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

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

  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?

these questions run all the way through the AS and A-level sociology syllabuses – 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. 

And so it goes on….

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Giddens’ Structuration Theory – A Summary

 

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.

Sources 

This post is summarized from Inglis, D (2012) – A Invitation to Social Theory, Polity.

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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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Giddens’ Modernity and Self Identity – in 14 bullet points

A brief post covering the relationship between self and society in late-modernity according to Anthony Giddens, covering concepts such as Globalisation, abstract systems, ontological security, manufactured risks, narcissism and fundamentalism.

This is very much my own reading of Giddens’ text – Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age.

Giddens Self Identity and Society

Gidden’s Key Ideas about Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Taken from Modernity and Self Identity – And Against Post Modernism)

  1. There is a global structure – e.g. it’s Capitalist and Nation States remain powerful, but it’s dynamic, constantly changing, and not predictable.

  2. Institutions (political and economic) are ‘reflexive’ – they try to ‘steer’ events in the future in the light of existing and continually updating (imperfect) knowledge.

  3. There are significant global problems (manufactured risks) which we all face and none of us can escape – e.g. Global Warming. These are real, objectively existing problems, not hyperreal, and they bind us together, even if many of us fail to accept this.

  4. The increased pace of change and Uncertainty are a fundamental part of late-modernity.

  5. Globalisation penetrates our lifeworlds through abstract Systems (money, clock time, expert systems, especially science).

  6. The media is more important and influential in late-modern society, but Giddens rejects the concept of hyperreality – the main significance of the media is that it makes us more aware of diversity and of the fact that there are many different ways of living.

  7. In Late Modern (not Post-modern) Society, there is what Giddens calls a ‘duality of structure’ – social structures both empower us and constrain us (differentially, and broadly along the lines of class, gender and ethnicity, although not perfectly) – people are not just ‘free’ to do whatever they want – their freedom comes from existing structures – think of your typicaly fashion blogger on YouTube for example – you may think of them as ‘free’, but they are fundamentally dependent on global capitalism, a monetary system, and the infrastructure of media technology.

  8. In terms of the self – Identity is no longer a given – we no longer have a pre-existing identity based on our gender, class, family or locality, everything is open to questionand we are forced to contunally look at ourselves and continuously ask the question ‘who am I’ – identity becomes a task, something we must do for ourselves, and nearly every aspect of our lives becomes something we need to reflect on as a result.

  9. It is for this reason that we become concerned with constructing a ‘Narrative of Self’ – A coherent life story, so that we can convince ourselves that we have a stable identity through time. Constructing a self-identity takes a lot of time and effort.

  10. Therapy emerges as a new expert system to help people in the process of continual identity reconstruction – especially useful at epochal moments like divorce.

  11. The construction and expression of the self becomes the new norm – there are many ways we can do this – mainly through consumption (buying and doing stuff), through relationships, and through developing bodily regimes (health regimes).

  12. An unfortunate consequence of this focus on the self is the rise of Narcissism, with very few people asking moral and existential questions about existence.

  13. However, this process is dialectical and New Social Movements (e.g. the Green Movement) which do consider moral and existential issues – in which people attempt to incorporate moral and existential questions into the construction of their ‘political’ identities.

  14. Late Modernity produces various ‘Generic’ Types of Identity – The Narcissist, the Fundamentalist, both are extreme expressions of the same social system.

Related Posts

Giddens – Modernity and Self Identity – A summary of the introduction and chapter 1.

What is the purpose of Sociology according to Giddens? – A very brief summary