How will Big Data Change Social Research?

Big data will change the nature of social research –  more data will do away with the need for sampling (and eradicated the biases that emerge with sampling); big data analysis will be messier, but this will lead to more insights and allow for greater depth of analysis; and finally it will move us away from a limiting hypothesis-led search for causality, to non-causal analysis based on correlation.

At least according to Mayer-Schonberger and Cuker (2017) Big Data: The Essential Guide to Work, Life and Learning in the Age of Insight.

Big Data Research
A third of social science researchers are already working with Big Data


Below I outline their summary of how Cukier thinks big data will change social research:

You might like to read my summary of the introduction to ‘Big Data’ first

More Data

The ability to collect and analyse large amounts of data in real time has many advantages:

It does away with the need for sampling, and all the problems that can emerge with biased sampling.

More data enables us to make accurate predictions down to smaller levels – as with the case of Google’s flu predictions being able to predict the spread of flu on a city by city basis across the USA.

It enables us to use outliers to spot interesting trends – for example credit card companies can use it to detect fraud if too many transactions for a particular type of card originate in one particular area.

When we use all the data, we are more likely to find things which we never expected to find…

Cukier uses Steven Levitt’s analysis of all the data from 11 years worth of Sumo bouts as a good example of the interesting insights to be gained through big data analysis.

A suitable analogy for big data may be the Lytro camera, which captures not just a single plane of light, as with conventional cameras, but rays from the entire light field… the photographer decides later on which element of light to focus on in the digital file…. And he can reuse the same information in different ways.

One of the areas that is most dramatically being shaken up by big data is the social sciences, which have traditionally made use of sampling techniques. This monopoly is likely to be broken by big data firms and the old biases associated with sampling should disappear.

Albert-Laszlo Barabasi examined social  networks using logs of mobile phones from about one fifth of an unidentified European country’s population – which was the first analysis done on networks at the societal level using a dataset in the spirit of n = all. They found something unusual – if one removes people with lots of close links in the local area the societal network remains intact, but if one removes people with links outside their community, the social network degrades.


All other things being equal, big data is ‘messier’ than small data – because the more data you collect, the higher the chance that some of it will be inaccurate. However, the aggregate of all the data should provide more breadth and frequency of data than smaller data sets.

Cukier uses the analogy of measuring temperature in a vineyard to illustrate this – if we have just one temperature gauge, we have to make sure it is working perfectly, but it we have a thousand, we will have more errors, but a much wider breadth of data, and if we take measurements with greater frequency, we will have a more sensitive measurement of changes over time.

When using big data, analysts are generally happy sacrificing some accuracy for knowing the general trend – in the big data world, it is OK if 2+2 = 3.9.

More data is sometimes all we need for 100% accuracy, for example chess games with fewer than 6 pieces on the board have all been mapped out in their entirety, thus a human will never be able to beat a computer again once this point has been reached.

The fact that messiness doesn’t matter that much is evidenced in Google’s success with its translation software – Google employed a relatively simply algorithm but fed it trillions of words from across the internet – all of the messy data it could find – this proves that simple models and lot of data trump smart models and less data.

We see messiness in action all over the internet – it lies in ‘tagging’ and likes being rounded up – none of this is precise, but it works, it provides us with usable information.

Ultimately big data means we are going to have to become happier with uncertainty.


It might be hard to fathom today, but when Amazon started up it actually employed book critics and editors to write reviews of books and make recommendations to customers.

Then the CEO Jeff Bezos had the idea of making specific recommendations to customers based on their individual shopping preferences and employed someone called Greg Linden to develop a recommendation system – in 19898 he and his colleagues applied for a patent on ‘item to item’ collaborative filtering – which allowed Amazon to look for relationships between products.

As a result, Amazon’s sales shot up, they sacked the human advisors, and today about 1/3rd of all its sales are based on their recommendations systems. Amazon was an early adopter of big data analytics to drive up sales, and today many other companies such as Netflix also use it as one of the primary methods to keep profits rolling in.

These companies don’t need to know why consumers like the products that they do, knowing that there’s a relationship between the products people like is enough to drive up sales.

Predictions and Predilections

In the big data world, correlations really shine – we can use them to gain more insights extremely rapidly.

At its core, a correlation quantifies the statistical relationship between two data values. A strong correlation means that when one of the data values changes, the other is highly likely to change as well.

Correlations let us analyse a phenomenon not by shedding light on its inner workings, but by identifying a useful proxy for it.

