1 Hisscott 1 Sociological Theory Part One. Loosely translated, sociology means the scientific study of society. Sociological theories help to explain and predict the social world we live in. Outlining the origins of sociology from its roots in philosophy this report will identify some of its uses before moving on to discuss the three main sociological perspectives, that have been influential throughout history. Origins of Sociological Theory. Despite being a relatively new academic discipline, sociological thought can be traced back to the works of philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Confucius (Crossman, nd). During both the 18th and 19th centuries following a period known as enlightenment, advances in science and technology encouraged individuals to believe that there may be rational explanations for everything (British Sociological Association, nd). The term sociology was first introduced by Auguste Comte in 1838, he is therefore referred to as the a founding father of sociology. Introducing the concept of Positivism, a method of understanding the social world using scientific fact, with this new understanding he believed that people could build a better future. Visualising a process of social change in which sociologists played a crucial role in guiding (Crossman, nd). Sociologists also began studying society as a result of the social upheaval taking place in France, Britain and Western Europe during the political and industrial revolutions. The French Revolution, saw their class system change drastically. The aristocracy suddenly losing their wealth and status, and those at the bottom of the social ladder, gaining more
2 Hisscott 2 powerful and influential positions (McNeill et al, 1986 p). The Industrial Revolution that unfolded throughout Britain and Western Europe during the 18th and 19th century, prompted the abandonment of traditional agricultural families, who moved to the cities in order to find factory work, finding themselves working long hours, often in dangerous conditions and for poor wages. New social problems began to arise and, for many decades, there was little done to address these (Crossman, nd). Geographical mobility increased exposure to different cultures and societies, which led to the breakdown of many traditional norms and customs, prompting a revised understanding of how the world worked (Best et al, 2000 p). Influential in trying to its improve society, sociology has provided improvements in social policy, the creation of the welfare state resulted from sociological research into poverty and inequality. The Conservative party and in particular has Margaret Thatcher was highly influenced by the work of New Right sociologists. Yale University introduced the first sociology classes in 1876, by 1910, it was a widely studied subject at university level and by 1911, it was adopted by secondary education (McNeill, 1986).
3 Hisscott 3 Part Two The two main approaches influential throughout sociological history, offer differing views of how the social world works and the behaviour of the individuals within it (Mooney et al, 1996), these are; Structural Approaches these emphasise that the way behaviour is constrained and structured by social forces. Social Action theories stress the ability of individuals to exert control over their own lives. Structural approaches attempt to find a complete theory of society analysing it from the top down. They look at society as whole before breaking it down to its individual parts. There are two main structuralist theories; Marxism. (Conflict theory) Functionalist (Consensus theory) (Moore et al, 2009 ). Functionalist analysis, prominent in the work of Comte ( ) and Herbert Spencer ( ), was developed further by Emile Durkheim ( ) and later refined by Talcott Parsons ( ) (Haralambos, Heald & Holborn, 2000). Referred to to as a structural theory, functionalism focuses upon the needs of society as a whole (Bryant, 2014). It is a consensus theory, based upon the agreement of society's shared values and goals. They liken society to the human body (organic analogy), with early functionalists arguing that in order to understand any of the organs within the body (social institutions) there has to be an understanding of the relationship that they have with all the other organs and how this contributes to the maintenance of the body as a
