Using contemporary examples to evaluate for theory and methods

A level sociology students should be looking to using contemporary examples and case studies to illustrate points and evaluate theories whenever possible. In the exams, the use of contemporary evidence is something examiners look for and reward.

Below are a few examples of some recent events in the news which are relevant to the theory and methods aspects of sociology

All of the above took place in either 2019 or 2018! 

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Karl Popper: Sociology can be Scientific…

Popper believed that social science could be scientific, but that that social scientific knowledge has to be based on deduction and falsification (rather than induction and verification).

For Popper, sociology can be scientific if it makes precise predictions through the use of the hypothetic-deductive model.

In the hypothetic-deductive model, researchers start with a specific, testable, hypothesis, then they collect data, analyse it, and either confirm the hypothesis based on their evidence, or reject it and start the process over again. If a hypothesis is proven, then a theory may be derived which will form the basis of future research.

The principle of falsification means researchers deliberately look for evidence that could disprove their hypothesis.

In the above model, ‘grand theories’ such as those put forwards by Marxism are not specific enough to be tested.

The implications are that if sociology wants to be regarded as a science it must limit itself to research questions which can be turned into clear hypotheses and tested by others.

Unlike Durkheim, Popper believed that we can never verify laws of human behaviour because it’s always possible to find future evidence which could falsify existing social theories.

Comparison of Popper and Durkheim

Durkheim argued that science, and social science should be inductive and based on verification.

Popper argued that science and thus social science were based on deduction and falsification.

Key Terms

Induction = looking at the evidence and developing a theory from that evidence

Deduction = starting with a theory and testing it by working out what evidence would verify or falsify it.

Source/ disclaimer

I have summarised this from Chapman 2015, which in turn is obviously summarised from Haralambos edition 8.

Bauman’s Consuming Life A Summary – Chapter 2 – The Society of Consumers

Summary of chapter One 

A fairly lengthy, paraphrased summary with a few comments in italics

consuming life bauman.jpgIn consumer culture people behave ‘unreflexivly’ – without thinking about what they consider to be their life purpose and what they believe to be the right means of reaching it, without thinking about about what prompts them into action or escape, or about what they desire, what they fear and at what point fears and desires balance each other out

Nb – In defining consumers as unreflexive – that is, anyone who limits their conscious reflection to questions of what to consume- rather than focusing on the ‘deeper’ questions of life – Bauman seems to deny that such people have any sense of agency – they are not fully human. 

The society of consumers stands for a set of existential conditions under which the probability is high that most people will embrace the consumerist rather than any other culture, and obey its rules.

The ‘society of consumers’ is a kind of society which ‘interpellates’ its members primarily in their capacity as consumers. While doing that, ‘society’ expects to be heard, listened to and obeyed; it evaluates – rewards and penalizes – its members depending on the promptness and propriety of their response to the interpellation.

As a result, one’s ability to engage in consumerist performance has become the paramount stratifying factor and the principal criterion of inclusion in or exclusion from society, as well as guiding the distribution of social esteem and stigma, and shares in public attention.

(Following Frank Trentmann) This is historically unusual – for most of the modern period consumption was little discussed and when it was it was typically associated with eccentricity and wastefulness.

For the better part of modern history (that is, throughout the era of massive industrial plants and massive conscript armies), society ‘interpellated’ most of the male half of its members as primarily producers and soldiers, and almost all of the other (female) half as first and foremost their by-appointment purveyors of services.

It was the body of the would-be worker or soldier that counted most; their spirit, on the other hand, was to be silenced, numbed and thereby ‘deactivated’.

The society of consumers, on the other hand, focuses its training and coercing pressures on the management of the spirit – leaving the manage- meant of bodies to individually undertaken DIY labour, individually supervised and coordinated by spiritually trained and coerced individuals.

This coercive pressure is exerted on members of the society of consumers from their early childhood.. Following Daniel Thomas Cooke…

‘the battles waged over and around children’s consumer culture are no less than battles over the nature of the person and the scope of personhood in the context of the ever-expanding reach of commerce.’

The society of consumers does not recognize differences of age or gender (however counter-factually) and will not make allowances for either; nor does it (blatantly counter-factually) recognize class distinctions. From the geographic centres of the worldwide network of information highways to its furthest, however impoverished peripheries…

‘the poor are forced into a situation in which they either have to spend what little money or resources they have on senseless consumer objects rather than basic necessities in order to deflect total social humiliation or face the prospect of being teased and laughed at.’ (In Ekstrom et al, Elusive Consumption, 2004.)

However it is down to the individual to negotiate the staggering amount of info in order to make the right consumer decisions to avoid derision.
Since ‘social fitness’ is the responsibility of the individual, if people fail to make the right choices they are blamed (and thus constructed as ‘flawed consumers’) – we are taught to believe that there is nothing wrong with society, because there is plenty of choice, and so if people fail to succeed they are not deserving of care.

At least the above is the case if we are unreflexive viz our consumption habits.

