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Introducing Sociology

Last edited: 07/10/2016

I have made a few minor changes to some of the brief assignments included in this document, mended some previously broken links [with apologies!] and introduced some new links and more recent data sources. 

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Click here for several short items on the nature of Sociology and different sociological perspectives

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Learning Objectives

 

1.     Awareness of brief definitions of Sociology

2.  Familiarity with the overall subject matter of Sociology

3.  Appreciation of the nature of sociological explanation

4.  Understanding of the historical origins of modern Sociology

5.  Sociological Perspectives

6.  Is Sociology a “scientific” subject?

 

 

 

As I begin to type this  document I imagine the following situations.

  1. During afternoon break on the first day of your course some non-Sociology student asks you what Sociology is.

  2. Another non-Sociology student asks you the same question at the end of the first half-term. How different will your answers be?

In the document I aim to provide an introduction to Sociology which will be suitable for students beginning  the first year of the new two year Advanced Level  Sociology course or the new one year AS Sociology course. As is indicated below the document is divided into three sections and three appendices  which you may access by the following links. You will also find several short activities at intervals throughout the document which will hopefully support your learning

 

Section 1.   Some brief definitions of Sociology

 

Section 2.   The subject matter of Sociology and key sociological questions

 

Section 3.  The nature of sociological explanation

 

Appendix 1. The historical development of Sociology

 

Appendix 2. Sociological Perspectives

 

Appendix 3.  Is Sociology a scientific subject?

 

 

 

 

·        Section 1.  Sociology: Some Brief Definitions

 

Sociologists have provided several similar short definitions of Sociology. For example it has been defined as "the objective study of human social behaviour in so far as it is affected by the fact that people live in groups” [B.Sugarman 1968] and “as one of the social sciences. Its purpose is the scientific study of human society through the investigation of the social behaviour of man” {S. Giner 1972]. Useful though these definitions certainly are they also raise questions which require further consideration. Thus, for example we might ask whether the study of human behaviour can be totally “objective” [Sugarman] or “scientific” [Giner] while  the precise meaning of the phrases “in so far as it is affected by the fact that people live in groups “ and “the social behaviour of man” require further clarification. For purposes of this document I replace the words “objective” and “scientific” with the word “systematic” such that my own brief definition of Sociology is "the systematic study of human behaviour in the groups and institutions which make up particular societies". I shall enlarge gradually on these brief definitions below.

 

 

·       Section 2. The Subject Matter Of Modern Sociology and Key Sociological Questions

 

In the following table I list the major topics which are typically covered in Sociology textbooks together with some key questions which are asked in relation to these topics. You could also consult your subject specification to see the types of issues that are raised in relation to the modules that you are going to study..

 

 

Key Topics in Sociology

 

Some Key Sociological Questions

The Nature of Sociology

    What is Sociology?

 

Patterns of Social Inequality

    How can we describe trends in the distribution of personal wealth in the UK?

 

The Sociology of Education

    Is the UK education system working effectively?

    [see also below]

Families and Households

Are housework and childcare responsibilities shared equally?

 

Crime and Deviance

Is crime on the increase? How could you find out?

 

Religion

   Is Religion on the decline in the UK? If so, why?

 

Political Sociology

What social factors influence voting behaviour?

 

Work and Leisure

How might our work affect our leisure activities?

 

The Mass Media

Are the mass media biased?

 

The Sociology of Development

   Why are some countries poor and others rich?

 

Sociological Theories

   What are the strengths and weaknesses of Marxism, Functionalism, Social Action Theory and Feminism? [These are the main broad theoretical perspectives used in Sociology.]

 

Sociological Methods

What are the strengths and weaknesses of official statistics, questionnaires, interviews and observational methods? [These are the main research methods used by sociologists.]

 

 

 

 

There are significant differences in the AS and Advanced Level  Sociology Specifications provided by the different examination bodies but at this point students might choose to consult their own  Sociology Specification and list 3 typical questions which will be addressed in the first Sociology Unit  which they will be studying.

 

  1.  

 

 

Activity: In my website documents you will find links to various other sites which sometimes form the basis for study activities. Here is the first example!

