3 Module 3: Research Design: Investigating Society, Structure and Process

Learning Objectives

  • Distinguish between Scientific and non-scientific reasoning
  • Elaborate the meaning of Merton’s acronym, CUDOS
  • Explain why critical thinking is an essential skill for researchers to develop
  • Explain what epistemological, ontological and axiological assumptions are and discuss why they are important within sociological research
  • Distinguish between positivist, interpretive and critical approaches to research design
  • Explain why certain sociological research topics are better suited to different sociological perspectives

3.0 Introduction to Research Design

When sociologists apply sociological perspectives and begin to ask questions, no topic is off limits. Every aspect of human behaviour is a source of possible investigation. Sociologists question the world that humans have created and live in. They notice patterns of behaviour as people move through the world. Using sociological methods and systematic research strategies within the framework of the scientific method, sociologists have discovered workplace patterns that have transformed industries, family patterns that have enlightened parents, and education patterns that have aided structural changes in classrooms.

Depending on the focus and the type of research conducted, sociological findings may be used to address any of the three basic interests or purposes of sociological knowledge: the positivist interest in quantitative factual evidence to determine effective social policy decisions, the interpretive interest in qualitative evidence to understand the meanings of human behaviour which foster mutual understanding and consensus, and the critical interest in knowledge (qualitative and/or quantitative evidence) useful for challenging power relations and emancipating people from conditions of servitude. While it might seem strange to use scientific practices to study social phenomena, the systematic approaches that research design and research methodologies provide are crucial to the development of sociological knowledge, and its evaluation.

3.1 Science vs. Non-Science

We live in an interesting time in which the certitudes and authority of science are frequently challenged. In the natural sciences, people doubt scientific claims about climate change and the safety of vaccines. In the social sciences, people doubt scientific claims about the declining rate of violent crime or the effectiveness of needle exchange programs.  Sometimes there is a good reason to be skeptical about science, when scientific technologies prove to have adverse effects on the environment, for example; sometimes skepticism has dangerous outcomes, when epidemics of diseases like measles suddenly break-out in schools due to low vaccination rates. In fact, skepticism is central to both natural and social sciences, but from a scientific point of view the skeptical attitude needs to be combined with systematic research in order for knowledge to move forward.

In sociology, science provides the basis for being able to distinguish between everyday opinions or beliefs and propositions that can be sustained by evidence. In his paper The Normative Structure of Science (1942/1973) the sociologist Robert Merton argued that science is a type of empirical knowledge organized around four key principles, often referred to by the acronym CUDOS:

  1. Communalism: The results of science must be made available to the public; science is freely available, shared knowledge open to public discussion and debate.
  2. Universalism: The results of science must be evaluated based on universal criteria, not parochial criteria specific to the researchers themselves.
  3. Disinterestness: Science must not be pursued for private interests or personal reward.
  4. Organized Skepticism: The scientist must abandon all prior intellectual commitments, critically evaluate claims, and postpone conclusions until sufficient evidence has been presented; scientific knowledge is provisional.

For Merton, therefore, non-scientific knowledge is knowledge that fails in various respects to meet these criteria. Types of esoteric or mystical knowledge, for example, might be valid for someone on a spiritual path, but because this knowledge is passed from teacher to student and it is not available to the public for open debate, or because the validity of this knowledge might be specific to the individual’s unique spiritual configuration, esoteric or mystical knowledge is not scientific per se. Claims that are presented to persuade (rhetoric), to achieve political goals (propaganda, of various sorts), or to make profits (advertising) are not scientific because these claims are structured to satisfy private interests. Propositions which fail to stand up to rigorous and systematic standards of evaluation are not scientific because they can not withstand the criteria of organized skepticism and scientific method.

The basic distinction between scientific and common, non-scientific claims about the world is that in science “seeing is believing” whereas in everyday life “believing is seeing” (Brym, Roberts, Lie, & Rytina, 2013). Science is in crucial respects based on systematic observation following the principles of CUDOS. Only on the basis of observation (or “seeing”) can a scientist believe that a proposition about the nature of the world is correct. Research methodologies are designed to reduce the chance that conclusions will be based on error. In everyday life, the order is typically reversed. People “see” what they already expect to see or what they already believe to be true. Prior intellectual commitments or biases predetermine what people observe and the conclusions they draw.

Many people know things about the social world without having a background in sociology. Sometimes their knowledge is valid; sometimes it is not. It is important, therefore, to think about how people know what they know, and compare it to the scientific way of knowing. Four types of non-scientific reasoning are common in everyday life: knowledge based on casual observation, knowledge based on selective evidence, knowledge based on overgeneralization, and knowledge based on authority or tradition.

Table 3.1. Scientific and Non-Scientific Ways of Knowing (Source: Amy Blackstone, Sociological Inquiry Principles: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods. Creative Commons by-nc-sa 3.0 License)
Way of Knowing Description
Casual Observation Occurs when we make observations without any systematic process for observing or assessing the accuracy of what we observed.
Selective Observation Occurs when we see only those patterns that we want to see, or when we assume that only the patterns we have experienced directly exist.
Overgeneralization Occurs when we assume that broad patterns exist even when our observations have been limited.
Authority/Tradition A socially defined source of knowledge that might shape our beliefs about what is true and what is not true.
Scientific Research Methods An organized, logical way of learning and knowing about our social world.

Many people know things simply because they have experienced them directly. If you grew up in Manitoba you may have observed what plenty of kids learn each winter, that it really is true that one’s tongue will stick to metal when it’s very cold outside. Direct experience may get us accurate information, but only if we are lucky. Unlike the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, in general we are not very careful observers. In this example, the observation process is not really deliberate or formal. Instead, you would come to know what you believe to be true through casual observation. The problem with casual observation is that sometimes it is right, and sometimes it is wrong. Without any systematic process for observing or assessing the accuracy of our observations, we can never really be sure if our informal observations are accurate.