In the small data age, researchers needed to use hypotheses to select one or a handful of proxies to analyse, and hence hard statistical evidence on the relationship between variables was collected quite slowly; with the increase in computational power we don’t need hypothesis-driven analysis, we can simply analyse billions of data points and ‘stumble upon’ correlations.

In the big-data age we can use a data-driven approach to collecting data, and our results should be less biased and more accurate, and we should also be able to get them faster.

One such example of where this data-driven approach has been applied and strong big data correlations was the case of Google’s flu predictions. We didn’t need to know what flu search terms were the best proxy for ‘people with flu symptoms’, in this case, the data simply showed us which search terms were the best proxies.

With correlations there is no certainty, only probability, but this can still provide us with actionable data, as with the case of Amazon above, and there are many other examples of where data driven big data analytics are changing our lives. (p56)

We can use correlations to predict the future – for example, Wal-Mart noticed a correlation between Hurricanes and Flash Light sales, but also pop tarts, so when a Hurricane is predicted, it moves the pop tarts to the front of store and further boosts its sales.

Probably the most notorious use of big data correlations to make predictions is the American discount retailer, Target, who use their data on the products women buy as a proxy for pregnancy – women tend to buy non scented body lotions around the third month of pregnancy and then various vitamin supplements around the 6 month mark – big data even allows predictions about the approximate birth date to be made!

Finding proxies in social contexts is only one way that big-data techniques are being employed – another use is through ‘predictive analytics’, which aims to forsee events before they happen.

One example of predictive analytics is the shipping company UPS using them to monitor its fleet of 10s of 1000s of vehicles – to replace parts just before they wear out, saving them millions of dollars.

Another use is in health care – one piece of research by Dr Carolyn McGregor, with IBM,, used 16 different data streams to track the stats of premature babies – and found that there was a correlation between certain stats and an infection occurring 24 hours later. Interestingly this research found that an infant’s stability was a predictor of a forthcoming infection, which flew in the face of convention – again we don’t know why this is, but the correlation was there.

Illusions and Illuminations

Big data also makes it easier to find more complex, non-linear relationships than when working within a hypothesis-limiting small data paradigm.

One example of a non-linear relationship uncovered by big data analysis is that of the relationship between income and happiness – that happiness increases with income (up until about $30K per year, but then it levels out – once we have ‘enough’ adding on more money doesn’t make us any happier…

Big data also opens up more possibilities for exploring networks – by analyzing how ideas spread through the nodes of networks such as Facebook, for example.

In network analysis, it is very difficult to attribute causality, because everything is connected to everything else, and big data analysis is typically non-causal, just looking for correlations not ‘causation’.

Does big data mean the end of theory?

In 2008 Wired magazine’s chief editor argued that in the ‘Petabyte age’ we would be able to do away with theory – that correlation would be enough for us to understand reality – citing as examples Google’s search engine and gene sequencing – where simply huge amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear.

However, this view is problematic because big data is itself founded on theory – it employs mathematical and statistical theories for example, and humans still select data, or at least the tools which select data, which in turn are often driven by convenience and economic concerns.

Having said that, Big Data does potentially move us away from theory and closer to empiricism than in the small data age.



Experiments in Sociology – Revision Notes

Definitions, key features and the theoretical, practical and ethical strengths and limitations of laboratory and field experiments applied to sociology (and psychology). Also covers key terms related to experiments.

post has been written to help students revising for the research methods aspect of their second year A-level exams.

Experiments – The Basics: Definitions/ Key Features

  • Experiments aim to measure the effect which one or more independent variables have on a dependent variable.
  • The aim is to isolate and measure as precisely as possible the exact effect independent variables have on dependent variables.
  • Experiments typically aim to test a ‘hypothesis’ – a prediction about how one variable will effect another.
  • There are two main types* of experimental method: The Laboratory experiment, the field experiment and the comparative method.
    • Laboratory Experiments take place in an artificial, controlled environment such as a laboratory.
    • Field Experiments – take place in a real world context such as a school or a hospital.

Advantages of Laboratory Experiments

  • Theoretical – The controlled conditions of laboratory experiments allow researchers to isolate variables: you can precisely measure the exact effect of one thing on another.
  • Theoretical – You can establish cause and effect relationships.
  • Theoretical – You can collect ‘objective’ knowledge – about how facts ‘out there’ affect individuals.
  • Theoretical – Good Reliability because it is easy to replicate the exact same conditions.
  • Theoretical – Good Reliability because of the high level of detachment between the researcher and the respondent.
  • Practical – Easy to attract funding because of the prestige of science.
  • Practical – Take place in one setting so researchers can conduct research like any other day-job – no need to chase respondents.
  • Ethical – Most laboratory experiments seek to gain informed consent, often a requirement to get funding.
  • Ethical – Legality – lab experiments rarely ask participants to do anything illegal.
  • Ethical – Findings benefit society – both Milgram and Zimbardo would claim the shocking findings of their research outweigh the harms done to respondents.