 

Please click on the link  to a recent Department for Education Document. Scroll down  to Page 10 to answer questions 1 and 2 and to page 9 to answer question 3.

Answer the following questions

 

1. According to the statistics which ethnic group is most successful at GCSE level?

 

2. Which ethnic group is least successful?

 

3. Are males or females more successful at GCSE level?

 

4. Write down two possible reasons for the gender difference in educational achievement shown in the statistics.

 

 

 

 

·       Section 3. The Nature of Sociological Explanation

 

The subject matter of Sociology has been outlined above but we must note also that sociologists adopt their own particular approach to the explanation of sociological issues. In order to clarify the nature of sociological explanation we must distinguish between naturalistic, individualistic and sociological explanation. As you will see both naturalistic and individualistic explanation are described as non-sociological explanations.

 

In order to describe “Naturalistic Explanation” I shall use examples related to marriage, the family and gender differences in employment patterns in the UK.

Especially in the first half of the C20th family life in industrial societies such as the UK usually followed fairly regular patterns.

The vast majority of adults would form heterosexual relationships apparently based upon some combination of friendship, sexual attraction and romantic love leading to heterosexual marriage usually around the ages of 20-30.

 Children would rarely be born out of wedlock and  couples, once married, probably would produce a relatively small number of children; Responsibilities for child care and housework would be taken mainly by full-time housewives who ceased paid employment once they married .

Meanwhile husbands would remain in full-time employment in order to provide financial support for their families but would often participate only to a limited extent in housework and childcare.

Furthermore single women and married women who were in paid employment were usually restricted to a relatively narrow range of occupations such as secretarial or shop work or in a minority of cases to the so-called lower professions such as nursing or teaching .

Women were excluded from the traditional male preserves of physically demanding unskilled work, skilled manual work and the higher professions.

All of the above patterns of behaviour might in principle be explained in terms of some basic human instincts or of human nature which mean that it is simply natural for young adults to become romantically and/or sexually attracted to a member of the opposite sex; natural for them to wish to spend their entire life time with the object of their ongoing affection and natural for them to wish to produce children in accordance with their strong maternal and paternal instincts.

Furthermore the relative strength of the maternal instinct combined with the assumed greater innate sensitivity of the female means that it is entirely natural for married women rather than men  to take the primary responsibility for childcare and housework [even when married women were also in full-time employment] while the greater natural competitiveness and greater physical strength of the male means that he is more suited than the female to paid employment both in occupations demanding greater physical strength and those requiring the psychological toughness often necessary in highly pressured and highly paid professional environments.

The nature of marriage and entire gender division of childcare, housework and employment may therefore be explained, in principle, solely in terms of natural instincts and natural gender differences in sensitivity and physical and/or psychological toughness. However, as we shall see, most sociologists argue that explanations which are couched in terms of human instinct or human nature can provide only a limited and partial explanation of human behaviour.

 

Activity:  

Use a Naturalistic Explanation to explain the following behaviour patterns

  1. Young girls are far more likely to play with dolls than young boys.
  2. Teenage girls are far more likely to cry than teenage boys.
  3. Males are on average far more aggressive than females.
  4. There are very few female brick layers in the UK.
  5. Infant or First school teachers are disproportionately likely to be female.

 

 

Even though all humans are members of the human race individuals humans  behave differently in many respects. They are more or less successful in school and employment; more or less prone to poverty and unemployment; more or less healthy; more or less prone to excessive alcohol consumption; more or less happy in their personal lives; more or less prone to law abiding or criminal behaviour; and even more or less likely to commit suicide.

These differences in human behaviour cannot be explained by the possession of a human nature which is similar for everybody but they might be explained by individual differences in individual biological and/or psychological characteristics which may have been genetically inherited or by the varying capacities of individuals to develop positive and negative character traits.

For example using the individualistic approach it is argued that some individuals may inherit genetically high levels of intelligence, psychological well being and physical strength which help to ensure that they will progress easily from educational success to well paid employment whereas those with a less favourable genetic inheritance may well be destined for low skill, low paid, low status employment.

