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Max Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Revision Notes)

Weber argued that the values of the protestant religion led to the emergence of Capitalism in Western Europe around the 17th century.

Weber observed that Capitalism first took* off in Holland and England, in the mid 17th century. He asked himself the question: ‘why did Capitalism develop in these two countries first?’

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Protestant Individualism and the Emergence of Capitalism 

Based on historical observation and analysis, Weber theorized this was because these were the only two countries in which Protestantism was the predominant religion, rather than Catholicism, which was the formal religion of every other European country.

Weber theorized that the different value systems of the two religions had different effects: the values of Protestantism encouraged ways of acting which (unintentionally) resulted in capitalism emerging, over a period of many decades, even centuries.

Protestantism encouraged people to ‘find God for themselves’. Protestantism taught that silent reflection, introspection and prayer were the best ways to find God. This (unintentionally, and over many years) encouraged Protestants to adopt a more ‘individualistic’ attitude to their religion by seeking their own interpretations of Christianity.

In contrast, Catholicism was a religion which encouraged more conservative values and thus was resistant to such changes. The Catholic Church has a top-down structure: from God to the Pope to the Senior Bishops and then down to the people. Ultimate power to interpret Catholic doctrine lies with the Pope and his closest advisers. Practicing Catholics are expected to abide by such interpretations, they are generally not encouraged to interpret religious scripture for themselves. Similarly, part of being a good Catholic means attending mass, which is administered by a member of the Catholic establishment, which reinforces the idea that the church is in control of religious matters, rather than spirituality being a personal matter as is more the case in Protestant traditions.

Part of Weber’s theory of why Capitalism first emerged in Protestant countries was that the more individualistic ethos of Protestantism laid the foundations for a greater sense of individual freedom, and the idea that it was acceptable to challenge ‘top down’ interpretations of Christian doctrine, as laid down by the clergy. Societies which have more individual freedom are more open to social changes.

Calvinist Asceticism and the Development of Capitalism

Weber argued that a particular denomination of Protestantism known as Calvinism played a key role in ushering in the social change of Capitalism.

Calvinism preached the doctrine of predestination: God had basically already decided who was going to heaven (‘the saved) before they were born. Similarly, he had also already decided who the damned were – whether or not you were going to hell had already been decided before your birth.

This fatalistic situation raised the question of how you would know who was saved and who was damned. Fortunately, Calvinism also taught that there was a way of figuring this out: there were indicators which could tell you who was more likely to be saved, and who was more likely to be damned.

Simply put, the harder you worked, and the less time you spent idling and/ or engaged in unproductive, frivolous activities, then the more likely it was that you were one of those pre-chosen for a life in heaven. This is because, according to Calvinist doctrine, God valued hard-work and a ‘pure-life’ non-materialistic life.

According to Weber this led to a situation in which Calvinist communities encouraged work for the glory of God, and discouraged laziness and frivolity. Needless to say there was quite a motivation to stick to these ethical codes, given that hell was the punishment if you didn’t.

Over the decades, this ‘work-ethic’ encouraged individuals and whole communities to set up businesses, and re-invest any money they earned to grow these businesses (because it was a sin to spend the money you’d made on enjoying yourself), which laid the foundations for modern capitalism.

Weber argued that over the following centuries, the norm of working hard and investing in your business became entrenched in European societies, but the old religious ideas withered away. Nonetheless, if we take the longer term view, it was still the Protestant work ethic which was (unintentionally) responsible for the emergence of Capitalism

Evaluations 

On the plus side, Weber’s theory of social change recognizes that we need to take account of individual motivations for action in order to understand massive social structural changes

On the negative side, critics have pointed out that the emergence of Capitalism doesn’t actually correlated that well with Protestantism: there are plenty of historical examples of Capitalist systems having emerged in non-Protestant countries – such as Italian Mercantilism a couple of centuries early.

Find out More

This post is a very brief summary of Max Weber’s theory of religion and social change. For a much more detailed account, including more specific historical details of Calvinism, please see this post (forthcoming!) 

