- Describe the common objective of practitioners of academic disciplines.
- Explain why it is important to learn to change perspectives
- Distinguish between biological, cultural and social accounts of human behaviour
- Compare and contrast the central features of Positivist, Interpretive and Critical perspectives within sociology
2.0 The Social Construction of Reality
Ted Talk Math is the hidden secret to understanding the world, https://www.ted.com/talks/roger_antonsen_math_is_the_hidden_secret_to_understanding_the_world#t-1011207
2.1 Studying Patterns: How Sociologists View Society
All sociologists are interested in the experiences of individuals and how those experiences are shaped by interactions with social groups and society as a whole. To a sociologist, the personal decisions an individual makes do not exist in a vacuum. Cultural patterns and social forces put pressure on people to select one choice over another. Sociologists try to identify these general patterns by examining the behaviour of large groups of people living in the same society and experiencing the same societal pressures. When general patterns persist through time and become habitual or routinized at micro-levels of interaction, or institutionalized at macro or global levels of interaction, they are referred to as social structures.
The relationship between the individual and society is one of the most difficult sociological problems. Partly this is because of the reified way these two terms are used in everyday speech. Reification refers to the way in which abstract concepts, complex processes, or mutable social relationships come to be thought of as “things.” A prime example of reification is when people say that “society” caused an individual to do something, or to turn out in a particular way. In writing essays, first-year sociology students sometimes refer to “society” as a cause of social behaviour or as an entity with independent agency. On the other hand, the “individual” is a being that seems solid, tangible, and independent of anything going on outside of the skin sack that contains its essence. This conventional distinction between society and the individual is a product of reification, as both society and the individual appear as independent objects. A concept of “the individual” and a concept of “society” have been given the status of real, substantial, independent objects. As we will see in the chapters to come, society and the individual are neither objects, nor are they independent of one another. An “individual” is inconceivable without the relationships to others that define their internal, subjective life and their external, socially-defined roles.
One problem for sociologists is that these concepts of the individual and society, and the relationship between them, are thought of in terms established by a very common moral framework in modern democratic societies — namely, that of individual responsibility and individual choice. The individual is morally responsible for their behaviours and decisions. Often in this framework, any suggestion that an individual’s behaviour needs to be understood in terms of that person’s social context is dismissed as “letting the individual off” for taking personal responsibility for their actions. Talking about society is akin to being morally soft or lenient.
For sociologists, the conceptualization of the individual and society is much more complex than the moral framework suggests and needs to be examined through evidence-based, rather than morality-based, research. The sociological problem is to be able to see the individual as a thoroughly social being and, yet, as a being who has agency and free choice. Individuals are beings who do take on individual responsibilities in their everyday social roles, and risk social consequences when they fail to live up to them. However, the manner in which individuals take on responsibilities, and sometimes the compulsion to do so, are socially defined. The sociological problem is to be able to see society as: a dimension of experience characterized by regular and predictable patterns of behaviour that exist independently of any specific individual’s desires or self-understanding. At the same time, a society is nothing but the ongoing social relationships and activities of specific individuals.
A key basis of the sociological perspective is the concept that the individual and society are inseparable. It is impossible to study one without the other. German sociologist Norbert Elias (1887-1990) called the process of simultaneously analyzing the behaviour of individuals and the society that shapes that behaviour figuration. He described it through a metaphor of dancing. There can be no dance without the dancers, but there can be no dancers without the dance. Without the dancers, a dance is just an idea about motions in a choreographer’s head. Without a dance, there is just a group of people moving around a floor. Similarly, there is no society without the individuals that make it up, and there are also no individuals who are not affected by the society in which they live (Elias, 1978). Learning to see through the ideological frameworks that deny the reality of foundational interactions among culture, biology and society is an important first step in establishing a sociological perspective.
2.1.1 Culture, Biology and Society
A central assumption within sociology is that human social life is essentially meaningful and, therefore, has to be understood first through an analysis of the cultural practices and institutions that produce meaning. Nevertheless, a fascination in contemporary culture persists for finding biological or genetic explanations for complex human behaviours that would seem to contradict the emphasis on culture.
In one study, Swiss researchers had a group of women smell unwashed T-shirts worn by different men. The researchers argued that sexual attraction had a biochemical basis in the histo-compatibility signature that the women detected in the male pheromones left behind on the T-shirts. Women were attracted to the T-shirts of the men whose immune systems differed from their own (Wedekind et al., 1995). In another study, Dean Hamer (b. 1951) and his colleagues discovered that some homosexual men possessed the same region of DNA on their X chromosome, which led them to argue that homosexuality was determined genetically by a “gay gene” (Hamer et al., 1993). Another study found that the corpus callosum, the region of nerve fibres that connect the left and right brain hemispheres, was larger in women’s brains than in men’s (De Lacoste-Utamsing & Holloway, 1982). Therefore, women were thought to be able to use both sides of their brains simultaneously when processing visuo-spatial information, whereas men used only their left hemisphere. This finding was said to account for gender differences that ranged from women’s supposedly greater emotional intuition to men’s supposedly greater abilities in math, science, and parallel parking. In each of these three cases, the authors reduced a complex cultural behaviour — sexual attraction, homosexuality, cognitive ability — to a simple biological determination.
