Sociology AS: The study of Sociology (Unit 1.1)
Structural versus social action theories
There are two main types of
or macro perspectives examine
the way in which society as a whole fits together. Examples include Marxism and functionalism. They tend to see human activity as a product of
- Social action,
interpretive or micro perspectives
examine smaller groups of people in society and are concerned with the subjective states of individuals.
They tend to see society as a product of human activity. Examples include symbolic interactionism
and Weber’s theory of social
action. However, many theories do not fit neatly into one category or the
other, there are variations within perspectives and some perspectives and
individual studies combine elements of both approaches. For example, Weber used both structural and
social action perspectives in his general approach, and postmodernism cannot be readily
categorized in terms of these concepts.
- Functionalism views society as a system with interconnected parts.
- Early functionalists used a biological analogy, comparing parts of society to parts of the
human body (e.g. the government was compared to the brain).
- In terms of this analogy, both humans and societies
have certain basic needs (or functional
prerequisites) that must be met if they are to survive.
institutions are held to meet these basic needs (e.g. families provide
socialization which helps meet
a basic need for a common culture).
- Institutions are studied by identifying the way in
which they contribute to meeting needs.
- The function
of an institution is seen in terms of its contribution to the survival of
the whole (ie. Society).
- Some functionalists accept that there may be aspects
of society which are dysfunctional
– which prevent it from operating smoothly – but they generally pay little
attention to them.
- Functionalism has been accused of having a conservative ideology. It tends to
support preservation of the status quo, since anything that persists in
society is seen as providing a useful function.
- Durkheim believed that people were constrained by social facts: ways of acting,
thinking and feeling in a society.
- Shared moral
codes shaped individual consciousnesses.
- Social facts were caused by other social facts (e.g.
the influence of religion on suicide rates) but could also be explained in
terms of the functions they
performed for society.
- Parts of society would only persist if they served
- Societies needed a collective conscience, or shared morality, in order to
- Modern industrial societies could be disrupted by the
existence of anomie (normlessness) and egoism
(where individuals are not integrated into social groups) Both of these stemmed from a complex division of labour.
People did specialist jobs, and this weakened solidarity in society.
believed that all societies needed a value
consensus based upon shared
- Societies developed rules based upon this value consensus and norms about how people should behave, which fitted in with the
- When individuals are socialized to accept the values,
goals and norms, and where this works smoothly, social equilibrium is achieved.
- Parsons saw societies as a system with four basic
needs or functional prerequisites:
– the need for an economic system to ensure the survival of members of
attainment – the need to set goals, a function primarily carried out
by the government.
– the need to control conflict, a function carried out by the legal
maintenance – the maintenance of values, achieved largely through
education, religion and family life.
- Parsons saw change in terms of a shift in values from
pattern variables A to pattern variables B. Under the former, status was based on ascription, and people were
treated as specific individuals. Under the latter, in modern societies
status is based upon achievement, and individuals are judged according to
impartial universalistic standards
(e.g. exam systems).
- Social change also involves the development of
specialist institutions, such as those of the welfare state – a process
called structural differentiation.
Robert K. Merton
- Merton was
a functionalist, but he accepted that societies did not always work
- He argued that parts of society could be dysfunctional and might prevent
society from running smoothly.
Functionalism – a critique
- Functionalism has been accused of being teleological – ie
it confuses cause and effect. The functions of an institution are the
effects it has rather than the reasons why it exists.
- Functionalism assumes, without putting forward
evidence, that a value consensus exists, and it ignores conflict and diversity in society.
- Functionalism is too deterministic. It sees human behaviour as shaped by the needs
of the social system, and makes no allowance for the fact that individuals
have choices about how they behave.
- Gouldner (1971) argues that functionalism ignores the
extent to which people are coerced
in society to do things they do not wish to do.
(1970) argues that functionalism ignores conflicts of interest
between groups, which tend to destabilize social systems.