 

*Weber recongized that features of the Capitalist system were present in other parts of Europe previous to the 17th century, but Holland and England were the first societies to really adopt capitalist values at the level of society as a whole, rather than it just existing in relatively isolated pockets.

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What is Religion?

What is religion? How should we define religion?

There is an enormous variety of religious beliefs and practices globally, and the main problem with defining religion is to find a definition which encompasses this variety without including beliefs or practices which most people do not regard as religious.

There are two general approaches to defining religion: functional which tend to have broad, more inclusive definitions of religion and and substantive approaches which tend to have narrower, more exclusive definitions of religion.

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Functional definitions of religion

Functional definitions define religion in terms of the functions it performs for individuals and/ or society. For example, Yinger (1995) defines religion as ‘a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with the ultimate problems of human life.’

Problems with functional definitions of religion

  • They are too inclusive: almost any movement with a belief system of any kind and a committed group of followers would classify as a religion – for example, communism, nationalism, and even atheism.
  • Because functional definitions are too inclusive, it makes the growth/ decline/ impact of religion impossible to measure.
  • Functional definitions are based on subjective opinions and assumptions about what the role of religion is. Rather, the role of the sociologist should be to uncover what the functions of religion are through empirical investigation.

Substantive definitions of religion

Substantive definitions of religion define religion in terms of its content rather than its function.

Emile Durkheim‘s, approach to defining religion can be regarded as a substantive definition – Durkhiem argued that religion was the collective marking off of the sacred from the profane.

A common approach to defining religion substantively is to define religion in terms of a belief in a higher power such a god or other supernatural forces. For example Robertson (1970): ‘Religion refers to the existence of supernatural beings that have a governing effect on life’.

Problems with substantive definitions of religion

They can be too exclusive. For example, definitions which are based on a belief in God would exclude Buddhism.

Substantive definitions might still be too inclusive. For example, people who believe in fate, magic, or UFOs might be included as religious according to the above definition.

Defining religion: why it matters

The definition of religion that a sociologist describes to will have a profound impact on their conclusions about the role and impact religion has in society. This is most obviously the case where the secularization debate is concerned: if one adopts a more exclusive definition of religion, then it would appear that religion is in decline. However, if one adopts a more exclusive definition of religion, this decline will not be so apparent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What is Socialization?

A Basic Definition:

The social processes through which new members of society develop awareness of social norms and values and help them achieve a distinct sense of self. It is the process which transforms a helpless infant into a self-aware, knowledgeable person who is skilled in the ways of a society’s culture.

Socialization is normally discussed in terms of primary socialization, which is particularly intense and takes place in the early years o life, and secondary socialization, which continues throughout the life course.

Stages of Socialization 

Socialization takes place through various agencies, such as the family, peer groups, schools and the media.

The family is the main agent during primary socialization, but increasingly children attend some kind of nursery schooling from a very young age. It is in the family that children learn the ‘basic norms’ of social interaction – in Britain such norms include learning how to walk, speak, dress in clothes, and a whole range of ‘social manners’, which a taught through the process of positive and negative sanctions, or rewarding good and punishing bad behaviour.

In modern societies, class gender and ethnic differences start to affect the child from a very young age and these influence patterns of socialization. Where gender is concerned, for example, children unconsciously pick up on a range of gendered stereotypes which inform the actions of their parents, and they typically adjust their behaviour accordingly.

In adulthood, socialization continues as people learn how to behave in relation to new areas of social life, such as work environments and political beliefs. Mass media and the internet are also seen as playing an increasing role in socialization, helping to shape opinions, attitudes and behaviour. This is especially the case with the advent of new media, which enable virtual interactions via chatrooms, blogs and so on.

Taken together, agencies of socialization form a complex range of contrary social influences and opportunities for interaction and it can never be an entirely directed or determined process: humans are self-aware beings capable of forming their own interpretations of the messages with which they are presented.