4 Hisscott 4 whole (society). Functionalism works on the basis that one area of society cannot work without the other, otherwise it is affected as a whole. Durkheim, also known as one of the founding fathers of sociology, was born in France in 1858 and is said to have influenced both Merton and Parsons. His first major work The Division of Labour in Society published in 1893 introduced the term anomie, in which he described the breakdown in the influence of social norms within society, discussing how the division of labor is good for society as it increases the capacity for reproduction, the skills of the working man and creates a feeling of solidarity between individuals, which he argued establishes social and moral order (Crossman, nd). He is perhaps best known for institutionalising the teachings of sociology and in 1895 established the first department of sociology in Europe which made him the first professor of sociology (Taylor et al, 1999). Durkheim believed that sociology should be the study of social fact arguing that society has a reality of its own over and above the individuals who it comprises of (Haralambos, Heald and Holborn, 2000 p1033). Social facts such as money and the law are objective and can therefore be measured. These are said to be external because they exist both before and after the individual person (Crossman, nd). This helped to establish sociology as a distinct subject and explains how a person s actions can be moulded by patterns of integration and and regulation in society. In his Theory of Suicide in 1897 Durkheim, studied statistical evidence of the rates of suicide in differing societies and suggested that the society in which someone lives can have a massive effect on the likelihood of them taking their own life. From this study he identified four different types of suicide based largely on society's relationship with the individual,
5 Hisscott 5 arguing that the level of external constraint in society could mould a person s behaviour (Taylor et al, 1999 p469). Worried by rapid social change and the transition to a modern society, Durkheim viewed this as a change from a simplistic social structure Also a structural theory, Marxism like Functionalism is a macro theory. It views society as a whole rather than from the individual s point of view, however it differs from Functionalism as it sees society based on conflict between the rich (Bourgeoisie) and poor (Proletariat). Karl Marx studied law at Bonn University in Germany, although the following year joined the University of Berlin, graduating in 1841 with a doctoral degree. Marx was a communist, a journalist, atheist and a writer, who believed that we lived in a capitalist society (McNeill, 1986 p32). Marxism is described as a struggle of the social classes and Marx believed that society is run for the benefit of the rich and powerful. Although relatively unknown during his life, following his death his ideology became a massive influence in the subject of sociology. Marxists believe that society is controlled by the Ruling class or as Marx referred to them the Bourgeoisie, these people were the owners of the businesses, who exploit the Proletariat (working class) with the aim of making lots of money to make them richer and the poor, poorer (Moore et al, 2009 p 256). Marx believed that whoever controlled the means of production also controlled the population through their ability to produce what society needs in order to survive. An unequal system that led to the worker becoming alienated Alienation refers to those who are isolated through work, who feel they have no control over their lives and just work to live (Taylor et al, 1999 p 17). Marx believed that this led to the loss of humility. For alienation to end Marx argued there would need to be a revolution and a socialist
6 Hisscott 6 system introduced in order to promote equality in society, everyone would then have what they needed and society would be fair (Haralambos, Heald and Holborn, p 1044). He thought capitalism was entrenched in every aspect of society; within every institution and within the class system, believing only a complete overthrow of the ruling class and the change to a communist society, where everything was owned by the people themselves would change things. Social Action theories on the other hand do not seek to provide complete explanations, viewing the building of society in terms of how individuals interact with each other (Moore et al, 2009 p261). Max Weber, born in Germany in 1864, attended university becoming a professor. Weber is often referred to as The Father of Modern Sociology. Whereas Marxism and functionalism are both structural theories, Weber s ideology is referred to as a social action theory, meaning it starts from the bottom up (micro level) with a main focus placed upon the interactions and actions of people as individuals. Social action theories see individuals as having choice and being able to shape society in an active not passive way. Weber believed that for society to function successfully both structural and action theories were required in order to completely understand the behaviours shown by people. Weber argued that there was two levels of sociological explanation (a two way process); The level of cause which explains the objective structural factors that shape behaviour. The level of meaning understanding the subjective meanings that individuals attach to their actions (McNeill et al, 1986).