- Turner and
(1979) argue that functionalism remains useful for understanding social
structures and how they influence behaviour, although it does have many
Conflict perspectives take many forms – e.g. Marxism, feminism,
anti-racism – but all agree that there are different groups in society with
- Karl Marx
saw history in terms of conflict between social classes.
- Marxism is based upon a philosophy of dialectical materialism: the idea that history proceeds through the clash
of material forces, particularly classes.
- Marx saw human society as based upon work and the production of goods.
Hence he argued that society has a material base.
- In the earliest stages of history, under primitive communism, there was no
economic surplus and no private wealth, so classes did not exist.
- As some individuals began to accumulate wealth (e.g. herds of animals),
and passed it down to their children, classes emerged.
tended to be monopolized by a ruling-class
minority (those who owned the means
of production) who
dominated a subject-class majority.
- This caused tension and provided the potential for conflict.
- The ruling class used their control over institutions
such as religion to justify or legitimate
their position and persuade the subject class that they were not being exploited.
- Humans became increasingly alienated from their true selves and their true interests. Religion was a form of alienation,
since people created in their minds a non-existent alien being which then
controlled their behaviour.
- In capitalist societies, where people worked for
wages and companies made profits, workers were alienated from their work.
They were alienated because they worked for others and did not own the
products they produced.
- An end to alienation and exploitation could only be
achieved in a communist society
in which there was no private property. Instead there would be communal ownership of the means of production. There would be no classes
and therefore no exploitation. Instead of working for others to make a
profit, people would work for the good of the society as a whole.
- All societies apart from communist ones have two main
classes; the owners of the
means of production (the ruling class) and the non-owners of the means of production ( the
- The means of
production are those things that are necessary to produce other
things, such as land, capital, raw materials, machinery and labour power.
- In capitalist societies,
the ruling class or bourgeoisie
owned capital (money used to
finance production), whereas the subject class, or proletariat, owned only their own labour power which they had to sell to the bourgeoisie.
- The bourgeoisie used the supersturucture – the
non-economic parts of society such as education, religion and the state –
to stabilize society.
- They encouraged the development of false class consciousness whereby people saw
society as fair and just.
- Eventually the proletariat (or working class) would
become aware that they were being exploited,
and they would develop class
consciousness (an awareness of their true class interests).
- The proletariat would be increasingly exploited, they
would suffer from slumps in the capitalist system and they would become
aware of increasing inequality
between themselves and the bourgeoisie.
- They would organize themselves into trade union,
political parties and revolutionary movements, overthrow capitalism and
establish a communist society.
Marxism – a critique
- Critics have argued that as capitalism has developed,
class consciousness has reduced
rather than increased.
societies did not end inequality and exploitation, and they tended to be
unpopular and to restrict individual liberty. By the early 1990s most
communist regimes had collapsed.
- Marxism seems to exaggerate the importance of
economic factors, ignoring the influence of ideas and culture (e.g. Weber’s Protestant ethic theory).
- Marxism has been accused of economic determinism – seeing individuals’ behaviour as
determined by the economic system and neglecting the extent to which
individuals have free choice.
- Marxism emphasizes class differences and pays too
little attention to gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, lifestyle, etc.
- Defenders of Marxism argue that it is not truly an
economically deterministic theory. Marx emphasized that individuals and
groups had to make their own history, but the economic structure
determined the context in which that process took place.
Neo-Marxists are new Marxists who are strongly influenced by Marx
but reject oneor more aspects of his work.
Antonio Gramsci is one example. Gramsci suggested that
ownership of the means of production was not enough to win ruling-class
control. It needed to make alliances with other classes and make some real
concessions in order to attain hegemony
saw aspects of the superstructure as
having some independence from the ruling class.
Neo-Marxists tend to place more
emphasis on cultural and ideological factors than Marx himself
did. In doing so they rather water down the ability of Marxism to explain how
society works in economic terms.