Front page of a newspaper showing a winged ship.
Figure 3.1  “A Winged Ship in the Sky” seen by all in Sacramento in 1896 (Photo is in the Public Domain)

Many people know things because they overlook disconfirming evidence. Suppose a friend of yours declared that all men are liars shortly after she had learned that her boyfriend had deceived her. The fact that one man happened to lie to her in one instance came to represent a quality inherent in all men. But do all men really lie all the time? Probably not. If you prompted your friend to think more broadly about her experiences with men, she would probably acknowledge that she knew many men who, to her knowledge, had never lied to her and that even her boyfriend did not generally make a habit of lying. This friend committed what social scientists refer to as selective observation by noticing only the pattern that she wanted to find at the time. She ignored disconfirming evidence. If, on the other hand, your friend’s experience with her boyfriend had been her only experience with any man, then she would have been committing what social scientists refer to as overgeneralization, assuming that broad patterns exist based on very limited observations.

Another way that people claim to know what they know is by looking to what they have always known to be true. There is an urban legend about a woman who for years used to cut both ends off of a ham before putting it in the oven (Mikkelson, 2005). She baked ham that way because that is the way her mother did it, so clearly that was the way it was supposed to be done. Her knowledge was based on a family tradition (traditional knowledge). After years of tossing cuts of perfectly good ham into the trash, however, she learned that the only reason her mother cut the ends off ham before cooking it was that she did not have a pan large enough to accommodate the ham without trimming it.

Without questioning what we think we know is true, we may wind up believing things that are actually false. This is most likely to occur when an authority tells us that something is true (authoritatve knowledge). Our mothers are not the only possible authorities we might rely on as sources of knowledge. Other common authorities we might rely on in this way are the government, our schools and teachers, and churches and ministers. Although it is understandable that someone might believe something to be true if someone he or she looks up to or respects has said it is so, this way of knowing differs from the sociological way of knowing. Whether quantitative, qualitative, or critical in orientation, sociological research is based on the scientific method. In general terms, the scientific method is a formalization of the qualities and skills of critical thinking, outlined in the Youtube video, “Critical Thinking”.

The last four paragraphs on the four types of non-scientific reasoning adapted from Amy Blackstone, Sociological Inquiry Principles: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods (V. 1.0). Used under Creative Commons by-nc-sa 3.0 License.

Sociologists often begin the research process by asking a question about how or why things happen. It might be a unique question about a new trend or an old question about a common aspect of life. Once a question is formed, a sociologist proceeds through an in-depth process (research design) to answer it. Depending on the nature of the topic and the goals of the research, sociologists have a variety of general research designs and associated methodologies to choose from. In particular, in deciding how to conduct sociological inquiry, the researcher may adopt a positivist methodology or an interpretive methodology. Both types of methodology can be useful for critical research strategies. The following sections describe these approaches to acquiring knowledge.

3.2 The Logic of Research Design

As stated in Module One, sociologists study social events, interactions, and patterns at multiple levels of social reality. They then develop theories to explain why these occur and what can result from them. In sociology, a theory is a way to explain different aspects of social interactions and create testable propositions about society (Allan, 2006). For example, Durkheim’s proposition, that differences in suicide rate can be explained by differences in the degree of social integration in different communities, is a theory. Different social theories, are embedded within underlying philosophical assumptions (meta-theoretical assumptions) about what is real or what we can know (these are Ontological assumptions, a theory of reality), how we can know that reality (these are Epistemological assumptions, a theory of knowledge) and the value relations of knowledge and researchers (these are Axiological assumptions, a theory of value).  A fuller description of the meaning of these philosophical concepts and their relationship to the research process is provided by Alex Lyon (2017) “Epistemology, Ontology and Axiology in Research.”

As the brief survey of the history of sociology (provided in Module Two) suggested, there is considerable diversity in the philosophical assumptions and theoretical approaches sociology takes to studying society. Sociology is a multi-perspectival science: a number of distinct perspectives or paradigms offer competing explanations of social phenomena. Paradigms are philosophical and theoretical frameworks or models used within a discipline to formulate theories, generalizations, and the empirical research performed in support of them. They refer to the underlying organizing principles that tie different constellations of concepts, theories, and ways of formulating problems together (Drengson, 1983). Talcott Parsons’ reformulation of Durkheim’s and others work as structural functionalism in the 1950s is an example of a sociological paradigm because it provided a general model of analysis suited to an unlimited number of research topics. Parsons proposed that any identifiable social structure (e.g., roles, families, religions, or states) could be explained by the particular function it performed in maintaining the operation of society as a whole. Critical sociology and symbolic interactionism are two other sociological paradigms which formulate the explanatory framework and research problem differently. The different paradigms, however, may be applied to the same social issue or sociological problem to produce a more holistic understanding of the complexity of social reality.

The variety of paradigms and methodologies makes for a rich and useful dialogue among sociologists. It is also sometimes confusing for students who expect that sociology will have a unitary scientific approach like that of the natural sciences. However, the key point is that the subject matter of sociology is fundamentally different from that of the natural sciences. The existence of multiple approaches to the topic of society and social relationships makes sense given the nature of the subject matter of sociology. The “contents” of a society are never simply a set of objective qualities like the chemical composition of gases or the forces operating on celestial spheres. For the purposes of analysis, the contents of society can sometimes be viewed in this way, as in the positivist perspective, but in reality, they are imbued with social meanings, historical contexts, political struggles, and human agency.

Three drawings of blind men touching different parts of an elephant to figure out what it is.
Figure 3.2  The South Asian fable of the blind men and the elephant from the poem by John Godfrey Saxe. The inquisitive blind men want to know what an elephant is. The first one feels the elephant’s flank and says, “the elephant is very like a wall!” The second one feels the elephant’s tusk and says, “an elephant is very like a spear!” The third one feels the elephant’s trunk and says, “the elephant is very like a snake!” (Blindmen by MIke Kline used under CC BY 2.0)

This makes social life a complex, moving target for researchers to study, and the outcome of the research will be different depending on where and with what assumptions the researcher begins. Even the elementary division of experience into an interior world, which is “subjective,” and an exterior world, which is “objective,” varies historically, cross-culturally, and sometimes moment by moment in an individual’s life. From the phenomenological perspective in sociology, this elementary division, which forms the starting point and basis of the “hard” or “objective” sciences, is in fact usefully understood as a social accomplishment sustained through social interactions. We actively divide the flow of impressions through our consciousness into socially recognized categories of subjective and objective, and we do so by learning and following social norms and rules. The division between subjective impressions and objective facts is natural and necessary only in the sense that it has become what Schutz (1962) called the “natural attitude” for people in modern society. Therefore, this division performs an integral function in organizing modern social and institutional life on an ongoing basis. We assume that the others we interact with view the world through the natural attitude. Confusion ensues when we or they do not. Other forms of society have been based on different modes of being in the world.

