An overview of theory and methods for second year A level sociology – a very brief overview covering the bare-bones of (1) Positivism and Interpretivism, (2) Is sociology a science?, (3) Sociology and value freedom, (4) Functionalism, (5) Marxism, (6) Feminism, (7) Social action theory, (8) Post and late modernism, (9) Sociology and social policy.
The notes below are deliberately designed to be very brief and ‘distraction free’ (and so I have kept the links below to a minimum), if you want more detailed information, much more in depth, you will find links to these on my ‘Social Theories Page‘ which follows the same structure as what is below!
1. Positivism and Interpretivism
- Positivist approaches to social research are quantitative, ‘scientific’, objective.
- Durkheim’s suicide is an example of a positivist study
- Interpretivists criticise Positivist’s reliance on statistics (they are socially constructed)
- Interpretivist approaches to social research = qualitative, empathetic, micro
- Key example = Douglas’ study of the multiple meanings of suicide.
- Positivists criticise Interpretivist research because it’s too subjective, not authoritative.
2. Is Sociology a science?
- Key features of the scientific method = the experiment, objectivity, cause and effect relationships, making predictions.
- Positivism = a scientific approach applied to society – Durkheim’s suicide as an example.
- Interpretivist criticisms of the scientific method applied to society – humans are conscious actors, they cannot be understood using detached, quantitative methods
- Criticisms of the ‘objectivity’ of science and the scientific method – Kuhn’s paradigm critique is especially important.
- Realism – we can still usefully study society as an open system, rather than just focussing on individuals – for example we can still make general predictions about social behaviour based on statistical trends, even if we can’t predict exactly what that action will be or who, specifically will do what.
- Postmodern views of science – the idea that ‘truth’ is no longer possible.
3. Can Sociology be value free?
- Values = people’s own subjective beliefs and opinions. If social research is value free then it means that it is free of the personal biases of the researcher.
- Positivism – Claimed that sociology could be value free using scientific methods which meant the researcher was as detached as possible.
- Interpretivists criticise this – values creep into the quantitative research process – through the social construction of statistics for example.
- Moreover – Interpretivists say we need to understand people’s values to understand how they act! However, it is harder to remain value free when doing qualitative research.
- Weber argued that we could collect objective date on people’s values but we needed to be explicit about our own values all the way through the research process.
- Some sociologists criticise ‘institutional sociology’ for being limited in scope, and argue we need a political, explicitly value laden sociology to counter-balance this.
- For example Howard Becker argued sociologists should take the side of the underdog and give them a voice – this is an explicitly value-laden sociology
- Marxist and Feminist sociology is also value laden in its choice of research topic – Sociology should be aimed at achieving political
- Postmodernists believe objective knowledge is not possible, so all we can do is deconstruct knowledge, and criticise people who claim to have value-free, objective knowledge.
- Late Modernists such as Giddens criticise at least one aspect of postmodernism – there are still objective social problems, such as global warming, migration, global inequality, which sociology needs to focus on.
- However, constructing objective knowledge is a problem in contemporary sociology because knowledge is reflexive – it is part of the society it comes from – thus we need to careful to make our own value and opinions clear throughout the research process so that others can make an informed judgement about the usefulness of our research. That’s just the way it is!
- Durkheim’s functionalism – social facts and anomie
- Parson’s systems theory – the organic analogy and social evolution
- Merton’s internal critique of functionalism – latent and manifest functions
- Functionalism applied to the family – Murdock’s four universal functions, Parson’s functional fit theory and the two irreducible functions of the family – socialisation and the stabilisation of adult personalities
- Functionalism applied to education – meritocracy, social solidarity, school as a bridge between home and society (particularistic and universalistic values)
- Functionalism applied to Crime and Deviance – Durkheim’s three positive functions of crime, strain theory, consensus subcultural theories.
- Functionalism and Modernisation Theory – Parson’s traditional and modern values and the evolutionary model of society
- Functionalism and research methods – Durkheim’s Positivist approach to suicide
- Karl Marx – the basics: bourgeoisie and proletariat, exploitation, alienation, false consciousness, revolution.
- Gramsci’s humanistic Marxism – hegemony, dual consciousness and organic intellectuals
- Althusser’s structuralist Marxism – the repressive state apparatus.