Conflict theories emphasize the importance of conflict between
different groups in society, but they do not place emphasis on class alone. Conflict may take place between occupational
groupings, men and women, ethnic or religious groups, age groups, heterosexuals
and homosexuals, the disabled and able-bodied, and so on.
Weber’s views on class, status and parties illustrate aspects of conflict theory.
Social action and interpretive perspectives
- Some of these approaches deny the existence of a
clear social structure that
tends to direct individual behaviour.
- Some accept the existence of a structure but see it
as shaped by individuals.
Weber combined a consideration of social structure (e.g. classes,
status groups and bureaucracies) with a concern with social action. He described
sociology as the study of social action – which he defines as any intentional,
meaningful behaviour which takes account of the existence of other people.
Explaining social action requires
Verstehen, or understanding. You need to understand
what actions mean to people – e.g. it is possible to understand that a
woodcutter with a piece of wood and an axe is chopping wood. But you also need
to understand the motive behind an
An example is the Protestant ethic study, in which Weber
discusses the meaning of Protestantism to some of its followers and their
motives for working hard to reinvest money.
Weber accepts the existence of institutions
such as bureaucracies, but he sees
them as consisting of individuals carrying out social actions.
- Bureaucracies are organizations with sets of rules and hierarchical relationships (e.g. the civil service or large
- In bureaucracies individuals carry out rational social action: social action intended to achieve particular
goals, such as increasing the profits of a company.
Weber saw the
modern world as increasingly governed by rational social action (or process of rationalization). Pre-modern societies
were regulated more by traditional
social action: people behaved in certain ways because people had long
behaved in those ways.
societies governed by rational social action there was far more scope for innovation, but to some extent
bureaucracies with strict rules stifled individual creativity.
neither a materialist (like Marx)
who believed that material forces shaped history, nor an idealist who believed that ideas shaped history. Instead, Weber
believed that both materialism and idealism played a part in explaining human
history. For example, the development of capitalism required both the right
material conditions and the religious ideas of Protestantism.
Weber – a critique
- Weber has been criticized by Lee and Newby (1983) as a methodological individualist – somebody who reduces
everything to the actions of individuals and ignores how social structure
- To the extent that Weber does deal with social
structure, what he says seems to contradict some of his ideas on the
importance of individual social action.
deny that the contemporary social world is increasingly characterized
George Herbert Mead
- Mead is
usually seen as the founder of symbolic
- Human behaviour is social because people interact in
terms of symbols.
- Symbols (e.g. words or flags) stand for other objects
and imply certain behaviour –
e.g. the symbol ‘chair’ implies an object that you can sit on.
- Humans do not have instincts, and thus they need symbols in order to survive and
interact. For example, they need symbols for different plants which
indicate whether they are edible or poisonous.
- Meanings and
symbols are largely shared by
members of society.
- In order to understand the behaviour of others, it is
necessary to take the role of the
other: i.e. imagine that you are them in order to try to understand
the reasons for their behaviour.
- Individuals have a self – an image of what sort of person they are. This largely
reflects how other people react to them. By taking the role of the other
(imagining how others see us) we build up a self concept. For example, we come to see ourselves as brave
or cowardly, hard or soft.
- Society has a culture
and a plurality of social roles e.g. the roles of
husband and wife. These roles imply certain behaviour, but the roles are
flexible and can change. For example, there is considerable leeway in how
people carry out different family roles.
Other interactionists, such as Herbert Blumer, have developed Mead’s
- Blumer emphasizes that
people do not react automatically to external stimuli but interpret their meaning before reacting (e.g. they
interpret the meaning of a stimulus such as a red light before deciding
how to react to it).
- Meanings develop during interaction and are not
- Rules and structures restrict social action
and shape the interpretation of meaning to some extent, but they are never
absolutely rigid and fixed.
Symbolic interactionism – a critique
- Interactionists fail to
explain where the norms which partly
shape behaviour come from.