In each of these studies, the scientists’ claims were quite narrow and restricted in comparison to the conclusions drawn from them in the popular media. Nevertheless, they follow a logic of explanation known as biological determinism, which argues that the forms of human society and human behaviour are determined by biological mechanisms like genetics, instinctual behaviours, or evolutionary advantages. Within sociology, this type of framework underlies the paradigm of sociobiology, which provides biological explanations for the evolution of human behaviour and social organization.
Sociobiological propositions are constructed in three steps (Lewontin, 1991). First they identify an aspect of human behaviour which appears to be universal, common to all people in all times and places. In all cultures the laws of sexual attraction — who is attracted to whom — are mysterious, for example. Second, they assume that this universal trait must be coded in the DNA of the species. There is a gene for detecting histo-compatibility that leads instinctively to mate selection. Third, they make an argument for why this behaviour or characteristic increases the chances of survival for individuals and, therefore, creates reproductive advantage. Mating with partners whose immune systems complement your own leads to healthier offspring who survive to reproduce your genes. The implication of the sociobiological analysis is that these traits and behaviours are fixed or “hard wired” into the biological structure of the species and are, therefore, very difficult to change. People will continue to be attracted to people who are not “right” for them in all the ways we would deem culturally appropriate — psychologically, emotionally, socially compatible, etc. — because they are biologically compatible.
Despite the popularity of this sort of reason, it is misguided from a sociological perspective for a number of reasons. For example, Konrad Lorenz’s (1903-1989) arguments that human males have an innate biological aggressive tendency to fight for scarce resources and protect territories were very popular in the 1960s (1966). The dilemma he posed was that males’ innate tendency towards aggression as a response to external threats might be a useful trait on an evolutionary scale, but in a contemporary society that includes the development of weapons of mass destruction, it is a threat to human survival. Another implication of his argument was that if aggression is instinctual, then the idea that individuals, militant groups, or states could be held responsible for acts of violence or war loses its validity. (Note here that Lorenz’s basic claim about aggression runs counter to the stronger argument that, if anything, the tendency toward co-operation has been central to the survival of human social life from its origins to the present).
However, a central problem of sociobiology as a type of sociological explanation is that while human biology does not vary greatly throughout history or between cultures, the forms of human association do vary extensively. It is difficult to account for the variability of social phenomena by using a universal biological mechanism to explain them. Even something like the aggressive tendency in males, which on the surface has an intuitive appeal, does not account for the multitude of different forms and practices of aggression, let alone the different social circumstances in which aggression is manifested or provoked. It does not account for why some men are aggressive sometimes and not at other times, or why some men are not aggressive at all. It does not account for women’s aggression and the forms in which this typically manifests. If testosterone is the key mechanism of male aggression, it does not account for the fact that both men and women generate testosterone in more or less equal quantities. Nor does it explain the universal tendencies of all societies to develop sanctions and norms to curtail violence. To suggest that aggression is an innate biological characteristic means that it does not vary greatly throughout history, nor between cultures, and is impervious to the social rules that restrict it in all societies. Ultimately, this means that there is no point in trying to change it despite the evidence that aggression in individuals and societies can be changed.
The main consideration to make here is not that biology has no impact on human behaviour, but that the biological explanation is limited with respect to what it can explain about complex cultural behaviours and practices. For example, research has shown that newborns and fetuses as young as 26 weeks have a simple smile: “the face relaxes while the sides of the mouth stretch outward and up” (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). This observation about a seemingly straightforward biological behaviour suggests that smiling is inborn, a muscular reflex based on neurological connections. However, the smile of the newborn is not used to convey emotions. It occurs spontaneously during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Only when the baby matures and begins to interact with his or her environment and caretakers does the smile begin to represent a response to external stimuli. By age one, the baby’s smile conveys a variety of meanings, depending on the social context, including flirting and mischief. Moreover, from the age of 6 months to 2 years, the smile itself changes physically: Different muscle groups are used, and different facial expressions are blended with it (surprise, anger, excitement). The smile becomes more complex and individualized. The point here, as Anne Fausto-Sterling points out, is that “the child uses smiling as part of a complex system of communication” (2000). Not only is the meaning of the smile defined in interaction with the social context, but the physiological components of smiling (the nerves, muscles, and stimuli) also are modified and “socialized” according to culture.
Therefore, social scientists see explanations of human behaviour based on biological determinants as extremely limited in scope and value. The physiological “human package” — bipedalism, omnivorous diet, language ability, brain size, capacity for empathy, lack of an estrous cycle (Naiman, 2012) — is more or less constant across cultures; whereas, the range of cultural behaviours and beliefs is extremely broad. These sometimes radical differences between cultures have to be accounted for instead by their distinct processes of socialization through which individuals learn how to participate in their societies. From this point of view, as the anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) put it:
We are forced to conclude that human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, responding accurately and contrastingly to contrasting cultural conditions. The differences between individuals who are members of different cultures, like the differences between individuals within a culture, are almost entirely to be laid to differences in conditioning, especially during early childhood, and the form of this conditioning is culturally determined (1935).
