Sociological theory


Basics of Parsons' theory

Parsons identifies three similarities between society and a biological organism:

1. System (self-regulating systems)
2. System needs (if needs are not met, the organism will die)
3. Functions (the functions of a system contribute to meeting its needs)

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Value consensus and social order

  • Parsons argues that social order is achieved through the existance of a shared culture
  • This shared culture allows individuals to cooperate by laying down rules about how they should behave and what others may expect of them
  • Social order is only possible so long as memebers of society agree on these norms and values
  • This agreement is called a value consensus
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Integration of individuals

The system has two mechanisms for ensuring that individuals conform to shared norms and meet the system's needs:

  • Socialisation (teaching individuals to want to do what it requires them to do)
  • Social control (positive and negative sanctions used to reward conformity and punish deviance)
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The parts of the social system

  • Individual's actions are governed by specific norms or rules
  • These norms come in 'clusters' called status-roles, these are the positions that exist in a given social system
  • Status-roles also come in clusters, known as institutions
  • In turn, institutions are grouped together into sub-systems
  • Finally, these sub-systems make up the social system as a whole
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The system's needs

Each need is met by a separate sub-system of institutions:

1. Adaptation (the social system meets its members' material needs through the economic sub-system)
2. Goal attainment (society needs to set goals and allocate resources to achieve them through the political sub-system)
3. Integration (the system must be integrated together in order to pursue shared goals through the sub-system of religion, education and the media)
4. Latency (the process to maintain society over time through the kinship sub-system)

Adaptation and goal attainment are described as instrumental needs. Integration and latency are described as expressive needs.

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Types of society

Parsons identifies two types of society:

Traditional society:

  • Ascription (status based on fixed characteristics)
  • Diffuseness (relationships are broad with a range of purposes)
  • Particularlism (norms emphasise treating different people differently)
  • Affectivity (immediate gratification of desires)
  • Collective orientation (putting the group's interests first)

Modern society:

  • Achievement (status is based on performance)
  • Specificity (relationships are narrow and limited to specific purposes)
  • Universalism (norms emphasise everyone being treated the same)
  • Affective neutrality (deferred gratification)
  • Self orientation (individualism, pursuing one's own self interest
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Social change

  • Change is a gradual, evolutionary process of increasing complexity and structural differentiation
  • Societies move from simple to complex structures
  • However, as societies develop, the kinship system loses funcitons such as: adaptation, goal attainment, latency and integration, to other institutions - known as structural differentiation
  • Furthermore, as a change occurs in one part of the system, it produces compensatory changes in other parts
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Mertons internal critique of functionalism

Merton criticises 3 key assumptions of Parsons:
1. Indispensability - Parsons assumes that the functions in society are set, Merton argues that there are alterntives e.g. primary socialisation can be performed by one-parent families also
2. Functional unity - Parsons assumes that all parts of society are integrated, Merton argues that some parts can be distantly related to one another
3. Universal functionalism - Parsons provides an optimistic view, Merton argues that some things may be functional for some groups, but dysfunctional for others

Manifest and latent functions:

  • Merton sees two different types of functions within society:
  • Manifest functions - the intended function
  • Latent functions - the unintended function
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External critiques of functionalism

1. Logical criticisms:

  • Teleology - the idea that things exist because of their effect or function, e.g. the family exists as children need to be socialised
  • Critics argue that a cause must come before its effect
  • Functionalism is also criticised for being unscientific

2. Conflict perspective criticisms:

  • Marxists criticise functionalism for its inability to explain conflict and change

3. Action perspective criticisms:

  • Wrong criticises functionalism's deterministic view of the individual as functionalists see humans as mere puppets whose strings are pulled by the social system

4. Postmodernist criticisms:

  • Functionalism assumes that society is stable and orderly
  • It ignores diversity and instability within society
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Basics of Marx's theory

Marx believed that it was possible to understand society scientifically, he describes his theory as 'scientific socialism'. Marx saw historical change as a contradictory process in which capitalism would increase human misery before giving way to a classless communist society.