Disadvantages of Laboratory Experiments

  • Theoretical – They are reductionist: human behaviour cannot be explained through simple cause and effect relationships (people are not ‘puppets’).
  • Theoretical – Laboratory experiments lack external validity – the artificial environment is so far removed from real-life that the results tell us very little about how respondents would actually act in real life.
  • Theoretical – The Hawthorne Effect may further reduce validity – respondents may act differently just because they know they are part of an experiment.
  • Theoretical – They are small scale and thus unrepresentative.
  • Practical – It is impractical to observe large scale social processes in a laboratory – you cannot get whole towns, let alone countries of people into the small scale setting of a laboratory.
  • Practical – Time – Small samples mean you will need to conduct consecutive experiments on small groups if you want large samples, which will take time
  • Ethical – Deception and lack of informed consent – it is often necessary to deceive subjects as to the true nature of the experiment so that they do not act differently. Links to the Hawthorne Effect.
  • Ethical – Some specific experiments have resulted in harm to respondents – in the Milgram experiment for example.
  • Ethical – Interpretivists may be uncomfortable with the unequal relationships between researcher and respondent – the researcher takes on the role of the expert, who decides what is worth knowing in advance of the experiment.

Advantages of Field Experiments over Laboratory Experiments

  • Theoretical – They generally have better validity than lab experiments because they take place in real life settings
  • Theoretical – Better external validity – because they take place in normally occurring, real-world social settings.
  • Practical – Larger scale settings – you can do field experiments in schools or workplaces, so you can observe large scale social processes, which isn’t possible with laboratory experiments.
  • Practical – a researcher can ‘set up’ a field experiment and let it run for a year, and then come back later.

The relative disadvantages of Field Experiments

  • Theoretical – It is not possible to control variables as closely as with laboratory experiments – because it’s impossible to observe respondents 100% of the time.
  • Theoretical – Reliability is weaker – because it’s more difficult to replicate the exact context of the research again.
  • Theoretical – The Hawthorne Effect (or Experimental Effect) may reduce the validity of results.
  • Practical Problems – access is likely to be more of a problem with lab experiments. Schools and workplaces might be reluctant to allow researchers in.
  • Ethical Problems – As with lab experiments – it is often possible to not inform people that an experiment is taking place in order for them to act naturally, so the issues of deception and lack of informed consent apply here too, as does the issue of harm.

Experiments – Key Terms Summary

Hypothesis – a theory or explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. A hypothesis will typically take the form of a testable statement about the effect which one or more independent variables will have on the dependent variable.

Dependent Variable – this is the object of the study in the experiment, the variable which will (possibly) be effected by the independent variables.

Independent variables – The variables which are varied in an experiment – the factors which the experimenter changes in order to measure the effect they have on the dependent variable.

Extraneous variables – Variables which are not of interest to the researcher but which may interfere with the results of an experiment

Experimental group – The group under study in the investigation.

Control group – The group which is similar to the study group who are held constant. Following the experiment the experimental group can be compared to the control group to measure the extent of the impact (if any) of the independent variables.

You should also know about natural experiments/ the comparative method –involves comparing two or more societies or groups which are similar in some respects but varied in others, and looking for correlations.  


This post has been written to help students revising for the research methods aspect of their second year A-level exams.

These are the more in-depth posts on experiments

Experiments in sociology – an introduction

Laboratory experiments in sociology

Field experiments in sociology

An Overview of the Education Module for A Level Sociology

The AQA Specification – Education

Students need to know….

  • The role and functions of the education system, including its relationship to the economy and to class structure (the perspectives: functionalism etc.)
  • Differential educational achievement of social groups by social class, gender and ethnicity in contemporary society.
  • Relationships and processes within schools, with particular reference to teacher/pupil relationships, pupil identities and subcultures, the hidden curriculum, and the organisation of teaching and learning.
  • The significance of educational policies, including policies of selection, marketisation and privatisation, and policies to achieve greater equality of opportunity or outcome, for an understanding of the structure, role, impact and experience of and access to education; the impact of globalisation on educational policy.

Education brief

How most text books break the specification down further….