Consumption is an investment in everything that matters for individual ‘social value’ and self-esteem, thus the crucial, perhaps the decisive purpose of consumption in the society of consumers is not the satisfaction of needs, desires and wants, but the commoditization or recommoditization of the consumer: raising the status of consumers themselves to that of sellable commodities.

If you wish to take part in society, you have to consume in this way – turning yourself into a commodity – this is a precondition which is non negotiable thus market relations are fundamental to the society of consumers, as is the calculating mindset which goes along with it.

I’m left wondering what Bauman would make of attempts to set up alternative, low impact cultures assisted by alternative financial avenues such as Kick Starter?

Becoming and remaining a sellable commodity is the most potent motive of consumer concerns, even if it is usually latent and seldom conscious, let alone explicitly declared.
The society of consumers, with its compulsive and willing individualization places a magnified emphasis on the on the subject as the one who has the duty to make oneself something, and on the individual as being the one who is responsible if one fails.
NB – I guess to simplify one of Bauman’s basic points you could just say that we believe that we are responsible for own successes and failures in life only because that is what society tells us, and this isn’t necessarily true.
In the society of producers, society took on the role of a ‘collective Prometheus’ – it took responsibility for the product in exchange for the individual conforming to social norms. If you just ‘became’ what society asked of you’ that was enough – your Promethean challenge, and sense of of Promethean pride could thus be earned if you fulfilled your social role.
However, in the age of individualisation, now that society ‘doesn’t exist’ (TINA) just becoming what society wants is no longer an option – ( in the consumer society the point, the task, is to continually become something else).
Being born, having become something are now sources of ‘Promethean shame’ and the task of the individual is to perfect themselves – to become more than they are, and there is never an end to this process… life is a never ending struggle of becoming.
Because of this, being a member of the society of consumers is a daunting task, a never-ending and uphill struggle. The fear of failing to conform has been elbowed out by a fear of inadequacy, and consumer markets are eager to capitalize on that fear, and companies turning out consumer goods vie for the status of the most reliable guide and helper in their clients’ unending effort to rise to the challenge. They supply ‘the tools’, the instruments required by the individually performed job of ‘self-fabrication’.
However, following Gunder Anders, it is absurd to think of those tools as enabling an individual choice of purpose. These instruments are the crystallization of irresistible ‘necessity’ – which individuals must learn to obey, in order to be free. Cites teen fashion as an example.
I’d be interested in looking at the social construction of retirement in this… to what extent is retirement constructed as a time when we are expected to ‘consume hard’? Does all of this end then?


There are two versions of human history – That of life as a progression towards greater rationality and freedom, of which consumer choice is the latest ‘highest’ expression, the other is of the increasing colonisation of human life by commodity markets – the society of consumers is its zenith because humans are now obliged to interact with each other at the same level as the products they consume (as explained above) – they purchase products in order to maximise their own market-value and they have no choice but to do so.
NB – I get the impression that Bauman sides with the later version.
Markets today are sovereign, you only get political rights if you are able to consume – people such as the underclass and illegal immigrants (flawed consumers) are seen as having no rights in the popular imagination, and there is no authority they can appeal to because the state’s ability to draw the line between the included and the excluded has been eroded by the market – it now makes these decisions, and it has no tangible body that can be appealed to if people feel unfairly excluded.
In recent decades the state has shifted many of its functions sideways to the market such that the state has now become the arbiter of market demands, evidence in the centrality of economic measurements as the state’s primary indicators of its ‘success’.

The secret of every durable (successfully self-reproducing) social system is the recasting of its ‘functional prerequisites’ into behavioural motives of actors – the secret is making individuals wish to do what is needed for the system to reproduce itself.
In the modern period, this required an emphasis on deferred gratification – people committing to the idea of putting off pleasure now in order to reap the rewards in the future.
We also see in the general theories of the time – such as Freud’s reality principle and in Bentham’s panopticon – that the good society could only be constructed with the individual’s subordination to the society.
(However, such theories were themselves a product of the crisis of community – the very fact that people were thinking about community demonstrates that community is no longer ‘taken for granted’ as it was in traditional times, and because of this, it was already losing its power as a coercive force).
Much of the modern period thus involved nation states vying to restrict freedom of choice through panopticon style discipline and punish rule, but this was always cumbersome.

In the post-modern era (mistakenly conceived as a decivilising process) the civilising process takes the form of the ‘obligation to choose’ but this breeds little resistance because it is represented and conceived as freedom of choice.
People now are obliged to seek happiness and pleasure and this is lived through as an exercise of ‘freedom’ and self-assertion. Today it is as if the (individualised) pleasure principle has taken over the reality principle as the primary regulating force in society. (Reminds me of happiness is mandatory.)