Criticisms of the Concept

The main criticism of theories of socialization is that they tend to exaggerate its influence. This is particularly true of functionalism which tended to see individuals as cultural dopes, at the mercy of socializing agencies.

Dennis Wrong (1961) took issue with what he saw as the ‘oversocialized concept of man’ in sociology, arguing that it treats people as mere role-players, simply following scripts.

Today, theories of society and cultural reproduction are much more likely to recognize that individuals are active players and that socialization is a conflict-ridden and emotionally charged affair, and the results of it are much less predictable than functionalist theories suggested in the 1950s.

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What is Patriarchy?

Working definition

The systematic domination of women by men in some or all of society’s spheres and institutions

Origins of the Concept 

Ideas of male dominance have a very long history, with many religions presenting it as natural and necessary.

The first theoretical account of patriarchy is found in Engels theory of women’s subservience under capitalism. He argued that capitalism resulted in power being concentrated in the hands of fewer people which intensified the oppression of women as men passed on their wealth to their male heirs. (I’ve outline this theory in more detail in this post: the Marxist perspective on the family).

The main source of patriarchal theory stems from Feminism, which developed the concept in the 1960s, highlighting how the public-private divide and the norm of women being confined to the domestic sphere was the main source of male dominance and female oppression, highlighted by the famous Feminist slogan ‘the personal is the political’.

Subsequent Feminist theory and research explored how

Today, there is much disagreement over the concepts usefulness within the various different Feminist traditions (for the purposes of A-level sociology, typically divided up into Liberal, Marxist, Radical).

Meaning and Interpretation

The concept of Patriarchy forms the basis for radical forms of Feminism which has focused on how Patriarchy is reproduced in many different ways such as male violence against women, stereotypical representations in the media and even everyday sexism.

Sylvia Walby re-conceptualized Patriarchy in the 1990s, arguing that the concept failed to take account of increasing gender equality, but that it should still remain central to Feminist analysis, suggesting that there are six structures of patriarchy: Paid Work, Household Production, Culture, Sexuality, Violence and the State.

Walby also argued that analysis should distinguish between public and private forms of patriarchy.

Critical Points

The concept of patriarchy has been criticized from both outside and within Feminism.

The concept itself has been criticized as being too abstract: it is difficult to pin it down and find specific mechanisms through which it operates.

Many Feminists argue that Patriarchy exists in all cultures, and thus the concept itself is too general to be useful, as it fails to take account of how other factors such as class and ethnicity combine to oppress different women in different ways.

Black Feminists have criticized the (mainly) white radical Feminist critique of the family as patriarchal as many black women see the family as a bulwark against white racism in society.

Postmodern Feminism criticizes the concept as it rests on the binary distinction between men and women, the existence of which is open to question today.

Continued Relevance 

Much contemporary research focuses on discourse and how language can reproduce patriarchy. For example Case and Lippard (2009) analysed jokes, arguing they can perpetuate patriarchal relations, although Feminists have developed their own ‘counter-jokes’ to combat these – they conclude that humor can act as a powerful ideological weapon.

 

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What is Alienation?

Working definition: the separation or estrangement of human beings from some essential aspect of their nature or from society, often resulting in feelings of powerlessness or helplessness.

Today, the concept of alienation has become part of ordinary language, much used in the media. We may be told, for example, that who groups are becoming alienated from society, or that young people are alienated from mainstream values. With such usage of the concept we get the impression of the feeling of separation of one group from society, but the concept has traditionally been used in sociology, mainly by Karl Marx, to express a much more profound sense of estrangement than most contemporary usage (IMO).

Origins of the concept

Sociological usage of the term stems from Marx’s concept of alienation which he used to develop the effects of capitalism on the experience work in particular and society more generally.

Marx developed his theory of alienation from Feuerbach’s philosophical critique of Christianity – Feuerbach argued that the concept of an all powerful God as a spiritual being to whom people must submit in order to reach salvation was a human construction, the projection of human power relations onto spiritual being. Christianity effectively disguised the fact that it was really human power relations which kept the social order going, rather than some higher spiritual reality, thus alienating from the ‘truth’ of power was really maintained.