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Historical materialism

Materialism - the view that humans are beings with material needs (food, clothing and shelter) and they must work to meet them

Over time, the forces of production grew and developed and split into two classes:

  • Bourgeoisie (the class that owns the means of production)
  • Proletariat (the class of labourers)

Marx refers to the forces and relations of production together as the mode of production and this forms the economic base of society. The economic base shapes all other features of society such as: the superstructure of institutions, ideas, beliefs and behaviour that arise from this base

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Class society and exploitation

Early stages of human history included a classless society, no private ownership and no exploitation - essentially communism. 

In class societies, one class owns the means of production allowing them to exploit their labourers for their own profit. 

Marx identifies three successive class societies with its own form of exploitation:

  • Ancient society - slaves being exploited by their owners
  • Feudal society - serfs legally tied to the land
  • Capitalist society - labourers exploited by the bourgeoisie
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Capitalism has three distinctive features:

1. Unlike slaves or serfs, the proletariat are legally free and separated from the means of production - they have to sell their labour to the bourgeoisie for wages in order to survive.
2. Through competition between capitalists, ownership of the means of production becomes concentrated into fewer and fewer hands - driving small businesses into the proleteriat. Furthermore, this competiiton forces capitalists to pay the lowest wages possible
3. Capitalism continually expands the forces of production in its pursuit of profit, also technological advances de-skill the workforce - this produces class polarisation which is where society divides into a minority capitalist class and a majority working class

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Class Consciousness

Capitalism sows the seeds of its own destruction, for example with the increasing proletariat, Capitalism creates the conditions under which the working class can develop a consciousness of its own economic and political interests in opposition to those of its exploiters. 

The proletariat moves to become a class whose members are conscious and aware of the need to overthrow capitalism.

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The owners of the means of production also owns and controls the means of mental production - the dominant ideologies. Institutions produce these ideologies, such as: religion, education and the media. Ideology creates a false consciousness to sustain class inequality.

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Alienation is the result of our loss of control over our labour and its products, therefore separates us from our true nature. 

Under Capitalism, alienation reaches its peak for two reasons:

  • Workers are separated from and have no control over the forces of production
  • The division of labour is itense and detailed - the worker is reduced to an unskilled labourer mindlessly repeating a meaningless task
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The state, revolution and communism

Marx defines the state as 'armed bodies of men' - the army, police, prisons, courts, etc. The state exists to protect the interests of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie use the state as a weapon to protect their property, suppress opposition and prevent revolution.

Marx believes that the proleterian revolution that overthrows capitalism will be the first revolution by the majority against the minority as it will:

  • Abolish the state and create a classless communist society
  • Abolish exploitation
  • End alienation

Marx predicted that this would happen to the most advanced Capitalist societies first.

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Criticisms of Marx

1. Class

  • Weber argues that status and power differences can also be important sources of inequality
  • Weber sub-divides the proletariat into skilled and unskilled classes
  • Class polarisation has not occured - the working class has shurunk (Western societies)

2. Economic determinism

  • Marx's base superstructure model is criticised as critics argue that it fails to recognise that humans have free will
  • Marx's predictions of revolutions have not come true - tends to occur to economically backward countries
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The 'two Marxisms'

Gouldner describes the 'two Marxisms' as:

  • Humanistic or critical Marxism - this has some similarities with action theories and interpretive sociology (e.g. Gramsci)
  • Scientific or structural Marxism - this is a structural approach and has similarities with positivist sociology (e.g. Althusser)
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Basics of Gramsci's theory

Humanistic Marxism - he introduces the concpt of hegemony to explain how the ruling class maintains its current position within society. The proletariat must develop counter-hegemony in order to win the leadership of society.

Gramsci rejects economic determinism as explanation of change as he argues that the transition from Capitalism to Communism will never come about simply as a result of economic forces. 

Gramsci sees the ruling class maintaining its dominance over society in two ways:

  • Coercion (using the army, police, prisons and courts of the Capitalist state to force other classes to accept its rule)
  • Consent (using ideas and values to persuade subordinate classes that its rule is legitimate)
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Hegemony and revolution

Gramsci agrees with Marx that the bourgeoisie are able to maintain their rule as they control institutions that produce and spread ideas. However he argues that the hegemony of the ruling class is nevel complete for two reasons:

  • The ruling class are a minority - to rule they need to make alliances with other groups, like the middle class, then make ideological compromises to work with their allies
  • The proletariat have a dual consciousness - their ideas are influenced by bourgeois ideology and their material conditions of life - they can see through the dominant ideology

The proletariat are only able to revolt if they can offer a moral and ideological alternative to society.