- They may underestimate the degree to which human
behaviour is constrained.
- They neglect the role of structural factors – such as the unequal distribution of power
and the existence of inequality – in shaping human societies.
Phenomenology is a European philosophy. Like other social action
approaches it is concerned with subjective meanings, but unlike them it denies
that you can produce causal explanations
of human behaviour.
- According to its founder, Husserl, individuals organize chaotic sensory experience into phenomena.
- Phenomena are things which are held to have
characteristics in common – e.g. the category ‘dog’ includes a range of
animals with particular characteristics.
- The emphasis is on the subjective nature of the categorization. Although a real
world exists, how it is categorized is a matter of human choice rather
than an objective process.
- The purpose of phenomenology is to understand the essence of phenomena – the
essential charactistics which lead to something
being placed in a particular category.
- An example of phenomenology is Atkinson’s work on suicide,
which looks at why certain events are categorized as suicides, rather than
looking at the causes of suicide.
Uniting structural and social action approaches
As discussed, there are two main
approaches in sociology:
approaches (which emphasize how social structures shape social
- Social action
approaches (which emphasize how social groups produce society through
have increasingly tried to combine these two approaches.
Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills
(1959) suggested that you needed to understand how the larger historical
scene affected individuals.
Giddens – the theory of structuration
Giddens advocates structuration
theory. He sees structure and action as two sides of the same coin.
make social action possible,
but social actions create the structures.
- Giddens calls this the duality of structure.
- This can be illustrated by language. Grammar is the structure of language, but
individuals create the structure by taking and writing in ways that follow
grammatical rules. If people start to use language in a different way,
then grammatical rules will change. However, people can only use language
and understand each other because there is some grammatical structure.
- In the same way, societal
structures and institutions are
reproduced through people’s actions, but if their actions change, the
structures and institutions change.
Critics of Giddens, such as Margaret Archer (1982), argue that he puts too much emphasis on people’s
ability to change society by acting differently, and he underestimates the
constraints under which people operate.
Modernity, postmodernity and postmodernism
It is possible to distinguish two
types of theoretical approach within sociology:
theories – such as those of Durkheim, Marx
and Weber – argue that the objective
truth about society can be discovered.
on the other hand, argues against the idea of objective truth. Some
sociologists distinguish different eras inhuman
development and argue that there has been a move from modernity to postmodernity, although others dispute this.
Many sociologists have
distinguished between premodern and modern societies.
The change is often associated with industrialization.
- Marx, Weber, Durkheim and most classic
sociologists saw the development of modernity as progress.
- The Enlightenment
(an eighteenth-century intellectual movement) is often seen as the
starting point of modernity. The Enlightenment reject
the idea that thinking should be limited by religious beliefs and
tradition and argued that
humans could work out the best way to organize societies for themselves.
- Weber in
particular saw the change to modernity in terms of the triumph of scientific rationality over
superstition, tradition and religious faith.
Postmodern theorists reject the
idea that human society can be perfected through rational thought; they reject the idea that grand theories can discover the truth. Postmodernism first developed in architecture. It rejected modern
concrete, steel and glass tower blocks, which some modern architects saw as the
solution to the problem of accommodating people.
Postmodern architecture uses a
greater variety of styles and uses the architecture of earlier eras rather than
just using modern materials and designs.
There are two particularly influential postmodern theorists: Lyotard and Baudrillard.
Lyotard – postmodernism and knowledge
- Lyotard argues that the
move to postmodern culture started in the 1950s.
- It involves changes in language-games.
- Pre-industrial societies had a language-game based on
narrative. The narrator of
stories has legitimacy because of who they are (e.g.
their position within a tribe).
- With the Enlightenment, denotative language-games became dominant. In these,
statements are judged in terms of abstract standards of proof, deriving
- Science itself is based upon metanarratives – big stories which give meaning
to other narratives. Metanarratives behind
science see progress through science and conquering nature as possible.