More recently, social neuroscience has emerged as a new interdisciplinary field that explores reciprocal relationships among culture, society and biology. Within this emergent field of research there is a growing body of bio-medical evidence to support the foundational sociological perspective that the individual and society are inseparable.
Aside from the explanatory problems of biological determinism, and the more recent research developments in social neuroscience it is important to bear in mind the social consequences of biological determinism, as these ideas have been used to support rigid cultural ideas concerning race, gender, disabilities, etc. that have their legacy in slavery, racism, gender inequality, eugenics programs, and the sterilization of “the unfit.” Eugenics, meaning “well born” in ancient Greek, was a social movement that sought to improve the human “stock” through selective breeding and sterilization. Its founder, Francis Galton (1822-1911) defined eugenics in 1883 as “the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally” (Galton as cited in McLaren, 1990). In Canada, eugenics boards were established by the governments of Alberta and British Columbia to enable the sterilization of the “feeble-minded.” Based on a rigid cultural concept of what a proper human was, and grounded in the biological determinist framework of evolutionary science, 4,725 individuals were proposed for sterilization in Alberta and 2,822 of them were sterilized between 1928 and 1971. The racial component of the program is evident in the fact that while First Nations and Métis peoples made up only 2.5% of the population of Alberta, they accounted for 25% of the sterilizations. Several hundred individuals were also sterilized in British Columbia between 1933 and 1979 (McLaren, 1990).
The interesting question that these biological explanations of complex human behaviour raise is: Why are they so popular? What is it about our culture that makes the biological explanation of behaviours or experiences like sexual attraction, which we know from personal experience to be extremely complicated and nuanced, so appealing? As micro-biological technologies like genetic engineering, neuro-pharmaceuticals and social neuroscience advance, the very real prospect of altering the human body at a fundamental level to produce culturally desirable qualities (health, ability, intelligence, beauty, etc.) becomes possible, and, therefore, these questions become more urgent. These kinds of questions are not new, however, having occupied the interest of classical thinkers and founders of the discipline of sociology since its emergence in the 19th century.
2.2 The History of Sociology: Intellectual Foundations, Social Developments and Exemplary Thinkers
Since ancient times, people have been fascinated by the relationship between individuals and the societies to which they belong. The ancient Greeks might be said to have provided the foundations of sociology through the distinction they drew between physis (nature) and nomos (law or custom). Whereas nature or physis for the Greeks was “what emerges from itself” without human intervention, nomos in the form of laws or customs, were human conventions designed to constrain human behaviour. The modern sociological term “norm” (i.e., a social rule that regulates human behaviour) comes from the Greek term nomos. Histories by Herodotus (484–425 BCE) was a proto-anthropological work that described the great variations in the nomos of different ancient societies around the Mediterranean, indicating that human social life was not a product of nature but a product of human creation. If human social life was the product of an invariable human or biological nature, all cultures would be the same. The concerns of the later Greek philosophers — Socrates (469–399 BCE), Plato (428–347 BCE), and Aristotle (384–322 BCE) — with the ideal form of human community (the polis or city-state) can be derived from the ethical dilemmas of this difference between human nature and human norms. The ideal community might be rational but it was not natural.
In the 13th century, Ma Tuan-Lin, a Chinese historian, first recognized social dynamics as an underlying component of historical development in his seminal encyclopedia, General Study of Literary Remains. The study charted the historical development of Chinese state administration from antiquity in a manner very similar to contemporary institutional analyses. The next century saw the emergence of the historian some consider to be the world’s first sociologist, the Berber scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) of Tunisia. His Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History is known for going beyond descriptive history to an analysis of historical processes of change based on his insights into “the nature of things which are born of civilization” (Khaldun quoted in Becker and Barnes, 1961). Key to his analysis was the distinction between the sedentary life of cities and the nomadic life of pastoral peoples like the Bedouin and Berbers. The nomads, who exist independent of external authority, developed a social bond based on blood lineage and “esprit de corps” (‘Asabijja), which enabled them to mobilize quickly and act in a unified and concerted manner in response to the rugged circumstances of desert life. The sedentaries of the city entered into a different cycle in which esprit de corps is subsumed to institutional power and the intrigues of political factions. The need to be focused on subsistence is replaced by a trend toward increasing luxury, ease, and refinements of taste. The relationship between the two poles of existence, nomadism and sedentary life, was at the basis of the development and decay of civilizations (Becker and Barnes, 1961).
