- Describe how the field of sociology developed as a distinct area of study.
- Explain how the three main theoretical perspectives in sociology differ.
- The nature of social life and human interaction has been of interest to scholars throughout history.
- Rapid growth of urban populations created a great deal of social problems.
- Sociology emerged in the 1800’s mainly in France, Germany, and England.
- How does sociology emerge as a field of study?
- Describe the major contributions made by the early sociologists.
- Explain the three main theoretical perspectives that form the basis of modern sociology.
Core Founders of Sociology
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was the first to take a position in a university and because of the scientific journal he edited, L'Anné Sociologique (the sociological year) and his scientific work, he was able to help sociology to become part of higher education's academic culture. He was also French and took the first position at a university as a sociology professor.
Durkheim discussed Social Facts, a phenomena within society that typically exists independent of individual choices and actions. Durkheim approached a subject that most thought of as being exclusively individualistic in nature-suicide. But, he defined suicide from a social fact perspective which helped him to establish the unique wisdom of sociological analysis.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) was an influential person in the development of sociology as a strong academic discipline. He was not a sociologist. He was an economist, philosopher, and revolutionary. Marx was born in Germany and his writings on the class struggles that existed in society wherein the poor masses are exploited by the few wealthy elite still apply today (perhaps even more so than in his day). His philosophy and the timing of his writings helped early sociologists in the development of social theories and scientific approaches.
Another key German founder of sociology was Max Weber (pronounced vey-bur) (1864-1920). He was a very intelligent person who strongly influenced the development of sociology and taught some of the other early sociologists of his day. Weber studied economics and his work gave balance to Karl Marx's extreme ideas. He studied religion and the economy and published a work called, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism." He also studied bureaucracies and defined Ideal Type as the abstract description of a social phenomenon by which actual social phenomena may be compared (You'll see an ideal type in Chapter 9 on caste versus class economic systems). Ideal Types are given as hypothetical examples and we can compare current economic systems to them.
Another early sociologist was a British man named Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Herbert is remembered for his failed ideas about survival of the fittest in society (not the animal kingdom). He is most remembered for the sociology that wasn't. In other words, he believed that survival of the fittest applied to classes within society and that the wealthy aristocrats were the fittest. Whatever the wealthy people did was in effect better for society in the long run. The problem with his philosophy is that it was not supported by scientific inquiry. In fact his complex ideas were interesting, but not a good explanation of social processes and their causes when put to scientific rigors.
Sociology began in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and then the United States. Sociology waxed and waned in popularity outside of the US over its short history. Today, sociology has become a United States-centered scientific discipline with most sociologists living in the US. There is significant sociological work being done in various countries of the world, but most of the 14,000 members of the American Sociological Association (the world's largest professional sociology organization) live in the US.
The Three Main Sociological Perspectives
From Mooney, Knox, and Schacht, 2007. Understanding Social Problems, 5th edition
Theories in sociology provide us with different perspectives with which to view our social world. A perspective is simply a way of looking at the world. A theory is a set of interrelated propositions or principles designed to answer a question or explain a particular phenomenon; it provides us with a perspective. Sociological theories help us to explain and predict the social world in which we live. Sociology includes three major theoretical perspectives: the functionalist perspective, the conflict perspective, and the symbolic interactionist perspective (sometimes called the interactionist perspective, or simply the micro view). Each perspective offers a variety of explanations about the social world and human behavior.
The functionalist perspective is based largely on the works of Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, and Robert Merton. According to functionalism, society is a system of interconnected parts that work together in harmony to maintain a state of balance and social equilibrium for the whole. For example, each of the social institutions contributes important functions for society: Family provides a context for reproducing, nurturing, and socializing children; education offers a way to transmit a society’s skills, knowledge, and culture to its youth; politics provides a means of governing members of society; economics provides for the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services; and religion provides moral guidance and an outlet for worship of a higher power.
The functionalist perspective emphasizes the interconnectedness of society by focusing on how each part influences and is influenced by other parts. For example, the increase in singleparent and dual-earner families has contributed to the number of children who are failing in school because parents have become less available to supervise their children’s homework. As a result of changes in technology, colleges are offering more technical programs, and many adults are returning to school to learn new skills that are required in the workplace. The increasing number of women in the workforce has contributed to the formulation of policies against sexual harassment and job discrimination.
Functionalists use the terms functional and dysfunctional to describe the effects of social elements on society. Elements of society are functional if they contribute to social stability and dysfunctional if they disrupt social stability. Some aspects of society can be both functional and dysfunctional. For example, crime is dysfunctional in that it is associated with physical violence, loss of property, and fear. But according to Durkheim and other functionalists, crime is also functional for society because it leads to heightened awareness of shared moral bonds and increased social cohesion.