When society confronts us (which it rarely does as a totality, these days) it does so in ways which make it easy for us to act as solitary consumers… (rather than in large collectivities). Bauman now gives several examples of this:

  • As mentioned earlier on in the chapter, this starts with childhood
  • At university, the new future-elite of consumers are socialised into the norm of living on credit (phase one)
  • At home we have TV dinners and fast food, which protect solitary consumers.
  • The primary acts of consumption are done in swarms – groups who come together for limited times with loose connections.
  • Elsewhere Bauman has also written about the nature of shopping malls, privatised public spaces of individualised consumption.
  • Even our post-modern ‘collective’ carnivalesque acts reinforce individualism – we come together in fringe moments to get our ‘collective’ fix and then go back to being individuals again .. ..

The chapter finishes with something about tax cuts to the rich and shifting taxation away from income to expenditure which doesn’t make much sense in the context of the chapter.

Summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s The Indivdualised Society (preface)

It may sound odd doing a summary of a preface, but there is a lot of heavy stuff in here….

According to Bauman ‘Sociology can help us link our individual decisions and actions to the deeper cause of our troubles and fears – to the way we live, to the conditions under which we act, to the socially drawn limits of our ambition and imagination.’

This book just does this by exploring how Individualisation has become our fate, and by reminding us that if our anxieties are to be addressed, they must be addressed collectively, true to their social, not individual nature.

Bauman individualized society

Lives Told and Stories Lived – An Overture

Bauman begins with Ernest Becker’s denial of death in which Becker suggests that society is ‘a living myth of the signficance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning’ and that ‘Everything man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny his grotesque fate’ (his eventual death).

He now goes back to Durkheim and argues that connecting oneself to society does not liberate the individual from nature, rather it liberates one from having to think about one’s nature and that genuine freedom comes from exorzing the spectre of mortality (which is ever present when close to nature) by linking oneself to (a more complex) society. It is through society that one tastes immortality – you become part of something which was there before you were born, and which will continue after you die.

(At the indivdual level) knowledge of mortality triggers the desire for transcendence – and this takes two forms – either the desire to leave something behind, a lasting trace of yourself, or the desire to live gloriously now. There is an energy (?) in this desire which society feeds off – it capitalises on this desire by providing credible objects of satisfaction which individuals then spend time pursuing.

The problem with the economy of death transcendence, as with all economies, is that the strategies on offer are scarce – and so there must be limits to how resources can be used. The main purpose of a life strategy (which involve the search for meaning) is to avoid the realisation of the truth of one’s own mortality, and given that all the various life- strategies fall short of this ultimate need-satisfaction it is impossible to call one strategy correct or incorrect.

Two consequences happen as a result.. Firstly, there is the continuus invention of new life-strategies – industries are forever coming up with new strategies for death-denial. Secondly some people are able to captalise on the energy of the quest of death-denial and this is where we get cultural capital and hierarchy from.

So to date Bauman seems to be suggesting that there is a pyschological need to escape facing up to our own mortality, and this is where society comes from. However because any life-strategy we adopt in the attempt to escape death is doomed to failure because all such strategies merely mask the truth of our own mortality which lurks in the background. Because of this, in truth, all such strategies are equally as valid (or equally as invalid) as each other. At the social level this then results in two things – a continues stream of new and improved life-strategies on offer to us from industry and secondly the emergence of cultural capital as those who are able to do so define their own life-strategies as superior which is where hierearchy comes from (and I guess this claiming of mythical superiority is also part and parcel of certain life-strategies of death-denial).

Pause for breath…. Bauman now goes on to say that…

However, just because all life-strategies are far from the truth of death-denial, this does not mean that all miss the targets by the same margin.

Some life-strategies on offer are the result of what Bauman calls ‘surplus manipulation’ of the desire to deny death.  These are at their most viscious when they are biograpical solutions to systemic contradictions (following Beck) and rest on the fake-premise that self-inadequacy is the root cause of one’s anxiety and that the individual needs to look to themselves to solve this.

The result of this is the denial of a collective solution to one’s problems and the lonely struggle with a task which many lack the resources to perform alone which in turn leads to The result is self-censure, self-disparagement, and violence and torture against one’s own body.

I think the logic at work here is (a) Society is an invention which helps us deny death, however (b) in the post-modern age society falls apart – we find it harder and/ or it is less-rational to forge the kind of lasting bonds which will help us collectively deny-death (or strive for immortality to put in a positive phraseology) this results in (c) anxious individuals who are then (d) told by certain people in society (the elite – see below) that they need to find biographical solutions towards immortality (this is the surplus manipulation bit) but in reality this is impossible and so (e) this results in them killing or harming their social selves or actual physical bodies.

Bauman seems to be saying that, in the post-modern age some people, free of society, are thrown back on themselves, their true nature, and can’t handle it, they cannot deny-death alone, and so they kill themselves.

Bauman then goes on to say….

If we look at the whole life-story’ most of are simply not able to practice agency (articulation) – we are not free to simply construct of one set of relations out of another or redefine the context in which life is created. We may be able to do this in the realm of fashion or culture more generally, but not so with all aspects of of our lives.

