Below are a few quantitative and qualitative sources (case studies and statistics) that can be used to illustrate aspects of the main perspectives within A-level sociology – Functionalism, Marxism, Feminism, Social Action Theory and Post and Late Modernism
Bruce Parry: participant observation with ‘The Tribe’
Official statistics show declining family Size
Cross national statistics – positive correlation between economic development and social development
Official statistics – the positive correlation between truancy and crime
The Cambridge study in delinquency and development
The correlation between increasing neoliberal policies and increasing global inequality
Official statistics show a positive correlation between material deprivation and underachievement in education
Official Statistics show an increase in childhood obesity, suggesting a link between advertising, pester power and poor child health
Case studies of the huge economic and social costs of corporate crime: Enron, Bhopal
Case studies of exploitation in the developing world. E.g. Ship breaking in Bangladesh
Case studies of elite criminals not being punished for their crimes – e.g. Mark Ashley of Sports Direct
Official Statistics on gender equality and empowerment – no country on earth has gender equality
Statistics on the Domestic Division of Labour show that women spend twice as long on domestic chores as men
Official statistics on domestic violence show that ¼ women are victims in their lifetimes, more than men
A range of qualitative evidence from the Everyday Sexism Project
Statistics on gender and subject choice – 97% of hairdressing apprenticeships = female….
The prevalence of pornography and prostitution and their links with sex trafficking
Social Action Theory
Life-histories and Facebook profiles reveal complex and diverse family structures
Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s field experiment showing the self- fulfilling prophecy
Jock Young’s research on the drug takers
Self-report studies demonstrating that official crime stats are socially constructed
The fact that Gok Wan is famous
Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
Judith Stacey: The Divorce Extended Family: show complex family structures
Research studies on the importance of identity in education – e.g. Carolyn Jackson and the Ladettes
Stan Cohen’s research on the Mods and Rockers
The happy pierced prostitute who has a client who shoves golf-balls up his ass
Vanilla vloggers such as Zoella
Official Statistics on growing global problems such as climate change, global crime and migration
The increase in New Social Movements such as the Green Movement
Jock Young – The Vertigo of Late Modernity
The fact that many nation states have nuclear weapons
The high global expenditure on the military
The positive correlation between educational achievement and income – nationally and globally
Social Structure is also only ever the outcomes of practices which have previously happened, and it makes practices possible (the duality of structure), and it is not separate from action.
Giddens rejects Positivism because of its mistaken search for the general laws of social life. Giddens believes that human beings are thoughtful and creative and thus cannot be wholly predicted in advance.
Marx downgraded the centrality of capitalism to being just one of four pillars of late-modernity along with surveillance, military power and industrialism.
Giddens draws selectively on a wide range of action theories, including Goffman, to argue that individuals always have some form of agency to transform a situation; even slaves have the capacity to act in different ways.
Practices always have the possibility of changing, and we can never guarantee that they will be reproduced, and one of the key features of late modern (compared to traditional) societies, is that there are more transformations in a shorter period of time.
He sees actors as using knowledge to engage in practical action, thus society is consciously reproduced (or transformed) in every social encounter.
However – ‘the realm of human agency is bounded’ for the ‘constitution of society is a skilled accomplishment of its members, but one that does not take place under conditions that are wholly intended or wholly comprehended by them’. (1976). For Giddens – people make society but with resources and ‘practices’ inherited from the past.
Structure for Giddens is not something which exists outside of the individual, but just patterns of practices. As practices change so does structure, and vice-versa.
Most of our practices take place at the level of practical consciousness, where we just act without thinking about it, however sometimes we operate at the level of ‘discursive consciousness’ – where we reflect on how we did things, but sometimes we find it difficult to talk about – here the example is given of footballers finding it difficult to describe how to play a game of football, they just know how to do it, when they doing it.
Practical consciousness is informed by ‘Mutual knowledge’ – taken for granted knowledge about how to act, which is based around ‘rules’ about the right and wrong way to do things. Rules persist among large groups of people and are lodged in agents’ heads in ‘memory traces’ (similar to Bourdieu’s ideas on socialisation and the habitus).
When agents are engaged in practices they draw on resources – there are two kinds – authoritative ones (status) and allocative ones (basically money and stuff) – an agent’s capacity to carry out their practices is influenced by their access to resources (similar to Bourdieu’s ideas about ‘skilled’ players of the game).