However, it was not until the 19th century that the basis of the modern discipline of sociology can be said to have been truly established. The impetus for the ideas that culminated in sociology can be found in the three major transformations that defined modern society and the culture of modernity: the development of modern science from the 16th century onward, the emergence of democratic forms of government with the American and French Revolutions (1775–1783 and 1789–1799 respectively), and the Industrial Revolution beginning in the 18th century. Not only was the framework for sociological knowledge established in these events, but also the initial motivation for creating a science of society. Early sociologists like Comte and Marx sought to formulate a rational, evidence-based response to the experience of massive social dislocation brought about by the transition from the European feudal era to capitalism. This was a period of unprecedented social problems, from the breakdown of local communities to the hyper-exploitation of industrial labourers. Whether the intention was to restore order to the chaotic disintegration of society, as in Comte’s case, or to provide the basis for a revolutionary transformation in Marx’s, a rational and scientifically comprehensive knowledge of society and its processes was required. It was in this context that “society” itself, in the modern sense of the word, became visible as a phenomenon to early investigators of the social condition.
The development of modern science provided the model of knowledge needed for sociology to move beyond earlier moral, philosophical, and religious types of reflection on the human condition. Key to the development of science was the technological mindset that Max Weber termed the disenchantment of the world: “principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather one can, in principle, master all things by calculation” (1919). The focus of knowledge shifted from intuiting the intentions of spirits and gods to systematically observing and testing the world of things through science and technology. Modern science abandoned the medieval view of the world in which God, “the unmoved mover,” defined the natural and social world as a changeless, cyclical creation ordered and given purpose by divine will. Instead modern science combined two philosophical traditions that had historically been at odds: Plato’s rationalism and Aristotle’s empiricism (Berman, 1981). Rationalism sought the laws that governed the truth of reason and ideas, and in the hands of early scientists like Galileo and Newton, found its highest form of expression in the logical formulations of mathematics. Empiricism sought to discover the laws of the operation of the world through the careful, methodical, and detailed observation of the world. The new scientific worldview therefore combined the clear and logically coherent, conceptual formulation of propositions from rationalism, with an empirical method of inquiry based on observation through the senses. Sociology adopted these core principles to emphasize that claims about social life had to be clearly formulated and based on evidence-based procedures. It also gave sociology a technological cast as a type of knowledge which could be used to solve social problems.
The emergence of democratic forms of government in the 18th century demonstrated that humans had the capacity to change the world. The rigid hierarchy of medieval society was not a God-given eternal order, but a human order that could be challenged and improved upon through human intervention. Through the revolutionary process of democratization, society came to be seen as both historical and the product of human endeavours. Age of Enlightenment philosophers like Locke, Voltaire, Montaigne, and Rousseau developed general principles that could be used to explain social life. Their emphasis shifted from the histories and exploits of the aristocracy to the life of ordinary people. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) extended the critical analysis of her male Enlightenment contemporaries to the situation of women. Significantly for modern sociology they proposed that the use of reason could be applied to address social ills and to emancipate humanity from servitude. Wollstonecraft for example argued that simply allowing women to have a proper education would enable them to contribute to the improvement of society, especially through their influence on children. On the other hand, the bloody experience of the democratic revolutions, particularly the French Revolution, which resulted in the “Reign of Terror” and ultimately Napoleon’s attempt to subjugate Europe, also provided a cautionary tale for the early sociologists about the need for the sober scientific assessment of society to address social problems.
The Industrial Revolution in a strict sense refers to the development of industrial methods of production, the introduction of industrial machinery, and the organization of labour to serve new manufacturing systems. These economic changes emblemize the massive transformation of human life brought about by the creation of wage labour, capitalist competition, increased mobility, urbanization, individualism, and all the social problems they wrought: poverty, exploitation, dangerous working conditions, crime, filth, disease, and the loss of family and other traditional support networks, etc. It was a time of great social and political upheaval with the rise of empires that exposed many people — for the first time — to societies and cultures other than their own. Millions of people were moving into cities and many people were turning away from their traditional religious beliefs. Wars, strikes, revolts, and revolutionary actions were reactions to underlying social tensions that had never existed before and called for critical examination. August Comte in particular envisioned the new science of sociology as the antidote to conditions that he described as “moral anarchy.”
Sociology therefore emerged; firstly, as an extension of the new worldview of science; secondly, as a part of the Enlightenment project and its focus on historical change, social injustice, and the possibilities of social reform; and thirdly, as a crucial response to the new and unprecedented types of social problems that appeared in the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution. It did not emerge as a unified science, however, as its founders brought distinctly different perspectives to its early formulations.
2.2.1 Founders of Sociology
August Comte: The Father of Sociology
The term sociology was first coined in 1780 by the French essayist Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (1748–1836) in an unpublished manuscript (Fauré et al., 1999). In 1838, the term was reinvented by Auguste Comte (1798–1857). The contradictions of Comte’s life and the times he lived through can be in large part read into the concerns that led to his development of sociology. He was born in 1798, year 6 of the new French Republic, to staunch monarchist and Catholic parents. They lived comfortably off his father’s earnings as a minor bureaucrat in the tax office. Comte originally studied to be an engineer, but after rejecting his parents’ conservative, monarchist views, he declared himself a republican and free spirit at the age of 13 and was eventually kicked out of school at 18 for leading a school riot. This ended his chances of getting a formal education and a position as an academic or government official.