Such metanarratives influenced events such as
the French Revolution and helped to make Marxism popular in the twentieth century.
- Postmodernism leads to ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’. The metanarratives
of the twentieth century failed to solve the world’s and in fact madre things worse. For example, Marxism led to
tyranny in the communist USSR.
People no longer believe in a simple recipe for progress.
- In postmodernism, denotative language-games are
replaced by technical
language-games. These are not judged by standards of truth, but by
standards of usefulness.
- Postmodern society is based upon producing saleable, useful knowledge rather than searching
for eternal truths.
- Postmodern society is more diverse, pluralistic
and tolerant than modern
societies in which doctrinaire metanarratives
Lyotard – a ctitique
- Critics argue that Lyotard’s
theory is itself a sweeping metanarrative about
the development of society.
- He advances little evidence to support his theory.
- The Marxist Terry Eagleton sees Lyotard’s theory as justification for uncontrolled
capitalism which puts profit before human well-being.
Baudrillard – Simulations
sees society as moving through several stages.
He argues that Marxists are wrong to see contemporary society as based
on the production of material goods.
The economy is increasingly based on the production and sale if signs and images – e.g. the image of
pop stars is what sells rather than the content of their records.
Signs have developed through four
- Signs are a reflection of a basic reality.
- Signs become a distortion
- Signs disguise the absence of reality (e.g. images of a non-existent God).
- Signs bear no relation to any reality – signs become simulacra.
- Disneyland, which
reproduces imaginary worlds such as ‘Future World’.
- The mummy of Rameses II,
which was transformed by attempts to preserve it.
- Los Angeles,
which Baudrillard sees as an ‘immense script… a
perpetual motion picture’.
Baudrillard believes that politics has imploded
into a meaningless exchange of signs in which politicians have no real power. People become trapped in a situation where images and reality cannot be separated, particularly through watching TV.
Boudrillard – a critique
- Baudrillard’s arguments are
highly abstract and not based
on systematic research.
(1990) suggests that the decisions made by politicians make a real
difference to people’s lives.
- Baudrillard makes absurd statements such as claiming
that the Gulf War was simply a series of images on TV screens.
Harvey – Marxism and postmodernity
Harvey accepts that we are moving towards a
postmodern era, but he rejects postmodern theory. He believes that modern
theories such as Marxism can be used
to understand and explain postmodernity.
- He emphasizes the role of the economy in changing society.
- He accepts that images
have become more important but sees this as part of capitalists’ attempts
to maintain and increase profit.
- He argues that the economic crisis of the 1970s (which followed a rise in oil
prices) made it difficult to make profits out of mass production.
- Firms moved towards a system of flexible accumulation,
in which there are frequent shifts in consumer demand and the products
produced by firms
- Capitalism increasingly turns cultural products (such
as fashion, music and art) into commodities
to be bought and sold.
- Time and space
become compressed, as people
can travel and communicate more easily, and products from around the world
become available in local stores.
- This produces unsettled, rapidly changing cultures.
- There is a process of globalization in which governments lose some power to control
events in their own territory.
Harvey therefore accepts that there is a move
towards postmodernity but believes that this can be
understood in terms of modern social
theory. He also believes that the planned
improvement of society is still possible.
Modern theories of society and the
sociology of modernity.
There are numerous sociologists
who reject postmodern theories and still argue that societies can be
understood, explained and improved. Anthony
- Giddens believes that
societies have enetered an era of high modernity.
- Despite important changes, such as globalization, key features of
modern societies remain.
- In particular, societies are still based upon the
modern characteristic of reflexivity.
- Reflexivity involves people reflecting upon the world and
thinking about acting differently in future to improve things.
- People increasingly reflect upon all aspect of their
lives and consider changing them.
- This makes contemporary culture increasingly
unsettled and changeable. This is not, however, a feature of postmodernity but an extension and development of a
key feature of modernity
The Study of Sociology Unit 1.1)