Sociologists have identified two types of functions: manifest and latent (Merton 1968). Manifest functions are consequences that are intended and commonly recognized. Latent functions are consequences that are unintended and often hidden. For example, the manifest function of education is to transmit knowledge and skills to society’s youth. But public elementary schools also serve as babysitters for employed parents, and colleges offer a place for young adults to meet potential mates. The baby-sitting and mate-selection functions are not the intended or commonly recognized functions of education; hence they are latent functions.
The functionalist perspective views society as composed of different parts working together. In contrast, the conflict perspective views society as composed of different groups and interest competing for power and resources. The conflict perspective explains various aspects of our social world by looking at which groups have power and benefit from a particular social arrangement. For example, feminist theory argues that we live in a patriarchal society—a hierarchical system of organization controlled by men. Although there are many varieties of feminist theory, most would hold that feminism “demands that existing economic, political, and social structures be changed” (Weir and Faulkner 2004, p.xii).
The origins of the conflict perspective can be traced to the classic works of Karl Marx. Marx suggested that all societies go through stages of economic development. As societies evolve from agricultural to industrial, concern over meeting survival needs is replaced by concern over making a profit, the hallmark of a capitalist system. Industrialization leads to the development of two classes of people: the bourgeoisie, or the owners of the means of production (e.g., factories, farms, businesses); and the proletariat, or the workers who earn wages.
The division of society into two broad classes of people—the “haves” and the “havenots”— is beneficial to the owners of the means of production. The workers, who may earn only subsistence wages, are denied access to the many resources available to the wealthy owners. According to Marx, the bourgeoisie use their power to control the institutions of society to their advantage. For example, Marx suggested that religion serves as an “opiate of the masses” in that it soothes the distress and suffering associated with the working-class lifestyle and focuses the workers’ attention on spirituality, God, and the afterlife rather than on such worldly concerns as living conditions. In essence, religion diverts the workers so that they concentrate on being rewarded in heaven for living a moral life rather than on questioning their exploitation.
Symbolic Interactionist Perspective
Both the functionalist and the conflict perspectives are concerned with how broad aspects of society, such as institutions and large social groups, influence the social world. This level of sociological analysis is called macro sociology: It looks at the big picture of society and suggests how social problems are affected at the institutional level.
Micro sociology, another level of sociological analysis, is concerned with the social psychological dynamics of individuals interacting in small groups. Symbolic interactionism reflects the micro-sociological perspective, and was largely influenced by the work of early sociologists and philosophers, such as George Simmel, Charles Cooley, George Herbert Mead, and Erving Goffman. Symbolic interactionism emphasizes that human behavior is influenced by definitions and meanings that are created and maintained through symbolic interaction with others.
Sociologist W.I. Thomas (1966) emphasized the importance of definitions and meanings in social behavior and its consequences. He suggested that humans respond to their definition of a situation rather than to the objective situation itself. Hence Thomas noted that situations that we define as real become real in their consequences.
Social Interactionism also suggests that our identity or sense of self is shaped by social interaction. We develop our self-concept by observing how others interact with us a label us. By observing how others view us, we see a reflection ourselves that Cooley calls the “looking glass self.”
Sociology emerged as a field of study as a result of the effects of the Industrial Revolution. European countries such as France, Germany, and England were greatly affected by this revolution. Leading founders of sociology contributed greatly to study of sociology. Three theoretical perspectives: functionalist perspective, conflict perspective, and interacionists perspective help to create the basis of what would become modern sociology.
|Theoretical Perspective||Major Assumptions|
|Functionalism||Social stability is necessary to have a strong society, and adequate socialization and social integration are necessary to achieve social stability. Society’s social institutions perform important functions to help ensure social stability. Slow social change is desirable, but rapid social change threatens social order. Functionalism is a macro theory.|
|Conflict Theory||Society is characterized by pervasive inequality based on social class, gender, and other factors. Far-reaching social change is needed to reduce or eliminate social inequality and to create an egalitarian society. Conflict theory is a macro theory.|
|Symbolic Interactionsm||People construct their roles as they interact; they do not merely learn the roles that society has set out for them. As this interaction occurs, individuals negotiate their definitions of the situations in which they find themselves and socially construct the reality of these situations. In so doing, they rely heavily on symbols such as words and gestures to reach a shared understanding of their interaction. Symbolic interactionism is a micro theory.|