  • Accused of over-emphasising the role of ideas
  • Paul Willis describes the working-class lads he studied as 'partially penetrating' bourgeois ideology - seeing through the school's ideology to recognise that meritocracy is a myth
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Basics of Althusser's structuralist Marxism theory

Althusser rejects the base-superstructure model because the economic level determines everything about the other two levels. Althusser's model shows relative autonomy:

  • The economic level - the activities that involve producing something in order to satisfy needs
  • The political level - all forms of organisation
  • The ideological level - involving ways that people see themselves and their world

Although the economic dominates in Capitalism, the political and ideological levels perform functions too. Althusser argues that the state performs political and ideological functions that ensure the reproduction of Capitalism:

  • The repressive state apparatuses (RSAs) - 'armed bodies of men' - the army, police, prisons, etc.
  • The ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) - the media, education system, the family, reformist political parties, trade unions, etc. - these manipulate the working class into accepting Capitalism as legitimate
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Althusser's criticisms of humanism

Althusser criticises Gramsci as Althusser argues that humans are not the free agents that humanists think we are - our belief that we possess free will and choice is simply false consciousness produced by the ideological state appartuses.

Furthermore, Althusser argues that socialism will not come about due to a change in consciousness, but will come about due to a crisis of Capitalism - contradictions in the three structures. 


  • Gouldner argues that this 'scientific' approach discourages political activism as it stresses the role of strucutural factors that individuals can do llittle to affect]
  • Thompson criticises Althusser for ignoring the fact that it is the active struggles of the working class that can change society
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Basics of liberal or reformist feminism theory

Liberals - concerned with the human rights and freedoms of the individual
Reformism - the idea that progress towards equal rights can be achieved by gradual changes

Like Ann Oakley, liberal feminists distinguish between sex and gender:

  • Sex - biological differences between males and females
  • Gender - culturally constructed differences between the 'masculine' and 'feminine' roles

Liberal feminists believe that:

  • Changes is socialisation and culture are gradually changing people's attitudes
  • Political action in terms of laws is steadily bringing about progress to a fairer society

Liberal feminism can be seen as a critique of the functionalist view of gender roles who distinguish between instrumental and express roles which the family. Liberal feminists argue that men and women are equally capable of performing roles in both spheres.


  • Criticised for over-optimism, Walby argues that they offer no explanation for gender equality
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Basics of radical feminism theory

Radical feminists make the following claims:

  • Patriarchy is universal
  • Patriarchy is the primary and most fundamental form of social inequality and conflict
  • All men opress all women

Patriarchal opression enters both the public and private spheres of everyday life. Radical feminists see the personal as political - all relationships involve power and they are political when one tries to dominate another - sexual politics. 

Radical feminists have proposed a number of solutions/strategies to achieve freedom:

  • Separtism - living apart from men and creating a new female independence
  • Counsciousness-raising - sharing their experiences with other women
  • Political lesbianism - avoiding heterosexual relationships


  • Marxists assert that class, not patriarchy, causes inequality
  • Assumes that all women are in the same position, ignoring differences between women
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Basics of Marxist feminism

They see women's subordination as rooted in Capitalism, although men may benefit from women's subordination - the main beneficiary is Capitalism. 

The subordination of women in society performs a number of functions for Capitalism:

  • Women are a source of cheap, exploitable labour
  • Women are a reserve army of labour
  • Women reproduce the labour force
  • Women absorb anger (Ansley - 'takers of ****')

Some Marxist feminists argue that non-economic factors must be taken into account if we are to understand and change women's position: Barrett argues that we must overthrow the ideology of familisim (the NF and its division of labour is normal), as well as Capitalism.


  • Fails to explain women's subordination in non-capitalist societies
  • Marxist feminism places insufficient emphasis on the ways in which men opress women
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Basics of difference feminism and postructuralism

Difference feminists argue that middle-class and working-class, white and black, lesbian and heterosexual women all have different experiences of patriarchy. Difference feminism argues that feminist theory has claimed a 'false universality' for itself. Difference feminists argue that liberal, Marxist and radical feminists all see women as the same - therefore fail to reflect the diversity of women's experiences. 

