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:
What social rituals are associated with consuming the product?
What norms and rules exist which limit the use of the product or similar product?
How does the product connect you to global economic and social processes?
What is the history of the product?
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?
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.
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’?
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!
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.
If you could represent the five sociological perspectives in sociology as five shapes, I think they’d look something like this:
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!
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.
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 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.
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 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’.
‘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)
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:
The knowledge 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.
(1) Giddens and Sutton (2017) Essential Concepts in Sociology
Definitions of key terms for the five basic sociological perspectives – Functionalism, Marxism, Feminism, Social Action Theory and Postmodernism.
Norms and Values
Norms = the normal, typical or expected patterns of behaviour associated with societies or specific contexts or social roles.
Values = major and lasting ideas and beliefs about what is desirable and undesirable. Important sources of values include religion, politics, and one’s family background.
The process of learning the norms and values of a society. Functionalists see this a neutral process, important for the maintenance of social order; Marxists and Feminists see this a process which benefits the powerful as the ideas learnt through socialisation maintain the status quo.
Agreement around share values. In Functionalist thought is the outcome of effective socialisation and crucial to maintaining social order.
Positive Functions of Institutions
The Functionalist idea that institutions generally benefit society and most people within a society. For example, the nuclear family provides a stable and secure environment in which to raise children and school prepares individuals for work and is necessary for an advanced economy to work effectively.
A state of normlessness, arising because of a lack of social regulation. Anomie occurs when there are either too few rules guiding individual behaviour or where there are conflicting sets of rules, which contradict each other (as in Merton’s Strain Theory)
Capitalism and Private Property
Capital refers to financial wealth – especially that used to start businesses (rather than emergency savings or the house you live in). Capitalism is a system which gives private individuals with capital the freedom to invest, make money and retain profit.
The opposite of Capitalism is Communism, where the state owns all the property and makes all of the decisions about what to produce.
In Marxist theory, the Capitalist class are known as the Bourgeoisie – these are the minority class, and are those with capital who make money from profits on investments. The majority make up the Proletariat, the working class, who have no or little capital and have to work for a living.
Private property is crucial to Capitalism, because the protection of private property rights is what makes the system work: the capitalist class are allowed to maintain the wealth from their investments, rather than having their property redistributed by the state, as would happen under communism.
The relationship between these two classes is exploitative because the amount of money the Capitalist pays his workers (their wages) is always below the current selling, or market price of whatever they have produced. The difference between the two is called surplus value.
Marx argued that the ruling classes used their control of social institutions to gain ideological dominance, or control over the way people think in society. Marx argued that the ideas of the ruling classes were presented as common sense and natural and thus unequal, exploitative relationships were accepted by the proletariat as the norm.
Marx believed that political action was necessary to ‘wake up’ the proletariat and bring them to revolutionary class consciousness. Eventually, following a revolution, private property would be abolished and with it the profit motive and the desire to exploit. In the communist society, people would be more equal, have greater freedom and be happier.
‘Patriarchy refers to a society in which there are unequal power relations between women and men whereby women are systematically disadvantaged and oppressed’ (London Feminist Network)
The learned patterns of behaviour associated with different genders in a society. Gender scripts incorporate a whole range of gender-norms associated with different ‘being’ male and female – such as typical ways of dressing, speaking and self-expression more generally. The term ‘gender script’ rather than ‘gender norm’ emphasises the fact that individuals actively have to ‘act out’ their gender-identity, but at the same time a script is just a guide, and individuals have considerable freedom to interpret and play around with the suggested normative ways of expressing gender.
Liberal/ Marxist and Radical Feminism
Liberal Feminists tend to emphasise the importance of securing formal legal equality for women, Marxist Feminists focus on how capitalism perpetuates gender equality, and radical feminists focus on how patriarchy operates across many institutions, especially the family.
Involves critically analysing normative behaviour or truth-claims more generally, exposing the ‘relational nature’ of knowledge. In Feminist theory, this mainly means exposing the binary opposition ‘male-female’ and all of the traditional norms associated with this division as a social construct, rather than something which is rooted in objective biological divisions.. Such critical analysis forms the basis of breaking down such gender norms and opens up the possibility of a living a life free from the restraint of such g norms.
