Top Ten ‘Big Questions’ for A-Level Sociology Students

Does society shape the individual? Do class, gender, ethnicity influence our life chances? How and why do societies change? These questions and more can get students thinking sociologically before they even start studying sociology!

One way of introducing sociology is to introduce some of the ‘big questions’ that sociologists asks. Here are just a few of them…

Big Sociology Questions

  1. To what extent is the individual shaped by society?
  2. Is there such a thing as a social structure that constrains individual action, or is society nothing more than a figment of our imaginations?
  3. To what extent does our social class background affect our life chances?
  4. To what extent does our gender affect our life chances?
  5. To what extent does our ethnicity affect our life chances?
  6. What is the role of institutions in society – do they perform positive functions, or simply work in the interests of the powerful and against the powerless? (a related question here is why do our life chances vary by class, gender and ethnicity)
  7. How and why has British society changed over the last 50 years?
  8. What are the strengths and Limitations of macro-scale research in helping us to understand human action?
  9. What are the strengths and limitations of micro-scale research in helping us to understand human action?
  10. Is it possible to do value free social research and find out the ‘objective’ knowledge about society and the motives that lie behind social action?
  11. Is British Society today better than it was 400 years ago?

OK there are 11 questions in fairness, but top ten makes for a more classic title!

Getting Students thinking about Social Theory

The questions above get students thinking critically about social theory, social inequalities, research methods, social change and social progress.

Questions one to six introduce students to the main sociological theories: Functionalism, Marxism, Interactionism and Feminism, and to the basic stratifications in society: class, gender and ethnicity.

Depending on how they answer (even before they start studying sociology) you can explain to them either ‘this is what Functionalists think’ you clearly disagree and get them involved in some early days critical dialogue.

The later questions move on to social change and progress (questions 7 and 11) and this brings up the topic of postmodernism.

Finally there are some questions on research methods – and yes, these are a little dry, but I think it’s good to be up front about the centrality of social research in sociology!

When to ask these questions…?

I used to use these at Open Evening events for prospective A-level sociology students.

Typically at these events there’d be too many students for staff so these questions (among other things) could be something for them to ponder while waiting to chat with a staff member – and then you’ve got something to ask them about when you have a discussion.

You can basically use the questions to introduce the main themes of sociology.

And of course you can return to these questions at the end of the course too, to see what students think about them after almost two years of studying!

Hopefully their responses would be more critical and nuanced than two years earlier!

Signposting

These questions run all the way through the AS and A-level sociology AQA specification – the idea of sociology is to develop a position on each of these questions, using a range of research-evidence, and be able to critically evaluate the validity etc. of the research evidence you have used to support your ‘position. 

I use these questions at the end of the very first lesson of my Introduction to Sociology, and return to them frequently during the two years of study. They’re quite a good place to start and end!

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And so it goes on….

Sociological Perspectives: Key Concepts

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

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

More details on the perspectives below can be found at the relevant links on my sociological theories page, which has been written to specifically cover the AQA A-level sociology syllabus.

Functionalism

Functionalism is a structural consensus theory which argues that social institutions generally perform positive functions such as maintaining value consensus and social order. Key Functionalist theorists include Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) and Talcott Parsons (1902 -1979).

Key concepts associated with Functionalism are defined below….

Anomie

Anomie refers to a state of normlessness which arises 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)

Functional Prerequisits

Functionalists believed that societies have four basic functions which must be performed in order for them to carry on surviving.

These four basic social needs are:

  • Adaptation – societies need institutions which produce food and things – factories and workplaces for example.
  • Governance – societies need institutions which make decisions – such as governments.
  • Integration – individuals need to be integrated into a society to feel like they belong – education systems possibly perform this function.
  • Latency – this is reproductive function – families usually perform this function.

The above is also known as the AGIL scheme

Functional Fit Theory

Talcott Parsons argued that the functions of the family changed to fit the needs of the wider society as societies moved from pre-industrial to industrial.

In pre-industrial society economic production was done within the family, and the family performed many functions such as the education of children as well as that of production.

However when industrial society emerged and the factory became the primary institution which produced things the functions of the family changed: they were reduced to doing two things: the reproduction of the young and the stabilisation of adult personalities.

Functional Fit Theory demonstrates the Functionalist idea of ‘evolution’ – as societies ‘evolve’ into industrial capitalist societies the family becomes more specialist in the functions it performs, but no less necessary. Meanwhile schools take over the education function from the family.

Mechanical and Organic solidarity

These are two concepts developed by Durkheim to explain the different types of social bonding mechanisms in pre-industrial and industrial societies.