Topic 1 – Perspectives on Education (‘role and function of education’)

There are 4 Main Perspectives:

  • Functionalism
  • Marxism
  • The New Right
  • Postmodernism
  • You can also use knowledge from these perspectives: Feminism/ Social Democratic/ Liberalism


  • Focuses on the positive functions performed by the education system. There are four positive functions that education performs
  • Creating social solidarity (value consensus)
  • Teaching skills necessary for work
  • Bridge between home and school
  • Role Allocation and meritocracy


  • Traditional Marxists see the education system as working in the interests of ruling class elites. The education system performs three functions for these elites:
  • Reproduces class inequality.
  • Legitimates class inequality.
  • The Correspondence Principle – School works in the interests of capitalist employers

The New Right 

  • Created an ‘education market’ – Schools were run like businesses – competing with each other for pupils and parents were given choice. This required league league tables
  • Schools should teach subjects that prepare pupils for work, Hence education should be aimed at supporting economic growth.  Hence: New Vocationalism!
  • The state was to provide a framework in order to ensure that schools were all teaching the same thing and transmitting the same shared values – hence the National Curriculum


  • Not a major perspective on education.
  • Use to criticise the relevance of the previous three perspectives.
  • A ‘one size fits all’ education system does not fit with a post-modern society
  • Education needs to be more flexible and targeted to individuals.

Topic 2 – In-School Processes

Make sure you explain the difference between Interactionism and Structural Theories

School Ethos and The Hidden Curriculum

Teacher Stereotyping and the halo effect

  • The ideal pupil
  • Labelling and the Self Fulfilling Prophecy
  • Banding, streaming and setting
  • Definitions of banding/ streaming setting
  • Summaries of evidence on the effects of banding etc.
  • Unequal access to classroom knowledge
  • Educational triage

Student responses to the experience of schooling: school subcultures

  • Differentiation and Polarisation
  • Pro-School subcultures
  • Anti-school (or counter-school) subcultures
  • Between pro and anti-school subcultures: a range of responses

Gender and differential educational achievement 

There are three main types of question for gender and education – achievement, subject choice the trickier question of how gender identities affect experience of schooling and how school affects gender identities. 

Distinguishing between out of school and in-school factors in explaining these differences is one of the key analytical skills for this topic (and in class/ ethnicity)

Achievement (why do girls generally do better than boys)

  • In the 1980s boys used outperform girls
  • Today, girls do better than boys by about 8% points at GCSE.
  • There are about 30% more girls in University than boys.

Subject Choice (why do they choose different subjects)

  • Subject choice remains heavily ‘gendered’
  • Typical boys subjects = computing/ VOCATIONAL especially trades/ engineering
  • Typical girls subjects = dance, sociology, humanities, English, hair and beauty.

Experience of Schooling/ Gender Identity

  • Pupils’ gender identities may influence the way they experience school.
  • Schools may reinforce traditional (hegemonic) and femininity
  • Gender identity varies by social class and ethnicity.

Out of school factors and differential educational achievement

  • Changes in Employment – Rise of the service, decline in manufacturing sector, crisis of masculinity.
  • Changes in the family – dual earner households, more female worker role models. LINK TO FAMILY MODULE
  • Changing girls’ ambitions – from marriage and family to career and money (Sue Sharp)
  • Differential socialisation –girls socialised to be more passive/ toys related to different subjects (Becky Francis) LINK TO FUNCTIONALISM/ PARSONS.
  • Parental attitudes – traditional working class dads may expect boys to not try hard at school.
  • Impact of Feminism – equal opportunity policies.
  • Policy changes – introduction of coursework in 1988/ scaling back of coursework in 2015.

Gender and In-School Factors

  • Teacher Labelling – typical boys = disruptive, low expectation, typical girls = studious, high expectations (Jon Abraham) – LINK TO INTERACTIONISM, Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
  • Subcultures –boys more likely to form counter-school cultures (Willis) – LINKS to out of school.
  • Feminisation of teaching – increase in female teachers puts boys off
  • Subject counsellors advise boys to choose boys subjects
  • Gendered subject images match traditional gender domains
  • Boys’ domination of equipment puts girls off practical subjects like PE
  • Traditional masculine identities – boys just don’t see school as a ‘boy thing’ – Working class boys saw school as ‘queer’, middle class work hard but hide this (Mac An Ghail)
  • Hyper-Feminine identities (hair/ make up) clash with the school (Carolyn Jackson)
  • Verbal Abuse – boys who study hard get called ‘gay’ as a term of abuse.

Social class differences in educational achievement

Why do working class kids do worse than middle class kids? (Free School Meals to measure, not class!)