Postructuralist feminisms are concerned with ways of seeing, thinking or speaking about something and power/knowledge. Butler argues that white, Western, middle-class women who dominate the feminist movement have falsely claimed to represent 'universal womanhood', under poststructuralism - there is no fixed essence of what it is to be a woman. Butler argues that poststructuralism offers advantages for women as feminists can analyse how discources subordinate women. Postructuralism recognises and legitimates the diversity of women's lives and struggles, rather than prioritising some and excluding others.


  • Walby - there are differences, but argues that there are also important similarities
  • Celeberating differences can divide women further and weaken the movement
  • Segal argues that oppression is not just the result of discources, it is about real inequality
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Basics of Weber's social action theory

Weber saw both structural and action approaches as necessary for a full understanding of human behaviour, he argues that an adequate sociological explanation involves two levels:

1. The level of cause - explaining the objective structural factors that shape people's behaviour
2. The level of meaning - understanding subjective meanings that individuals attach to actions

Types of action:
Weber attempts to classify actions based on their meaning for the actor.

  • Instrumentally rational action - most efficient means of achieving a given goal
  • Value-rational action - action towards a goal that the actor regards as desirable for its own sake
  • Traditional action - involves customary, routine or habitual actions
  • Affectual action - expresses emotion


  • Schutz argues that Weber's view of action is too individualistic
  • Weber's typology of action is difficult to apply
  • Weber uses verstehen, but we are not actually that person - unsure
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Basics of G.H. Mead's theory

Symbollic interactionism focuses on our ability to create the social world through our actions and interactions - it sees these interactions as based on the meanings we give to situations.

Mead found that unlike animals, humans' behaviour is not shaped by fixed instics - humans respond to the world by giving meanings to things which are significant to us. Humans aim to interpret the meaning of something before choosing an appropriate response to it. In order to interpret other people's meanings, we take the role of the other - putting ourselves in the place of the other person and seeing ourselves as they see us. 

Later, we come to see ourselves from the point of view of the wider community - the generalised other. In order to function as a member of society, we need to see ourselves as others see us.


  • Not all action is meaningful - much is performed unconsciously or routinely and may have little meaning for it
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Basics of Blumer's theory

Symbollic interactionism focuses on our ability to create the social world through our actions and interactions - it sees these interactions as based on the meanings we give to situations.

Identifies three key principles:

1. Our actions are based on the meanings we give to situations, events, people, etc.
2. These meanings arise from the interaction process, they are not fixed at the outset of the interaction, but are negotiable and changeable to some extent
3. The meanings we give to situations are the result of the interpretive procedures we use

This contrasts signficantly with functionalist theories - functionalists see the individual as a puppet. Blumer argues that although our action is partly predictable because we internalise the expectations of others, it is not completely fixed - there is always room for negotiation


  • Ethnomethodologists argue that interactionism is correct in focusing on actors' meanings, but that it fails to explain how actors create meanings
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Basics of labelling theory

Symbollic interactionism focuses on our ability to create the social world through our actions and interactions - it sees these interactions as based on the meanings we give to situations.

Labelling theorists use interactionist concepts in the study of many areas - education, health and crime and deviance. Here are three interactionist concepts that underpin labelling theory:

  • The definition of the situation - A definition, is a label, Thomas argued that if people define a situation as real, then it will have real consequences
  • The looking glass self - Cooley uses this idea to describe how we develop our idea of who we are - this arises out of our ability to take the role of the other, the self fulfilling prophecy occurs here as we become what others see us as
  • Career - Becker and Lemert extend the concept of a career to apply it to groups such as medical students, marijuana smokers and those suffering from paranoia


  • Some argue that symbollic interactionism is more a loose collection of descriptive concepts than an explanatory theory
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Basics of Goffman's dramaturgical model

Symbollic interactionism focuses on our ability to create the social world through our actions and interactions - it sees these interactions as based on the meanings we give to situations.

Goffman describes how we actively construct our 'self' by manipulating other people's impressions of us. He argues that our aim as humans is to carry of a convincing performance of the role we have adopted. 

For Goffman, we seek to present an image of ourselves to our audiences by controlling the impression our performance gives - we use different techniques for impression management. 

Goffman's view of roles differs sharply from that of functionalism. Functionalists see roles as scripted by society, however Goffman argues that there is a distance between our real self and our roles - roles are only loosely scripted by society and we have a lot of freedom as humans. 