To rephrase Marx – ‘People make their lives but not under conditions of their choice.’ It may be that we are all story tellers today, we all exercise reflexivity, but life is a game in which the rules of the game, the content of the pack and the way they are shuffled is not examined, rarely talked about.

The problem is that the individualisation narrative seems to assume that everything we do in our whole life is a matter of the choices we have made. This is, in fact, a narrataive that only works for the elite who do have lots of choice – they have resources and are mobile and can use opportunities in today’s mobile age to their advantage.

This narrative, in fact, works for the elite, it is ideological – if everyone thinks everything is open to choice and their fate is their fault, this becomes a nice control mechanism – you don’t need panopticons when people are always trying trying trying and choosing choosing choosing.

Furthermore, what is often precluded in the individualised age are strategies which involve acting together to change the broader social conditions, which just further perpetuates the problem.

In other words if we wish to reduce human suffering and allow individuals the opportunity to get back to collectively denying their own death (or constructing their immortality) then people need to feel as if they can constitutue society, at the moment the ideology of the biographical narrative serves to prevent people from realising this.

This book seems to aim to be a contribution towards bringing about greater genuine articulation (so it’s a shame you need to be educated well beyond graduate level to appreciate it)…..

As Bauman says towards the end of the chapter… ‘Genuine articulation is a human right but perform the task and the exercise the right in full we need all the assistance we can get – and sociologists can help in this by recording and mapping the crucial parts of the web of interconnections and dependencies which are kept hidden or stay invisible from the point of individual experience. Sociology is itself a story – but the message of Sociology is that there are more ways of living a life than is suggested by the stories which each one of us tells.’

Overall Comment

Very interesting to see Bauman starting with Becker – although he doesn’t seem to go back to him at the end of the section, so I really think he’s pushing the boat out a bit too far in terms of how much he tries to include in this introductory paragraph. It doesn’t hold together that well, and you have to read things into it to an extent to complete it, maybe that’s the point?

I’m not comfortable with the idea that society denying-death is OK because it is rational, and that our goal should be to get back to a situation where individuals are free to construct society and thereby get back to affirming themselves and thus denying their own death. This just strikes me as the equivalent of papering over the cracks of a deeper human suffering which The Buddha realised 3000 years ago.

There’s probably an interesting Buddhist response to this – but I’ll post that up when it emerges, which isn’t now, unless someone else gets there first. 

Theory and Methods: A Visual Overview

A summary of theory and methods for A-level sociology, AQA. (Theory part only!)

Theory and or Methods Questions appear on both the AQA’s A-Level Paper 1 (Education with Theory and Methods) and Paper 3 (Crime and Deviance with Theory and Methods).

In my experience, students underplay the importance of this aspect of the course, but in fact there is a total of 40 marks for pure theory and or methods questions and an additional 20 via the methods in context question, so in fact, these are the MOST IMPORTANT areas of the Sociology A-level syllabus which students should revise.

This post simply provides a visual overview of mainly the Theory part of the theory and methods aspect of the syllabus, and if you like this sort of thing, or even just want to show your appreciation, you might like to purchase my ‘Theory and Methods Revision Bundle’… it includes more detailed revision notes on theory and methods as well as exemplars of exam questions, mind maps, and all the slides below in PPT format and picture format, and lots lots more

Positivism and Interpetivism

Positivism Interpretivism

Is Sociology a Science?

Is sociology a science

Can Sociology be Value Free?

sociology value freedom

Functionalism

functionalism

Marxism

marxism

Feminism

feminism

Social Action Theory

social action theory

Modernity

modernity

Postmodernity

postmodernity

Social Policy

social policy

To follow… research methods slides!

 

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.

Contents include:

  • 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’.
  • Power Point Overview of sociological theories in slide and picture format.

Happy Revising!

Last updated May 2018.

Karl.

Sociological Perspectives on Veganuary

Launched in the United Kingdom in January 2014, Veganuary is a global campaign that encourages people to try eating a vegan diet for the month of January.

Veganuary is dedicated to changing public attitudes, while providing all the information and practical support required to make the transition to veganism as easy and enjoyable as possible.

It is a growing movement, with over 50 000 people committed for January 2018 (1) compared to just over 20 000 in 2016 (2). The report of the impact of 2016 Veganuary (see 1 below) argues that the month long campaign has a positive impact on helping people maintain their veganism and helping some transition from vegetarianism. meat-eating to full-blown veganism.

Comments/ sociological relevance

My optimistic, and vegan-sympathetic self wants to ask ‘Are we seeing an ‘anticipation of the morality of the future’? (following Durkheim’s stance on deviance and social change) – might veganism be the new norm in 50 years?

Or, following postmodernism,  is this just a case which illustrates a new forms of ‘incredibly weak solidarity’ orchestrated through social media. Is this is just yet another faddish lifestyle culture?