Also in the individualistic approach differences in human behaviour may be explained not by genetic inheritance but by the willingness or unwillingness of individuals to develop appropriate attitudes and values when they have been given the opportunity to do so.

Various arguments of this general type are advanced:

1.      the relative educational success and failure of individual students may be explained in terms of individual differences in inherited intelligence;

2.      unemployed workers may be unemployed because of their unwillingness to learn appropriate skills and/or the readiness to rely upon state social security benefits rather than to support themselves through gainful employment;

3.      individuals who divorce have failed to work hard enough at their marriages;

4.      young single parents have behaved irresponsibly without consideration of the consequences;

5.      people committing suicide have their own personal reasons for so doing.

 

 

Activity

  1. Use an individualistic explanation to explain why some people experience poverty while others accumulate great wealth.
  2. Use an individualistic explanation to explain why some people commit crimes while others obey the law.
  3. Use an individualistic explanation to explain why some people are more successful than others in education.

 

Sociologists are critical of both naturalistic and individualistic explanations of human behaviour and argue instead that human behaviour can be explained at least partly in terms of the combined effects of culture and social structure on behaviour.

·         Sociological Explanation

The key point about sociological explanation is that although there are important differences of opinion within Sociology, all sociologists agree that human behaviour can be explained to a considerable effect by the social factors that influence that behaviour. That is if we assume that human behaviour may explained partly by heredity [= "nature"] and partly by the environment [="nurture"], sociologists wish to emphasise the significance of environment/nurture in the overall explanation of human behaviour and they use evidence of the effects of non-socialisation and from cross -cultural and historical studies to illustrate the importance of the social influences on individual behaviour.

Firstly  isolated cases where children  have apparently not been brought up in human societies or where contacts with other human beings have been woefully inadequate suggest that the acquisition of language and social skills does not occur instinctively but only as a result of social interaction with other human beings.

Secondly comparative studies of different societies or of the same society at different times also suggest that much human behaviour is learned rather than innate or instinctive. For example it may be widely assumed in contemporary Western society that observable gender differences in character traits and employment patterns derive from innate, genetic differences with men being physically stronger, more aggressive and adventurous and women the weaker, more sensitive sex. It might also be assumed that it is natural and instinctive for young men and women to fall in love, marry, settle down and raise a family with women playing the major role in the rearing of children.

However in some other societies, the character traits of men and women are reversed, romantic love is unheard of and women play a lesser role in the rearing of children. Furthermore in parts of Latin America there are many female miners and many female builders' labourers in India while in our own society attitudes to gender roles in the family and in employment have changed considerably in recent years.

The above examples of so-called "non-socialisation" and the evidence of historical and cross cultural studies point to the importance of the socialisation process in the explanation of human behaviour where by the "socialisation process" we mean " the process by which individuals learn their culture" where "culture" is defined as " the language, beliefs, values, norms, customs, roles, knowledge and skills which combine to make up the way of life or each particular society.

 

Activity:

Gender, Employment and Family Life in the UK in the Twenty First Century: The Importance of Gender Differences in Socialisation.

1.      Click on the following Guardian link . What are the main conclusions of the article in relation to women and employment?

2.  How may girls especially before the 1960s have been socialised within their families to adopt attitudes and values which discouraged them from opting for well paid professional careers?

3.  How may this process have continued at school?

4.   How may the mass media have helped to persuade girls of the attractiveness of a future as housewife and mother?

5.   How do your answers help to illustrate the differences between sociological and non-sociological explanation?

  

 

It is important to note also that sociologists emphasise the importance of patterns of social inequality as factors influencing human behaviour. For example if we imagine two school pupils each of whom recognise  the importance of educational achievement , they may nevertheless not be equally educationally successful if one pupil's parents can afford to purchase additional books, internet access and private tuition while the other pupil's parents cannot.

  

Activity: Patterns of Educational Achievement in the UK in the Twenty First  Century: The Importance of Social Inequality.

  1. Click on the following  link to a recent Department for Education document on trends in educational attainment. Scroll down to page 7

  2. What does the diagram tell you about the relationships between free school meal eligibility and educational attainment ?