Despite the differences that divide sociology into multiple perspectives and methodologies, its unifying aspect is the systematic and rigorous nature of its social inquiry. If the distinction between “soft” and “hard” sciences is useful at all, it refers to the degree of rigour and systematic observation involved in the conduct of research rather than the division between the social and the natural sciences per se. Sociology is based on the scientific research tradition which emphasizes two key components: empirical observation and the logical construction of theories and propositions.  Science is understood here in the broad sense to mean the use of reasoned argument, the ability to see general patterns in particular incidences, and the reliance on evidence from systematic observation of social reality. However, as noted above, the outcome of sociological research will differ depending on the initial assumptions or perspective of the researcher. Each of the blind men studying the elephant in the illustration above are capable of producing an empirically true and logically consistent account of the elephant, albeit limited, which will differ from the accounts produced by the others. While the analogy that society is like an elephant is tenuous at best, it does exemplify the way that different schools of sociology can explain the same factual reality in different ways

Within this general scientific framework, therefore, sociology is broken into the same divisions that separate the paradigmatic forms of modern knowledge more generally. As Jürgen Habermas (1972) describes, by the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the unified perspective of Christendom had broken into three distinct spheres of knowledge: the natural sciences, hermeneutics (or the interpretive sciences like literature, philosophy, and history), and critique. In many ways the three spheres or paradigms of knowledge are at odds with one another, but each serves an important human interest or purpose. The natural sciences are oriented to developing a technical knowledge useful for controlling and manipulating the natural world to serve human needs.   Hermeneutics is oriented to developing a humanistic knowledge useful for determining the meaning of texts, ideas, and human practices in order to create the conditions for greater mutual understanding. Critique is oriented to developing practical knowledge and forms of collective action that are useful for challenging entrenched power relations in order to enable human emancipation and freedoms.

Sociology is similarly divided into three types of sociological knowledge, each with its own strengths, limitations, and practical purposes: positivist sociology focuses on generating types of knowledge useful for controlling or administering social life; interpretive sociology on types of knowledge useful for promoting greater mutual understanding and consensus among members of society, and critical sociology on types of knowledge useful for changing and improving the world, for emancipating people from conditions of servitude. Within these three types of sociological knowledge (each aligned with a different set of meta-theoretical assumptions outlined above), we will discuss a selection of perspectives of sociological thinking within: Positivist sociology (quantitative sociology, structural functionalism), Interpretive sociology (symbolic interactionism) and Critical sociology (historical materialism, feminism). In this course emphasis is placed on positivist and critical approaches to macro and global level social phenomena, while various interpretive approaches to micro and meso levels of social phenomena such as symbolic interactionism are elaborated more fully in Sociology 112.

3.2.1 Positivism

The positivist perspective in sociology — introduced in Module Two with regard to the pioneers of the discipline, August Comte and Émile Durkheim — is most closely aligned with the forms of knowledge associated with the natural sciences. The emphasis is on empirical observation and measurement (i.e., observation through the senses), value neutrality or objectivity, and the search for law-like statements about the social world (analogous to Newton’s laws of gravity for the natural world). Since mathematics and statistical operations are the main forms of logical demonstration in the natural scientific explanation, positivism relies on translating human phenomena into quantifiable units of measurement. It regards the social world as an objective or “positive” reality, in no essential respects different from the natural world. Positivism is oriented to developing a knowledge useful for controlling or administering social life, which explains its ties to the projects of social engineering going back to Comte’s original vision for sociology. Two forms of positivism have been dominant in sociology since the 1940s: quantitative sociology and structural functionalism.

Quantitative Sociology

In contemporary sociology, positivism is based on four main “rules” that define what constitutes valid knowledge and what types of questions may be reasonably asked (Bryant, 1985):

  1. The rule of empiricism: We can only know about things that are actually given in experience. We cannot validly make claims about things that are invisible, unobservable, or supersensible like metaphysical, spiritual, or moral truths.
  2. The rule of value neutrality: Scientists should remain value-neutral in their research because it follows from the rule of empiricism that “values” have no empirical content that would allow their validity to be scientifically tested.
  3. The unity of the scientific method rule: All sciences have the same basic principles and practices whether their object is natural or human.
  4. The rule of law-like statements: The type of explanation sought by scientific inquiry is the formulation of general laws (like the law of gravity) to explain specific phenomena (like the falling of a stone).

Much of what is referred to today as quantitative sociology fits within this paradigm of positivism. Quantitative sociology uses statistical methods such as surveys with large numbers of participants to quantify relationships between social variables. In line with the “unity of the scientific method” rule, quantitative sociologists argue that the elements of human life can be measured and quantified — described in numerical terms — in essentially the same way that natural scientists measure and quantify the natural world in physics, biology, or chemistry.  Researchers analyze this data using statistical techniques to see if they can uncover patterns or “laws” of human behaviour. Law-like statements concerning relationships between variables are often posed in the form of statistical relationships or multiple linear regression formulas; these measure and quantify the degree of influence different causal or independent variables have on a particular outcome or dependent variable. (Independent and dependent variables will be discussed below). For example, the degree of religiosity of an individual in Canada, measured by the frequency of church attendance or religious practice, can be predicted by a combination of different independent variables such as age, gender, income, immigrant status, and region (Bibby, 2012). This approach is value neutral for two reasons: firstly because the quantified data is the product of methods of systematic empirical observation that seek to minimize researcher bias, and secondly because “values” per se are human dispositions towards what “should be” and therefore cannot be observed like other objects or processes in the world. Quantitative sociologists might be able to survey what people say their values are, but they cannot determine through quantitative means what is valuable or what should be.

Structural Functionalism

Structural Functionalism also falls within the positivist tradition in sociology due to Durkheim’s early efforts to describe the subject matter of sociology in terms of objective social facts — “social facts must be studied as things, that is, as realities external to the individual” (Durkheim, 1895/1997) — and to explain them in terms of their social functions.