The I and the Me
The ‘I’ is the active aspect of one’s personality, the ‘Me’ is the social aspect – the me is one’s social identity, which the ‘I’ reflects on.
The looking glass self
The idea that and individual’s self-concept is based on their understanding of how others perceive them.
One’s social identity is how one sees oneself in relation to others in a society. It is likely to incorporate a number of different social roles, such as one’s role within a family and the workplace, and one’s social status in society more generally based on class, gender, ethnicity etc.
Backstage and Front Stage
Key ideas within Goffman’s dramaturgical theory – frontstage is any arena within society where one has to act out one’s identity, such as the workplace or the street, but it might also be in the home itself on certain occasions. Backstage is where one rehearses and prepares for one’s front stage performances, or just relaxes.
‘Labelling’ is where someone judges a person based on the superficial ‘surface’ characteristics such as their apparent social class, sex, and ethnicity.
The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
This is where someone acts according to their label and the label becomes true in reality.
Service Sector Economy
The service sector is also referred to as the ‘tertiary’ or third sector economy, in contrast to the first and second sectors – agriculture and industrial manufacturing. A service sector economy is one in which most people work in this third sector, in jobs such as retail, education and financial and informational services rather than manufacturing.
Consumer society is one in which consumption practices and leisure activities are more important as a source of identity, status and division than work, income and social class background.
The breaking up and splitting apart of communities into smaller groups, which are relatively isolated from each other.
Jean Baudrillard’s concept to describe a society in which most people cannot distinguish a simulated, media representation of reality, from actual reality.
Charles Murray’s Underclass Theory – the idea that there is a ‘hardcore’ of a few hundred thousand families and individuals who are welfare-dependent and responsible a disproportionate amount of crime in society has a long history:
In Victorian times there was a concern about a ‘social residuum’, and shortly afterwards it was ‘unemployables’ who were the target of social reformers and politicians.
The Eugenics Society was influential in promoting the ‘social problem group’ in the 1930s and the idea of ‘problem families’ in the years following the Second World War.
In the 1960s, Oscar Lewis, the cultural anthropologist, popularised the heavily racialised ‘culture of poverty’ theory in the USA.
Sir Keith Joseph, former Conservative MP, raised the issue of a ‘cycle of deprivation’ in the 1970s.
In the 1980s and 1990s, American academic Charles Murray suggested that a ‘plague’ had crossed the Atlantic in the form of an ‘underclass’.
New Labour expressed concern about 2.5% of people who were ‘socially excluded’ in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The development of the Respect agenda in the 2000s raised the issue of ‘problem families’ once again.
However, these ideas have flourished, despite no robust evidence which supports the idea of an ‘underclass’, whatever it is called. Professor David Gordon, who led the recent Poverty and Social Exclusion in the United Kingdom study, the largest ever research project of its kind, has offered the following view of such concepts:
These ideas are unsupported by any substantial body of evidence. Despite almost 150 years of scientific investigation, often by extremely partisan investigators, not a single study has ever found any large group of people/households with any behaviours that could be ascribed to a culture or genetics of poverty … any policy based on the idea that there are a group of ‘Problem Families’ who ‘transmit’ their ‘poverty/deprivation’ to their children will inevitably fail, as this idea is a prejudice, unsupported by scientific evidence. (Gordon, 2011)
Social Facts are one of Emile Durkheim’s most significant contributions to sociology. Social facts are things such as institutions, norms and values which exist external to the individual and constrain the individual.
The University of Colorado lists as examples of social facts: institutions, statuses, roles, laws, beliefs, population distribution, urbanization, etc. Social facts include social institutions, social activities and [the strata of society – for example the class structure, subcultures etc.]
The video below provides a useful introduction to the concept of social facts….
The video suggests that the concept ‘social fact’ is a broad term designed to encompass the social environment which constrains individual behaviour.