Marx applied the concept of alienation to work in industrial capitalist societies, arguing that emancipation for workers lay in their wrestling control away from the small, dominating ruling class.

Later, Marxist inspired industrial sociologists used the concept to explore working relations under particular management systems in factories.

Marx’s historical materialist approach began with the way people organise their affairs together to produce goods and survive. For Marx, to be alienated is to be in an objective condition which as real consequences, and to change it we need to actually change the way society is organised rather than changing our perception of it.

Work in the past may well have been more physically demanding, but Marx argued that it was also less alienating because workers (craftsmen for example) had more control over their working conditions, work was more skilled and it was more satisfying, because workers could ‘see themselves in their work’.

However, in 19th century industrial factories, workers effectively had no control over what they were doing, their work was unskilled and they were effectively a ‘cog in a machine’, which generated high levels of alienation – or feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and of not being in control.

It doesn’t take too much of a leap to apply this analysis to late-modern working conditions – in fast food outlets such as McDonald’s or call centers, for example.

Marx’s theory suggests capitalist production creates alienation in four main areas:

  1. Workers are alienated from their own labour power – they have to work as and when required and to perform the tasks set by their employers.
  2. They are alienated from the products of their labour – which are successfully claimed by capitalists to be sold as products on the marketplace for profit, while workers only receive a fraction of this profit as wages
  3. Workers are alienated from each other – they are encouraged to compete with each other for jobs.
  4. They are alienated from their own species being – according to Marx, satisfying work is an essential part of being human, and capitalism makes work a misery, so work under capitalism thus alienates man from himself. It is no longer a joy, it is simply a means to earn wages to survive.

Marx’s well known (but much misunderstood) solution to the ills of alienation was communism – a way of organizing society in which workers would have much more control over their working conditions, and thus would experience much less alienation.

Critical points 

Marx’s concept of alienation was very abstract and linked to his general theory of society, with its revolutionary conclusions, and as such, not especially easy to apply to social research.

However, in the 20th century some sociologists stripped the concept from its theoretical origins in order to make the concept more useful for empirical research.

One example is Robert Blauner’s ‘Alienation and Freedom (1964) in which he compared the alienating effects of working conditions in four industries – focusing on the experience of the four key aspects of alienation: powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation and self-estrangement.

Blauner developed ways of measuring these different types of alienation incorporating the subjective perceptions of the workers themselves, arguing that routine factory workers suffered the highest levels of alienation. However, he found that when production lines became automated, workers felt less alienated as they had more control over their working conditions.

Blauner’s work ran counter to existing theory that technological innovation and deskilling would lead to ever greater levels of alienation. It also suggested alienation could be reduced without destroying capitalism.

Continuing Relevance

While the collapse of Communism suggests that Marx’s general theory of alienation is no longer relevant, many firms today seem to have taken on board some aspects of the theory – for example, it is well establish that increasing worker representation and participation reduces worker ‘alienation’, as outlined in the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices. Another example of how firms combat alienation is the various media and tech companies which design work spaces to be ‘homely and comfortable’.

Other sociologists have attempted to apply the concept of alienation to criminology (Smith and Bohm, 2008) and even the study of health and illness (Yuill 2005).

Source

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Essential Concepts in Sociology

 

 

 

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What is the Sociological Imagination?

A brief summary of, and elaboration on Anthony Giddens’ take on what the sociological imagination involves… 

Learning to think sociologically means cultivating the sociological imagination.  Studying sociology cannot be just a routine process of acquiring knowledge.  A sociologist is someone who is able to break free from the immediacy of personal circumstances and put things in a wider context.  Sociological work depends on what the American author C. Wright Mills, in a famous phrase, called the sociological imagination (Mills 1970).

The sociological imagination requires us, above all, to ‘think ourselves away’ from the familiar routines of our daily lives in order to look at them anew.  The best way to illustrate what this involves is take a simple act which millions of people do every day, such as drinking a cup of coffee. A sociological investigation of coffee reveals that there are many social processes associated with the act.

