The Sociological Perspective

The Natural and Social Sciences

Natural Sciences

Social Sciences

Sociology is the scientific study of:

  1. the social behavior and attitudes of individuals;
  2. the structure of groups, organizations, and societies; and
  3. the relationships among social structures and human behavior.

Structure - our social setting has a tremendous impact on our behavior; which is not to say that social context simply determines behavior.

Agency - individuals and groups are capable of acting independently of social influences; that is, humans influence and are influenced by their social setting.

Methodological Considerations and Units of Analysis -

Major Sociological Perspectives and Theorists

Functionalism or Structural-Functionalism

Conflict Theory

Symbolic Interactionism

Major 19th Century Theorists

  1. Auguste Comte (1798-1857)
    • generally considered the founder of sociology; he coined the term "sociology" and defined it as the scientific study of human society and social behavior
    • pushed for the use of positivistic methods to uncover invariable sociological laws of social statics and social dynamics
    • distinguished between pure and applied sociology
    • his "law of three stages" held that all societies develop gradually and unidirectionally from a "Theological Stage" to a "Positive Stage," passing through an intermediate "Metaphysical Stage"
  2. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)
    • provided justification of the field of sociology
    • published more than 500 articles, books, and reviews
    • founded the first sociology research institute in the world
    • trained a large number of graduate students
    • organized and edited a major sociological journal (l'Annee sociologique)
    • Durkheim saw society as a sui generis reality with unique properties. The emergent characteristics are referred to as "social facts," which include the degree of social integration, the amount of division of labor, or the rate of change in a society. These characteristics cannot be reduced to mere statements about particular persons.
    • Social facts are characterized by externality and constraint; that is, they have a thinglike "external" existence that does not depend on the will or wishes of individuals, and they influence, inhibit, or constrain human activity.
    • Durkheim used social facts to explain other social facts (e.g., by demonstrating a relationship between level of social integration and suicide rate)
    • - His earliest works depict social change in terms of a movement from mechanical to organic forms of social organization, with accompanying change in human nature. Much social change is a process of differentiation of parts and specialization of activities.
      1. Simple mechanical societies - individuals live in small, simple societies where they share all the collective representations. Individualism is hardly developed, and unity is based on likeness of world view, similarity of activity, and near-total identification with the society. Characterized by altruistic suicide.
      2. Complex organic societies - more specialized, complex societies where individuals pursue different occupations, develop separate identities, and have a degree of difference in their world views. Individuals are bound together not only by similarities (which are much fewer than in mechanical societies) but also by the functional dependence of individuals and groups on one another that results from occupational specialization. Characterized by egoistic and anomic suicide.
  3. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)
    • The originality and strength of Spencer's work lies not in its particulars but in its totality. The goal of his Synthetic Philosophy was to present basic principles of development and change and demonstrate how these universal principles operated in the fields of biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics. He posited a "unity of science" - believing that, in general, the same fundamental causal forms of reasoning and processes of structure and change were common to all fields of scientific inquiry.
    • Argued that, in parallel to a biological entity, a society grows in size, becomes more complex, increases in dependence between individual and social groups, and lives longer than do the individuals who compose it.
    • Evolutionary progress was a fundamental assumption on which his sociology was constructed. He argued that governmental intervention undermines the natural process of social evolution.
    • His conception of the individual in society is dominated by three fundamental ideas:
      1. Lamarckianism - contends that 1) biological and psychological traits develop through use and decay through disuse and 2) the traits developed by one generation through exercise or use can be passed on to the next generation by biological transmission.
      2. The dominance of emotion (or sentiments) over intellect - intellect was a tool of the emotions; emotional sentiments prompted the desires, dispositions, and goals toward which instrumental thinking was oriented
      3. The correlation of individual makeup and societal form - individuals in simple societies were seen as having very limited intellectual abilities, compared to the scientific cause-and-effect reasoning possible of individuals in advanced societies. With social advance, individual's behavior becomes increasingly coherent, consistent, innovative, and oriented toward the future.
    • Spencer warned would-be sociologists of the dangers of (1) misinterpretation in analyzing cultural traits from the basis of the sociologists' own value biases (thus he pushed for cultural relativism), (2) drawing causal conclusions about social institutions and processes where one lacked a number of comparable cases drawn from ethnographic and historical data (he did not consider the possibility that sociologist could formulate studies to gather their own data), and (3) inferring causality without record of temporal sequence.