It uses the analogy of a how the physical structure of a room limits our actions (we can only go in and through the door or windows for example; in the same way the social facts which make up our social environment constrains us – norms, values, beliefs, ideologies and so on effectively limit our choices.
Sociology is about identifying the relationship between the social conditions and people’s behaviour.
This second video is a bit more complex…
According to Durkheim, social facts emerge out of collectives of individuals, they cannot be reduced to the level of individuals – and this social reality is real, and it exists above the level of the individual, sociology is the study of this ‘level above the individual’.
As far as Durkheim was concerned this was no different to the concept that human life is greater than the sum of the individual cells which make it up – society has a reality above that of the individuals who constitute it.
A key idea of Durkheim – that we should never reduce the study of society to the level of the individual, we should remain at the level of social facts and aim to explain social action in relation to social facts.
(Not in the video) – this is precisely what Durkheim did in his study of suicide by trying to explain variations in the suicide rate (which is above the level of the individual) through other social facts, such as the divorce rate, the pace of economic growth, the type of religion (all of which he further reduced to two basic variables – social integration and social regulation.
In this way sociology should aim to be scientific, it should not study individuals, but scientific trends at the level above the individual. This is basically the Positivist approach to studying society, as laid down in Durkhiem’s 1895 work ‘The Rules of Sociological Method’.
NB Durkheim’s study of suicide is just about the best illustration of the application of social facts that there is – In which he researched official statistics on suicide in several European countries and found that the suicide rate was influenced by social facts such as the divorce rate, the religion of a country, and the pace of economic and social changed – Durkheim further theorized that the suicide rate increased when there was either too much or too little integration and regulation in society.
The major criticism of Durkheim’s concept of social facts is that the statistics he claims to be ‘social facts’ aren’t – suicide stats are open to manipulation by the people who record them (coroners) – and there is huge potential for several suicides (intentional deaths) to be mis-recorded as open verdicts or accidental deaths and thus we can never be 100% certain of the validity of this data, thus theorising on the basis of cross national comparisons based on said data is risky.
It is possible to apply this ‘social construction critique’ to a range of statistics – such as crime stats, unemployment stats, immigration stats, happiness stats, and a whole load more, which means that while there may be a really existing social world external to the individual, it’s not necessarily possible to know or measure that world with any degree of certainty or to understand how all of the various social facts out there interact with each other. NB This may well explain why no one seems to be able to make predictions about economic crashes, Arab Springs, or election results these days!
Other critics, such as phenomenologists (kind of like precursors to Postmodernists), argue that the whole concept of an external reality is itself flawed, and that instead of one external reality which constrains individuals there are a multitude of more fluid and diverse social realities which arise and fade with social interaction. From this perspective, we may think there is a system of social norms and values out there in the world, but this is only ‘real’ for us if we think it to be real; this is nothing more than a thought, and thus in ‘reality’ we are really free as individuals. (Monstrously free, if you like, to coin a phrase.)
Do Social Facts Exist?
Durkheim’s view of society and the Positivist method have been conceived over 100 years ago, and it has been severely criticised by Interpretivists and Postmodernists, but this hasn’t stopped many researchers from adopting a quantitative, scientific approach to analysing social trends and social problems at the level of society rather than at the level of the individual, and there does seem to be something in the view that society constrains us in subtle and often unnoticed ways, many of which you would’ve come across over the two year A level sociology course.
Firstly, the suicide rate still varies according to various social factors (‘social facts’?)
For example, after noting that the male suicide rate is 3 times higher than the female suicide rate, and highest for men in their late 40s, This 2016 suicide report by the Samaritans (UK focus) notes that ‘Research suggests that social and economic factors influence the risk of suicide in women as well as men’
Hence as Durkheim said in the 19th century, the decision to kill yourself isn’t just a personal decision, it’s influenced by whether your’re male or female and your age. (As a 43 year old male, I don’t find this graph particularly encouraging, then again at least I’m into ‘the hump’ rather than staring at it from my 30s and with only 8 years of shit to go.)