Material Deprivation

  • Lots of ways!
  • Hidden costs
  • The cycle of deprivation
  • Selection by mortgage

Cultural Deprivation – blame the working classes

  • Immediate/ deferred gratification
  • Restricted/ elaborated speech codes

Cultural Capital – Marxist – blame the middle classes

  • Skilled and Disconnected Choosers
  • In-School Processes
  • Labelling, the ideal pupil (Becker)
  • Counter School Culture (Willis)
  • Aspirational culture in school (links to cultural capital)

Ethnicity and differential educational achievement

Chinese/ Indian kids do best/ African-Caribbean, Gypsy Roma worst.

Material Factors

  • Differences in income/ class don’t explain the difference (poor Chinese kids compared poor white kids)

Cultural factors

  • Family structure (single parent households)
  • Parental attitudes (Steve Strand 2007)
  • Language differences (linguistic deprivation)
  • Black anti-school masculine street cultures (Tony Sewell)

In-School Processes

  • Teacher racism/ labelling (Gilborn)
  • Subcultures and anti-school attitudes (Tony Sewell)
  • Subcultures as a means of resisting racism (Mac An Ghail).
  • Banding and Streaming/ Educational Triage
  • Ethnocentric Curriculum
  • Experiences of institutional racism and from other pupils (Crozier)
  • Also – racism in admissions at Oxford University

Education Policies

Main policies 

  • 1944 – The Tripartite System
  • 1965 – Comprehensivisation
  • 1988 – New Right – Education Act – Marketisation
  • 1997 – New Labour – Academies, Expansion of HE, Sure Start, EMA.
  • 2010 – Coalition/ New Right – Forced Adacademisation, Free Schools, Funding Cuts, Pupil Premium, and MORE STATE GRAMMARS.
  • Compenstory Education – E.G. EMA.
  • Vocationalism – e.g, Apprenticeships.

Policies – key questions

  • To what extent have policies raised achievement?
  • To what extent have policies improved equality of opportunity?
  • How have policies changed the way schools select pupils and what are the consequences (apply the perspectives)
  • In what ways has education becoming more privatised and what are the consequences (apply the perspectives)?
  • What is the relationship between globalisation and education policy?




Erich Fromm’s ‘Fear of Freedom’- A Summary

A summary of Erich Fromm‘s ‘Fear of Freedom’, first published in the UK in 1942

This book is an analysis of the ‘character structure of modern man’, a work in progress published because of the urgent needs of the times.

fear-of-freedomThe thesis of the book is that modern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realisation of his individual self.

Freedom, though it has brought him his independence and rationality, has isolated him, and made him anxious and powerless.

This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of this freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realisation of positive freedom which is based on the uniqueness and individuality of man.

Chapter One – Freedom: A Psychological Problem?

Modern European history seemed to be a process of men fighting oppression in the name of greater freedom for the individual – having conquered nature and religious authority and then established democracy, WW2 seemed to be the ultimate battle for freedom.

However, Fascism was established because so many people were willing to give up their freedom, and so many more indifferent, and both of these traits are widespread within the character structure of men within our own societies as well as Germany and Italy in the 1930s. So what is it about this character structure that predisposes so many to give up freedoms so easily?

Fascism took everyone by surprise because we thought man’s rational side (calculated self-interest) had won out – but Fascism relied on an appeal to the irrational (fear of the other/ the desire to oppress the weak) – forces we thought had died out.

Only a few pre-empted the passionate side of man’s nature bubbling below the surface – Nietzsche and Marx, but also Freud. Freud understood this at a more psychological level – and it is Freud who Fromm is going to draw on – Freud also showed us that the irrational elements of the unconscious could be understood rationally.

Fromm now gives us a background of Freud’s basic concept of man – that the individual has ‘dark passions’ and these need to be suppressed by society. This need for suppression creates culture – the more we suppress passions (wants), the more culture, but the higher the risk of neurosis, because the individual only has a certain propensity to cope with the suppression of his desires. The more freedom we allow man to do as he pleases, the less culture.

Fromm now points out that society (culture) also affects the passions – desires change with each generation – The desire for fame never existed in the Medieval period for example.

However, man also creates culture…. the urge for fame leads to Capitalism.

Fromm’s theory is against the view that unchecked passions make history, it is also against those which reject the role of the individual human.

He recognises that there is a human nature that is discoverable by psychology – it is not ultimately malleable, although it can adapt significantly to social change.

He now talks about static and dynamic adaptations – the former don’t shape our character, such as moving to a foreign country and eating with a knife and fork, the later do – such as a child’s emotional responses to abuse.