7 Hisscott 7 Shown in Weber s study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism which was published in This was based on the protestant reformation and saw the introduction of a new belief system called Calvinism, which changed world views and led to changes in behaviour. Weber thought that the work ethic shown by Calvinism was due in part to the rise of capitalism (Crossman, nd c). Work gained religious meaning for Calvinists, they believed working hard demonstrated how devoted they were to God and that this would ensure their place in heaven. Profits were not spent and the money reinvested into more land in order to expand their businesses further. They believed that working hard would make them pure, they never had any pleasures or leisure time and even sex was viewed as only for reproduction. Weber claimed that there is an infinite number of subjective meanings that people attribute to their actions, identifying four main types ; Instrumentally rational action the most efficient way of achieving a goal. Value rational action meaning when someone does something that benefits themselves Traditional action these are actions that are seen as the norm within society. Affectual Action expression of emotions There are a number of criticisms of Weber s idea s. Schutz (1972) believed that Weber was far too focused on individualism and unable to explain the shared nature of meanings. Advocating the use of empathetic understanding (verstehen) however, as we are unable to see things from another s perspective, therefore we can never actually see things totally from their point of view. Weber s ideology influenced symbolic
8 Hisscott 8 interactionism, which was first developed in the early 20th century, from the work of George Mead ( ) and Herbert Blumer ( ) Similar to other action theories with it focuses upon the ability to create the social world through our actions and interactions. Unlike Functionalism and Marxism that appear to suggest that individuals are like puppets controlled Symbolic Interactionism views interactions in terms of the meanings given to situations. This is expressed through language and symbols (McNeill, 1986). The theory of interactionism purports three main ideas; The symbol, the self and the interaction. Mead ( ) studied human responses to stimuli, comparing how animals and humans respond when. shown a stimuli and animals tend to respond in an automatic way, whereas humans go through an interpretive phase before giving a response. Developing Mead s ideas further, Blumer ( ) found three key principles, Meanings The meaning attributed to situations, people and events influence our initial actions Interaction Process meanings emerge from the interaction process, therefore are not set in stone and can change depending on the topic. Interpretive procedures The significance of a situation is based from interpretive procedures humans use (Moore et al, 2009). Symbolic interactionism provides a rich insight into how individuals interact within small scale situations, however critics of symbolic interactionism view it as a loose collection of of descriptive concepts, that ignore the influence of wider social structures such as social class (McLeod, 2009).
9 Hisscott 9 Despite both approaches offering valid arguments on how society should be studied, both have various strengths and weaknesses which has led to sociologists adopting sides within a debate that has spanned more than 20 years. Changes in society during the 1980 s resulted in many sociologists being dissatisfied with the explanations from both approaches.
10 Hisscott 10 Bibliography Bancroft and, A. and Rogers, S. (2010) Max Weber Class, Status And Power. Available at: (Accessed: 15 May 2015) Best, S., Hope, T. and Griffiths, J. (2000) Active sociology. Harlow, Essex, England: Longman Boundless (2014) Work and Alienation. Available at: sociology textbook/economy 16/work 120/work and alienation / (Accessed: 17 May 2015) British Sociological Association (no date) The British Sociological Association. Available at: (Accessed: 10 May 2015) Bryant, L. (2014) Functionalism. Available at: (Accessed: 11 May 2015) Crossman, A. (no date) How Max Weber Contributed to Sociology. Available at: Weber.htm (Accessed: 18 May 2015) Crossman, A. (no date) The History Behind Sociology. Available at: Of Sociology.htm (Accessed: 10 May 2015)
11 Hisscott 11 Crossman, A. (no date) What Is Symbolic Interaction Theory?. Available at: Theory/a/Symbolic Interaction Theory.htm (Accessed: 17 May 2015) Crossman, A. (no date) What Is The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism? Available at: Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalis m.htm (Accessed: 16 May 2015) Haralambos, M., Heald, R. M. and Holborn, M. (2000) Sociology: themes and perspectives. London: Collins Educational McNeil, P., Townley, C. and McNeill, P. (1986) Fundamentals of Sociology. 2nd edn. Cheltenham, England: Trans Atlantic Publications Mooney, L. A., Knox, D. and Schacht, C. (1996) Understanding social problems. 1st edn. United States: Wadsworth Publishing Co Schutz, R. E. (1972) Capitalizing Educational R&D, Educational Researcher, 1(9), pp doi: / x