  3. Why may pupils from economically disadvantaged backgrounds have a more restricted choice of schooling than pupils from more affluent backgrounds?

  4. Why may schools in economically deprived areas achieve worse examination results than schools in more affluent areas?

  5. Why may economically deprived parents find it difficult to help their children with their education?

  6. How do your answers help to illustrate the differences between sociological and non-sociological explanation

  7. Return to the Department for Education document and look at some further information.

 

The above two activities are designed to illustrate how sociological explanation focuses on the nature of the socialization process and on patterns of social inequality as factors influencing human behaviour. Both of these aspects of sociological explanation will be considered in much more detail as you study your chosen  Sociology Units.

 

 

·       Appendix 1.  The Historical Circumstances Surrounding the Emergence of Modern Sociology

 

 

We may gain some further insight into the nature of Sociology via the consideration of the historical circumstances surrounding the development of Sociology as an academic subject. The foundations  modern Sociology are connected closely with the long complex processes of transition from “pre-modernity” to “modernity” in that the social, economic and political characteristics of modernity provide the subject matter for modern Sociology and the intellectual currents associated with the development of modernity have provided the rationales for the methods of inquiry used by modern sociologists. Especially important in the transition from pre-modernity to modernity have been the Enlightenment ,The American Revolution [1776], the French Revolution [1789] and the Industrial Revolution which occurred between 1780 and 1840 in the UK and later elsewhere.

 

The following extract from an Open University course on The Enlightenment provides very helpful information. [Source Open Learn: The Enlightenment]

 

2: The Enlightenment and its mission

2.1: Definitions

The Enlightenment’ is used to refer:

1.      to a chronological period (roughly, the middle and late decades of the eighteenth century between around 1740 and 1780), often also called ‘The Age of Reason’; and

2.      to the unprecedented focus on a particular set of values, attitudes and beliefs shared by prominent writers, artists and thinkers of that period.

There were changes of emphasis depending on date: it is common to distinguish, for example, between early and late Enlightenment attitudes, while the half-century beginning around 1680 is often thought of as the pre-Enlightenment. There were also different ‘varieties’ of Enlightenment depending on national, social and political contexts. The sweep of the Enlightenment was enormous: from Lisbon to Saint Petersburg and from Edinburgh to Naples. Enlightenment culture spread from one nation to another, defining a pan-European consciousness of tremendous force. Each nation added its own dimension. In France, for example, there was a much greater sense of opposition to the (Catholic) Church than in England, where the religious establishment was perceived to be far less oppressive. It is agreed that the Enlightenment was at the height of its influence in the 1760s and early 1770s. Of its most representative figures in France, Voltaire died in 1778 and Diderot in 1784 (see Figures 1 and 2). There is also a consensus that certain key attitudes characterise what we may describe as an Enlightenment outlook.

The Enlightenment consisted, in essence, of the belief that the expansion of knowledge, the application of reason, and dedication to scientific method would result in the greater progress and happiness of humankind. The Enlightenment outlook was buoyant, reformist and humanitarian. The archetypal Enlightenment thinker was confident that the world is ultimately both rational and beneficent, that nature, including humanity, is essentially good or at least not innately depraved, and that people have the potential to improve themselves and their environment and to make the world a better place

 

 

With regard to the relationship between the Enlightenment and the later emergence of Sociology we may note the following points.

 

1.  Enlightenment thinkers drew especially on the scientific revolutions of the 16th and 17th centuries to argue that traditional attitudes and values and , in some cases, the religious beliefs as expounded by the established  church had  limited social progress and human happiness and that if humanity was to make further progress what was required was a greater emphasis on the use of the scientific method for the understanding of the natural world rather than reliance on irrational thinking of various kinds.

2.  Scientific inquiry and rational analysis could provide valid explanations of natural phenomena leading to scientific and technical developments which could improve living standards and hence human happiness

3.  Enlightenment social theorists began to argue similarly that the rational analysis of societies could lead also to social and political reform which could improve the human condition. These theorists helped to some extent to create the climate of opinion which contributed to the American Revolutionary Wars of 1775-1783 and the French Revolution of 1789 although it must be emphasised that most Enlightenment thinkers espoused mildly liberal rather than radical views and few Enlightenment thinkers supported the later radical phase of the French Revolution.