Following Durkheim’s insight, structural functionalism therefore sees society as composed of structures — regular patterns of behaviour and organized social arrangements that persist through time (e.g., like the institutions of the family or the occupational structure) — and the functions they serve: the biological and social needs of individuals who make up that society. In this respect, society is like a body that relies on different organs to perform crucial functions.  He argued that just as the various organs in the body work together to keep the entire system functioning and regulated, the various parts of society work together to keep the entire society functioning and regulated. By “parts of society,” Spencer was referring to such social institutions as the economy, political systems, health care, education, media, and religion.

According to structural functionalism, society is composed of different social structures that perform specific functions to maintain the operation of society as a whole. Structures are simply regular, observable patterns of behaviour or organized social arrangements that persist through time. The institutional structures that define roles and interactions in the family, workplace, or church, etc. are structures. Functions refer to how the various needs of a society (i.e., for properly socialized children, for the distribution of food and resources, or for a unified belief system, etc.) are satisfied. Different societies have the same basic functional requirements, but they meet them using different configurations of social structure (i.e., different types of kinship system, economy, or religious practice). Thus, society is seen as a system not unlike the human body or an automobile engine.

In fact the English philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) likened society to a human body. Each structure of the system performs a specific function to maintain the orderly operation of the whole (Spencer, 1898). When they do not perform their functions properly, the system as a whole is threatened. The heart pumps the blood, the vascular system transports the blood, the metabolic system transforms the blood into proteins needed for cellular processes, etc. When the arteries in the heart get blocked, they no longer perform their function. The heart fails, and the system as a whole collapses. In the same way, the family structure functions to socialize new members of society (i.e., children), the economic structure functions to adapt to the environment and distribute resources, the religious structure functions to provide common beliefs to unify society, etc. Each structure of society provides a specific and necessary function to ensure the ongoing maintenance of the whole. However, if the family fails to effectively socialize children, or the economic system fails to distribute resources equitably, or religion fails to provide a credible belief system, repercussions are felt throughout the system. The other structures have to adapt, causing further repercussions. With respect to a system, when one structure changes, the others change as well. Spencer continued the analogy to the body by pointing out that societies evolve just as the bodies of humans and other animals do (Maryanski and Turner, 1992).

According to American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1881–1955), in a healthy society, all of these parts work together to produce a stable state called dynamic equilibrium (Parsons, 1961). Parsons was a key figure in systematizing Durkheim’s views in the 1940s and 1950s. He argued that a sociological approach to social phenomena must emphasize the systematic nature of society at all levels of social existence: the relation of definable “structures” to their “functions” in relation to the needs or “maintenance” of the system. His AGIL schema provided a useful analytical grid for sociological theory in which an individual, an institution, or an entire society could be seen as a system composed of structures that satisfied four primary functions:

  • Adaptation (A): how the system adapts to its environment;
  • Goal attainment (G): how the system determines what its goals are and how it will attain them;
  • Integration (I): how the system integrates its members into harmonious participation and social cohesion; and
  • (Latent) Pattern Maintenance (L): how basic cultural patterns, values, belief systems, etc. are regulated and maintained.

So for example, the social system as a whole relied on the economy to distribute goods and services as its means of adaptation to the natural environment; on the political system to make decisions as its means of goal attainment; on roles and norms to regulate social behaviour as its means of social integration; and on cultural institutions to reproduce common values as its means of latent pattern maintenance. Following Durkheim, he argued that these explanations of social functions had to be made at the macro-level of systems and not at the micro-level of the specific wants and needs of individuals. In a system, there is an interrelation of component parts where a change in one component affects the others regardless of the perspectives of individuals.

Another noted structural functionalist, Robert Merton (1910–2003), pointed out that social processes can have more than one function. Manifest functions are the consequences of a social process that are sought or anticipated, while latent functions are the unsought consequences of a social process. A manifest function of college education, for example, includes gaining knowledge, preparing for a career, and finding a good job that utilizes that education. Latent functions of your college years include meeting new people, participating in extracurricular activities, or even finding a spouse or partner. Another latent function of education is creating a hierarchy of employment based on the level of education attained. Latent functions can be beneficial, neutral, or harmful. Social processes that have undesirable consequences for the operation of society are called dysfunctions. In education, examples of dysfunction include getting bad grades, truancy, dropping out, not graduating, and not finding suitable employment.

Criticisms of Positivism

The main criticisms of both quantitative sociology and structural functionalism have to do with whether social phenomena can truly be studied like the natural phenomena of the physical sciences. Critics challenge the way in which social phenomena are regarded as objective social facts. On one hand, interpretive sociologists suggest that the quantification of variables in quantitative sociology reduces the rich complexity and ambiguity of social life to an abstract set of numbers and statistical relationships that cannot capture the meaning it holds for individuals. Measuring someone’s depth of religious belief or “religiosity” by the number of times they attend church in a week explains very little about the religious experience itself. Similarly, interpretive sociology argues that structural functionalism, with its emphasis on macro-level systems of structures and functions tends to reduce the individual to the status of a sociological “dupe,” assuming pre-assigned roles and functions without any individual agency or capacity for self-creation.

On the other hand, critical sociologists challenge the conservative tendencies of quantitative sociology and structural functionalism. Both types of positivist analysis represent themselves as being objective, or value-neutral, whereas critical sociology notes that the context in which they are applied is always defined by relationships of power and struggles for social justice. In this sense sociology cannot be neutral or purely objective. The context of social science is never neutral. However, both types of positivism also have conservative assumptions built into their basic approach to social facts. The focus in quantitative sociology on observable facts and law-like statements presents an ahistorical and deterministic picture of the world that cannot account for the underlying historical dynamics of power relationships and class, gender, or other struggles. One can empirically observe the trees but not see the forest so to speak.