  • Focuses on face-to-face interactions and ignores wider social structures like class inequalities
  • In interactions everyone plays the part of both actor and audience, and interactions are often improvised and unrehearsed
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Basics of phenomenology theory

Some philosophers aregue that we can never have definite knowledge of what the world outside our minds is really like 'in itself'. Husserl argues that the world only makes sense because we impose meaning and order on it - we can only obtain knkowledge about the world through our mental acts of categorising and giving meaning to our experiences.

Schutz argues that the categories and concepts we use are not unique to ourselves, we share them with other members of society. He calls these shared categories, typifications - these enable us to organise our experiences into a shared world of meaning. The meaning of any given experience varies according to its social context. Typifications ensure that we are all speaking the same language and agreeing on the meaning of things - commonsense knowledge. 

However, society appears to us as a real, objective thing existing outisde of us. Berger and Luckmann argue that while Schutz is right to focus on shared commonsense knowledge, they reject his view that society is merely an inter-subjective reality.

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Basics of ethnomethodology theory

Ethnomethodology (EM) is interested in the methods or rules that we use to produce the meanings in the first place. Mainly from the works of Garfinkel's ideas, Garfinkel rejects the idea of society as a real objective structure 'out there' - he argues that social order is created from the bottom up. 

EM sees meanings as always potentially unclear (indexicality), nothing has a fixed meaning and everything depends on the context. Indexicality is a threat to social order as communication can become more difficult. Garfinkel also argues that reflexibility enables us to behave as if meanings are clear and obvious - this refers to the use of commosense. Garfinkel's study found that by challenging people's taken-for-granted assumptions, the results showed that social order is an accomplishment. 

Garfinkel is also interested in the methods we use to achieve reflexivity, e.g. in suicides the coronoer makes sense of the deaths by treating features as patterns. 


  • Craib argues that its findings are trivial
  • Ignores how wider structures of power and inequality affect the meanings that individuals construct
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Basics of structure and action theory

Structural theories - deterministic, seeing society as something objective, existing outside individuals and constraining them. 
Action theories - voluntaristic, seeing society as the creation of its members through their subjective actions and meanings

According to Giddens, there is a duality of structure - structure and action cannot exist without one another. They both depend upon one another. 

Giddens argues that structure has two elements:

1. Rules - the norms, customs and laws that govern or affect action
2. Resources - both economic and power over others

Rules and resources can be either reproduced/changed through human action


  • Implies that actors can change structures by deciding to do so
  • Craib argues that this isn't a theory as it doesn't explain what happens in society
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Modern society

Emerged in the late 18th century - it has a number of charactaristics that distinguish it from previous traditional societies:

  • The Nation State - a territory ruled by a powerful centralised state whose population tends to share the same language and culture
  • Capitalism - society based on private ownership
  • Rationality, science and technology - different ways of thinking to religious explanations
  • Individualism - greater personal freedom and choice
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The increasing interconnectedness of people across national boundaries, four related changes have brought around globalisation:

1. Technological changes - the ability to communicate globally is positive, however it also nrings risks such as global warming

2. Economic changes - the global economy is increasily going electronic, trans-national companies (TNCs) are operating globally, which is positive, however it also contributes to the 'risk society' (Beck)

3. Political changes - globalisation has undermined the power of the nation-state, TNC's and consumers have more economic power than national governments

4. Changes in culture and identity - globalisation makes it more difficult for cultures to exist in isolation form one another through the mass media

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Basics of postmodernism theory

Postmodernists argue that we are now living in an unstable, fragmented, media-saturated global village, where image and reality are indistinguishable. Postmodernists argue that there are no sure foundations to knowledge, this view is known as anti-foundationalism and it has two consequences:
1. The Enlightenment project of achieving progress through true, scientific knowledge is dead
2. Any theory which claims the absolute truth is just someone's version of reality, not the truth

Baudrillard argues that knowledge is central to postmodern society and that society is no longer based on the production of material goods, but rather on buying and selling knowledge in the form of images and signs. He describes this situation as hyper-reality.

Postmodernists argue that the media creates hyper-reality and culture becomes fragmented because of this. Baudrillard is pessimistic about the postmodern condition as it leaes us unable to distinguish image from reality and we have then lost the power to improve society.