Secondly, the birth rate/ total fertility rate seem to be effected by a number of ‘social facts’
Think back to the module on the family – while the decision to have babies seems personal and private, the number of children women have, and the age at which they have them seems to be influenced heavily by society. The decline in the birth rate is now a global trend – and while there are different ’causes’ which have led to its reduction, some of the more common ones appear to be women’s empowerment and education , economic growth and state-promoted family planning.
According to the The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) there are a number of factors that can play a role in a country’s fertility rates, including its investment in education, the availability of family planning services, the status of women’s rights and the prevalence of early and forced marriage.
“Population dynamics are not destiny,” the UNFPA’s population matters report says. “Change is possible through a set of policies which respect human rights and freedoms and contribute to a reduction in fertility, notably access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, education beyond the primary level, and the empowerment of women.”
Thirdly, educational achievement still varies enormously by (the social fact of) social class background
It’s depressing to have to remind you about it, but from the Education module you learnt that social class background has a profound impact on educational achievement. The graph below shows achievement by FSM pupils compared to all other pupils. ‘FSM’ stands for ‘Free School Meals’ – to qualify for FSM status a child needs to be in approximately the bottom sixth of households by income -NB FSM is only a proxy for social class, one indicator of it, the only one we have to hand which is convenient. (The government doesn’t collect information on social class and educational achievement for ideological reasons).
Keep in mind that this is the bottom sixth by income compared to all other pupils. If you separated out the top sixth, you’d probably see a 90% 5 A-C achievement rate (or something like that).
Again if you think back to the lessons on material and cultural deprivation, coming from a poor background seems to weigh heavily on ‘poor kids’ while coming from a middle class background confers material and cultural advantage on the children of wealthier parents. Sad to say but educational results in England and Wales are most definitely NOT a reflection of just intelligence.
Chapter by chapter, graph by graph, the authors demonstrate that the more unequal a rich country is,the worse its performance is likely to be in a whole range of variables including:
amount of mental illness
use of illegal drugs
teenage pregnancy rates
homicide and imprisonment rates
levels of mutual trust between citizens
maths and literacy attainment
social mobility (children rising in social scale compared with their parents)
spending on foreign aid
The authors consider and eliminate other possibilities, and conclude:
‘It is very difficult to see how the enormous variations which exist from one society to another in the level of problems associated with low social status can be explained without accepting that inequality is the common denominator, and a hugely damaging force.”
Inequalities erode “social capital”, that is, the cohesion of a society, the degree to which individual citizens are involved in their society, the strength of the social networks within it, and the degree of trust and empathy between citizens.
The mechanisms by which inequality impacts on societies, it is suggested, is that individuals internalise inequality, that their psyches are profoundly affected by it, and that that in turn affects physical as well as mental health, and leads to attitudes and behaviours which appear as a variety of social and health problems.’
So if you’ve got an anxiety disorder, blame Thatcher, she’s the one whose government kick started the march towards inequality.
Social Facts… In summary
According to Durkheim (a French dude from the 19th century), society exists at a level above the individual and it kind of has a life of its own. It consists of social facts such as institutions and the class structure which constrain individuals depending on their relation to said social facts.
Durkheim believed that we should limit ourselves to studying ‘social facts’ at the level of society – aim to understand how and why social trends vary, and do this in a scientific way.
Understanding more about how these social forces drive social change, and deriving the laws which govern human interaction is the point of sociology according to Durkheim, and doing this requires us to study social facts at the level of society, there is no need to focus on individuals.
Some of the findings of this type of research based on social facts include…….
Being male, 40-50, poor, and divorced means you are more miserable and more likely to kill yourself (Oh yeah, I’m not poor, or divorced, so yay I’m OK!)
Economic growth, female empowerment, and family planning policies have led to women having fewer babies
Being from a poor household means you’re much more likely to get crap CGSEs
The more unequal a country in terms of wealth and income the worse of everyone is in pretty much every way imaginable, especially those at the bottom.
So that’s all pretty useful, right? Basically we need to make the world more equal, empower more women, and help poor children and middle aged men more and everything’ll be a whole lot better….
A list of definitions of some of the key concepts relevant to the A level sociology crime and deviance module.