Similarly, the focus on the needs and the smooth functioning of social systems in structural functionalism supports a conservative viewpoint because it relies on an essentially static model of society. The functions of each structure are understood in terms of the needs of the social system as it exists at a particular moment in time. Each individual has to fit the function or role designated for them. Change is not only dysfunctional or pathological, because it throws the whole system into disarray, it also is very difficult to understand why change occurs at all if society is functioning as a system. Therefore, structural functionalism has a strong conservative tendency, which is illustrated by some of its more controversial arguments. For example, Davis and Moore (1944) argued that inequality in society is good (or necessary) because it functions as an incentive for people to work harder. Talcott Parsons (1954) argued that the gender division of labour in the nuclear family between the husband/breadwinner and wife/housekeeper is good (or necessary) because the family will function coherently only if each role is clearly demarcated. In both cases, the order of the system is not questioned, and the historical sources of inequality are not analysed. Inequality in fact performs a useful function. Critical sociology challenges both the social injustice and practical consequences of social inequality. In particular, social equilibrium and function must be scrutinized closely to see whose interests they serve and whose interests they suppress.

3.2.2 Interpretive Sociology

The interpretive perspective in sociology is aligned with the hermeneutic traditions of the humanities like literature, philosophy, and history. The focus in interpretative sociology is on understanding or interpreting human activity in terms of the meanings that humans attribute to it. It is sometimes referred to as social constructivism to capture the way that individuals construct a world of meaning that affects the way people experience the world and conduct themselves within it. The world evidently has a reality outside of these meanings, but interpretive sociology focuses on analysing the processes of collective meaning construction that give us access to it.

Max Weber’s Verstehende (understanding) sociology is often cited as the origin of this perspective in sociology because of his emphasis on the centrality of meaning and intention in social action:

Sociology… is a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects. In “action” is included all human behaviour when and in so far as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to it…. [Social action is] action mutually oriented to that of each other (Weber, 1922).

This emphasis on the meaningfulness of social action — action to which individuals attach subjective meanings and interpret those of others — is taken up later by phenomenology, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism and various contemporary schools of social constructivism (developed more fully in Sociology 112). The interpretive perspective is concerned with developing a knowledge of social interaction from the point of view of the meanings individuals attribute to it. Social interaction is a meaning-oriented practice. As a result of its research, interpretive sociology promotes the goal of greater mutual understanding and the possibility of consensus among members of society.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is one of the main schools of interpretive sociology. It provides a theoretical perspective that helps scholars examine how relationships between individuals in society are conducted on the basis of shared understandings. This perspective is centred on the notion that communication — or the exchange of meaning through language and symbols — is how people make sense of their social worlds. As pointed out by Herman and Reynolds (1994), this viewpoint also sees people as active in shaping their world, rather than as entities who are acted upon by society (Herman and Reynolds, 1994). This approach looks at society and people from a micro-level perspective.

George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) is considered one of the founders of symbolic interactionism. His work in Mind, Self and Society (1934) on the “self” and the stages of child development as a sequence of role-playing capacities provides the classic analyses of the perspective. Mead’s key insight is that the self develops only through social interaction with others. We learn to be ourselves by the progressive incorporation of the attitudes of others towards us into our concept of self.

His student Herbert Blumer (1900–1987) synthesized Mead’s work and popularized the theory. Blumer coined the term “symbolic interactionism” and identified its three basic premises:

  1. Humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things.
  2. The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society.
  3. These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he or she encounters (Blumer, 1969).

In other words, human interaction is not determined in the same manner as natural events. Symbolic interactionism focuses on how individuals reach common definitions of the situation in which they are involved. Through the back and forth of mutual interactions and communication (i.e., symbolic interaction), individuals move from ambiguous or undefined situations to those characterized by mutually shared meanings. On the basis of shared meanings, a common and coordinated course of action can be pursued. People are able to decide how to help a friend diagnosed with cancer, how to divide up responsibilities at work, or even how to agree to disagree when an irresolvable conflict arises. The passport officer at the airport makes a gesture with her hand, or catches your eye, which you interpret as a signal to step forward in line and pass her your passport so that she can examine its validity. Together you create a joint action — “checking the passport” — which is just one symbolic interaction in a sequence that travelers typically engage in when they arrive at the airport of their vacation or work destination. Social life can be seen as the stringing together or aligning of multiple joint actions. Symbolic interactionism emphasizes that groups of individuals have the freedom and agency to define their situations in potentially numerous ways.

Social scientists who apply symbolic-interactionist thinking look for patterns of interaction between individuals. Their studies often involve observation of one-on-one interactions. For example, Howard Becker (1953) argued in his classic study of marijuana users that the effects of marijuana have less to do with its physiological qualities in the body than with the process of communication (or symbolic interaction) about the effects. New marijuana users need to go through three stages to become a regular user: they need to learn from experienced smokers how to identify the effects, how to enjoy them, and how to attach meaning to them (i.e., that the experience is funny, strange or euphoric, etc.). Becker emphasizes, therefore, that marijuana smoking is a thoroughly social process and that the experience of “being high” is as much a product of mutual interactions as it is a purely bio-chemical process. In a sense, smoking marijuana could be experienced in numerous ways because the individuals involved exercise agency. No fixed reality, physiological or otherwise, pre-exists the mutual interactions of the users.

Symbolic interactionism has also been important in bringing to light the experiences and worlds of individuals who are typically excluded from official accounts of the social order. Howard Becker’s Outsiders (1963) for example described the process of labelling in which individuals come to be characterized or labelled as deviants by authorities. The sequence of events in which a young person, for example, is picked up by police for an offense, defined by police and other authorities as a “young offender,” processed by the criminal justice system, and then introduced to criminal subcultures through contact with experienced offenders is understood from the subjective point of view of the young person. The significance of labelling theory is to show that individuals are not born deviant or criminal, but become criminal through an institutionalized symbolic interaction with authorities. As Becker says, deviance is not simply a social fact, as Durkheim might argue, but the product of a process of definition by moral entrepreneurs, authorities, and other privileged members of society:

social groups create deviance by making rules whose infraction creates deviance, and by applying those roles to particular people and labelling them as outsiders. From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an “offender.” The deviant is one to whom that label has been successfully applied; deviant behavior is behaviour that people so label (1963).

Studies that use the symbolic interactionist perspective are more likely to use qualitative research methods, such as in-depth interviews or participant observation, rather than quantitative methods because they seek to understand the symbolic worlds in which research subjects live. As noted above, additional schools of interpretive thought and associated methodologies are discussed in much fuller detail in Sociology 112.