Next he deals with the question of human needs – numerous things are listed – basic human needs such as food etc., but also for sensuality, emotional security, and he includes a large section on the need for co-operation and to not be alone.

We need to work – however, we cannot choose the conditions under which we work – and these can shape our character – Whether as slaves or freemen, and also our position in the class structure influences greatly our experience of work.

We have a need to not be alone – even a hermit is connected by ideas. There are two reasons – firstly, in childhood we are dependent, and secondly if we didn’t belong we would be overwhelmed by our own insignificance.

The thesis of the book will be thus – Man has no choice but to unite himself with the world in the spontaneity of love and productive work or else to seek a kind of security by such ties with the world as destroys his freedom and the integrity of his individual self.

Chapter Two – The Emergence of the Individual and the Ambiguity of Freedom

The meaning of freedom changes as man’s awareness of himself as an independent being changes.

For most of human history, man saw himself as part of nature, one with it, but since the reformation a process of individuation has taken place.

Similarly when an individual is born they have no concept of themselves as a separate entity, but this gradually emerges as the child ages.

There are ties which happen before individuation, which (Fromm calls) primary ties, they restrict freedom but give security. These ties root an individual with clan and nature and with mother and give security, but once individuation has taken place man has a new task – to find security in new ways.

The emerging individualism (from child to adult) is a dialectical process:

On the one hand it involves increasing ”self strength’ – a sense of uniqueness, but societies have limits to how far this can be expressed.

Secondly, it involves increasing aloneness – the sense of individual self separate from society is experienced as anxiety. In this sense, the world is experienced as threatening and overwhelming. (In the pre-individualistic era when people did not reflect on their connections, this was not an issue.)

One response to this is submission, but this threatens one’s sense of integrity and leads to rebellion.

The other is to engage in spontaneous relations with fellow men and nature on the basis of love and productive work without eliminating the integration and strength of the total personality. This would allow for the further development of the self.

The basic problem is that society doe not allow for the individuated self to establish these free relations which are conducive to the harmonious development of the self and this leads to escape mechanisms.

Fromm now describes the dialectical process of man’s evolution to greater freedom through history – again stressing that now man has a greater sense of freedom, he cannot go back (now he is beyond religion) – It must be the case that man forges new productive relations in love otherwise submission and escapism and misery are the future.

Freedom from has not been balanced by freedom to realise positive stuff!

Chapter Three – Freedom in the age of the Reformation


In the Medieval period and the Renaissance the individual did not exist as such – man was bonded via the feudal structure and the church to his place in society, at least where the masses were concerned.

He describes the Renaissance in Italy as consisting of a small clique of wealthy individuals involved in a competitive struggle for power and wealth – these had individual freedom, but they used it to squeeze wealth from whoever they could. He describes renaissance men not as secure but as anxious and uncertain. Pursuing Fame he says is one way of ridding yourself of the insecurities of too much freedom.

P46 – He now turns to an analysis of the emergence of Protestantism and Calvinism in the Reformation – which he basically sees as a response to the burdens of too much freedom which came with the new middle classes in Northern Europe.

Fromm draws heavily on Tawney to describe the Medieval world view of the individual in relation to the economy. Up until the 14th century when most production was carried out through guilds, in essence production and retail were combined and carried out by small business men working in mutual co-operation with a high degree of localism. He argues that religious morality cam first – and there was a general consensus that the well-being of all, even the poor, as a unifying value. Wealth creation and trade were seen as ends to doing greater things, not ends in themselves – and private property was seen as a concession to human frailty, communism as ideal. In short there was suspicion of selfish motives to accumulate.

He now describes how some guilds became larger and some master craftsmen came to employ more and more journeymen and monopoly capitalism started to develop in the 15 and 16th centuries, with smaller guilds and craftsmen being squeezed, as were the peasantry as the dues on their land were gradually increased over the period. According to Fromm, time is seen as increasingly precious as a result, and efficiency starts to be seen as a central moral virtue. At the same time, the desire for wealth and material success became the all-absorbing passion.

This emergence of capitalism destroyed the old securities of the medieval social system – the individual was left alone, everything depended on his own effort, not on the security of his traditional system.

Each class, however, was affected in a different way… For the poor it meant increasing exploitation, the nobility, downward social mobility, most of the urban middle class the same, but a few rose up.

However, everyone experienced increasing insecurity and anxiety. Capital had now become a supra-personal force determining people’s economic activity and thereby their personal fate. It was now a partner which dictated economic organisation in accordance with its own needs.