- Marxism applied to the Family – capitalism, private property and the family, The family as a safe haven, ideological functions, also see Marxist Feminism
- Marxism applied to education – the ideological state apparatus, reproduction of class inequality, legitimation of class inequality, correspondence principle
- Marxism applied to Crime and Deviance – • Private Property and Crime, The costs of Corporate Crime, Selective Law Enforcement, Criminogenic Capitalism (“Dog Eat Dog” Society)
- Marxism applied to Global Development – Colonialism and Slavery, The Modern World System, Unfair trade rules, TNC exploitation
- Marxism and Research Methods – Social Class, Comparative Analysis, Objectivity/ Critical Research.
- Liberal Feminism – does not seek revolutionary changes: they want changes to take place within the existing structure; the creation of equal opportunities is the main aim of liberal feminists – e.g. the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act
- Marxist Feminism – capitalism rather than patriarchy is the principal source of women’s oppression, and capitalists as the main beneficiaries, through the housewife role for example; overthrowing capitalism remains the main objective.
- Radical Feminism – Society is patriarchal, dominated and ruled by men – men are the ruling class, and women the subject class. Rape, violence and pornography some of the key tools through which men control women; separatism can be part of the solution.
- Difference Feminism – women are not a homogenous group, they experience disadvantage in different ways.
- Postmodern Feminism – critiqued preceding Feminist theory as being part of the masculinist Enlightenment Project; concerned with language (discourses) and the relationship between power and knowledge rather than ‘politics and opportunities‘.
7. Social Action Theory
- Max Weber: Verstehen, and Social Change – observation alone is not enough to understand human action, we need empathetic understanding. Gaining Verstehen is the main point of Sociology, e.g. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).
- Symbolic Interactionism – people’s self-concepts based on their understanding of how others perceive them (the looking glass self); need to understand meanings to understanding actions; social roles are not specific or fixed; they can be interpreted in various different ways.
- Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory – People are actors on a ‘social stage’ who actively create an impression of themselves
- Labelling Theory – the definitions (meanings) people impose on situations or on other people can have real consequences (even if those definitions are not based in reality)
8. Post Modernism and Late Modernism
- Economy and Politics = Industrial economies, jobs for life; Nation State, most people vote and are in trades unions; Organised/ Heavy Capitalism and the Welfare State
- Society/ Culture reflects the underlying class and patriarchal structures; Nuclear family the norm, marriage for life; Identities shaped/ constrained by class position/ sex; Media – one way communication, reflects ‘reality’
- Knowledge – The Enlightenment – Science/ Objective Knowledge/ Truth and Progress
- Sociology – Positivism/ Functionalism – doing research to find how societies function and gradually building a better world; Marxism/ Feminism –emancipation.
- Economy/ Politics = Post-Industrial, service sector, portfolio workers and consumption is central; Declining power of the Nation State; Disorganised Capitalism/ Liquid Capitalism (Bauman)
- Society/ Culture – Culture is free from structure – it is more Diverse and Fragmented ; Relationships more diverse; More Individual Freedom to shape identities; Media – more global, two- way, hyperreality (Baudrillard)
- Knowledge – Critique of the Enlightenment; Incredulity towards Metanarratives (Lyotard)
- Sociology – Narrative histories; Deconstruction (Lyotard) and Destabilising Theory.
9. Sociology and social policy
- Intro – Social policy = things the government does to steer society in some way. Examples include taxation which affects wealth distribution, various education policies and policies about how to tackle crime
- There are several reasons why governments may ignore certain findings of research – e.g. lack of money; Marxists and Feminists believe governments generally have an ideological bias which mean they ignore certain research findings.
- Positivists believe researchers should collect objective knowledge to assess the impact of social policies and to help introduce new policies
- Social Democratic Perspectives generally agree with the above.
- The New Right and Neoliberals – have had most influence on social policy recently – e.g. The education system/ crime policy and in International Development
- Marxist approaches to social policy – prefer policies which favour the redistribution of wealth and promote equality of opportunity, such as the abolition of private schools.
- Feminist approaches to social policy – prefer policies which emphasis gender equality, such as the Paternity Act.
- Postmodernists focus on deconstruction rather than social policies
- Late Modernists emphasise the importance and challenges of developing and evaluating social policies in an age of globalisation.
Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle
If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of A level sociology papers 1 and 3.
- 74 pages of revision notes
- 15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
- Five theory and methods essays
- ‘How to write methods in context essays’.
Related Posts/ Find out More
Please see my ‘Social Theories Page‘ For more links to a whole range of posts – both summary and in depth on various social theories relevant to both A level sociology and beyond!
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The content in this post has been derived from the four major ‘A’ Level sociology text books and the AQA specification.