Criticisms of Interpretive Sociology

From the point of view of positivism, one of the problems of interpretive paradigms that focus on micro-level interactions is that it is difficult to generalize from very specific situations, involving very few individuals, to make social scientific claims about the nature of society as a whole. The danger is that, while the rich texture of face-to-face social life can be examined in detail, the results will remain purely descriptive without any explanatory or analytical strength. In discussing the rich detail of the rituals and dynamics of authority in a street gang, can a sociologist make conclusions about the phenomenon of street gangs in general, or determine the social factors that lead individuals to join street gangs? Can one go from a particular observation to a general claim about society?

In a similar fashion, it is very difficult to get at the historical context or the relations of power that structure or condition face-to-face, symbolic interactions. The perspective on social life as a spontaneous, unstructured and unconstrained domain of agency and subjective meanings has difficulty accounting for the ways that social life does become structured and constrained. The emphasis on face-to-face processes of communication and the emergent or spontaneous qualities of social situations is unable to account for the reproduction of large-scale power relations and structures. Starting from a micro-level analysis, it is difficult to explain how the millions of ongoing symbolic interactions take on particular institutional forms or are subject to historical transformations. In the case of marijuana users, for example, it is difficult to go from Becker’s analysis of symbolic interaction between individuals to a strong explanation for the reasons why marijuana was made illegal in the first place, how the underground trade in marijuana works (and contextualizes the experience of the beginning user), or what the consequences of criminalization are on political discourses, the criminal justice system, and the formation of subcultures (i.e., like the jazz musician subculture Becker studied in the 1950s). Essential aspects of the political context of specific symbolic interactions fall outside the scope of the analysis, which is why, from a critical perspective, the insights of microsociology need to be broadened through the use of the sociological imagination.

3.2.3 Critical Sociology

The critical perspective in sociology has its origins in social activism, social justice movements, revolutionary struggles, and radical critique. As Karl Marx put it, its focus was the “ruthless critique of everything existing” (Marx, 1843). The key elements of this analysis are the critique of power relations and the understanding of society as historical — subject to change, struggle, contradiction, instability, social movement, and radical transformation. Rather than objectivity and value neutrality, the tradition of critical sociology promotes practices of liberation and social change in order to achieve universal social justice. As Marx stated, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it” (1845). This is why it is somewhat misleading to reduce critical sociology to “conflict theory” as some introductory textbooks do. While conflict is certainly central to the critical analyses of power and domination, the focus of critical sociology is on developing types of knowledge and political action that enable emancipation from power relations (i.e., from the conditions of conflict in society). Historical materialism, feminism, environmentalism, anti-racism, queer studies, and poststructuralism are all examples of the critical perspective in sociology.

One of the outcomes of systematic analyses such as these is that they generate questions about the relationship between our everyday life and issues concerning social justice and environmental sustainability. In line with the philosophical traditions of the Enlightenment, critical sociology is sociology with an “emancipatory interest” (Habermas, 1972); that is, a sociology that seeks not simply to understand or describe the world, but to use sociological knowledge to change and improve the world, and to emancipate people from conditions of servitude.

What does the word critical mean in this context? Critical sociologists argue that it is important to understand that the critical tradition in sociology is not about complaining or being “negative.” Nor is it about adopting a moral position from which to judge people or society. It is not about being “subjective” or “biased” as opposed to “objective.” As Herbert Marcuse put it in One Dimensional Man (1964), critical sociology involves two value judgments:

  1. That human life is worth living, or rather that it can be and ought to be made worth living; and
  2. In a given society, specific possibilities exist for the amelioration of human life and the specific ways and means of realizing these possibilities.

Critical sociology therefore rejects the notion of a value-free social science, but does not thereby become a moral exercise or an individual “subjective” value preference as a result. Being critical in the context of sociology is about using objective, empirical knowledge to assess the possibilities and barriers to improving or “ameliorating” human life.

Historical Materialism

The tradition of historical materialism that developed from Karl Marx’s work is one of the central frameworks of critical sociology. Historical materialism concentrates on the study of how our everyday lives are structured by the connection between relations of power and economic processes. The basis of this approach begins with the macro-level question of how specific relations of power and specific economic formations have developed historically. These form the context in which the institutions, practices, beliefs, and social rules (norms) of everyday life are situated. The elements that make up a culture — a society’s shared practices, values, beliefs, and artifacts — are structured by the society’s economic mode of production: the way human societies act upon their environment and its resources in order to use them to meet their needs. Hunter-gatherer, agrarian, feudal, and capitalist modes of production have been the economic basis for very different types of society throughout world history.

Highland Clearances in Scotland. Long description available
Figure 3.3 The Last of the Clan painted by Thomas Faed, (1865). [Long Description] (The Last of the Clan by Thomas Faed  is in the public domain)

It is not as if this relationship is always clear to the people living in these different periods of history, however. Often the mechanisms and structures of social life are obscure. For example, it might not have been clear to the Scots who were expelled from their ancestral lands in Scotland during the Highland clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries and who emigrated to the Red River settlements in Rupert’s Land (now Manitoba) that they were living through the epochal transformation from feudalism to capitalism. This transition was nevertheless the context for the decisions individuals and families made to emigrate from Scotland and attempt to found the Red River Colony. It might also not have been clear to them that they were participating in the development of colonial power relationships between the Indigenous people of North America and the Europeans that persist up until today. Through contact with the Scots and the French fur traders, the Cree and Anishinabe were gradually drawn out of their own Indigenous modes of production and into the developing global capitalist economy as fur trappers and provisioners for the early European settlements. It was a process that eventually led to the loss of control over their lands, the destruction of their way of life, the devastating spread of European diseases, the imposition of the Indian Act, the establishment of the residential school system, institutional and everyday racism, and an enduring legacy of intractable social problems.

In a similar way, historical materialism analyzes the constraints that define the way individuals review their options and make their decisions in present-day society. From the types of career to pursue to the number of children to have, the decisions and practices of everyday life must be understood in terms of the 20th century shift to corporate ownership and the 21st century context of globalization in which corporate decisions about investments are made.

The historical materialist approach can be called dialectical. Dialectics in sociology proposes that social contradiction, opposition, and struggle in society drive processes of social change and transformation. It emphasizes four components in its analysis (Naiman, 2012). The first is that everything in society is related — it is not possible to study social processes in isolation. The second is that everything in society is dynamic (i.e., in a process of continuous social change). It is not possible to study social processes as if they existed outside of history. The third is that the gradual accumulation of many social changes eventually create a qualitative transformation or social turning point.