Giddens understands social institutions (such as family, and economic arrangements) as practices which have become routinized, carried out by a majority of agents across time and space. A social institution only exists because several individuals constantly make it over and over again.
Social Structure is also only ever the outcomes of practices which have previously happened, and it makes practices possible (the duality of structure), and it is not separate from action.
For Giddens social structures do not reproduce themselves… it is always agents and their practices that reproduce structures, depending on circumstances. After all, ‘structure’ is simply made up of rules (in agents’ heads) and resources, which make action possible (Bourdieu claims it is the habitus which makes this possible). Simultaneously, practices create and recreate rules and resources. Therefor structure only exists in practices and in the memory traces in agents’ practical consciousness, and has no existence external to these.
This post is summarized from Inglis, D (2012) – A Invitation to Social Theory, Polity.
An overview of theory and methods for second year A level sociology – a very brief overview covering the bare-bones of (1) Positivism and Interpretivism, (2) Is sociology a sicence?, (3) Sociology and value freedom, (4) Functionalism, (5) Marxism, (6) Feminism, (7) Social action theory, (8) Post and late modernism, (9) Sociology and social policy.
1. Positivism and Interpretivism
Positivist approaches to social research are quantitative, ‘scientific’, objective.
Durkhiem’s suicide is an example of a positivist study
Interpretivists criticise Positivist’s reliance on statistics (they are socially constructed)
Interpretivist approaches to social research = qualitative, empathetic, micro
Key example = Douglas’ study of the multiple meanings of suicide.
Positivists criticise Interpretivist research because it’s too subjective, not authoritative.
2. Is Sociology a science?
Key features of the scientific method = the experiment, objectivity, cause and effect relationships, making predictions.
Positivism = a scientific approach applied to society – Durkheim’s suicide as an example.
Interpretivist criticisms of the scientific method applied to society – humans are conscious actors, they cannot be understood using detached, quantitative methods
Criticisms of the ‘objectivity’ of science and the scientific method – Kuhn’s paradigm critique is especially important.
Realism – we can still usefully study society as an open system, rather than just focussing on individuals – for example we can still make general predictions about social behaviour based on statistical trends, even if we can’t predict exactly what that action will be or who, specifically will do what.
Postmodern views of science – the idea that ‘truth’ is no longer possible.
3. Can Sociology be value free?
Values = people’s own subjective beliefs and opinions. If social research is value free then it means that it is free of the personal biases of the researcher.
Positivism – Claimed that sociology could be value free using scientific methods which meant the researcher was as detached as possible.
Interpretivists criticise this – values creep into the quantitative research process – through the social construction of statistics for example.
Moreover – Interpretivists say we need to understand people’s values to understand how they act! However, it is harder to remain value free when doing qualitative research.
Weber argued that we could collect objective date on people’s values but we needed to be explicit about our own values all the way through the research process.
Some sociologists criticise ‘institutional sociology’ for being limited in scope, and argue we need a political, explicitly value laden sociology to counter-balance this.
For example Howard Becker argued sociologists should take the side of the underdog and give them a voice – this is an explicitly value-laden sociology
Marxist and Feminist sociology is also value laden in its choice of research topic – Sociology should be aimed at achieving political
Postmodernists believe objective knowledge is not possible, so all we can do is deconstruct knowledge, and criticise people who claim to have value-free, objective knowledge.
Late Modernists such as Giddens criticise at least one aspect of postmodernism – there are still objective social problems, such as global warming, migration, global inequality, which sociology needs to focus on.
However, constructing objective knowledge is a problem in contemporary sociology because knowledge is reflexive – it is part of the society it comes from – thus we need to careful to make our own value and opinions clear throughout the research process so that others can make an informed judgement about the usefulness of our research. That’s just the way it is!
Durkheim’s functionalism – social facts and anomie
Parson’s systems theory – the organic analogy and social evolution
Merton’s internal critique of functionalism – latent and manifest functions
Functionalism applied to the family – Murdock’s four universal functions, Parson’s functional fit theory and the two irreducible functions of the family – socialisation and the stabilisation of adult personalities
Functionalism applied to education – meritocracy, social solidarity, school as a bridge between home and society (particularistic and universalistic values)
Functionalism applied to Crime and Deviance – Durkheim’s three positive functions of crime, strain theory, consensus subcultural theories.