He became a secretary to the utopian socialist philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) until they had a falling out in 1824 (after St. Simon reputedly purloined some of Comte’s essays and signed his own name to them). Nevertheless, they both thought that society could be studied using the same scientific methods utilized in the natural sciences. Comte also believed in the potential of social scientists to work toward the betterment of society and coined the slogan “order and progress” to reconcile the opposing progressive and conservative factions that had divided the crisis-ridden, post-revolutionary French society. Comte proposed a renewed, organic spiritual order in which the authority of science would be the means to create a rational social order. Through science, each social strata would be reconciled with their place in a hierarchical social order. It is a testament to his influence in the 19th century that the phrase “order and progress” adorns the Brazilian coat of arms (Collins and Makowsky, 1989).
Comte named the scientific study of social patterns positivism. He described his philosophy in a well-attended and popular series of lectures, which he published as The Course in Positive Philosophy (1830–1842) and A General View of Positivism (1848/1977). He believed that using scientific methods to reveal the laws by which societies and individuals interact would usher in a new “positivist” age of history. In principle, positivism, or what Comte called “social physics,” proposed that the study of society could be conducted in the same way that the natural sciences approach the natural world.
While Comte never in fact conducted any social research, his notion of sociology as a positivist science that might effectively socially engineer a better society was deeply influential. Where his influence waned was a result of the way in which he became increasingly obsessive and hostile to all criticism as his ideas progressed beyond positivism as the “science of society” to positivism as the basis of a new cult-like, technocratic “religion of humanity.” The new social order he imagined was deeply conservative and hierarchical, a kind of a caste system with every level of society obliged to reconcile itself with its “scientifically” allotted place. Comte imagined himself at the pinnacle of society, taking the title of “Great Priest of Humanity.” The moral and intellectual anarchy he decried would be resolved through the rule of sociologists who would eliminate the need for unnecessary and divisive democratic dialogue. Social order “must ever be incompatible with a perpetual discussion of the foundations of society” (Comte, 1830/1975).
Karl Marx: The Ruthless Critique of Everything Existing
Karl Marx (1818–1883) was a German philosopher and economist. In 1848 he and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) co-authored the Communist Manifesto. This book is one of the most influential political manuscripts in history. It also presents in a highly condensed form Marx’s theory of society, which differed from what Comte proposed. Whereas Comte viewed the goal of sociology as recreating a unified, post-feudal spiritual order that would help to institutionalize a new era of political and social stability, Marx developed a critical analysis of capitalism that saw the material or economic basis of inequality and power relations as the cause of social instability and conflict. The focus of sociology, or what Marx called historical materialism (the “materialist conception of history”), should be the “ruthless critique of everything existing,” as he said in a letter to his friend Arnold Ruge (1802-1880). In this way the goal of sociology would not simply be to scientifically analyze or objectively describe society, but to use a rigorous scientific analysis as a basis to change it. This framework became the foundation of contemporary critical sociology.
Although Marx did not call his analysis “sociology,” his sociological innovation was to provide a social analysis of the economic system. Whereas Adam Smith (1723–1790) and the political economists of the 19th century tried to explain the economic laws of supply and demand solely as a market mechanism (similar to the abstract discussions of stock market indices and investment returns in the business pages of newspapers today), Marx’s analysis showed the social relationships that had created the market system, and the social repercussions of their operation. As such, his analysis of modern society was not static or simply descriptive. He was able to put his finger on the underlying dynamism and continuous change that characterized capitalist society.
Marx was also able to create an effective basis for critical sociology in that what he aimed for in his analysis was, as he put it in another letter to Arnold Ruge, “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age.” While he took a clear and principled value position in his critique, he did not do so dogmatically, based on an arbitrary moral position of what he personally thought was good and bad. He felt, rather, that a critical social theory must engage in clarifying and supporting the issues of social justice that were inherent within the existing struggles and wishes of the age. In his own work, he endeavoured to show how the variety of specific work actions, strikes, and revolts by workers in different occupations — for better pay, safer working conditions, shorter hours, the right to unionize, etc. — contained the seeds for a vision of universal equality, collective justice, and ultimately the ideal of a classless society.
Harriet Martineau: The First Woman Sociologist?
Harriet Martineau (1802–1876) was one of the first women sociologists in the 19th century. There are a number of other women who might compete with her for the title of the first woman sociologist, such as Catherine Macaulay, Mary Wollstonecraft, Flora Tristan, and Beatrice Webb, but Martineau’s specifically sociological credentials are strong. She was for a long time known principally for her English translation of Comte’s Course in Positive Philosophy. Through this popular translation she introduced the concept of sociology as a methodologically rigorous discipline to an English-speaking audience. But she also created a body of her own work in the tradition of the great social reform movements of the 19th century, and introduced a sorely missing woman’s perspective into the discourse on society.
