Sociology AS: The study of Sociology (Unit 1.1)


Structural versus social action theories

There are two main types of sociological theory:

  1. Structural 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 structure.
  2. 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.
  • Social 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.


Emile Durkheim

  • 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 useful functions.
  • Societies needed a collective conscience, or shared morality, in order to function successfully.
  • 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.


Talcott Parsons

  • Parsons believed that all societies needed a value consensus based upon shared goals.
  • Societies developed rules based upon this value consensus and norms about how people should behave, which fitted in with the overall goals.
  • 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:
  1. Adaptation – the need for an economic system to ensure the survival of members of society.
  2. Goal attainment – the need to set goals, a function primarily carried out by the government.
  3. Integration – the need to control conflict, a function carried out by the legal system.
  4. Pattern 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 smoothly.
  • He argued that parts of society could be dysfunctional and might prevent society from running smoothly.


Functionalism – a critique

  1. Functionalism has been accused of being teleologicalie it confuses cause and effect. The functions of an institution are the effects it has rather than the reasons why it exists.
  2. Functionalism assumes, without putting forward evidence, that a value consensus exists, and it ignores conflict and diversity in society.
  3. 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.
  4. Gouldner (1971) argues that functionalism ignores the extent to which people are coerced in society to do things they do not wish to do.
  5. Lockwood (1970) argues that functionalism ignores conflicts of interest between groups, which tend to destabilize social systems.
  6. Turner and Maryanski (1979) argue that functionalism remains useful for understanding social structures and how they influence behaviour, although it does have many flaws.


Conflict perspectives

Conflict perspectives take many forms – e.g. Marxism, feminism, anti-racism – but all agree that there are different groups in society with conflicting interests.



  • 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.
  • Power 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 subject class).
  • 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

  1. Critics have argued that as capitalism has developed, class consciousness has reduced rather than increased.
  2. Communist 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.
  3. Marxism seems to exaggerate the importance of economic factors, ignoring the influence of ideas and culture (e.g. Weber’s Protestant ethic theory).
  4. 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.
  5. Marxism emphasizes class differences and pays too little attention to gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, lifestyle, etc.
  6. 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 (political domination).


Gramsci 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 theory

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.


Max Weber

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 action.


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 corporations).
  • 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.


In modern societies governed by rational social action there was far more scope for innovation, but to some extent bureaucracies with strict rules stifled individual creativity.


Weber was 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

    1. 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 shapes society.
    2. 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.
    3. Postmodernists deny that the contemporary social world is increasingly characterized by rationalization.


Symbolic interactionism

George Herbert Mead

  • Mead is usually seen as the founder of symbolic interactionism.
  • 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.


Herbert Blumer

Other interactionists, such as Herbert Blumer, have developed Mead’s approach.

  • 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 fixed.
  • 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

  1. Interactionists fail to explain where the norms which partly shape behaviour come from.
  2. They may underestimate the degree to which human behaviour is constrained.
  3. 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:

  1. Structural approaches (which emphasize how social structures shape social action).
  2. Social action approaches (which emphasize how social groups produce society through their actions).


Sociologists have increasingly tried to combine these two approaches.

In The 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.

  • Structures 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:

  1. Modern theories – such as those of Durkheim, Marx and Weber – argue that the objective truth about society can be discovered.
  2. Postmodernism, 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 theories

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 from science.
  • 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 dominated.


Lyotard – a ctitique

  1. Critics argue that Lyotard’s theory is itself a sweeping metanarrative about the development of society.
  2. He advances little evidence to support his theory.
  3. The Marxist Terry Eagleton sees Lyotard’s theory as justification for uncontrolled capitalism which puts profit before human well-being.


Baudrillard – Simulations

Like Lyotard, Baudrillard 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 stages:

  1. Signs are a reflection of a basic reality.
  2. Signs become a distortion of reality.
  3. Signs disguise the absence of reality (e.g. images of a non-existent God).
  4. Signs bear no relation to any reality – signs become simulacra.

Examples of simulacra are:

  • 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

  1. Baudrillard’s arguments are highly abstract and not based on systematic research.
  2. Harvey (1990) suggests that the decisions made by politicians make a real difference to people’s lives.
  3. 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 is one example.

  • 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



(Sociology AS The Study of Sociology Unit 1.1)