Functionalism and Modernisation Theory – Parson’s traditional and modern values and the evolutionary model of society
Functionalism and research methods – Durkheim’s Positivist approach to suicide
Karl Marx – the basics: bourgeoisie and proletariat, exploitation, alienation, false consciousness, revolution.
Gramsci’s humanistic Marxism – hegemony, dual consciousness and organic intellectuals
Althusser’s structuralist Marxism – the repressive state apparatus.
Marxism applied to the Family – capitalism, private property and the family, The family as a safe haven, ideological functions, also see Marxist Feminism
Marxism applied to education – the ideological state apparatus, reproduction of class inequality, legitiimation of class inequality, correspondence principle
Marxism applied to Crime and Deviance – • Private Property and Crime, The costs of Corporate Crime, Selective Law Enforcement, Criminogenic Captialism („Dog Eat Dog“ Society)
Marxism applied to Global Development – Colonialism and Slavery, The Modern World System, Unfair trade rules, TNC exploitation
Marxism and Research Methods – Social Class, Comparative Analysis, Objectivity/ Critical Research.
Liberal Feminism – does not seek revolutionary changes: they want changes to take place within the existing structure; the creation of equal opportunities is the main aim of liberal feminists – e.g. the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act
Marxist Feminism – capitalism rather than patriarchy is the principal source of women’s oppression, and capitalists as the main beneficiaries, through the housewife role for example; overthrowing capitalism remains the main objective.
Radical Feminism – Society is patriarchal, dominated and ruled by men – men are the ruling class, and women the subject class. Rape, violence and pornography some of the key tools through which men control women; separatism can be part of the solution.
Difference Feminism – women are not a homogenous group, they experience disadvantage in different ways.
Postmodern Feminism – critiqued preceding Feminist theory as being part of the masculinist Enlightenment Project; concerned with language (discourses) and the relationship between power and knowledge rather than ‘politics and opportunities‘.
7. Social Action Theory
Max Weber: Verstehen, and Social Change – observation alone is not enough to understand human action, we need empathetic understanding. Gaining Verstehen is the main point of Sociology, e.g. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).
Symbolic Interactionism – people’s self-concepts based on their understanding of how others perceive them (the looking glass self); need to understand meanings to understanding actions; social roles are not specific or fixed; they can be interpreted in various different ways.
Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory – People are actors on a ‘social stage’ who actively create an impression of themselves
Labeling Theory – the definitions (meanings) people impose on situations or on other people can have real consequences (even if those definitions are not based in reality)
8. Post Modernism and Late Modernism
Economy and Politics = Industrial economies, jobs for life; Nation State, most people vote and are in trades unions; Organised/ Heavy Capitalism and the Welfare State
Society/ Culture reflects the underlying class and patriarchal structures; Nuclear family the norm, marriage for life; Identities shaped/ constrained by class position/ sex; Media – one way communication, reflects ‘reality’
Knowledge – The Enlightenment – Science/ Objective Knowledge/ Truth and Progress
Sociology – Positivism/ Functionalism – doing research to find how societies function and gradually building a better world; Marxism/ Feminism –emancipation.
Economy/ Politics = Post-Industrial, service sector, portfolio workers and consumption is central; Declining power of the Nation State; Disorganised Capitalism/ Liquid Capitalism (Bauman)
Society/ Culture – Culture is free from structure – it is more Diverse and Fragmented ; Relationships more diverse; More Individual Freedom to shape identities; Media – more global, two- way, hyperreality (Baudrillard)
Knowledge – Critique of the Enlightenment; Incredulity towards Metanarratives (Lyotard)
Sociology – Narrative histories; Deconstruction (Lyotard) and Destabilising Theory.
9. Sociology and social policy
Intro – Social policy = things the government does to steer society in some way. Examples include taxation which affects wealth distribution, various education policies and policies about how to tackle crime
There are several reasons why governments may ignore certain findings of research – e.g. lack of money; Marxists and Feminists believe governments generally have an ideological bias which mean they ignore certain research findings.
Positivists believe researchers should collect objective knowledge to assess the impact of social policies and to help introduce new policies
Social Democratic Perspectives generally agree with the above.
The New Right and Neoliberals – have had most influence on social policy recently – e.g. The education system/ crime policy and in International Development
Marxist approaches to social policy – prefer policies which favour the redistribution of wealth and promote equality of opportunity, such as the abolition of private schools.