First, coffee is not just a refreshing drink but it has symbolic value as part of our day to day social activities. Often the rituals associated with coffee drinking are more important than consuming the drink itself. For example, the morning cup of coffee is, for many people, the central part of their morning routine, an essential part of starting the day, while ‘meeting someone for coffee’ is typically not just about drinking coffee, but forms the basis for socialising and social interaction, which offer a rich vein of subject matter for sociologists to investigate.

Second, coffee contains caffeine, a drug which stimulates certain parts of the brain. As such, people drink coffee to aid concentration, or simply ‘give them a lift’. Coffee is a habit-forming substance, and such many people feel as if they cannot get through a typical day without their daily coffee injections. Coffee, like alcohol in the United Kingdom, is a legal drug, and yet other mind-altering drugs such as cannabis and cocaine are illegal. Other societies have different rules pertaining to mind altering, addictive drugs – and the question of why such rules come about and why they differ from culture to culture is of interest to sociologists.

Third, when we drink a cup of coffee, we are caught up in a complex set of global social and economic interactions which link us to millions of other people in other countries. There is a huge global production chain associated with coffee – it is grown in Asia, Africa and Latin America, typically by quite poor farmers, then bought in bulk by local distributors, and then typically shipped to Europe where it is roasted and ground, and also packaged and branded. If you add on the processes which go in a coffee shop, there are 6 chains from coffee farmer to consumer.

Fourth – historically, the production and consumption of coffee is tied up with the history of colonialism – a period in which European powers invaded Asia, Africa and Latin America and set up colonies which specialised in particular crops (such as tea, coffee, sugar and bananas) for export back to the ‘mother countries’ – the fact that coffee is grown in huge quantities in countries such as Colombia and Indonesia is a legacy of the colonial era.

Fifth – drinking coffee ties us into relations with some of the world’s largest Corporations – such as Nestle and Starbucks – many of these corporations have been accused of exploiting coffee pickers by paying very little for the coffee they buy in order to maximise their profits, thus ‘coffee as usual’ perpetuates global capitalism. Of course, there is now ‘fair trade coffee’, so purchasing coffee involves making ethical choices about whether you go for the cheapest cup or pay extra to give the farmers a chance of a decent wage.

Sixth – there have been recent concerns about the environmental impact of growing coffee – when any product is ‘factory farmed’, it depletes the soil and reduces biodiversity in a local area – not to mention to pollution associated with shipping the product several thousand miles around the globe.

Try cultivating your own sociological imagination: 

Take any product and ask yourself the following in relation to it:

  1. What social rituals are associated with consuming the product?
  2. What norms and rules exist which limit the use of the product or similar product?
  3. How does the product connect you to global economic and social processes?
  4. What is the history of the product?
  5. What Corporations are typically involved in the manufacture and distribution of the product. Are there any ethical concerns about the companies involved, are there any ethical alternatives?
  6. Does the use of the product harm the environment?

Products this might work well with:

  • Footwear – flip flops, trainers, high-heels. 
  • Mobile phones.
  • Chocolate.

Sources use to write this post

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology

 

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Giddens – What is Sociology?

A summary of Giddens’ ‘Sociology’ (2017): The Introduction

‘The world we live in today can feel liberating and exciting but, at the same time confusing and worrying. Global communications and friendships across national boundaries are in many ways easier to sustain than in previous times, yet we also see violent crime, international terrorism, emerging wars and persistent economic and social inequality.

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Giddens: the global world is full opportunities, but also high consequence risks

The modern world presents us with many opportunities and possibilities, but it is also fraught with high-consequence risks, most notably the damaging impact of our high-consumption lifestyle on the environment.

Most people within the relatively rich countries are materially better off than ever before, but in other parts of the world many millions live in situations of poverty where children die for the lack of fundamental things such as food, safe water supplies and basic healthcare. How can this be, when humanity as a whole has the capability to control its own destiny that would have been unimaginable to previous generations’?