Pre-industrial societies were characterised by mechanical solidarity – this is solidarity based on similarity and day to day togetherness and familiarity. People in pre-industrial societies have solidarity because they are working closely together in a narrow range of institutions and solidarity is achieved automatically or naturally, if you like – that is mechanical solidarity.

More complex industrial societies are held together by organic solidarity – they are larger and have huge amounts of people working in different roles who share nothing in common with other people working in other roles – thus industrial societies require specific institutions to achieve solidarity at the societal level – such as education and trades unions – this is organic solidarity.

Meritocracy

Meritocracy is where individuals achieve based on their ability and effort, rather than on the basis of their social background or who they know.

According to Davis and Moore a Meritocratic education system was a necessary feature of industrial capitalist societies which were characterised by inequalities.

Their theory was that people would accept unequal societies as long as education systems offered individuals the chance to succeed based on their ability and effort then everyone had the chance to get decent qualifications and a decent job and income in later life, irrespective of their social class or ethnic background.

The theory was that those who failed would accept that they had been offered the chance and yet failed on their own lack of merits and so deserved a lower status job than those who where more able and harder working than themselves.

The problem with the concept of Meritocracy is that it is a myth, at least where education is concerned.

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.

Organic Analogy

The organic analogy is the idea that institutions in society work like organs in a body. In the body different organs have different functions but all of them work together to maintain the whole, and the same is true in societies.

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.

Role Allocation

Role Allocation is one of the main functions of education systems in industrial societies. It is where students are sifted through a tiered examination system and sorted into their appropriated job roles based on their qualifications.

Social Evolution

Functionalists believe in social evolution rather than revolution. Functionalists recognised that societies changed over time and that some societies evolve to become more complex than more primitive societies.

Industrial Capitalist Democracies are seen by Functionalists as the most complex and evolved societies – they have more specialist institutions devoted to specialising in one specific function than pre-industrial societies – for example children are educated in schools rather than at home.

Social Facts

Durkheim argued that sociology should limit itself to the study of objective social facts rather than subjective individual thoughts and feelings.

Social Facts include such things as collective norms and values and social statistics.

The problem with this is that it fails to recognise that statistics are socially constructed and thus not themselves objective.

Social Integration

Social integration refers to the extent to which people are bonded to other people and institutions in a society. Someone who is working, married, has children and does lots of activities with other people is more integrated than someone who is unemployed, single, childless and does nothing all day.

According to Durkheim’s theory of suicide too much or too little social integration in a society can increase the suicide rate. Healthy societies require a balance of integration and individual freedom.

Social Regulation

Social regulation refers to the amount of rules and regulations to which individuals in a society are expected to conform. As a general rule boys and men in the United Kingdom are less regulated than girls and women in contemporary Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Durkheim theorised that too little or too much social regulation can increase the suicide rate in societies. Just as with social integration healthy societies have a balance between rules and individual freedoms.

Socialisation

Socialisation is 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.

Society as a System

According to Functionalists societies should be analysed as systems as they have a ‘reality’ above and beyond the level of individuals who make them up.

Sociologists should focus on the macro level of society using statistics to study society as a whole and how societies change, and we can understand social trends without looking at individuals’ thoughts and feelings.

An example of this lies in Durkheim’s study of suicide – he found that he could predict the suicide rate in a country based on that country’s religion, divorce rate, unemployment rate and other ‘social facts’.

Stabilisation of Adult Personalities

This was one of the two essential functions of the family in industrial societies according to Parsons.

Industrial factory work was hard and stressful for men, but they were able to cope with it because of the traditional nuclear family set up at home – with their wife taking on a caring role and helping them to de-stress when they go home.

This is also known as the ‘warm bath theory’.

Strain Theory

Robert Merton argued that crime in a society increases when there is increasing strain between the stated success goals of a society and the available opportunities to achieve those goals.

Writing in the 1940s Merton believed that rising crime in American could be explained because everyone was told they could get a decent education and then a decent paying job but in fact there were not sufficient legitimate opportunities for everyone to be able to achieve these goals.

Thus some people adapted and retreated into drug use or turned to drug dealing or burglary to get rich and some sort more revolutionary solutions to fix what they perceived as a broken America.

Value Consensus

Value Consensus is agreement around share values. In Functionalist thought is the outcome of effective socialisation and crucial to maintaining social order.

Marxism

Marxism is a structural conflict theory which argues that societies are divided along social class lines. There are two main classes – the Bourgeoisie who own Capital and the Proletariat who must work for wages. In Marxist theory the Bourgeoise control social institutions and use them to maintain their power. The Key Marxist thinker was Karl Marx (1818 -1883)

For the purposes of A-level Sociology Marxism is usually taught in contrast to Functionalism.