It was a testament to her abilities that after she became impoverished at the age of 24 with the death of her father, brother, and fiancé, she was able to earn her own income as the first woman journalist in Britain to write under her own name. From the age of 12, she suffered from severe hearing loss and was obliged to use a large ear trumpet to converse. She impressed a wide audience with a series of articles on political economy in 1832. In 1834 she left England to engage in two years of study of the new republic of the United States and its emerging institutions: prisons, insane asylums, factories, farms, Southern plantations, universities, hospitals, and churches. On the basis of extensive research, interviews, and observations, she published Society in America and worked with abolitionists on the social reform of slavery (Zeitlin, 1997). She also worked for social reform in the situation of women: the right to vote, have an education, pursue an occupation, and enjoy the same legal rights as men. Together with Florence Nightingale, she worked on the development of public health care, which led to early formulations of the welfare system in Britain (McDonald, 1998). Notions of the absence of women from the history of society and sociology are clearly part of a “single story” of human history.
Émile Durkheim: The Pathologies of the Social Order
Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) helped establish sociology as a formal academic discipline by establishing the first European department of sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 1895, and by publishing his Rules of the Sociological Method in 1895. He was born to a Jewish family in the Lorraine province of France (one of the two provinces, along with Alsace, that were lost to the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871). With the German occupation of Lorraine, the Jewish community suddenly became subject to sporadic anti-Semitic violence, with the Jews often being blamed for the French defeat and the economic/political instability that followed. Durkheim attributed this strange experience of anti-Semitism and scapegoating to the lack of moral purpose in modern society.
As in Comte’s time, France in the late 19th century was the site of major upheavals and sharp political divisions: the loss of the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune (1871) in which 20,000 workers died, the fall and capture of Emperor Napoleon III (Napoleon I’s nephew), the creation of the Third Republic, and the Dreyfus Affair. This undoubtedly led to the focus in Durkheim’s sociology on themes of moral anarchy, decadence, disunity, and disorganization. For Durkheim, sociology was a scientific but also a “moral calling” and one of the central tasks of the sociologist was to determine “the causes of the general temporary maladjustment being undergone by European societies and remedies which may relieve it” (1897/1951). In this respect, Durkheim represented the sociologist as a kind of medical doctor, studying social pathologies of the moral order and proposing social remedies and cures. He saw healthy societies as stable, while pathological societies experienced a breakdown in social norms between individuals and society. He described this breakdown as a state of normlessness or anomie — a lack of norms that give clear direction and purpose to individual actions. As he put it, anomie was the result of “society’s insufficient presence in individuals” (1897/1951).
Key to Durkheim’s approach was the development of a framework for sociology based on the analysis of social facts and social functions. Social facts are those things like law, custom, morality, religious rites, language, money, business practices, etc. that are defined externally to the individual. Social facts:
- Precede the individual and will continue to exist after she or he is gone;
- Consist of details and obligations of which individuals are frequently unaware; and
- Are endowed with an external coercive power by reason of which individuals are controlled.
For Durkheim, social facts were like the facts of the natural sciences. They could be studied without reference to the subjective experience of individuals. He argued that “social facts must be studied as things, that is, as realities external to the individual” (Durkheim, 1895/1964). Individuals experience them as obligations, duties, and restraints on their behaviour, operating independently of their will. They are hardly noticeable when individuals consent to them but provoke reaction when individuals resist.
Durkheim argued that each of these social facts serve one or more functions within a society. They exist to fulfill a societal need. For example, one function of a society’s laws may be to protect society from violence and punish criminal behaviour, while another is to create collective standards of behaviour that people believe in and identify with. Laws create a basis for social solidarity and order. In this manner, each identifiable social fact could be analyzed with regard to its specific function in a society. Like a body in which each organ (heart, liver, brain, etc.) serves a particular function in maintaining the body’s life processes, a healthy society depends on particular functions or needs being met. Durkheim’s insights into society often revealed that social practices, like the worshipping of totem animals in his study of Australian Aboriginal religions, had social functions quite at variance with what practitioners consciously believed they were doing. The honouring of totemic animals through rites and privations functioned to create social solidarity and cohesion for tribes whose lives were otherwise dispersed through the activities of hunting and gathering in a sparse environment.
Max Weber: Verstehende Soziologie
Prominent sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) established a sociology department in Germany at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich in 1919. Weber wrote on many topics related to sociology including political change in Russia, the condition of German farm workers, and the history of world religions. He was also a prominent public figure, playing an important role in the German peace delegation in Versailles and in drafting the ill-fated German (Weimar) constitution following the defeat of Germany in World War I.
Weber also made a major contribution to the methodology of sociological research. Along with the philosophers Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) and Heinrich Rickert (1863–1936), Weber believed that it was difficult if not impossible to apply natural science methods to accurately predict the behaviour of groups as positivist sociology hoped to do. They argued that the influence of culture on human behaviour had to be taken into account. What was distinct about human behaviour was that it is essentially meaningful. Human behaviour could not be understood independently of the meanings that individuals attributed to it. A Martian’s analysis of the activities in a skateboard park would be hopelessly confused unless it understood that the skateboarders were motivated by the excitement of taking risks and the pleasure in developing skills. This insight into the meaningful nature of human behaviour even applied to the sociologists themselves, who, they believed, should be aware of how their own cultural biases could influence their research. To deal with this problem, Weber and Dilthey introduced the concept of Verstehen, a German word that means to understand from a subject’s point of view. In seeking Verstehen, outside observers of a social world — an entire culture or a small setting — attempt to understand it empathetically from an insider’s point of view.