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Why is there so much inequality in the world?

 

  • How did this world come about?
  • Why are the conditions of life today so different from those of the past?
  • Why is there so much inequality in the world?
  • Where are today’s societies heading in the future?

These ‘big questions’, among many others, are the prime concerns of sociology, and if you have ever asked yourself any of the above big questions, then you can consider yourself a novice sociologist.

Sociology can be simply defined as ‘the scientific study of human life, social groups, whole societies and the human world as such… Its subject matter is our own behaviour as social beings in relationship with many other people. ‘

The scope of sociology is extremely wide, ranging from the analysis of passing encounters between individuals on the street to the investigation of crime, international relations and global forms of terrorism.

Most of us see the world in terms of familiar features, through our friends, families and working-lives, but sociology insists that we take a broader view in order to understand why we act in the way that we do.

Sociology teaches us that much of what we regard as natural, inevitable,  good and true may not be so, and that the basic worldview we have is simply a result of the historical context in which we live and the social processes which frame our daily lives.

Understanding the subtle yet complex and profound ways in which our individual lives reflect the contexts of our social experience is basic to the sociologist’s outlook.

The rest of Giddens’ introductory chapter covers the following:

  • An introduction to sociology as a way of thinking – ‘the sociological imagination’.
  • How sociology came into existence – introducing some of the ideas of the founders of sociology – Auguste Comte, Emile Durkhiem, Karl Marx and Max Weber , and the ‘neglected founders’ of sociology.
  • The three basic sociological traditions – Functionalism, conflict perspectives, and symbolic interactionism.
  • What sociology might be used for – should it public (political) or private?

A few thoughts on this introduction

  • What isn’t clear from this section (although Giddens does make it clear later on) is that There are some sociologists who would reject aspects of his definition of sociology – there are those who do not think sociology should be a science, for example and there are those who think sociology should be much more focused on micro processes – Giddens has a very global (verging on futuristic IMO) approach to sociology.
  • For those studying A-level sociology, this isn’t an A-level text book, and YES, the restraints of the A-level syllabus means you won’t be spending much time focusing on interesting issues such as global warming or terrorism, you’re much more likely to be focusing on turgid sociology from the 1970s and 80s, because that’s what’s on the spec, and so you could be assessed on it, and your teachers can’t risk not teaching it!

Related Posts

 You might like to read my summary of Bauman and May’s take on the same question: ‘what is sociology’?

If you want to check out one of Giddens’ major contributions to sociology – have a look at my summary of his 1991 classic ‘Modernity and Self-identity’ – a great read, but it helps if you’ve already studied both sociology and psychology.

Sources used to write this post

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology

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Sociological Perspectives in Five Shapes

If you could represent the five sociological perspectives in sociology as five shapes, I think they’d look something like this:

Sociology Perspectives Shapes

Functionalism – a rectangle as it emphasizes structure and order.

Marxism – a triangle to represent the class structure, Bourgeoisie on the top, Proletariat on the bottom.

Feminism – had to be an egg shape, because only women can produce them, albeit with a little thrust from men in the first instance

Interactionism – a cone – you start off looking at micro processes and see how these contribute to the bigger picture

Postmodernism – a spikey star because it emphasizes fragmentation, individual freedom and difference.

If anyone’s blood is boiling over because they think this is way too simplistic, below is a slightly more in-depth summary of the five sociological perspectives:

In case your blood’s still boiling about the oversimplification (‘blood’ ;0) click on the links for even more detailed notes; if it’s still boiling after that, you can always post an irate comment, I’m sure that’s make you feel better!

Functionalism

Functionalists see society is a self-regulating system which functions like a human body (‘the organic analogy’) – all institutions have unique functions and contribute to the maintenance of the whole.

Functionalists tend to analyse institutions by looking at the contribution that institution makes to maintenance of social order.

Functionalism is sometimes known as a consensus perspective– they think that social institutions are ‘neutral’ – they generally work well for most people, and they perform positive functions, maintaining consensus or harmony in society which ultimately benefits everyone equally.