  • Philo and Miller argue that postmodernism ignores power and inequality
  • They also argue they are wrong to claim that people can't distiguish between reality and image
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Basics of late modernity

Theories of late modernity argue that the rapid changes we are witnessing are not from a new, postmodern era, but are a continuation of modernity. Theories of late modernity argue that the key features of modernity have become intensified, e.g. social change has gone into overdrive. Theories of late modernity still believe we can discover objective knowledge and use it to improve society. 

Giddens argues that two key features has caused rapid change: disembedding and reflexivity. He defines disembedding as humans no longer needing face-to-face contact in order to interact. Tradition no longer tells us how to act, we are forced to become reflexive - we are continually re-evaluating our ideas and theories, everything is up for challenge. Giddens also argues that we face a number of high consequence risks that are major threats to society.

Beck believes that today's late modern society, which he calls a 'risk' society faces dangers such as: in the past, the inability to control nature, and today we face human activities causing risks such as pollution. Beck sees late modernity as a period of growing individualisation.


  • Rustin argues that it is Capitalism that is the source of risk, not technology
  • Hirst rejects Beck's view that movements such as environmentalism will bring about change
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Marxist theories of postmodernity

Marxists believe in the Enlightenment project. Some marxists believe that today's society has moved from modernity to postmodernity. However, Marxists offer a very different analysis of postmodernity - Marxists regard postmodernity as the most recent stage of Capitalism. 

This crisis gave rise to a new regime called flexible accumulation - a new way of achieving profitability. This involves: ICT, an expanded service and job insecurity. These changes brought many of the cultural charactaristics of postmodernity, such as diversity, choice and instability. It has also brought changes in consumption - turning leisure, culture and identity into commondities. Harvey argues that this more developed form of capitalism leads to the commondification of culture. 

Harvey and Jameson argue that flexible accumulation has brought political changes, it has weakened working class movements, but have been replaced with oppositional movements. 


  • They ofer a sociological explanation of the changes in society to the nature of Capitalism
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Basics of Positivism

Positivists believe that it is possible and desirable to apply the logic and methods of the natural sciences to the study of society. A key feature of the positivist approach is the belief that reality exists outside the human mind:

  • Nature is made up of objective, observable, physical facts, such as rocks, cells, stars, etc, which exist whether we like it or not
  • Similarly, society is an objective factual reality, it is a 'real' thing made up of social facts

For positivists, reality is patterned, and we can observe these patterns. They believe that the method of induction (which involves accumulating data about the world through careful observation and measurement). From this, we can develop a theory that explains our observations, after more observations, we can claim to have discovered the truth in the form of a general law.

Positivists believe that the patterns we observe can be explained in the same way - by finding the facts that cause them. Positivist sociologists seek to discover the causes of the patterns the obsreve. They favour 'macro' explanations of social phenomena because they see society and its structures as social facts that exist outside of us and shape our behaviour patterns.

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Objective quantitative research

Positivists believe that as far as possible sociology take the experimental method as the model for research. Positivists use quantitative data to uncover and measure patterns of behaviour, allowing them to produce precise statements about the relationship between the facts they're investigating. They believe that researchers should be detached and objective, they aim to employ methods that allow for maximum objectivity and detachment.

Durkheim chose to study suicide to demonstrate that sociology was a science with its own distinct subject matter. Using quantitative data, he observed that there were patterns in the suicide rate and concluded that these patterns were social facts. Therefore, Durkheim claimed to have discovered a 'real law'.

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Basics of Interpretivism

Interpretivist sociologists criticise positivists approach as inadequate. Interpretivists argue that the subject matter of sociology is meaningful social action and that to understand it we must interpret the meanings and motives of the actors involved. They argue that there is a fundamental difference between the subject matter of the natural sciences and that of sociology:

  • Natural science - studies matter, which has no consciousness. Its behaviour can be explained as a straightforward reaction to an external stimulus, it has no consciousness and no choice about its behaviour
  • Sociology - studies people, who do have consciousness. People make sense of and construct their world by attaching meanings to it

For interpretivists, individuals are not puppets on a string manipulated by social facts, but are independent beings who construct their social world through the meanings they give to it. 