For example, the self-immolation of the street vender Mohamed Bouazizi in 2010 lead to the Tunisian revolution of 2011 because it “crystallized” the multitude of everyday incidences in which people endured the effects of high unemployment, government corruption, poor living conditions, and a lack of rights and freedoms. It is not possible to examine quantitative changes independently of the qualitative transformations they produce, and vice versa.

The fourth analytical component of the dialectical approach is that the tensions that form around relationships of power and inequality in society are the key drivers of social change. In the language of Marx, these tensions are based on “contradictions” built into the organization of the economic or material relationships that structure our livelihoods, our relationships to each other, our relationship to the environment, and our place within the global community. The capitalist class and the working class do not simply exist side by side as other social groups do (e.g., model boat enthusiasts and Christian fundamentalists), but exist in a relationship of contradiction. Each class depends on the other for its existence, but their interests are fundamentally irreconcilable and therefore the relationship is fraught with tension and conflict. Social tensions and contradictions in society may simmer or they may erupt in struggle, but in either case it is not possible to study social processes as if they were independent of the historical formations of power that both structure them and destabilize them.


Another major school of critical sociology is feminism. From the early work of women sociologists like Harriet Martineau, feminist sociology has focused on the power relationships and inequalities between women and men. How can the conditions of inequality faced by women be addressed? As Harriet Martineau put it in Society in America (1837):

All women should inform themselves of the condition of their sex, and of their own position. It must necessarily follow that the noblest of them will, sooner or later, put forth a moral power which shall prostrate cant [hypocrisy], and burst asunder the bonds (silken to some but cold iron to others) of feudal prejudice and usages. In the meantime is it to be understood that the principles of the Declaration of Independence bear no relation to half of the human race? If so, what is the ground of this limitation?

Feminist sociology focuses on analyzing the grounds of the limitations faced by women when they claim the right to equality with men.

Inequality between the genders is a phenomenon that goes back at least 4,000 years (Lerner, 1986). Although the forms and ways in which it has been practised differ between cultures and change significantly through history, its persistence has led to the formulation of the concept of patriarchy. Patriarchy refers to a set of institutional structures (like property rights, access to positions of power, relationship to sources of income) that are based on the belief that men and women are dichotomous and unequal categories. Key to patriarchy is what might be called the dominant gender ideology toward sexual differences: the assumption that physiological sex differences between males and females are related to differences in their character, behaviour, and ability (i.e., their gender). These differences are used to justify a gendered division of social roles and inequality in access to rewards, positions of power, and privilege. The question that feminists ask therefore is: How does this distinction between male and female, and the attribution of different qualities to each, serve to organize our institutions and to perpetuate inequality between the sexes? How is the family,  law, the occupational structure, religious institutions, and the division between public and private spheres of life organized on the basis of inequality between the genders?

Feminism is a distinct type of critical sociology. There are considerable differences between types of feminism, however; for example, the differences often attributed to the first wave of feminism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the second wave of feminism from the 1950s to the 1970s, and the third wave of feminism from the 1980s onward. Despite the variations between the different types of feminist approach, there are four characteristics that are common to the feminist perspective:

  1. Gender differences are the central focus or subject matter.
  2. Gender relations are viewed as a social problem: the site of social inequalities, strains, and contradictions.
  3. Gender relations are not immutable: they are sociological and historical in nature, subject to change and progress.
  4. Feminism is about an emancipatory commitment to change: the conditions of life that are oppressive for women need to be transformed.

One of the keen sociological insights that emerged with the feminist perspective in sociology is that “the personal is political.” Many of the most immediate and fundamental experiences of social life — from childbirth to who washes the dishes to the experience of sexual violence — had simply been invisible or regarded as unimportant politically or socially. Dorothy Smith’s development of standpoint theory was a key innovation in sociology that enabled these issues to be seen and addressed in a systematic way (Smith, 1977). She recognized from the consciousness-raising exercises and encounter groups initiated by feminists in the 1960s and 1970s that many of the immediate concerns expressed by women about their personal lives had a commonality of themes. These themes were nevertheless difficult to articulate in sociological terms let alone in the language of politics or law.

Part of the issue was sociology itself. Smith argued that instead of beginning sociological analysis from the abstract point of view of institutions or systems, women’s lives could be more effectively examined if one began from the “actualities” of their lived experience in the immediate local settings of everyday/everynight life. She asked, what are the common features of women’s everyday lives? From this standpoint, Smith observed that women’s position in modern society is acutely divided by the experience of dual consciousness. Every day women crossed a tangible dividing line when they went from the “particularizing work in relation to children, spouse, and household” to the abstract, institutional world of text-mediated work, or in their dealings with schools, medical systems, or government bureaucracies. In the abstract world of institutional life, the actualities of local consciousness and lived life are “obliterated” (Smith, 1977). While the standpoint of women is grounded in bodily, localized, “here and now” relationships between people — due to their obligations in the domestic sphere — society is organized through “relations of ruling,” which translate the substance of actual lived experiences into abstract bureaucratic categories. Power and rule in society, especially the power and rule that constrain and coordinate the lives of women, operate through a problematic “move into transcendence” that provides accounts of social life as if it were possible to stand outside of it. Smith argued that the abstract concepts of sociology, at least in the way that sociology was taught in the 1960s and 1970s, only contributed to the problem.

Criticisms of Critical Sociology

Whereas critical sociologists often criticize positivist and interpretive sociology for their conservative biases, the reverse is also true. In part the issue is about whether sociology can be “objective,” or value-neutral, or not. However, at a deeper level the criticism is often aimed at the radical nature of critical analyses. Marx’s critique of capitalism and the feminist critique of patriarchy for example lead to very interesting insights into how structures of power and inequality work, but from a point of view that sees only the most revolutionary transformation of society as a solution.

Critical sociology is also criticized from the point of view of interpretive sociology for overstating the power of dominant groups to manipulate subordinate groups. For example, media representations of women are said to promote unobtainable standards of beauty or to reduce women to objects of male desire. This type of critique suggests that individuals are controlled by media images rather than recognizing their independent ability to reject media influences or to interpret media images for themselves. In a similar way, interpretive sociology challenges critical sociology for implying that people are purely the products of macro-level historical forces and struggles rather than individuals with a capacity for individual and collective agency. To be fair, Marx did argue that “Men make their own history;” it is just that they “do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances encountered, given, and transmitted from the past” (Marx, 1851).

