Sociology is the systematic study of human behavior occurring in a social context. It seeks to understand how and why people act the way they do across an enormous variety of settings. Two major influences are acknowledged to affect human social behavior:
(1) cultural factors such as values and norms and
(2) structural factors such as the economic and political structures of society. Sociologists generally study human behavior in complex rather than small-scale societies.
Sociology is a relatively young discipline, arising out of the tumult of the Industrial Revolution in Europe beginning in the 18th century. The social organization of society was profoundly altered by the processes of industrialization and urbanization.
The term sociology was coined in 1822 by the French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857),who was the first to suggest that society itself is an appropriate subject for scientific study. Many of the earliest intellectual influences on sociology also heavily influenced the field of anthropology, including Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Herbert Spencer.
A unifying concept among all sociologists is the belief that society constrains the options and opportunities of all individuals to some degree. In Durkheim’s (1858-1917) terms, “social facts,” the context in which people’s lives are embedded, shape human behavior by defining the constraints and opportunities within which people must act. C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) argued that sociology allowed people to see their own personal troubles in the context of larger structural factors; he termed the ability to see this connection the “sociological imagination.”
Sociology is characterized by the use of broad theories to guide research and to provide an explanatory framework for data gathered through systematic observation. The major theoretical perspectives are briefly described below.
Functionalism. Associated with the earliest sociologists such as Comte and Durkheim, functionalism takes as its basic assumption that society works as a system, where each part contributes to the well-being and smooth operation of the entire group. Each part has a function that contributes to the stability of the system. Social solidarity rests on shared values as well as shared culture. Social problems are typically seen as a result of reduced social solidarity, often as a result of rapid social change. Social change may originate outside the social system; for example, the Industrial Revolution and the rapid urbanization that followed created disequilibrium in society, the aftershocks of which are still being felt today. Functionalists are also sometimes referred to as “structural functionalists” because they analyze how the parts of society, or structures, fit together and how each part contributes to the stability of the whole, its function.
Conflict Theory. A macrolevel perspective like functionalism, conflict theory focuses on inequality in society. It begins with the assumption that society is made up of groups that compete for scarce resources. Resources may be seen as financial, political, or social, such as prestige or respect. Privileged groups try to maintain their advantages, less privileged groups try to increase their resources. Conflict theory originated in the work of German social thinker Karl Marx (1818-1883), who observed and wrote about the conditions suffered by workers in the factories in the early years of industrialization. He developed a theory of class conflict, arguing that there is a fundamental conflict between those who own the means of production, the capitalists, and the workers, who only own their own labor and thus must work for wages.
Symbolic Interactionism. The focus of symbolic interactionism is interpersonal communication and the subjective meanings created in small social settings. A microapproach, it stresses that people are active agents in creating meaning, not passive recipients of culture. The dramaturgical approach (Goffman) looks at how people present themselves to others in everyday life so as to make the best impression. He compared social interactions to a carefully staged play, with actors playing roles on both the front and back stage. Social constructionists are interested in how individuals create society through interactions.
Feminist Theory. Developing with the second wave of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, feminist theory has two major tenets. First, gender matters must be addressed in theory and research. Second, it questions the assumptions of rational objectivity and value-free research that had prevailed in sociology since its earliest days. Feminists argue that gender inequality, often called “patriarchy,” is pervasive and exerts an influence on society equal to that of social class. While a great diversity exists among feminists regarding the causes and contributing factors of inequality, there is agreement that the origin is primarily structural rather than biological.
Methods of Sociology
Sociological research is based on scientific principles, not so different from those methods used by the hard sciences, in that the bases of nearly all social science research is observation and theory. Data are gathered systematically and analyzed within a theoretical framework that allows sense to be made from the mass of data collected, using one of several typical methods. Broadly speaking, sociological research can be described as either quantitative, meaning the collection and analysis of data that is numeric in nature, or that can be turned into numbers, and qualitative, or non-numeric data.
Survey Research. Perhaps the most common type of social science research methodology, surveys are widely used by pollsters and marketers as well and have become ubiquitous in modern life. Surveys can be conducted over the telephone, through the mail, in person, and increasingly over the Internet. Survey research involves the use of standard questions, asked of a group of people, referred to as respondents, who are believed to be representative of the population of interest, a sample. In large-scale surveys, the sample should be drawn using random selection techniques that increase the likelihood that the sample will be representative of the larger population of interest.