In his essay “The Methodological Foundations of Sociology,” Weber described sociology as “a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects” (Weber, 1922). In this way he delimited the field that sociology studies in a manner almost opposite to that of Émile Durkheim. Rather than defining sociology as the study of the unique dimension of external social facts, sociology was concerned with social action: actions to which individuals attach subjective meanings. “Action is social in so far as, by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual (or individuals), it takes account of the behaviour of others and is thereby oriented in its course” (Weber, 1922). The actions of the young skateboarders can be explained because they hold the experienced boarders in esteem and attempt to emulate their skills, even if it means scraping their bodies on hard concrete from time to time. Weber and other like-minded sociologists founded interpretive sociology whereby social researchers strive to find systematic means to interpret and describe the subjective meanings behind social processes, cultural norms, and societal values. This approach led to research methods like ethnography, participant observation, and phenomenological analysis. Their aim was not to generalize or predict (as in positivistic social science), but to systematically gain an in-depth understanding of social worlds. The natural sciences may be precise, but from the interpretive sociology point of view their methods confine them to study only the external characteristics of things.
Georg Simmel: A Sociology of Forms
Georg Simmel (1858–1918) was one of the founding fathers of sociology, although his place in the discipline is not always recognized. In part, this oversight may be explained by the fact that Simmel was a Jewish scholar in Germany at the turn of 20th century and, until 1914, he was unable to attain a proper position as a professor due to anti-Semitism. Despite the brilliance of his sociological insights, the quantity of his publications, and the popularity of his public lectures as Privatdozent at the University of Berlin, his lack of a regular academic position prevented him from having the kind of student following that would create a legacy around his ideas. It might also be explained by some of the unconventional and varied topics that he wrote on: the structure of flirting, the sociology of adventure, the importance of secrecy, the patterns of fashion, the social significance of money, etc. He was generally seen at the time as not having a systematic or integrated theory of society. However, his insights into how social forms emerge at the micro-level of interaction and how they relate to macro-level phenomena remain valuable in contemporary sociology.
Simmel’s sociology focused on the key question, “How is society possible?” His answer led him to develop what he called formal sociology, or the sociology of social forms. In his essay “The Problem of Sociology,” Simmel reaches a strange conclusion for a sociologist: “There is no such thing as society ‘as such.’” “Society” is just the name we give to the “extraordinary multitude and variety of interactions [that] operate at any one moment” (Simmel, 1908/1971). This is a basic insight of micro-sociology. However useful it is to talk about macro-level phenomena like capitalism, the moral order, or rationalization, in the end what these phenomena refer to is a multitude of ongoing, unfinished processes of interaction between specific individuals. Nevertheless, the phenomena of social life do have recognizable forms, and the forms do guide the behaviour of individuals in a regularized way. A bureaucracy is a form of social interaction that persists from day to day. One does not come into work one morning to discover that the rules, job descriptions, paperwork, and hierarchical order of the bureaucracy have disappeared. Simmel’s questions were: How do the forms of social life persist? How did they emerge in the first place? What happens when they get fixed and permanent?
Simmel’s focus on how social forms emerge became very important for micro-sociology, symbolic interactionism, and the studies of hotel lobbies, cigarette girls, and street-corner societies, etc. popularized by the Chicago School in the mid-20th century. His analysis of the creation of new social forms was particularly tuned in to capturing the fragmentary everyday experience of modern social life that was bound up with the unprecedented nature and scale of the modern city. In his lifetime, the city of Berlin where he lived and taught for most of his career expanded massively after the unification of Germany in the 1870s and, by 1900, became a major European metropolis of 4 million people. The development of a metropolis created a fundamentally new human experience. The inventiveness of people in creating new forms of interaction in response became a rich source of sociological investigation.
2.3 Sociology: A Multi-Perspectival Science
As this brief survey of the history of sociology suggests, there is considerable diversity in the 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 used within a discipline to formulate theories, generalizations, and the 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).
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.
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 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 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, sociologists develop and draw on different schools of sociological thought to generate and investigate a wide variety of sociological research questions about relationships between individuals and society at multiple levels of social reality. A brief overview of these different types of sociological knowledge along with their primary strengths and weaknesses is provided below.
The positivist perspective in sociology — introduced above 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.
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):
- 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.
- 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.
- The unity of the scientific method rule: All sciences have the same basic principles and practices whether their object is natural or human.
- 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. 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 valuable.
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.
2.3.2. 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. 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 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. We will discuss Mead further in Module 5 but 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:
- Humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things.
- The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society.
- 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 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.
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 an analysis of the intersections of individual biography and social history.