From a research methods perspective, you might also want to have a look at that report on the ‘impacts’ of Veganuary… the survey asked people about their diets in the first week of February, in order to measure the impact of going vegan in the previous months… hmmm, can anyone see any problems there???? As always, answers welcome in the comments below!

 

Sources

(1) Veganuary 2016: Participant Research and Impact

(2) The Week, 6 January 2018

 

A Sociological Christmas 

Family, friends, gifting and food, these are the main things which people say makes ‘Christmas important to them’, at least according to a survey carried out by YouGov this time last year, on behalf of the British Humanist Association

And less than 25% of the population seem to think religion is an important part of Christmas, at least as measured by the two questions in this particular survey (about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ and attending a religious ceremony), both of which tap into whether people actually do anything ‘religiously active’ to celebrate the tradition.

Personally I’m inclined to think the results of this survey as valid, as this is an online survey (so anonymous) and people get to choose (NB the format of the above version varies slightly to how the original was administered!

The Social (Media) Construction of Christmas

Some oddball versions of the history of Christmas take it all the way back to the birth of someone called Jesus Christ, but the modern (real?) version of Christmas didn’t really start to take shape until the 19th Century….In other words Christmas is a social construction… 

Goose was the popular choice for Christmas dinners for generations. Middle-class families with lots of relatives might go for a boar’s head, while the seriously rich showed off with a swan. The turkey really took off with the Victorians after Charles Dickens had Scrooge ordering a turkey in A Christmas Carol.

The mastermind behind the Christmas cracker was a London sweetshop owner called Tom Smith. In 1847, after spotting French bonbons wrapped in paper with a twist at each end, he started selling similar sweets with a “love motto” inside.

They were so popular as a Christmas novelty that Tom made them bigger and included a trinket. But the real flash of inspiration came when he poked the fire and a log exploded with a sharp CRACK! That gave him the idea for a package that went off with a bang. By 1900 he was selling 13 million a year.

The red robes, white beard, and booming ho-ho-hos we associate with Santa Clause has only existed since 1935, when this colour-combo was created Santa Claus for a Coca-Cola campaign.

In previous lives he was thinner and paler, a character based on a 4th Century Asian bishop called Nicholas, who became the patron saint of children in most of Europe. Different countries still have their own variations on the theme, but the coca-cola version has pushed them all to the cultural margins.

And personally, I can’t imagine Christmas without Christmas Movies, and especially Christmas Songs. I mean in one sense, Christmas didn’t really exist before 1986….

 

A Marxist Analysis of Christmas…

A broadly (read ‘simplified’) Marxist approach to Christmas would probably highlight the extent to which Christmas has been hijacked by Corporations to become hideously commercialized, with advertising basically manipulating us into spending money on shit we don’t need which puts us into debt and makes profit for Corporations.

Hopefully you appreciate the irony!

An important part of this which links to the family is that Christmas is a key event which reproduces the norms of materialism and consumption – as kids come to expect lots of shit they don’t need. This also links very nicely (horrifically) into Toxic Childhood.

An excellent documentary which criticizes the commercialisation of Christmas is…..What Would Jesus Buy in which Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping ask the question ‘What Would Jesus Buy?’…

 

A Broadly Feminist Critique of Christmas

There is some scope for a Feminist Analysis of XMAS…

According to The Conversation, Christmas adverts come with the gift of gender stereotyping… with characters such as the overworked dad and the mischievous boy contrasted to the mum doing all the cooking and the fairy princess.

According to this Daily Mail Article, American women spend twice as much money as gifts on men, and according to this (earlier) article, the burden of Christmas tends to fall disproportionately on women

This all certainly seems to tie in with the gendered results from the BH survey above – women seem to be more involved with Christmas than men.

One final thing…. there is maybe a hint of frustration in the results of this survey from YouGov…. Is it Father Christmas, or Santa Claus? Of course men are more likely to the think the former, and women more likely the later…evidence of female frustration at the Patriarchy, or is that reading too much into it?!?

And Something Extra…

Black Lives Matter are currently calling on people to boycott a ‘white Christmas’, which basically involves not shopping with white corporations in order to divest them of money, and to invest in black shops by shopping only in them.

 

The Steps of Quantitative Research

Quantitative research is a strategy which involves the collection of numerical data, a deductive view of the relationship between theory and research, a preference for a natural science approach (and for positivism in particular), and an objectivist conception of social reality.

It is important to note that quantitative research thus means more than the quantification of aspects of social life, it also has a distinctive epistemological and ontological position which distinguishes it from more qualitative research.

An ideal-typical outline of the stages of quantitative research:

quantitative research stages

1. Theory 

The fact that quantitative research starts off with theory signifies the broadly deductive approach to the relationship between theory and research in this tradition. The sociological theory most closely associated with this approach is Functionalism, which is a development of the positivist origins of sociology.

2. Hypothesis 

It is common outlines of the main steps of quantitative research to suggest that a hypothesis is deduced from the theory and is tested.