Where modern social systems encourage excessive individualism – as a consequence there is a general lack of agreement around norms and values – some commentators describe anomie as a state of normlessness.
The context Dependency Deviance –
Whether or not an act is deviant depends on the society in which the act takes place, the historical period, and the actors present. The context dependency of deviance emphasises the fact that the same form of behaviour can be considered deviant in one society, but not deviant in another.
Crimes committed by or for corporations or businesses which act to further their interests and have a serious physical or economic impact on employees, consumers and the general public. The drive is usually the desire to increase profits.
The breach of rules or laws for which some governing authority can ultimately prescribe a punishment – depending on the society this might ultimately mean imprisonment or the death penalty.
The Marxist idea that the exploitative capitalist system generates crime. According to Marxists, the self-interested pursuit of profit lies at the heart of the Capitalist system. The means whereby the Capitalist class get rich is by exploiting workers through paying them as little as possible to increase their profits, and they also encourage materialism, to increase demand for the goods they produce. A final way capitalism generates crime is by creating inequality – resulting in a significant number of people at the bottom of society (the underclass) who are effectively unable to consume at a reasonable level.
Dark figure of crime
The amount of unreported, or undiscovered crime. These are the crimes which do not appear in Official Police Statistics.
Behaviour that varies from the accepted standard of normal behaviour in society. It implies that an individual is breaking social norms in a negative way.
Dog Eat Dog Society
A phrase associated with Marxist Sociologist David Gordon who said that capitalist societies are ‘dog eat dog societies’ in which each individual company and each individual is encouraged to look out for their own self-interest before the interests of others, before the interests of the community, and before the protection of the environment.
A set of cultural beliefs, values, and attitudes that underlie and justify either the status quo or movements to change it. The culture of every social system has an ideology that serves to explain and justify its own existence as a way of life. In Sociology, Marxists use the term the ‘dominant ideology’ to refer to the world-view of the ruling class, which they present to everyone else as normal – their world view passes of inequality and exploitation as normal and natural, thus justifying their existence.
The idea that institutions such as schools and the media teach a set of norms and values which work in the interests of the powerful and prevent social change. For example, Marxists say the education system performs ‘ideological functions’ for the Capitalist system and the Bourgeois: they believe that the norms of punctuality and acceptance of authority and hierarchy prepares us for our future exploitation at work, which benefits future employers more than workers.
Labelling is the process of pre-judging/ categorising an individual based on superficial characteristics or stereotypical assumptions. For example when a teacher decides a scruffy looking student is not intelligent.
A moral entrepreneur is an individual, group or formal organization that seeks to influence a group to adopt or maintain a norm. Moral entrepreneurs are those who take the lead in labelling a particular behaviour and spreading or popularizing this label throughout society.
Neutralisation of Opposition
In Marxist theory resistance to capitalism and eventual revolution should come from the working classes once they realise the injustice of the high level of exploitation they face. However, according to Marxist criminologists, the criminal justice system works to get rid of opposition by selectively locking up working class (Rather than middle class) criminals which prevents resistance and revolution. Selective law enforcement does this in three main ways:
By literally incarcerating (‘incapacitating) thousands of people who could potentially be part of a revolutionary movement.
By punishing individuals and making them responsible for their actions, defining these individuals as ‘social failures’ we ignore the failings of the system that lead to the conditions of inequality and poverty that create the conditions which lead to crime.
The imprisonment of many members of the underclass also sweeps out of sight the ‘worst jetsam of Capitalist society’ such that we cannot see it, thus we are less aware of the injustice of inequality in society.
Official Crime Statistics
Official Statistics are numerical information collected by the government and its agencies – the two main types of crime statistics collected by government agencies are Police Recorded Crime, and the Crime Survey of England and Wales. Crime statistics also encompass Prison Statistics, which include information about the numbers and characteristics of prisoners.
Police recorded Crime
All crimes reported to and recorded by the police. Police forces around the country record crime in categories that are outlined in the Home Office counting rules. These include: violence against the person, sexual offences, robber, burglary, theft, handling stolen goods, fraud and forgery, criminal damage, drug offences and ‘other offences’.