He now describes the two other elements of capitalism (besides capital) which emerge at this time – mass markets, rather than local markets, where the producer has less of an idea of what is needed, and competition, rather than co-operation.

Captitalism also freed the individual to try his luck, to take risks, so it wasn’t all bad.

In summary – Capitalism created a world which was at the same time limitless and threatening. – It gave rise to a new feeling of freedom and independence but also to powerlessness and anxiety.

Lutheranism and Calvinism now stepped in to offer solutions to this unbearable insecurity.

He now argues that such ideas only became powerful because they fulfilled a deep psychological need of the time. (NB – Whether the ideas are true or not doesn’t matter here!).

Fromm now spends dozens of pages (which I haven’t read) discussing how Lutheranism moved away from established religious ideas.

One general point of analysis he makes is that we need to look at how anything someone says fits into their whole world-view to make sense of it – and that logical inconsistencies may be the result of the psychological traits within the individual. You need to understand their unconscious desires to understand their ideas – as was the case with Luther.

To cut a long story thought – Protestantism fitted in with the newly freed individuals – it was a doctrine which said you should feel anxious etc. because it was the result of original sin, and it also offers a solution – it’s down to you to prove that you’re one of God’s elect – and you do this through hard work – The values of Calvinism thus provide the character structure which led to the further development of capitalism. (He must’ve read Weber!)

Just for emphasis… this a dialectical analysis….!

Erich Fromm

Further chapters to follow

Social Action Theory – A Summary

A summary of Webers’ Verstehen Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory, Symbolic Interactionism and and Labellling.

Unlike structural theorists, social action theorists argue that people’s behaviour and life-chances are not determined by their social background. Instead, social action theorists emphasises the role of the active individual and interactions between people in shaping personal identity and in turn the wider society. In order to understand human action we need to uncover the individual’s own motives for acting.

Social Action Theory

This post provides a summary of the key ideas of Social Action Theory for A-level sociology students studying the theory and methods topic in their second year of study, AQA focus.

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.
  • Understanding individual motives is crucial for understanding changes to the social structure (as illustrated in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).
  • Weber still attempted to make generalisations about types of motive for action – there are four main types of motive for action – Instrumentally rational, value rational, traditional action and affectual action
  • Different societies and different groups emphasise the importance of different types of ‘general motive’ for action’ – so society still affects individual motives, but in a general way.

Symbolic Interactionism

  • People’s self-concepts are based on their understanding of how others perceive them (the looking glass self).
  • We act towards others on the basis of how we interpret their symbolic action, the same action can be interpreted differently by different people – we need to understand these specific meanings to understanding people’s actions.
  • We ‘are constantly ‘taking on the role of the other’ – thinking about how people see us and reacting accordingly, this is very much an active, conscious process.
  • Each of us has an idea in the back of our minds of ‘the generalised other’ – which is basically society – what society expects of us, which consists of different norms and values associated with different roles in society.
  • These 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
  • When we act in the social world, we put on a ‘front’ in order to project a certain image of ourselves (call this part of our ‘social identity’
  • To create this front we manipulate the setting in which we perform (e.g. our living room), our appearance (e.g. our clothes) and our manner (our emotional demeanour).
  • Impression management involves projecting an ‘idealised image’ of ourselves,
  • We must be constantly on our guard to practice ‘expressive control’ when on the social stage.
  • Acting out social roles is quite demanding and so in addition to the front-stage aspect of our lives, we also have back-stage areas where we can drop our front and be more relaxed, closer to our ‘true-selves’
  • Most acting is neither fully ‘sincere’ nor fully ‘contrived’ and most people oscillate between sincerity and cynicism throughout the day and throughout the role they are playing.

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)
  • People in power generally have more ability to impose their definitions on situations than the powerless and make these labels have consequences compared to working class youths. Labelling theory
  • We still need to understand where people are located in the power-structure of society to fully understand the process of labelling and identity construction.

Positive Evaluations of Social Action Theory

  • Recognises that people are complex and active and have their own diverse meanings and motives for acting
  • Overcomes the determinism found in structural theories such as Marxism which tend to see individuals as passive
  • Goffman’s dramaturgical theory seems especially useful today in the age of Social Media
  • Labelling Theory recognises the importance of micro-level interactions in shaping people’s identities, and the fact that people in power are often more able to ‘define the situation’.
  • In-depth research methods associated with social action theory often have high valid

Criticisms of Social Action Theory

  • It doesn’t pay sufficient attention to how social structures constrain action – for example, material deprivation can have a real, objective impact on your ability to well at school, thus failure is not just all about labelling.
  • Tends to ignore power-distribution in society – it can’t explain patterns in class, gender, ethnicity.
  • If people are so active, then why do so many people choose to be so normal?
  • Labelling theory can also be criticised for being deterministic
  • The small-scale methods associated with this theory can equally be criticised for lacking reliability and

Signposting and Related Posts 

Social Action theory is usually taught as part of the social theory aspect of the second year A-level sociology module in theory and methods, typically in contrast to the two structural theories Functionalism and Marxism, and is followed by (and in some ways is a pre-cursor of ) Postmodernism.