Feminist approaches to social policy – prefer policies which emphasis gender equality, such as the Paternity Act.
Postmodernists focus on deconstruction rather than social policies
Late Modernists emphasise the importance and challenges of developing and evaluating social policies in an age of globalisation.
If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my social theory revision notes – available for cheap on iTunes.
You might also like my ‘Theory and Methods Mind Maps’ – 11 Beautiful mind maps covering the above material, available for cheap on Selfy.
Please see my ‘Social Theories Page‘ For more links to a whole range of posts – both summary and in depth on various social theories relevant to both A level sociology and beyond!
The content in this post has been derived from the four major ‘A’ Level sociology text books and the AQA specification.
Verstehen and the Protestant Ethic are two things Weber is well-known for
Max Weber (1864-1920) was one of the founding fathers of Sociology. Weber saw both structural and action approaches as necessary to developing a full understanding of society and social change.
For the purposes of A level Sociology we can reduce Weber’s extensive contribution to Sociology to three things:
Max Weber: Three Key Points
Firstly he argued that ‘Verstehen’ or empathatic understanding is crucial to understanding human action and social change, a point which he emphasised in his classic study ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’;
secondly, he believed we could make generalisations about the basic types of motivation for human action (there are four basic types) and
thirdly, he still argued that structure shaped human action, because certain societies or groups encourage certain general types of motivation (but within these general types, there is a lot of variation possible).
This final point can be illustrated by a quote from one of his most important works ‘Economy and Society’, first published in the 1920s, in which he said ‘Sociology is a science concerning itself with interpretive understanding of social action and thereby with a causal explanation of its course and consequences.’
Social Action and Verstehen
Weber argued that before the cause of an action could be ascertained you had to understand the meaning attached to it by the individual. He distinguished between two types of understanding.
First he referred to Aktuelles Verstehen – or direct observational understanding, where you just observe what people are doing. For example, it is possible to observe what people are doing – for example, you can observe someone chopping wood, or you can even ascertain (with reasonable certainty) someone’s emotional state from their body language or facial expression. However, observational understanding alone is not sufficient to explain social action.
The second type of understanding is Eklarendes Verstehen – or Empathetic Understanding – in which sociologists must try to understand the meaning of an act in terms of the motives that have given rise to it. This type of understanding would require you to find out why someone is chopping wood – Are they doing it because they need the firewood, are they just clearing a forest as part of their job, are they working off anger, just doing it because they enjoy it? To achieve this Weber argued that you had to get into the shoes of people doing the activity.
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
In this famous work, Weber argued that a set of religious ideas were responsible for the emergence of Capitalism in Northern Europe in the 16-17th century. Weber argued that we need to understand these ideas and how they made people think about themselves in order to understand the emergence of Capitalism. (NB The emergence of Capitalism is one the most significant social changes in human history)
The video below, from the School of Life, offers a useful summary of Max Weber’s ideas about the emergence of Capitalism
Weber’s Four Types of Action (and types of society)
Max Weber didn’t just believe that individuals shape society – societies encourage certain types of motive for action – for example, the religion of Calvinism encouraged people to save money, which eventually led to capitalism
Weber believes that there are four ideal types of social actions. Ideal types are used as a tool to look at real cases and compare them to the ideal types to see where they fall. No social action is purely just one of the four types.
Traditional Social Action: actions controlled by traditions, “the way it has always been done”
Affective Social Action: actions determined by one’s specific affections and emotional state, you do not think about the consequences
Value Rational Social Action: actions that are determined by a conscious belief in the inherent value of a type of behavior (ex: religion)
Instrumental-Rational Social Action: actions that are carried out to achieve a certain goal, you do something because it leads to a result
To illustrate these different types of action consider someone “going to school” in terms of these four ideal types: Traditionally, one may attend college because her grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles have as well. They wish to continue the family tradition and continue with college as well. When relating to affective, one may go to school just because they enjoy learning. They love going to college whether or not it will make them broke. With value rational, one may attend college because it’s a part of his/her religion that everyone must receive the proper education. Therefore, this person attends college for that reason only. Finally, one may go to college because he/she may want an amazing job in the future and in order to get that job, he/she needs a college degree.