However, a great deal of quantitative research does not entail the specification of a hypothesis, and instead theory acts loosely as a set of concerns in relation to which social researcher collects data. The specification of hypotheses to be tested is particularly likely to be found in experimental research but is often found as well in survey research, which is usually based on cross-sectional design.

3. Research design 

The next step entails the selection of a research design which has implications for a variety of issues, such as the external validity of findings and researchers’ ability to impute causality to their findings.

4. Operationalising concepts

Operationalising concepts is a process where the researcher devises measure of the concepts which she wishes to investigate. This typically involves breaking down abstract sociological concepts into more specific measures which can be easily understood by respondents. For example, ‘social class’ can be operationalied into ‘occupation’ and ‘strength of religious believe’ can be measured by using a range of questions about ‘ideas about God’ and ‘attendance at religious services’.

5. selection of a research site or sites

With laboratory experiments, the site will already be established, in field experiments, this will involve the selection of a field-site or sites, such as a school or factory, while with survey research, site-selection may be more varied. Practical and ethical factors will be a limiting factor in choice of research sites.

6. Selection of respondents

Step six involves ‘choosing a sample of participants’ to take part in the study – which can involve any number of sampling techniques, depending on the hypothesis, and practical and ethical factors. If the hypothesis requires comparison between two different groups (men and women for example), then the sample should reflect this.

Step six may well precede step five – if you just wish to research ‘the extent of teacher labelling in schools in London’, then you’re pretty much limited to finding schools in London as your research site(s).

7. Data collection

Step seven,  is what most people probably think of as ‘doing research’.  In experimental research this is likely to involve pre-testing respondents, manipulating the independent variable for the experimental group and then post-testing respondents. In cross-sectional research using surveys, this will involve interviewing the sample members by structured-interview or using a pre-coded questionnaire. For observational research this will involve watching the setting and behaviour of people and then assigning categories to each element of behaviour.

8. Processing data

This means transforming information which has been collected into ‘data’. With some information this is a straightforward process – for example, variables such as ‘age’, or ‘income’ are already numeric.

Other information might need to be ‘coded’ – or transformed into numbers so that it can be analysed. Codes act as tags that are placed on data about people which allow the information to be processed by a computer.

9. Data analysis

In step nine, analysing data, the researcher uses a number of statistical techniques to look for significant correlations between variables, to see if one variable has a significant effect on another variable.

The simplest type of technique is to organise the relationship between variables into graphs, pie charts and bar charts, which give an immediate ‘intuitive’ visual impression of whether there is a significant relationship, and such tools are also vital for presenting the results of one’s quantitative data analysis to others.

In order for quantitative research to be taken seriously, analysis needs to use a number of accepted statistical techniques, such as the Chi-squared test, to test whether there is a relationship between variables. This is precisely the bit that many sociology students will hate, but has become much more common place in the age of big data!

10. Findings and conclusions 

On the basis of the analysis of the data, the researcher must interpret the results of the analysis. It is at this stage that the findings will emerge: if there is a hypothesis, is it supported? What are the implications of the findings for the theoretical ideas that formed the background of the research?

11. Writing up Findings 

Finally, in stage 11, the research must be written up. The research will be writing for either an academic audience, or a client, but either way, a write-up must convince the audience that the research process has been robust, that data is as valid, reliable and representative as it needs to be for the research purposes, and that the findings are important in the context of already existing research.

Once the findings have been published, they become part of the stock of knowledge (or ‘theory’ in the loose sense of the word) in their domain. Thus, there is a feedback loop from step eleven back up to step one.

The presence of an element of both deductivism (step two) and inductivism is indicative of the positivist foundations of quantitative research.

Sources

Bryman (2016) Social Research Methods

An Introduction to Social Action Theory

This post introduces the key idea of social action theory in simplified form for first year A-level sociology students…

Unlike structural consensus and conflict theorists social action theorists do not try to explain human behaviour in terms of an objective social structure that passes down norms, values, or disadvantage. Instead, they try to understand human action by looking at how people interpret their world and the actions of others. They make the following points…

  1. Individuals are Active

According to Social Action Theory, individuals are active, complex and react to the social structures around them in very different ways.  People don’t just passively respond to social norms and institutions and go along with them, rather, we examine them and decide whether to accept or reject certain norms and values.

  1. We need to understand people’s understanding of their own identities

Interactionists argue that we can’t understand individuals without understanding how they see themselves (their identity). A considerable amount of our time in modern society is devoted to constructing and expressing ‘my’ identity, which involves communicating something about myself to others through the use of shared symbols (symbolic action). Unraveling the complexities of how people construct their identities is one of the main things symbolic interactionists contributed to modern sociology, and the main man that looked at this was Erving Goffman in his classic text The presentation of the Self in everyday life

Goffman demonstrated how complex symbolic interaction is in modern life. Goffman argued that when we are out and about ‘in society’, it is like we are on stage, acting for the benefit of others. The ‘self’ that we present others requires careful behind the scenes management of the smallest detail. This is carried out at home, the equivalent of back stage. Such careful management of the self is required because of the dense array of meanings associated with such mundane things as dress, speech and body language. We need to understand these meanings to understand people.