4.  This Enlightenment optimism was soon criticised by conservatives who claimed that the dangerous speculations of Enlightenment theorists had opened an intellectual can of worms which led ultimately to the Terror of the latter stages of the French Revolution.

5.   It was criticised also by Romantics who claimed that the Enlightenment emphasis on science, rationality and calculation distracted attention from the importance of the emotional life which was, according to the romantics, even more central to human happiness.

6.   Nevertheless the Enlightenment emphasis on the possibility of the rational investigation of the social world would have a major influence on the development of Sociology from the c19th onwards.

7. At the same time we must certainly not underestimate in any way the contributions to Mathematics and to Science made by other non-European cultures.

 

The American, French and Industrial Revolutions resulted in what has been described the culmination of a long process of transition from pre-modernity to modernity which involved unprecedented social change. In the 19th and 20th Centuries sociologists would build on the example of Enlightenment thinking to analyse the social changes ushered in by the transition from pre-modernity to modernity. The main differences between pre-modern and modern societies are summarised below.

 

       Pre-Modern Societies

 

 Pre-modern societies were mainly small-scale, rural and based upon hunting and gathering, pastoralism or simple agriculture. Religious beliefs and traditional attitudes and values played a very significant role in these societies, while methods of scientific enquiry were as yet underdeveloped. Systems of government, methods of production and family organisation were relatively fixed and overall social change was slow with very little change in life experience from generation to generation and with very little chance for individuals to move upwards in the social hierarchy of their society.

 

·         Modern Societies

 

1.      In contrast to pre-modern societies, modern societies have become increasingly urbanised, industrialised and bureaucratic.

2.  These societies are organised very much according to rational scientific and technological principles such that although religion continues to play an important role in many people’s lives, it would be fair to say that it plays a less significant role than in pre-modern societies.

3.  The first modern societies were European societies and in their early stages they developed economic and political relationships with Africa, the Americas and Asia which meant that at least to some extent and perhaps to a considerable extent, the industrialisation of the West was has been founded upon the exploitation of the Third World, for example via the egregious slave trade.

4.  Modern societies have usually developed as capitalist societies based upon private property ownership which have been able to generate long term economic growth and improved living standards for all although these capitalist societies do experience periodic economic recessions and generate patterns of class inequality which mean that the upper and middle classes experience higher living standards than the working classes in such societies.

5.   Both women and ethnic minority members have been discriminated against in various ways in modern societies.

6.   Modern societies experienced steady long term increases in population due to the combination of rapidly falling death rates and more slowly falling birth rates.

7.   Modern societies are organised as nation states rather than as small scale localised communities with little sense of common nationhood.

8.   The governments of modern nation states are usually organised according to liberal democratic principles.

9.   Such governments may use their powers to improve the overall living standards of their members , for example via increased welfare expenditures but when international systems of state negotiation fail, they may also unleash awesome military force in the effort to achieve their political objectives, as currently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

10.  It should also be noted that some modern societies have developed along “Communist” lines as in the former USSR and Eastern Europe. Such regimes have been shown in recent years to be non-viable although the failure of these regimes tells us nothing about whether or not more effective “Communist” regimes will evolve in the future.

 

 

·         Modern Societies and Controversy within Sociology

 

 

We should note also that the analysis of these characteristics of modernity provoked great controversy within Sociology and it has been argued that many of the disputes within contemporary Sociology originate from the differences theoretical approaches to Sociology adopted by 19th Century sociologists especially Karl Marx [1818-1883], Emile Durkheim [1856-1918?] and Max Weber [1860-1924]. Thus modern Sociology comprises the alternative and competing theoretical perspectives of Marxism [deriving, obviously, from Karl Marx], Functionalism [deriving from the work of Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim among others] and Social Action Theory [deriving from the work of Max Weber among others]. However other important sociological perspectives would also be developed in the course of the Twentieth Century.

