Definitions of key terms for the five basic sociological perspectives – Functionalism, Marxism, Feminism, Social Action Theory and Postmodernism.
More details on the perspectives below can be found at the relevant links on my sociological theories page, which has been written to specifically cover the AQA A-level sociology syllabus.
Norms and Values
Norms = the normal, typical or expected patterns of behaviour associated with societies or specific contexts or social roles.
Values = major and lasting ideas and beliefs about what is desirable and undesirable. Important sources of values include religion, politics, and one’s family background.
The process of learning the norms and values of a society. Functionalists see this a neutral process, important for the maintenance of social order; Marxists and Feminists see this a process which benefits the powerful as the ideas learnt through socialisation maintain the status quo.
Agreement around share values. In Functionalist thought is the outcome of effective socialisation and crucial to maintaining social order.
Positive Functions of Institutions
The Functionalist idea that institutions generally benefit society and most people within a society. For example, the nuclear family provides a stable and secure environment in which to raise children and school prepares individuals for work and is necessary for an advanced economy to work effectively.
A state of normlessness, arising because of a lack of social regulation. Anomie occurs when there are either too few rules guiding individual behaviour or where there are conflicting sets of rules, which contradict each other (as in Merton’s Strain Theory)
Capitalism and Private Property
Capital refers to financial wealth – especially that used to start businesses (rather than emergency savings or the house you live in). Capitalism is a system which gives private individuals with capital the freedom to invest, make money and retain profit.
The opposite of Capitalism is Communism, where the state owns all the property and makes all of the decisions about what to produce.
In Marxist theory, the Capitalist class are known as the Bourgeoisie – these are the minority class, and are those with capital who make money from profits on investments. The majority make up the Proletariat, the working class, who have no or little capital and have to work for a living.
Private property is crucial to Capitalism, because the protection of private property rights is what makes the system work: the capitalist class are allowed to maintain the wealth from their investments, rather than having their property redistributed by the state, as would happen under communism.
The relationship between these two classes is exploitative because the amount of money the Capitalist pays his workers (their wages) is always below the current selling, or market price of whatever they have produced. The difference between the two is called surplus value.
Marx argued that the ruling classes used their control of social institutions to gain ideological dominance, or control over the way people think in society. Marx argued that the ideas of the ruling classes were presented as common sense and natural and thus unequal, exploitative relationships were accepted by the proletariat as the norm.
Marx believed that political action was necessary to ‘wake up’ the proletariat and bring them to revolutionary class consciousness. Eventually, following a revolution, private property would be abolished and with it the profit motive and the desire to exploit. In the communist society, people would be more equal, have greater freedom and be happier.
‘Patriarchy refers to a society in which there are unequal power relations between women and men whereby women are systematically disadvantaged and oppressed’ (London Feminist Network)
The learned patterns of behaviour associated with different genders in a society. Gender scripts incorporate a whole range of gender-norms associated with different ‘being’ male and female – such as typical ways of dressing, speaking and self-expression more generally. The term ‘gender script’ rather than ‘gender norm’ emphasises the fact that individuals actively have to ‘act out’ their gender-identity, but at the same time a script is just a guide, and individuals have considerable freedom to interpret and play around with the suggested normative ways of expressing gender.
Liberal/ Marxist and Radical Feminism
Liberal Feminists tend to emphasise the importance of securing formal legal equality for women, Marxist Feminists focus on how capitalism perpetuates gender equality, and radical feminists focus on how patriarchy operates across many institutions, especially the family.
Involves critically analysing normative behaviour or truth-claims more generally, exposing the ‘relational nature’ of knowledge. In Feminist theory, this mainly means exposing the binary opposition ‘male-female’ and all of the traditional norms associated with this division as a social construct, rather than something which is rooted in objective biological divisions.. Such critical analysis forms the basis of breaking down such gender norms and opens up the possibility of a living a life free from the restraint of such g norms.
The I and the Me
The ‘I’ is the active aspect of one’s personality, the ‘Me’ is the social aspect – the me is one’s social identity, which the ‘I’ reflects on.
The looking glass self
The idea that and individual’s self-concept is based on their understanding of how others perceive them.
One’s social identity is how one sees oneself in relation to others in a society. It is likely to incorporate a number of different social roles, such as one’s role within a family and the workplace, and one’s social status in society more generally based on class, gender, ethnicity etc.
Backstage and Front Stage
Key ideas within Goffman’s dramaturgical theory – frontstage is any arena within society where one has to act out one’s identity, such as the workplace or the street, but it might also be in the home itself on certain occasions. Backstage is where one rehearses and prepares for one’s front stage performances, or just relaxes.
‘Labelling’ is where someone judges a person based on the superficial ‘surface’ characteristics such as their apparent social class, sex, and ethnicity.
The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
This is where someone acts according to their label and the label becomes true in reality.
Service Sector Economy
The service sector is also referred to as the ‘tertiary’ or third sector economy, in contrast to the first and second sectors – agriculture and industrial manufacturing. A service sector economy is one in which most people work in this third sector, in jobs such as retail, education and financial and informational services rather than manufacturing.
Consumer society is one in which consumption practices and leisure activities are more important as a source of identity, status and division than work, income and social class background.
The breaking up and splitting apart of communities into smaller groups, which are relatively isolated from each other.
Jean Baudrillard’s concept to describe a society in which most people cannot distinguish a simulated, media representation of reality, from actual reality.
Sociological Perspectives are a key component of the social theories aspect of the Sociology A-level Theory and Methods compulsory module, usually studied in the second year.
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