  1. Social Action theory criticises Structuralist Social Theory

Sociologists such as Goffman argue that Social Norms don’t have as much power over us as Functionalists suggest. Rather, most people learn what norms are appropriate and ‘act them out’ when they are in particular social roles (at school, at work, with parents etc), returning to their more complex ‘true selves’ when by themselves or with their friends and family. This is why societies can change unpredictably – what appears to be mass conformity with social norms isn’t, it’s just masses of people going along with existing norms in a kind of illusory mass performance. If we want to get to the truth of who people really are, we need to dig deeper.

  1. Sociologists Should Aim for Empathetic Understanding

Because individuals are active, Social Action theorists aim for empathetic understanding – trying to see the world through the eyes of the people acting and they believe that individual action can only be understood by understanding the how people define their ‘realities’ and uncovering the meanings humans give to their actions. [1]

There are several different reasons why someone might wear something to college on one particular day, and there are several different ways other people might interpret that action. According to Interactionists, there isn’t simply one correct interpretation of human action – someone’s decision to wear a mini-skirt can’t be reduced to the influence of the patriarchal media making that woman think she needs to wear a particular item to impress men (like Radical Feminists might argue), there are lots of possible reasons.

Individuals make hundreds of thousands of ‘choices’ throughout the course of their lives, and so social life is full of hundreds of thousands of decisions, interpretations and mis-interpretations, and if we want to understand people, we need to understand their own personal motives, and how they see themselves in relation to others.

This means research is a complex, and very involved business, it won’t result in nice neat theories of why people act like they do, like you get with Functionalism, Marxism and Feminism, you end up with lots of stories about how people shape their identities.

(Also, you may have noticed that if you want to know why someone acts in the way they do, you need more details in the question – How warm? How short? Did they go out the night before and not go home?)

  1. Labelling Theory is an important part of Interactionism. It argues that there are existing power-structures that constrain people, and that these power structures are kept going by people in power labelling themselves as superior and people not-like them as inferior. Power inequalities are maintained by the powerless accepting their inferior labels.

Labelling theory was developed by Howard Becker in the 1960s. Becker argued that agents of social control often work in narrow stereotypes and label people like them as being ‘good’ and people not like them as being ‘bad’. He argued, for example, that white middle class teachers had an idea of the ‘ideal pupil’ as being middle class, well spoken, quite, respectful of authority, polite and well dressed, and often gave these middle class children positive labels, irrespective of their intelligence. Similarly, working class or underclass children, who tended to be scruffier and more energetic than middle class children, were seen as inferior.

According to Rosenthal and Jacobsen, this could result in a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy which is the process where an individual accepts the label given to them and acts accordingly. If middle class children are labelled positively and working class children negatively we end up with a social pattern: Middle class children do better than working class children. According to labelling theory this structural trend emerges not because of structural disadvantages working class children face as a result of their background, but because they are labelled negatively by middle class teachers. Thus the social structure emerges out of social interaction.

[1] Max Weber, the founding father of social action theory used a German word ’Verstehen’ to describe this type of understanding, which loosely translated means ‘empathetic understanding’

Bauman’s ‘The Individualised Society’ – A Summary of the Preface

It may sound odd doing a summary of a preface, but there is a lot of heavy stuff in here….

According to Bauman ‘Sociology can help us link our individual decisions and actions to the deeper cause of our troubles and fears – to the way we live, to the conditions under which we act, to the socially drawn limits of our ambition and imagination.’

This book just does this by exploring how Individualisation has become our fate, and by reminding us that if our anxieties are to be addressed, they must be addressed collectively, true to their social, not individual nature.

Lives Told and Stories Lived – An Overture

Bauman begins with Ernest Becker’s denial of death in which Becker suggests that society is ‘a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning’ and that ‘Everything man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny his grotesque fate’ (his eventual death).

He now goes back to Durkheim and argues that connecting oneself to society does not liberate the individual from nature, rather it liberates one from having to think about one’s nature and that genuine freedom comes from exorcising the spectre of mortality (which is ever present when close to nature) by linking oneself to (a more complex) society. It is through society that one tastes immortality – you become part of something which was there before you were born, and which will continue after you die.

(At the individual level) knowledge of mortality triggers the desire for transcendence – and this takes two forms – either the desire to leave something behind, a lasting trace of yourself, or the desire to live gloriously now. There is an energy (?) in this desire which society feeds off – it capitalises on this desire by providing credible objects of satisfaction which individuals then spend time pursuing.

The problem with the economy of death transcendence, as with all economies, is that the strategies on offer are scarce – and so there must be limits to how resources can be used. The main purpose of a life strategy (which involve the search for meaning) is to avoid the realisation of the truth of one’s own mortality, and given that all the various life- strategies fall short of this ultimate need-satisfaction it is impossible to call one strategy correct or incorrect.