  4. Max Weber (1864-1920)
    • Weber pushed for "value-free" (i.e., objective and impartial) sociological methods. He believed that the methodology of the natural sciences (positivism) could be applied to the study of humanity; however, it does not generally permit us to ask the kinds of questions we would want to ask as sociologists. For Weber, sociology responds to hermeneutic (i.e., interpretivist) rather than instrumental interests.
    • Weber believed that ideal types were indispensable for the sociologist because they make social reality tractable for the investigator. An ideal type involves the development of the usual, typical, or most complete features of a phenomenon in order to facilitate comparison and analysis. Weber stressed that ideal types were "one-sided" and "partial" descriptions of reality. Ideal typification permits the sociologist to summarize and abstract subjective meaning and then to search for an explanation that is causally adequate.
    • In Weber's well-known study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, his ideal typifications of this "ethic" and "spirit" enabled him to suggest a causal connection between the two. This causal connection is tested by making comparative analyses of those societies in which the spirit of capitalism is to be found and those in which it is absent. Weber claimed that the Protestant ethic (focusing on thrift, asceticism, and hard work) was unique to those societies that embodied the spirit of capitalism.
    • At the heart of Weber's sociology is an investigation of the consequences of types of social action and a study of how these types of action come into conflict and create tension for specific individuals. His four main types of social action are:
      1. Rationally Purposeful Action - entails a complicated plurality of means and ends. The ends of action (e.g., goals, values) are either taken as means to the fulfillment of other ends, or are treated as if they are set in concrete. Thus, action is seen as purely instrumental.
      2. Value-rational Action - occurs when individuals use rational (i.e., effective) means to achieve goals or ends that are defined in terms of subjectively meaningful values.
      3. Affective Action - fuses means and ends together so that action becomes emotional and impulsive. This action is the antithesis of rationality because the actor can not make a calm, dispassionate assessment of the relationship between the ends of action and the means that, supposedly, exist to serve these ends. Rather, the means are emotionally fulfilling and become ends in themselves (e.g., a golfer who smashes his clubs because he failed to play well).
      4. Traditional Action - occurs when the ends and the means of action are fixed by custom and tradition. The ends of action are taken for granted and appear to be natural to the actors concerned.
  5. Karl Marx (1818-1883)
    • Marx's method is a synthesis of French materialism and the German dialectical method, applied to the British political economy. Materialism sees our cultural institutions and belief systems as a reflection of the economic mode of production. The dialectical method refers to a view of history where opposing forces give rise to unique circumstances, which will, in turn, have their own oppositions.
    • Marx held that "the whole of world history is nothing but the creation of man by human labor." He noted that the organization of human labor has undergone several dramatic changes in the course of human history. His described the following stages of labor organization, which, with the exception of so-called Asiatic Societies, follow one another sequentially:
      1. Preclass systems - These are characterized by a minimal division of labor and by communal ownership of property. The earliest clans or tribes, which generally follow a migratory existence, have this kind of social organization.
      2. Asiatic societies - These can exist in the same time frame as preclass systems and ancient societies. They have powerful, despotic leaders. Local communities tend to be economically self-sufficient. This is the earliest kind of class society.
      3. Ancient societies - These develop around large cities, such as Athens and Rome. Land becomes private property and a slave population comes into existence to create wealth for a few. Marx argued that such societies were destroyed by overpopulation and by their inability to find enough land for the ruling class. In such societies there is an enormous gap between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have-nots.
      4. Feudal societies - These developed in Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire. The class of serfs work the land for a small aristocracy. According to Marx, the end of feudalism comes about with the rise of cities dedicated to trade and commerce (e.g., Venice and Greece in the thirteenth century)
      5. Capitalist societies - These contain two major classes: the bourgeoisie (property owners) and the proletariat (those who are compelled to sell their labor power for wages).
    • According to Marx, in all types of societies the social regulation of labor is the foundation and basis of the organization of human experience.
    • Marx believed that the engine of human history is class conflict.
    • The bourgeoisie (the controlling class of capitalists, those who own the means to produce wealth - capital, land, factories, and machines) are locked in inevitable conflict with the proletariat (the exploited class, the mass of workers who do not own the means of production)
    • This struggle can end only when members of the working class unite in revolution and throw off their chains of bondage; the result will be a classless society, one free of exploitation, in which all individuals will work according to their abilities and receive according to their needs.