Max Weber was particularly interested in the later of these – he believed that modern societies encouraged ‘Instrumental-Action’ – that is we are encouraged to do things in the most efficient way (e.g. driving to work) rather than thinking about whether driving to work is the right thing to do (which would be value-rational action.
Weber believed that modern societies were obsessed with efficiency – modernizing and getting things done, such that questions of ethics, affection and tradition were brushed to one side – this has the consequence of making people miserable and leading to enormous social problems. Weber was actually very depressed about this and had a mental breakdown towards the end of his life.
Evaluations of Max Weber’s Social Action Theory
Positive – He recognized that we need to understand individual meanings to understand how societies change (unlike Marxism)
Positive – The idea that individual motives can lead to huge structural level changes such as the emergence of Capitalism is especially interesting!
Negative – Still too much focus on society shaping the individual – symbolic interactionism argues that individuals have more freedom to shape their identities.
Negative – there might well be more types of motivation than just four types
Negative – his theory of the emergence of capitalism has been criticized as there is evidence of some forms of capitalism existing BEFORE Protestantism.
Max Weber’s Action Theory is a key social theory usually studies as part of the theory and methods topic for second year sociology.
We can divide sociological theories into two broad types: structural and action theories.
Functionalism, Marxism and Feminism are all structural theories, are interested in ‘society as a whole’ and ask ‘societal level questions’ such as ‘what functions does education perform for society and the individual’? (Functionalism) or ‘why does injustice exist’ (Marxism and Feminism)? They seek to understand the actions of individuals by looking at the structure of wider society and generally believe that ‘society shapes the individual’.
Sociologists who adopt social action perspectives usually reject the view that society has a clear structure that directs individuals to behave in certain ways. Some social action theorists do not deny the existence of a social structure, but see this structure as rising out of the action of individual; others argue that there is no such thing as a social structure. For the purposes of Second Year sociology you need to know about four Action Theories – all of which have slightly different views on the relationship between social structure and social actions.
Max Weber is generally regarded as the founder of social action theory – he believed that we need to develop an empathetic understanding to uncover the personal meanings and motives individuals give to their own actions, and that this was crucial to understanding how social structures changed over time. However, he also believed that we could make generalisations about types of motive people had and that these general motivations were influenced by the wider society – thus he is half way between structure and action theory, rather than a pure ‘social action’ theorist.
George Herbert Mead developed ‘Symbolic Interactionism’, and he put more emphasis on the role of the active individual than Weber.
For Mead, there is still a society ‘out there’ which constrains human action, in the sense that there are a number of pre-existing social roles which people have to take on in order to get by in society. However, individuals have considerable freedom to shape their identities within and between these social roles.
Mead also argued that everything about society is open to multiple interpretations and meanings – the same institutions, social roles and individual-actions can mean very different things to different people. For Mead, individuals are constantly interpreting and re-interpreting each other’s ‘symbolic actions’ – and this is an ongoing, complex process – if we want to understand human action we need to understand the micro-details of how people interpret other people’s actions, and how their re-actions are in turn re-interpreted and so on.
In order to truly understand why people act in the way that they do, we need to understand people’s ‘self-concept’ – their identities, there ideas about the ‘generalised other’ (society) and micro-interpretations.
Erving Goffman’s developed Mead’s work in his Dramaturgical theory of social action – he argued that the most appropriate way to understand people is to view them as if they are actors on a stage – people use props (such as clothes and body-language) to project idealised images of themselves to a social audience – people have multiple identities which change according to the social setting and the audience they find themselves performing in front of. As well as the social world, the front stage, we all have backstage areas (mostly the home) where we prepare for our social performances, and reflect on how good or bad our performances have been, and plan to change them accordingly. For Goffman, individuals are very active and manipulative, and we may never actually get to see people’s real identities unless we spend considerable time with them during their day to day lives.
Labelling Theory focuses on how the definitions (meanings) people impose on situations or on other people can have real consequences (even if those definitions are not based in reality) – and argues that people in power generally have more ability to impose their definitions on situations than the powerless. For example, parents, teachers and the police generally have more power to make labels stick and make these labels have consequences compared to working class youths. Labelling theory criticises both Mead and Goffman, arguing that while we need to look at micro-level interactions and meanings to examine labelling, we still need to understand where people are located in the power-structure of society to fully understand the process of labeling and identity construction.
Most posts are adapted from standard degree and ‘A’ Level text books such as Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives
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