Rational Choice Theory
Believes individuals make rational (logical) decisions about whether or not to commit a crime the crime rate is affected mainly by three factors – the available opportunities to commit crime, the perceived risk of getting caught, and severity of the punishment the offender believes they will receive if they are caught. According to Rational Choice Theory, the more opportunities to commit crime, the lower the risk of getting caught and the lower the likelihood of punishment, then the higher the crime rate will be.
Lacking sufficient resources to maintain a standard of living or lifestyle which is regarded as normal or average in a given society; or lacking sufficient resources to maintain a living standard which is approved of by society. While it is possible to measure relative deprivation objectively, there is a subjective element to this concept which can make it difficult to measure – an individual can feel relatively deprived even when they are relatively well-off compared to the average, if they have an unrealistic idea about what ‘the average is’. This concept is associated with Left Realism and Jock Young’s Vertigo of Late Modernity especially.
Surveys in which a selected cross section of the population is asked what offences they have committed. A good example of a self-report study is the ‘Youth Lifestyles Survey’ – although the last one was done over a decade ago.
Selective Law Enforcement
Where the police mainly focus on policing working class (and underclass) areas and the justice system mainly focuses on prosecuting working and underclass criminals, while ignoring the crimes of the elite and the middle classes, although both of these classes are just as likely to commit crime as the working classes. A concept associated with Marxist criminologist David Gordon.
Where an individual accepts their label and the the label becomes true in practice.
Where people are connected to society through social institutions. The more connections an individual has to social institutions, the more integrated an individual is to society. For example, someone with a job, with a family, and who spends time with others in the community is more integrated than an unemployed single loner.
reaffirming the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. High levels of social regulation basically mean explicit and clear rules and norms which set out clear social expectations. In Functionalist theory an appropriate amount of social regulation is essential for preventing anomie which leads to high levels of suicide and other forms of deviant and criminal behaviour.
Where something is the product of social processes rather than just being natural. For example, most sociologists agree that crime is socially constructed because people in society decide what crime is law breaking behaviour, and laws are made-up by people and change over time, thus crime varies from society to society. Similarly, we can say that crime statistics are socially constructed because they are the result of a series of social interactions – of people witnessing and reporting crimes and then the police recording them, rather than the stats reflecting the actual real number of crimes in any society.
Society of Saints
A phrase associated with Emile Durkheim which emphasises the inevitability and social necessity of crime. Durkheim argued that even in a ‘society of saints’ populated by perfect individuals deviance would still exist. In such a society there might be no murder or robbery, but there would still be deviance. The general standards of behaviour would be so high that the slightest slip would be regarded as a serious offence. Thus the individual who simply showed bad taste, or was merely impolite, would attract strong disapproval.
Ask people whether they have been a victim of crime, typically in the previous 12 months. The most comprehensive victim survey in England and Wales is the ‘Crime Survey of England and Wales’.
A concept developed by Albert Cohen in Delinquent Boys (1956) – he used it to explain working-class male delinquency as being a collective reaction against middle class success – working class boys tried hard in school and failed to gain status, got frustrated, found each other and formed a deviant subculture – status was gained within the subculture by being deviant and going against the rules of the school.
A group which has at least some norms and values which are different to those held in mainstream society, and can thus be regarded as deviant.
A term first coined by American Sociologist Charles Murray (1989) – The underclass’ refers to the long term unemployed who are effectively welfare dependent. They have higher rates of teen pregnancies and single parent households and much higher crime rates. Some statistical analysis suggests that the underclass (approximately 1% of the population) might commit as much as 50% recorded crime in the UK.
White Collar Crime
White-collar crime refers to financially motivated nonviolent crime committed by business and government professionals. Within criminology, it was first defined by sociologist Edwin Sutherland in 1939 as “a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation”.
Zero Tolerance Policing
Involves the police strictly enforcing every facet of law, including paying particular attention to minor activities such as littering, begging, graffiti and other forms of antisocial behaviour. It actually involves giving the police less freedom to use discretion –the police are obliged to hand out strict penalties for criminal activity.