the 1890s (Calhoun, 2007). The early Chicago sociologists aimed to use their research to achieve social reform and, in particular, to reduce poverty and its related effects. They worked closely with Jane Addams (1860–1935), a renowned social worker who founded Hull House (a home for the poor in Chicago) in 1899 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Addams gained much attention for her analyses of poverty and other social problems of the time, and her book Twenty Years at Hull House remains a moving account of her work with the poor and ill in Chicago (Deegan, 1990).
About the same time, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), a sociologist and the first African American to obtain a PhD from Harvard University, wrote groundbreaking books and articles on race in American society and, more specifically, on the problems facing African Americans (Morris, 2007). One of these works was his 1899 book The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, which attributed the problems facing Philadelphia blacks to racial prejudice among whites. Du Bois also helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A contemporary of Du Bois was Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931), a former slave who became an activist for women’s rights and worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of African Americans. She wrote several studies of lynching and joined Du Bois in helping to found the NAACP (Bay, 2009).
American sociology has never fully lost its early calling, but by the 1940s and 1950s many sociologists had developed a more scientific, professional orientation that disregarded social reform (Calhoun, 2007). In 1951, a group of sociologists who felt that sociology had abandoned the discipline’s early social reform orientation formed a new national association, the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP). SSSP’s primary aim today remains the use of sociological knowledge to achieve social justice (http://sssp1.org). During the 1960s, a new wave of young sociologists, influenced by the political events and social movements of that tumultuous period, took up the mantle of social reform and clashed with their older colleagues. A healthy tension has existed since then between sociologists who see social reform as a major goal of their work and those who favor sociological knowledge for its own sake.
In 2004, the president of the American Sociological Association, Michael Burawoy, called for “public sociology,” or the use of sociological insights and findings to address social issues and achieve social change (Burawoy, 2005). His call ignited much excitement and debate, as public sociology became the theme or prime topic of several national and regional sociology conferences and of special issues or sections of major sociological journals. Several sociology departments began degree programs or concentrations in public sociology. In the spirit of public sociology, the chapters that follow aim to show the relevance of sociological knowledge for social reform.
Now that you have some understanding of the major theoretical perspectives in sociology and the actions taken by sociologists to work towards social justice, we will discuss how sociologists conduct their research in Chapter 2.
focuses on the big picture, which usually means such things as social institutions, and social, political and economic change
the study of social interaction, action, and the construction of meaning in small groups
or normlessness, which results from situations, such as periods of rapid social change, when social norms are weak and unclear or social ties are weak
the form of solidarity that develops when a society has little division of labor and a strong emphasis on group commitment leaving little room for deviance from group norms and beliefs
the form of solidarity that develops when a society relies on a large, complex and hierarchical division of labor, where cultural diversity and individualism are common
theory of social change in which it is argued that changes within one social institution cause changes in other social institutions until order is restored
a theoretical perspective that looks at the way inequalities contribute to social differences and perpetuate differences in power while creating social order
the ruling class, or the group who owns the means of production
the working class, or the group who does not own the means of production and instead is oppressed and exploited by the bourgeoisie
the awareness of one’s shared place in society within a class structure where one perceives common life chances
theoretical perspective that analyzes the inequalities and power dynamics between men and women with the intention of improving women’s lives
a microsociological perspective that focuses on the interaction of individuals and on how they interpret their interaction according to the meaning things have for them