This post on teacher labelling and the self fulfilling prophecy, taught as part of the first year Education module provides a lot more depth on the micro-interactions which make up the whole process of labelling.

You might also like the following two posts which expand on other aspects of the notes above:

Max Weber”s Social Action Theory

A Summary of Erving Goffmans’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Marxist Theories of Crime – A Summary

Covering crimogenic capitalism, selective law enforcement and the ideological functions of crime control

Marxists argue that capitalism is crimogenic, and that all classes commit crime but the crimes of the elite do more harm. They also argue that law enforcement is selective, working in favour of elites and that crime control and punishment perform ideological functions.

NB this post has been written primarily for students of A-level sociology studying for the second year exam in crime and deviance with theory and methods.

Introduction/ The basics

  • Traditional Marxist theories explain crime in relation to power inequalities created by the capitalist system
  • The inequalities and injustices within Capitalism generate crime.
  • Class based analysis – both classes commit crime, the crimes of the elite are more harmful
  • The Bourgeoisie h- have economic power and because of this control the criminal justice system – they defined their own harmful acts as legal and are less likely to be prosecuted for the crimes they commit.
  • Historical Period (for Marxist Criminology) The 1970s

Crimogenic Capitalism

  • Crime is a consequence of the economic structure of capitalism
  • Capitalism is harsh, exploitative and breeds inequality, materialism and selfishness, which combined make crime in Capitalist societies inevitable. See David Gordon’s work on the ‘Dog eat Dog’ society
  • The Elite Make the Law in Their Own Interests
  • William Chambliss: At the heart of the capitalist system lies the protection of private property
  • Laureen Snider – Many nation states are reluctant to pass laws which restrict the freedom of Transnational Corporations to make profit
  • There is unequal access to the law – the more money you have, the better lawyer you can get
  • Harmful and exploitative acts in capitalist systems are not formally labelled criminal if these harmful activities make a profit – e.g. Colonialism/ Numerous Wars/ Pollution.

All Classes Commit Crime and the Crimes of the Powerful are of particular interest to Marxist Criminologists

  • White Collar Crime = Individual middle class/ elite crime within a company , Corporate = Institutional crime
  • Typical e.g’s include various types of fraud and negligence regarded health and safety at work.
  • The economic costs of Corporate Crime are greater than street crime (Laureen Snider/ Corporate Watch.
  • High profile Corporate Crimes = Bernie Madhoff, the Enron $100bn fraud and the 20 000 dead people as a result of Union Carbide’s corporate negligence in Bhopal, India.
  • Despite being more costly to society, the crimes of the elite tend to go unpunished – As research by Tombs and Whyte suggests

The ideological functions of selective law enforcement

According to Gordon ‘selective law enforcement’ benefits the Capitalist system in three major ways:

  • we ignore the failings of the system that lead to the conditions of inequality which generate crime.
  • The imprisonment of selected members of the lower classes neutralises opposition to the system.
  • sweeps out of sight the ‘worst jetsam of Capitalist society’ such that we cannot see it.

Positive Evaluations of Marxist Theories of Crime

  • Dog eat Dog explains both WC and Elite crime
  • TTIP is good supporting evidence for point 2not lone individuals
  • Lots of case studies and stats support the view that Corporate Crimes are harmful – Bhopal!
  • Tombs and Whyte’s research – strongly supports point 3

Criticisms of Marxist Theories of Crime

  • X – Crime has been decreasing in the UK in the last 20 years, yet we’re increasingly ‘neoliberal’
  • X – Crime existed before Capitalism and in Communist societies
  • X – Consensus theories argue most people today have private property, so most people are protected by the law
  • X – It’s unfair to compare corporate crime such as Fraud to street crime, the later has a more emotional toll.
  • X – Some Corporate Crminals are punished (e.g. Madhoff)

Signposting and Related Posts

These are brief revision notes for A-level sociology, written with the AQA sociology A level paper 2: crime and deviance with theory and methods (7192/3) in mind.

If you need to read over this topic in more depth then check out this long form version of the Marxist Theory of Crime here

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