A useful summary of the value of learning and using different theoretical perspectives for the conduct of sociological research and inquiry is provided in the YouTube video “Major Paradigms in Sociology”.


3.3 Summary


Sociological perspectives and their founders. Long description available.
Figure 3.4. Theoretical Approaches Summary. [Long Description] (Source: William Little and TRU Media)

To get a clearer picture of how these three sociological perspectives differ, it is helpful to map them out using a diagram. As we noted above, the sociological perspectives differ according to the initial assumptions of the researcher. One way to show this is to position them along two axes according to (a) whether they view society as governed by agreed-upon norms (normative) or by power relations and conflict (conflictual), and (b) whether individuals are subject to structures beyond their control (structure) or are agents who act and change the conditions of their existence (agency). The emphasis of positivism on generating law-like statements suggests that individuals are not agents, but rather are subject to scientific laws (structure); moreover, its focus on empirical observation relies on the assumption that an underlying consensus exists about the meaning of observed behaviours. That is, there is no essential difficulty in understanding what one is “seeing,” and the agreement between the observer and the observed with respect to the meaning of the observed behaviours (normative) can be taken for granted. Interpretive sociology also emphasizes the importance of shared meanings that guide human behaviour (normative), but at the same time — especially in the tradition of symbolic interactionism — focuses on how these shared meanings are created through the mutual interactions of agents in concerted action (agency). Critical sociology does not assume that an underlying agreement or consensus exists about the norms governing society; rather, the emphasis is on analyzing relations of power and conflict (conflictual). Some perspectives in critical sociology like Marxism and feminism emphasize the agency of collective actors like the working class or women’s movements in praxis or struggles for change (agency), whereas other perspectives like poststructuralism emphasize the way in which subjects or agents are themselves constructed within relations of power (structure).

Overall, since social reality is complex and multi-faceted, the possibility of fundamental disagreement exists between the different theoretical approaches in sociology. Is society characterized by conflict or consensus? Is human practice determined by external social structures or is it the product of choice and agency? Does society have a reality over and above the lives of individuals or are the lives of individuals the only reality? Is human experience unique because it revolves around the meanings of social action, or is it essentially no different than any other domain studied by science? The answer to each of these questions is: it is both. Similar to the problem in physics about whether light is a particle or a wave, society appears in one guise or another depending on the perspective one takes or the research tool that one adopts. Using Habermas’ schema (discussed previously), sociology takes different forms depending on whether it is to be used for the purposes of administration (e.g., positivism), mutual understanding (e.g., interpretive sociology), or social change (e.g., critical sociology). However, just like the wave/particle uncertainty in physics, the fundamental ambiguity in determining which sociological perspective to adopt does not prevent brilliant insights into the nature of social experience from being generated.

Key Terms and Concepts

Theory: In sociology, a theory is a way to explain different aspects of social interactions and create testable propositions about society (Allan, 2006).

Epistemological Assumptions: a theory of knowledge.

Ontological Assumptions: a theory of reality.

Axiological Assumptions: a theory of value.

Paradigms: are philosophical and theoretical frameworks or models used within a discipline to formulate theories, generalizations, and the empirical research performed in support of them.

Positivist Sociology: focuses on generating types of knowledge useful for controlling or administering social life.

Quantitative Sociology: Much of what is referred to today as quantitative sociology fits within this paradigm of positivism. Quantitative sociology uses statistical methods such as surveys with large numbers of participants to quantify relationships between social variables.

Structural Functionalism: also falls within the positivist tradition in sociology due to Durkheim’s early efforts to describe the subject matter of sociology in terms of objective social facts — “social facts must be studied as things, that is, as realities external to the individual” (Durkheim, 1895/1997) — and to explain them in terms of their social functions.

Interpretive Sociology: focuses on types of knowledge useful for promoting greater mutual understanding and consensus among members of society.

Critical Sociology: focuses on types of knowledge useful for changing and improving the world, for emancipating people from conditions of servitude.

Historical Materialism: concentrates on the study of how our everyday lives are structured by the connection between relations of power and economic processes.

Dialectics: in sociology proposes that social contradiction, opposition, and struggle in society drive processes of social change and transformation. It emphasizes four components in its analysis (Naiman, 2012).

Patriarchy: refers to a set of institutional structures (like property rights, access to positions of power, relationship to sources of income) that are based on the belief that men and women are dichotomous and unequal categories.

Standpoint Theory: proposes that authority is rooted in individuals’ knowledge (their perspectives), and the power that such authority exerts.

Dual consciousness:

3.4 References

Becker, H. (1953). Becoming a marijuana user. American Journal of Sociology, 59(Nov.), 235-242.

Becker, H. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. New York, NY: Free Press.

Davis, Kingsley and Moore, Wilbert. (1944). Some principles of stratification. American sociological review, 10(2):242–249.

Habermas, Juergen. (1972). Knowledge and human interests. Boston: Beacon Press.

Herman, Nancy J. and Larry T. Reynolds. (1994). Symbolic interaction: An introduction to social psychology. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.

Alex Lyon (2017)

Marcuse, Herbert. (1964). One dimensional man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. Boston: Beacon Press.

Martineau, Harriet. (1837). Society in America (Vol. II). New York: Saunders and Otley. Retrieved February 24, 2014 from https://archive.org/details/societyinamerica02martiala

Marx, Karl. (1978). For a ruthless criticism of everything existing.   In R. C. Tucker (Ed.), The Marx-Engels reader (pp. 12–15). New York: W. W. Norton. (original work published 1843)

Marx, Karl. (1977). Theses on Feuerbach.  In David McLellan (Ed.), Karl Marx: Selected writings (pp. 156–158). Toronto: Oxford University Press. (original work published 1845)

Mead, G.H. (1934). Mind, self and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Merton, R. (1973). The normative structure of science. In The sociology of science theoretical and empirical investigation (pp. 267-278). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press (Original work published 1942).

Schutz, A. (1962). Collected papers I: The problem of social reality. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Talcott Parsons (1954)


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