 

 

 

 

Various concise definitions of Sociology were suggested at the beginning of this document but even as you consult the early sections of textbook chapters on individual units such as Families and Households, the Sociology of Education, Welfare and Poverty and others  you will find that these topics are to be analysed from differing sociological perspectives. In this section of the document I aim to show how Sociology is indeed subdivided into a range of sociological perspectives and to outline some of the main differences between the different perspectives.

I can certainly remember finding this aspect of the work rather abstract and difficult to grasp when I first began to study Sociology "back in the day"  but I was pleased to find out also that within a few weeks as I studied actual aspects of the family or education the relevance of the different  perspectives quickly became clear so that in no time at all I was cheerfully saying, "Well, functionalists might argue that traditional gender roles are beneficial to society as a whole but this is not a view that Marxists or Feminists would accept etc. etc." and so I am sure that you too will quickly overcome any initial unfamiliarity with these new ideas. [However I have introduced a few ideas here [such as the difference between symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology that  you may find more useful in the  second year of the course than in the first  year  and your teachers will certainly be able to advise you in this respect.]

The broad classification of Sociology into its various perspectives may be illustrated diagrammatically as follows:

Sociology may be subdivided into two broad categories: Structural Sociology and Social Action Sociology

 

Structural Sociology may be divided into two categories: Structural Consensus Sociology

and Structural Conflict Sociology

Social Action Sociology may be divided into two categories:

Symbolic Interactionism and Ethnomethodology

Structural Consensus Sociology has a single variant:

Structural Functionalism

Structural Conflict Sociology includes Marxism, Weberianism and Feminist  Sociology. However Max Weber combined elements of both Structural and Social Action sociology in his work.

We may distinguish also between Marxism and Neo-Marxism and several varieties of feminism such as liberal, radical, Marxist, Black and Post-modern feminism. We may distinguish also between First, Second and Third Wave Feminism

Symbolic Interactionism Ethnomethodology  

 

And then there is Postmodernity and Postmodernism!

 

  1. Sociology may be divided into two major branches: Structural Sociology and Social Action Sociology.

  2. Structural sociologists work on the assumption that individual human behaviour is constrained heavily by the overall structures and the socialisation processes of the societies in which individuals live such that these individuals have limited freedom of manouevre.

  3. Social Action sociologists work on the assumption that although the overall structures of society do act to some extent as constraints on individual behaviour, these individuals do nevertheless have more freedom of manouevre than is suggested by the structural sociologists. According to social action theorists individuals have the ability to change the societies in which they live through their interactions with others.

  4. The Social Action perspective is often further subdivided into different categories such as Symbolic Interactionism and Ethnomethodology which shall be discussed later in the course.

  5. Also, the structural perspectives involve greater emphasis on the organisation of societies as a whole and are therefore described as macro-sociological perspectives whereas the social action or interpretive perspectives with their emphasis more on individuals and small groups are described as micro-sociological perspectives.

  6. Structural Sociology is further subdivided into Structural Consensus Sociology and Structural Conflict Sociology. Structural Consensus Sociology evolved to some extent from the work of Comte, Durkheim and Spencer and by the 1950s had developed into the Structural Functionalist perspective. These sociologists believe that societies are fairly harmonious , consensual and orderly and that it is important to analyse the factors which help to create and maintain this social order.

  7. The Structural Conflict perspective includes Marxists, Feminists and others who believe that societies are based upon fundamental social conflicts  which should be the main focus of sociological analysis. They ask how , if societies are based upon conflict, social order still seems to exist most of the time. Their explanations for social order are different to those provided by the structural functionalists.

  8. Feminist concerns have intensified in Sociology especially since the 1960s and have made  important contributions to social reforms which have improved women's lives although Feminists would emphasise that further reforms are essential if men and women are to live in conditions of equality.

  9. We may note also that all structural sociologists tend to focus their attention on societies as a whole or on large social groups and institutions within societies whereas social action sociologists tend to focus on small scale interactions taking place  within the larger groups and institutions of societies. In this respect, structural sociologists are said to focus on Macro-Sociology and social action sociologists are said to focus on Micro-Sociology although Max Weber's work, for example, contained elements of both Macro and Micro Sociology.