The key concepts associated with Marxism are summarised below:

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

Feminism is a diverse body of social theory which aims to understand the reasons for inequalities based on gender and gender identity and a political movement which campaigns for greater gender equality.

Some of the key concepts associated with Feminism are defined below…

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

Interactionism is a social action theory which focuses less on social structure and more on how individuals see themselves and actively construct their own identities through interactions with others. Key interactionist theorists were Ervin Goffman (1922 to 1982) and Howard Becker (1928 to present day).

Some of the key concepts of interactionist theory are summarised below.

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

Postmodernists argue that the old structures and certainties of the modernist era are now gone (hence ‘post’ modernity).  With the shift to late Capitalism and the rise of Consumer society social life is now more fluid and unpredictable and individuals have much more freedom to shape their identities.

Postmodernists also question the certainties of science, including social science and are sceptical about the possibility of social progress.

Two key postmodernist thinkers include Jean Francois Lyotard (1924 – 1988) and Jean Baudriallard (1929 – 2007).

Some of the key concepts associated with Postmodernism are covered below…

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.

Signposting

Sociological Perspectives are a key component of the social theories aspect of the Sociology A-level Theory and Methods compulsory module, usually studied in the second year.

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Sociological Perspectives: The Basics

Sociological Perspectives in A Level Sociology

Given that ‘society’ is complex and multi-layered, a key aspect of studying A-Level Sociology is being able to view society and social action through a number of different sociological perspectives, or lenses, because different sociologists (and different people in general) look upon the same society and see different realities.

For example, consider a busy street and imagine different people looking at that same street: a shopkeeper, a thief and a consumer. The shopkeeper sees profit, the thief victims and the consumer sees products to buy.

Sociology consists of various different perspectives, all of which look at society in different ways. All sociological perspectives have something valuable to offer to the individual who wishes to understand society and no one perspective is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It is up to the individual student to present positive and negative criticisms of sociological perspectives throughout the course.

Key Dividing Lines in Sociological Perspectives

1. Social Structure versus Social Action perspectives

Some Sociologists, known as structural theorists, emphasise the importance of institutions in providing social stability and regulating social action. They argue that such institutions form a structure that shapes human action and makes it predictable.

Other Sociologists, known as social-action theorists, argue that individuals have more freedom than structural theorists suggest. They also argue that society is more fluid and some interactionists go as far as saying that there is no such thing as society, just billions of individual level interactions.

2. Consensus versus Conflict Perspectives

Sociological Perspectives are also divided into Consensus perspectives which argue that, generally speaking, society is characterised by harmony and agreement, and Conflict perspectives, which argue that society is better seen as being made up of competing groups, with the powerful controlling institutions in society and oppressing the powerless.

3. Modern versus Post-Modern Perspectives

Modernist perspectives include Functionalism, The New Right, Marxism and Feminism and believe in ‘social progress’. They believe that social research can reveal the truth about which types of societies are best and actively work to construct a better society through social policy and more radical means. Postmodernists and to an extent Interactionists reject the idea of truth and the idea social progress is possible.

Sociological Perspectives very brief summary grid.

Unfortunately it didn’t cut and past very well from the word-processor, it looks much better in (evil) Microsoft Word or (good) Open Source word processor of your preference.  At least the columns lined up properly, that’s the important thing!

Functionalism

Norms and Values

Socialisation

Value Consensus

Positive Functions of Institutions

Anomie

Marxism

Capitalism and Private Property

Bourgeoisie/ Proletariat

Exploitation

Ideological Control

·         Communism

·         Revolution

 

Feminism

·         Patriarchy

·         Sex and Gender

·         Public-Private Divide

·         Gender Scripts

·         Liberal/ Marxist and Radical Feminism

·         Deconstruction

 Interactionism

 

·         The I and the Me

·         The looking glass self

·         Social identity

·         Backstage and Front Stage

·         Labelling

·         The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

 

 

 Postmodernism

 

·         Service Sector Economy

·         Consumer culture

·         Diversity

·         Individual Freedom and identity

·         Social Fragmentation

·         Hyperreality

 Core Themes emphasised by these perspectives

 

Socialisation  Power and stratification

 

Identity Culture and differentiation
Research Methods generally preferred

 

 Quantitative

 

Qualitative

Later on – you’ll need to add in Late Modernism and other perspectives from other modules!

Related Posts 

Sociological Perspectives in Five Shapes

 

 

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