Field Research. Observing people in their natural surroundings is a useful way of obtaining rich, detailed, and nuanced information, especially regarding how people actually behave, rather than how they say they behave. One of the many challenges of field research is systematically collecting and organizing the wealth of information that goes on in a natural setting. Data are often collected through the use of unstructured interviews, which are then transcribed and analyzed for patterns and insights.
Participant Observation. Like field research, participant observation occurs in natural settings where the researcher engages with his or her research subjects. By more actively participating in their subjects’ lives, for example, by living and working among the population of interest, the researchers gain an understanding of reality from their point of view.
Experiments. Elements of classical experimental design include random assignment of subjects to the control and experimental group; pretesting of all subjects on the dependent, or outcome, variable; administration of the intervention, or independent variable; and a posttest to measure change in the dependent variable. The hallmark of experimental design is control: the research controls all (or virtually all) extraneous variables in order to focus on the effects of the variable of interest. Sociological research is often not amenable to laboratory experiments, and so often experimental conditions are approximated in the field. Natural experiments, for example, take advantage of change occurring in the real world such as a new law; data from before the change were introduced and afterward are compared in order to assess the effect of the change.
The topics of sociology include all aspects of human behavior and experience. Topics can be broadly categorized into social processes, the mechanics of human interaction and development; inequality; the major institutions that organize social life; and social change. Each of these broad categories is further developed below.
Culture, the sum of shared ideas, practices, and material objects that people have created, allow humans to adapt to and thrive in any environment. Culture is learned, primarily through language, and acquired through the process of socialization.
Socialization is the process by which individuals acquire self-identity and the skills needed for survival in society. It is essential for survival and development; children reared alone never develop the skills to live
productive, independent lives. Socialization is a lifelong process as we take on new roles throughout the life course. Sociologists acknowledge the contributions of psychologists to the understanding of human development, but focus their research and theory on the role of interactions with others in the creation of a self-concept. We gain information about ourselves through interactions with others and through imagining how others see us. Agents of socialization include important significant others, such as family and peers, and institutions, such as schools and the mass media.
Interaction, social intercourse, is a micro-level process that relies on shared meaning among the participants. Members of a society or subculture share norms and an interaction order that regulates social situations. Sociologists operating within the symbolic interactionist perspective argue that reality is socially constructed; that is, our perception of reality is largely shaped by the subjective meaning we assign an experience.
Deviance and Crime. Sociologists have always taken a keen interest in crime and deviance, making some of their most significant and well-known contributions in this area. Durkheim, in the functionalist tradition, held that deviance often operates to increase social cohesion as societies pull together against perceived deviants. Defining what is deviant or outside the pale helps societies define their values and what they stand for. Thus, most sociologists believe that definitions of deviance and crime vary across societies. From a conflict perspective, powerful groups in society define what is deviant in order to control the behavior of the less powerful.
Stratification. All societies are marked by some form of social stratification, the organization of society into levels, although the most small-scale societies are generally only stratified by age and gender. The different layers are known as classes, and labels such as upper, middle, and lower class are used to describe the various levels. While classes may be defined by their economic conditions—Marx classified classes by their relation to the means of production, or economic status—there are noneconomic dimensions of class as well. Max Weber pointed out that class is not based on money alone but is also based on power and prestige. Members of different classes advertise their rank by displays of material and symbolic culture, which are also important markers of class.
Race and Ethnicity. Sociologists hold that race and ethnicity are socially constructed ideas, used to distinguish people based on perceived physical or cultural differences. Race more than ethnicity is often a master status, an identity that takes precedence over all other identities or statuses a person holds. Minority racial or ethnic status has profound consequences for people, affecting their life chances in virtually all areas.
Gender and Sexuality. Gender is one of the most influential and pervasive forces shaping our lives. The dominant gender ideology is patriarchal in that men, masculinity, and masculine attributes are more valued in society than women and female characteristics and values. Children are socialized into gender identity through various agents of socialization such as the family, media, peers, and schools. Significant debate occurs over the relative strength of these different agents and the degree to which individuals are able to shape their own gender image, as well as over the causes of persistent inequality in the labor market. Women have increased their level of education and labor force participation rate significantly but still lag behind men in terms of income and opportunities.