  10. Structural Functionalists tend to be associated with a Positivist approach to Sociology, Marxists with a Realist approach and Social Action theorists with an Interpretive approach to Sociology. Some difficult issues are involved here that will be considered later in the course.

  11. These different theoretical approaches are to some extent associated with preferences for different sociological methods.

  12. The  development of structuration theory  seeks to combine the insights of both Structural and Social Action Sociology.

  13. Sociologists must also respond to the development of Postmodernism in which it is argued that industrial societies are undergoing  a transition from Modernity to Post modernity and that  the social world cannot be explained in terms of grand sociological theories or "metanarratives" and that the scientific investigation of society is actually impossible. since it must finally be recognised that sociologists are fundamentally unable to escape from their own theoretical preconceptions and value judgements  so that an objective study of society is actually impossible, a view that many sociologists would reject

  14.  Also sociologists must respond to the fact that several sociological issues have been analysed from the standpoint of the political ideology of the New Right.

  15. It is important to note that although modern sociologists  they may favour one particular approach to Sociology perhaps as a result of their own theoretical viewpoint or because a particular topic lends itself more to one approach than another, they are usually also ready to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of differing sociological approaches and to combine them in their work as appropriate.        

 

Sociology, therefore, is an inherently controversial subject and four examples of current controversies within contemporary Sociology are provided below

 

1.  Modern societies are capitalist and capitalism generates relatively high average living standards but are the economic inequalities of capitalism necessary to provide incentives or do they undermine opportunities for the poor to improve themselves? Whereas Functionalist sociologists are supportive of the capitalist system Marxist sociologists are most critical of it.

2.  Modern societies are urbanised but does urbanisation increase our freedoms or has it led to the weakening of personal ties, the decline of community and the growth of individual isolation in the crowded modern metropolis?

3.  Are women more suited than men to housework, childcare and emotional support as Functionalists tend to believe or are they discriminated against in the family, in the education system and in employment as Feminist sociologists believe?

4.   Modern societies are usually liberal democracies but are liberal democracies relatively democratic as liberals believe or do the institutions of liberal democracy simply provide a façade behind which a small ruling class actually rules as Marxists believe?  

 

 

·       Appendix 3. Is Sociology a Scientific Subject?

 

Since sociologists discuss a range of social issues about which we all have some knowledge and opinions it might be argued that the opinions of sociologists about such issues are of no more or less value than those of anybody else. Sociologists would agree that non –sociologists can have considerable sociological insight but would claim also that the opinions of sociologists are especially useful because they are based on careful collection and evaluation of evidence related to the issues in question. This touches on the questions raised in our original brief definitions of Sociology as to whether sociological inquiries can be scientific, objective or systematic.

 

The question of the scientific status of Sociology raises issues of considerable complexity. In Perspectives on Society, Cuff and Payne distinguished between different forms of knowledge: the literary and aesthetic; the religious; the mathematical; the philosophical; the natural scientific and the human [or social] scientific. They then argued that scientific approaches to knowledge have two fundamental differences which are [1] empirical relevance in that statements, descriptions and explanations can be checked by reference to empirical evidence and [2] the use of clear procedures showing how results have been achieved so that tests may be repeated and results checked by others.

 

They then argue that Sociology does use a “broadly scientific” approach as defined by their two criteria but that it also differs in terms of the questions asked, the methods used and the results achieved both from other social sciences such as Economics and Psychology and from the Natural Sciences {Physics, Chemistry and Biology]

 

 

 

·         The Positivist Approach to Sociology  : Sociology is a Science similar to the Natural Sciences

 

It is certainly true that early sociologists such as Auguste Comte [who actually coined the word “Sociology”] and Emile Durkheim [who played a major role in the establishment of Sociology as an academic discipline] believed that Sociology could be modeled on the Natural Sciences. In their view sociologists should aim to eliminate value judgments from their work and concentrate on the development of theories which could then be confirmed or rejected via the impartial, objective consideration of available evidence , much as in the natural Sciences. Sociology therefore was to be based upon the ideas of Positivism in which it was argued that the methods of the natural sciences can be applied admittedly with some modification to the analysis of social questions so that Sociology could indeed be regarded as a social science.