Education acts as a bridge between home and school, promoting value consensus through secondary socialisation and preparing students for work, allocating students to appropriate jobs through a meritocratic system of exams and qualifications.

Marxism

Marxists argue that social class divisions are key to understanding everything else in society. In contemporary Capitalist society there are two basic classes – the Capitalist class (the Bourgeoisie) who own the means of production and effectively live off their investments, and the Working Class (the Proletariat) – all those who have to work for a living.

Exploitation lies at the heart of the capitalist system – the Bourgeoisie, who are the extreme minority, are wealthy because they exploit the proletariat.

Marxists analyse society and social institutions through a ‘class lens’ – they focus on how institutions maintain the power of ruling class elites and keep the system working for them.

Marxism is sometimes referred to as a conflict perspective because there is a fundamental conflict of interests between the two classes. Those with economic power control all other institutions, and those institutions function to maintain the power and privilege of the capitalist class and to keep the proletariat in their place.

According to Marxists the education system reproduces class inequality while at the same time legitimating class inequality by teaching pupils there is equality of opportunity (when in reality there is not)

Feminism

Feminism sees divisions between men and women as the most significant feature of society: radical feminism argues that society is patriarchal – men tend to dominant social institutions and occupy social roles which give them more freedom and power than women.

Feminists analyse society in terms of sex and gender inequalities – they are interested in how social institutions and social norms maintain gender inequalities, and the possible opportunities which exist to bring about greater gender equality.

The traditional nuclear family is of particular interests to feminists – the private realm of the family is typically associated with women, while the public realms of work and politics are associated with men. This public private divide is one of the fundamental norms which maintain male power.

Feminists argue that gender is socially constructed – the norms and values associated with masculinity and femininity are shaped by society, not by biology.

Interactionism

Unlike the previous three perspectives (which are sometimes collectively referred to as ‘structuralist’ perspectives) which take a top down approach to studying society, looking at trends and patterns, Interactionists focus on micro-level processes to explain social action.

Interactionists believe you need to understand the meanings individuals give to their own actions in order to understand why they do what they do. They use qualitative research methods to find out how individuals interpret their own actions.

Interactionists are especially interested the micro process of labelling – they argue that labels given to people by authority figures such as teachers and police can affect the way they see themselves.

Focussing on education, interactionists developed labelling theory to explain how middle class teachers label working class boys negatively, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and helps to explain working class underachievement.

Postmodernism

Postmodernism emerged in the 1970s – when the pace of technological change and globalisation really started to change society – around this decade, consumption became more central to society and individuals had much greater freedom to shape their identities.

Postmodernism argues that societies have become more fluid as a result of postmodernisation – the old structures of work, government, the nuclear family all lose their power to constrain the individual and thus human action becomes harder to predict. Life becomes more uncertain.

Pure postmodernism rejects the idea that grand theories of human action and society are possible – they thus reject the validity of all of the above theories (although to my mind, I see interactionism as an antecedent of aspects of postmodernism).

Sociological responses to postmodernisation, such as the work of Beck, Bauman and Giddens all argue that there are still structures and processes in place which steer human action, but these are now global and thus theorising about how these interface with human action is more complex.

NB – Be warned that many A level sociology text books tend to misrepresent ‘late modern’ sociologists as ‘postmodernists’.

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What is society, and should sociologists study it?

Working Definition:

‘Society is a concept used to describe the structured relations and institutions among a large community of people which cannot be reduced to a simple collection or aggregation of individuals.’ (1)

Society definition

Origins of the Concept:

The concept of society can be traced to the fourteenth century, when the primary meaning was companionship or association, a meaning which still exists today. However, the specific sociological meaning of society was not developed until the nineteenth century.

A strong argument can be made for the view that it was Emile Durkheim who first developed the sociological meaning of ‘society’ which he used when he established sociology as a new discipline which dealt with the collective reality of human life as opposed to studying individuals.