Two consequences happen as a result.. Firstly, there is the continuous invention of new life-strategies – industries are forever coming up with new strategies for death-denial. Secondly some people are able to captalise on the energy of the quest of death-denial and this is where we get cultural capital and hierarchy from.

So to date Bauman seems to be suggesting that there is a psychological need to escape facing up to our own mortality, and this is where society comes from. However because any life-strategy we adopt in the attempt to escape death is doomed to failure because all such strategies merely mask the truth of our own mortality which lurks in the background. Because of this, in truth, all such strategies are equally as valid (or equally as invalid) as each other. At the social level this then results in two things – a continues stream of new and improved life-strategies on offer to us from industry and secondly the emergence of cultural capital as those who are able to do so define their own life-strategies as superior which is where hierarchy comes from (and I guess this claiming of mythical superiority is also part and parcel of certain life-strategies of death-denial).

Pause for breath…. Bauman now goes on to say that…

However, just because all life-strategies are far from the truth of death-denial, this does not mean that all miss the targets by the same margin.

Some life-strategies on offer are the result of what Bauman calls ‘surplus manipulation’ of the desire to deny death.  These are at their most vicious when they are biographical solutions to systemic contradictions (following Beck) and rest on the fake-premise that self-inadequacy is the root cause of one’s anxiety and that the individual needs to look to themselves to solve this.

The result of this is the denial of a collective solution to one’s problems and the lonely struggle with a task which many lack the resources to perform alone which in turn leads to The result is self-censure, self-disparagement, and violence and torture against one’s own body.

I think the logic at work here is (a) Society is an invention which helps us deny death, however (b) in the post-modern age society falls apart – we find it harder and/ or it is less-rational to forge the kind of lasting bonds which will help us collectively deny-death (or strive for immortality to put in a positive phraseology) this results in (c) anxious individuals who are then (d) told by certain people in society (the elite – see below) that they need to find biographical solutions towards immortality (this is the surplus manipulation bit) but in reality this is impossible and so (e) this results in them killing or harming their social selves or actual physical bodies.

Bauman seems to be saying that, in the post-modern age some people, free of society, are thrown back on themselves, their true nature, and can’t handle it, they cannot deny-death alone, and so they kill themselves.

Bauman then goes on to say….

If we look at the whole life-story’ most of are simply not able to practice agency (articulation) – we are not free to simply construct of one set of relations out of another or redefine the context in which life is created. We may be able to do this in the realm of fashion or culture more generally, but not so with all aspects of of our lives.

To rephrases Marx – ‘People make their lives but not under conditions of their choice.’ It may be that we are all story tellers today, we all exercise reflexivity, but life is a game in which the rules of the game, the content of the pack and the way they are shuffled is not examined, rarely talked about.

The problem is that the individualisation narrative seems to assume that everything we do in our whole life is a matter of the choices we have made. This is, in fact, a narrative that only works for the elite who do have lots of choice – they have resources and are mobile and can use opportunities in today’s mobile age to their advantage.

This narrative, in fact, works for the elite, it is ideological – if everyone thinks everything is open to choice and their fate is their fault, this becomes a nice control mechanism – you don’t need panopticons when people are always trying trying trying and choosing choosing choosing.

Furthermore, what is often precluded in the individualised age are strategies which involve acting together to change the broader social conditions, which just further perpetuates the problem.

In other words if we wish to reduce human suffering and allow individuals the opportunity to get back to collectively denying their own death (or constructing their immortality) then people need to feel as if they can constitute society, at the moment the ideology of the biographical narrative serves to prevent people from realising this.

This book seems to aim to be a contribution towards bringing about greater genuine articulation (so it’s a shame you need to be educated well beyond graduate level to appreciate it)…..

As Bauman says towards the end of the chapter… ‘Genuine articulation is a human right but perform the task and the exercise the right in full we need all the assistance we can get – and sociologists can help in this by recording and mapping the crucial parts of the web of interconnections and dependencies which are kept hidden or stay invisible from the point of individual experience. Sociology is itself a story – but the message of Sociology is that there are more ways of living a life than is suggested by the stories which each one of us tells.’

Overall Comment

Very interesting to see Bauman starting with Becker – although he doesn’t seem to go back to him at the end of the section, so I really think he’s pushing the boat out a bit too far in terms of how much he tries to include in this introductory paragraph. It doesn’t hold together that well, and you have to read things into it to an extent to complete it, maybe that’s the point?

I’m not comfortable with the idea that society denying-death is OK because it is rational, and that our goal should be to get back to a situation where individuals are free to construct society and thereby get back to affirming themselves and thus denying their own death. This just strikes me as the equivalent of papering over the cracks of a deeper human suffering which The Buddha realised 3000 years ago.

There’s probably an interesting Buddhist response to this – but I’ll post that up when it emerges, which isn’t now, unless someone else gets there first.