 

Sociologists in the positivist view should distinguish between statements of fact questions  [or "is questions"] statements of value [or "ought" questions] and concentrate only on statements of fact a. For example a sociologist might aim to determine whether the distribution of income and wealth in the UK is relatively equal or unequal which is a factual question but should not be concerned about whether these distributions are fair because fairness is an ethical issue on which different opinions are possible. To clarify for yourselves the difference between factual and ethical issues you might like to decide whether the following statements are factual statements or ethical statements.

  1. The distribution of income in the UK is less unequal than the distribution of personal wealth in the UK.

  2. The distribution of income in the UK is unfair,

  3. The distribution of wealth in the UK is even more unfair.

  4. Poverty in the UK is widespread.

  5. It is essential that poverty in the UK must be abolished.

  6. Murderers should be executed.

 You might then like to give two further examples of factual and ethical statements

  1.  

  2.  

  3.  

 

    

 

However it has been suggested also that for a variety of reasons Sociology cannot reasonably be described as a scientific subject analogous to the Natural Sciences. Thus for example it is argued that:

  1.  sociologists deal with inherently controversial issues which may well compromise their objectivity;

   2. that human behaviour is very complex and therefore difficult to explain or predict with any certainty;

 

   3.  that all sociological methods have their limitations such that, for example, respondents may answer questionnaires inaccurately and small scale observational studies may not necessarily be representative;

   4.  and that good Sociology depends upon the application of “artistic“ insight as well as the application of the scientific method.

 

Some sociologists recognize the importance of the criticisms of the Positivist view but argue nevertheless that sociologists can be trained to eliminate their own biases and recognize the limitations of their data so that their work may still be described as “scientific” even if not in the same sense as the Natural Sciences are said to be scientific. Contrastingly, to some extent the sociologists David Lee and Howard Newby argued in “the Problem of Sociology” that they are rational types of enquiry such as History which are nevertheless not scientific. They see History and Sociology as similar in that both subjects rely on the use of “reasoned procedure” which implies the use of logical thought and the critical attitude to information and opinion which are to be found in any intellectual discipline.

 

In summary we may conclude that whether or not Sociology is defined as a “Science”, sociologists do try to study Sociology systematically not least because sociologists value objectivity very greatly while recognising that it is may be impossible to achieve. This means that sociologists will:

     try as hard as possible to be objective and unbiased;

    test their theories against available evidence as effectively as possible;

    recognise that sociological evidence can be interpreted in different ways.

None of this will mean that bias is eliminated totally but most sociologists would agree that good Sociology can increase human understanding even if sociologists can never fully escape from their own value judgments. When the famous American sociologist Howard Becker was asked how he dealt with all of the problems surrounding the difficulties of achieving impartiality he responded succinctly that in doing his research he tries to have in mind all possible criticisms which might be made of it and to answer them in advance...”In my view”, says Becker, “the object is to write up your research in such a way that even someone who does not want to believe you has to say , “Well, I guess you’re right.”

I hope that the sociological information provided in the main body of your course will help to convince you that convince you that sociologists are attempting to study important questions about society in a systematic way.

 

Summary

 

   This document  has been divided into the following sections and appendices.

 

       Section 1: Summary Definitions of Sociology

       Section 2: The Subject Matter of Sociology

       Section 3: The Nature Of Sociological Explanation

       Appendix 1: The Historical Circumstances surrounding the Development of Modern Sociology

       Appendix 2: Sociological Perspectives

       Appendix 3: Is Sociology a Scientific Subject?

 

I hope that this information will help you as you begin your studies of Sociology and that as you pursue your studies further you will become increasingly aware of the concerns and methods of Sociology that distinguish it from other academic subjects.

 

Click here for several short items on the nature of Sociology and different sociological perspectives. [This link appeared also at the beginning of this document.]

 

 

Good luck with your Sociology studies!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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