An institution, to a sociologist, is a form of organization that performs basic functions in a society. They are supported by social norms of the society and are slow to change.
Work and the Economy. The truly major changes in the world of work occurred around 10,000 years ago with the agricultural revolution, the consequences of which are that most people eventually gave up hunting and gathering for a life of agriculture or raising domesticated animals. Then sometime in the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution ushered in a new era of work organized around the ability to mass-produce goods for the market. Some have argued that we are experiencing a third revolution characterized by service occupations and high technology.
Government and Politics. Politics is the arena of power relations, the social institution through which power is acquired and used by people and groups. Government is a formal organization that is responsible for regulating relationships among members of a society and between a society and societies outside its borders. Political sociologists primarily focus on how
the political arena and its actors are intertwined with other social institutions such as the media, economy, religion, and education.
Families. The traditional nuclear family in the United States consists of a mother, father, and at least one child. Today less than one quarter of all households are traditionally structured with a stay-at-home wife and children under age 18. Family diversity has been increasing for many reasons, one of which is the fact that many of the functions once performed by families have been taken over by other institutions, including education, health care, defense, and religion. As people live longer and are more invested in their own happiness, the divorce rate has increased, although it has now stabilized.
Religion. The sociological study of religion looks at the visible and knowable aspects of religion, such as individual beliefs and practices, and the actions and organizational structure of religious groups and institutions. How are individuals socialized into religious communities? What is the nature and source of conflicts between different religions or between religious and secular groups in society? What is the effect of religious belief or identity on individuals’ actions in other aspects of their lives? These are the types of questions sociologists of religion strive to answer.
Education is the social institution responsible for the transmission of knowledge, skills, and cultural values, enhancing social stability and also facilitating social change. Education begins at birth, with socialization within the family, but in modern industrial society formal education lasts into adulthood as young people must master an enormous body of knowledge to prepare for careers. Functionalists see education as promoting social solidarity and stability in society, whereas a conflict perspective notes the contributions of formal education to the reproduction of class inequality.
The Mass Media. The media, operating through the newspapers, television, radio, and movies, are significant agents of socialization in today’s society. The media both reflect the concerns and issues of society and help shape cultural norms and values. Interactionists look at the way media influences society, whereas conflict theorists focus on who controls the media and this information in society.
Health and Health Care. Health, health care, and disability are major concerns not only for individuals but for societies as well. Paying for health care is a major expenditure for governments and employers.
People have control over their health through lifestyle factors, although social class, race, and gender influence health outcomes significantly.
Population. Demography is the study of population size, composition, and distribution. Demography underlies many other areas of sociology because demographic variables such as age, gender, race, and population size, and growth rates affect many other social processes and aspects of social life. Changes in populations occur as a result of three processes: fertility, mortality, and migration.
Urbanization. Although cities have existed for thousands of years, up until 200 years ago no more than 3% of the world’s population lived in cities. Today that figure is almost 50%. By 2050 it is estimated that two out of every three people will live in an urban area. Urban sociologists look at the evolution of the urban form, the experience of urban living, populations and groups living in and struggling for control of urban space, and many issues surrounding urban life, including race, gender, poverty, crime, urban economics, and the interaction between globalization and urbanization.
Collective Action and Social Movements. The history of modern, urban, industrial, and postindustrial society is increasingly the history of social movements. Social movements are involved in nationalism and movements toward independence and the increase in demands for equal treatment by disadvantaged groups across the globe. Social problems are typically recognized and addressed by social movements before they are tackled by governments.
The Future of Sociology
Sociology continues to be a vibrant discipline, continuing to grow and adapt to the changing needs of each generation. While in the past there was a significant divide between quantitative and qualitative sociologists, there is recognition that not only does each side make important contributions to understanding social life and processes, but it is also useful for researchers working in multiple traditions to collaborate. Large-scale survey research projects often now include a smaller qualitative component. Other areas that are expanding are examination of the role of technology and the Internet in social life.
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