2.3.3. 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 misleading to call critical sociology “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:
- That human life is worth living, or rather that it can be and ought to be made worth living; and
- 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.
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.
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:
- Gender differences are the central focus or subject matter.
- Gender relations are viewed as a social problem: the site of social inequalities, strains, and contradictions.
- Gender relations are not immutable: they are sociological and historical in nature, subject to change and progress.
- 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).
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 accent 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.
In Sociology 112.3, Foundations in Sociology: The Social Construction of Everyday Life a particular emphasis is placed on introducing the schools of thought and corresponding research tools that comprise the Interpretive and Micro or Constructivist Critical perspectives of Sociology. Conversely, the content of Sociology 111.3, Foundations in Sociology: Society, Structure and Process places a primary emphasis on the schools of thought and corresponding research tools that comprise the Positivist and Macro-level Critical perspectives of Sociology. Ultimately, however, a full understanding of the discipline and practice of sociology requires an ability to move between these multiple perspectives and to draw on those sociological insights and research tools that are best suited to generating and investigating sociological research questions about complex social phenomena.
Structure: General patterns that persist through time and become habitual or routinized at micro-levels of interaction, or institutionalized at macro or global levels of interaction.
Reification: Referring to abstract concepts, complex processes or mutable social relationships as “things.”
Figuration: The process of simultaneously analyzing the behaviour of an individual and the society that shapes that behaviour.
Disenchantment of the World: The replacement of magical thinking by technological rationality and calculation.
Rationalism: The philosophical tradition that seeks to determine the underlying laws that govern the truth of reason and ideas.
Empiricism: The philosophical tradition that seeks to discover the laws of the operation of the world through careful, methodical, and detailed observation.
Positivism: The scientific study of social patterns based on methodological principles of the natural sciences.
Historical Materialism: An approach to understanding society that explains social change, human ideas, and social organization in terms of underlying changes in the economic (or material) structure of society.
Critical Sociology: A theoretical perspective that focuses on inequality and power relations in society in order to achieve social justice and emancipation through their transformation.
Social Reform: An approach to social change that advocates slow, incremental improvements in social institutions rather than rapid, revolutionary change of society as a whole.
Anomie: A social condition or normlessness in which a lack of clear norms fails to give direction and purpose to individual actions.
Social facts: The external laws, morals, values, religious beliefs, customs, fashions, rituals, and cultural rules that govern social life.
Social solidarity: The social ties that bind a group of people together such as kinship, shared location, and religion.
Vertstehen: German for “understanding”; in sociology it refers to the use of empathy, or putting oneself in another’s place; to understand the motives and logic of another’s action.
Social action: Actions to which individuals attach subjective meanings.
Interpretive sociology: A perspective that explains human behaviour in terms of the meanings individuals attribute to it.
Formal sociology: A sociology that analytically separates the contents from the forms of social interaction to study the common forms that guide human behaviour.
Rationalization: The philosophical tradition that seeks to determine the underlying laws that govern the truth of reason and ideas.
Multi-perspectival science: A science that is divided into competing or diverse paradigms.
Paradigms: Philosophical and theoretical frameworks used within a discipline to formulate theories, generalizations, and the experiments performed in support of them.
Positivist sociology: The scientific study of social patterns based on methodological principles of the natural sciences.
Interpretive Sociology: A perspective that explains human behaviour in terms of the meanings individuals attribute to it.
Critical sociology: A theoretical perspective that focuses on inequality and power relations in society in order to achieve social justice and emancipation through their transformation.
Positivist perspective: The scientific study of social patterns based on methodological principles of the natural sciences.
Quantitative sociology: Statistical methods such as surveys with large numbers of participants.
Structural functionalism: A theoretical approach that sees society as a structure with interrelated parts designed to meet the biological and social needs of individuals that make up that society.
Dynamic equilibrium: A stable state in which all parts of a healthy society are working together properly.
AGIL schema: Talcott Parsons’ division of society into four functional requisites: Adaptation, Goal attainment, Integration, and Latent pattern maintenance.
Manifest functions: Sought consequences of a social process.
Latent functions: The unrecognized or unintended consequences of a social process.
Dysfunctions: Social patterns that have undesirable consequences for the operation of society.
Symbolic interactionism: A theoretical perspective through which scholars examine the relationship of individuals within their society by studying their communication (language and symbols).
Labelling: A social process in which an individual’s social identity is established through the imposition of a definition by authorities.
Mode of Production: The way human societies act upon their environment and its resources in order to use them to meet their needs.
Dialectics: A type of analysis that proposes that social contradiction, opposition and struggle in society drive processes of social change and transformation.
Patriarchy: Institutions of male power in society.
Dominant gender ideology: The belief that physiological sex differences between males and females are related to differences in their character, behaviour, and ability.
Standpoint Theory: The examination of how society is organized and coordinated from the perspective of a particular social location or perspective in society.
Dual Consciousness: The experience of a fissure or dividing point in everyday life where one crosses a line between irreconcilable forms of consciousness or perspective.
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