Durkheim argued that society has an independent reality from individuals, and exists in its own right, exerting an influence over individuals within a ‘bounded territory’, which for Durkheim essentially meant the ‘nation state’.

However, the relevance of bounded-societies has been questioned since the 1970s due to globalisation, and the increasing amount of people, money, and communications moving across national borders.

Because of this, some sociologists argue that sociology should shift its analysis from ‘societies’ to (global) mobilities.

Sociology as the ‘study of society’

The concept of sociology has been fundamental to sociology’s ‘self-identity’, with most text books using the concept to define the discipline, with the ‘study of societies’ often being part of the definition of sociology in most text books and society in turn being defined as large communities, existing within nation states.

Talcott Parsons added another important defining characteristic of society – that it should be self-perpetuating, or able to reproduce itself without external assistance.

For most of sociology’s history, sociologists have studied and compared societies, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the historic division between ‘first’, ‘second’ and ‘third’ world societies, and in theories of development such as modernisation theory, which outline why certain societies (or ‘nation states’) are less developed in comparison to other ‘more developed’ societies (or ‘nation states’).

There have been many attempts to understand social change by focusing one specific driving force, for example sociological theorising has developed the following conceptualisations of society:

  • Industrial society
  • Capitalist society
  • Post-industrial society
  • Postmodern society
  • The knowledge society
  • Risk society
  • The network society.

However, the problem with a ‘bounded sociology’ which limits itself to cross national comparisons is that it tells us little about inequalities within societies.

Criticisms of the ‘bounded society’ concept

A dualistic conception of society as a thing apart from the individual may be more of a reflection of the dualistic legacy of western philosophy rather than being based on actual empirical reality.

To this end, many sociologists have proposed focusing more on interactions rather than ‘society’ and the ‘individual’. Norbert Elias was one of the first to develop a sociology which focused more on social processes, concentrating more on shifting relationships at a variety of levels, from individual interactions to inter-state conflicts.

Globalisation has also put into question the usefulness of focussing on individual nation states: large TNCs are now more powerful than most nation states, and criminal organisation and social movements cut across national boarders, making them seem less useful as a focus for social analysis.

John Urry’s (2007) social mobilities project, which focuses on the study of processes of movements across national borders is one way in which sociology has moved its analysis away from the nation state in response to globalisation.

Two competing paradigms in sociology?

John Urry has suggested that sociology might usefully move its analytical focus ‘beyond societies’ – as global networks and flows become more effective and powerful, they tend to cross national boundaries, which are now seen as more permeable than ever. The concept of society thus seems less relevant than ever, and the job of sociology is to devise ways of understanding the varied range of mobilities and what kind of social life they are producing.

One sociologists who argues that the concept of society is still relevant is Richard Outhwaite, who argues that ‘society’ is a collective representation which still resonates with people’s perception of social reality as it actually exists.

For example, ‘national identity’ (however confused) still has meaning to many people and politicians can still draw on the concept of the nation to pull people together, as the case of Brexit in 2016 suggests.

Also, nation states are the only collective entities capable of generating the kind of income necessary (through taxation) to maintain nuclear arsenals and standing armies, along with mobilising popular support to use these in support of their aims.

Sources

(1) Giddens and Sutton (2017) Essential Concepts in Sociology

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Sociological Perspectives: Key Concepts

Definitions of key terms for the five basic sociological perspectives – Functionalism, Marxism, Feminism, Social Action Theory and Postmodernism.

Functionalism

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.

Socialisation

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.

Value Consensus

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.

Anomie

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)

Marxism

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.

Exploitation

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.

Ideological Control  

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.

Revolution

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.

Feminism

 Patriarchy

‘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)

Gender Scripts

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.

Deconstruction

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.

Interactionism

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.

Social identity

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

‘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.

Postmodernism 

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 culture

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.

Social Fragmentation

The breaking up and splitting apart of communities into smaller groups, which are relatively isolated from each other.

Hyperreality

Jean Baudrillard’s concept to describe a society in which most people cannot distinguish a simulated, media representation of reality, from actual reality.