Interpretivists therefore reject the logic and methods of the natural sciences, and argue that to discover the meanings people give to their actions, we need to see the world form their viewpoint. Interpretivists use verstehen to grasp the meanings of actors. Interpretivists favour the use of qualitative methods of research

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Types of interpretivism

All interpretivists seek to understand actors' meanings, however they are divided abot whether or not we can combine this understanding with positivist-style casual explanations:

  • Interactionists - believe that we can have casual explanations, however they reject the positivist view that we should have a definite hypothesis before we start our research
  • Phenomenologists and ethnomethodologists - reject the possibility of casual explanations of human behaviour, they take a radically anti-structuralist view

Douglas rejects the positivist idea of external social facts determining our behaviour as individuals have free will and choose how to act on the basis of meanings. Douglas also rejects Durkheim's use of official statistics as he argues they are not objective facts. Atkinson also rejects the idea that social facts determine behaviour and agrees that statistics are socially constructed. 

Postmodernists also argue against the idea of a scientific sociology - they regard natural science as a meta-narrative. Feminists share this view of scientific sociology, they argue that quantitative methods are oppressive and do not capture reality. Others argue that science is an undesirable model for sociology to follow because science has not always led to what positivists said it would

Interpretivists agree with positivists that the natural sciences are as positivists describe them. However, not everyone accepts their view of natural sciences.

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Karl Popper: how science grows

  • Popper's ideas about science have important implications for sociology. He sets out to answer two questions about science: what is it that distinguishes scientific knowledge from other forms of knowledge? and why has scientific knowledge been able to grow so spectacularly recently?
  • Popper differs from the positivists in that the rejects their view that the distinctive feature of science lies in inductive reasoning and verificationism - he believes that the reasons we should reject verificationism is what he calls 'the fallacy of induction'.
  • Popper also states that what makes science unique is the oppositive of verificationism is falsificationism. He believes that we must be able to say what evidence would count as falsifying the statement when we come to put it to the test. Popper defines a good theory by having two features: it is in principle falsifiable but when tested, stands up to all attempts to disprove it and it is bold.
  • Popper things that there can never be absolute proof that any knowledge is true - a good theory isn't necessarily a true theory, therefore it is simply one that has withstood attempts to falsify it so far. 
  • Popper sees science as a public activity as everything is open to criticism
  • Popper believes that much sociology is unscientific as it consists of theories that cannot be put to the test. Popper believes that sociology can be scientific because it can produce hypotheses that can be falsified.
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Thomas Kuhn: scientific paradigms

Kuhn presents a radically different view of what makes science unique. Kuhn's central idea is the paradigm. A paradigm is shared by members of a given scientific community and defines what their science is. A paradigm is a set of norms because it tells scientists how they ought to think and behave, in Kuhn's view a science cannot exist without a shared paradigm.

Most of the time, the paradigm goes unquestioned and scientists do what Kuhn calls normal science - that is engaging in puzzle solving. Kuhn argues that the great advantage of the paradigm is that it allows scientists to agree on the basics of their subject and get on with producting 'puzzle-solving' work, fleshing out the bare bines of the paradigm with more detail.

However, not all puzzle solving is successful, scientists obtain findings contrary to those the paradigm led them to expect, as these anomalies build up, the paradigm begins to decline. Scientists begin to formulate rival paradigms and this marks the start of a scientific revolution, eventually one paradigm wins and becomes accepted by the scientific community, allowing normal science to resume but with a new set of basic assumptions and puzzles. 

Currently sociology is pre-paradigmatic and therefore pre-sceientific, divided into competitive perspectives - there is no shared paradigm. Kuhn argues that sociology could only become a science if basic disagreements were resolved. 

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Realism, science and sociology

Realists such as Keat and Urry stress the similarities between sociology and certain kinds of natural science in terms of the degree of control the researcher has over the variables being researched - they distinguish between open (where the researcher can control and measure the variables) and closed (where the researcher cannot control and measure the variables) system. Realists argue that sociologists study open systems where the processes are too complec to make exact predictions. 

Realists reject the positivist view that science is only concerned with observable phenomena. Keat and Urry argue that science often assumes the existence of unobservable structures,m e.g. physicists cannot observe the black hole in space. They also argue that interpretivists are wrong in assuming that sociology cannot be scientific, if realists are correct and science can study unobservable phenomena, then this is no barrier to studying meanings scientifically. Realists argue that both natural and social science attempt to explain the causes of events in terms of underlying structures and processes - we can work out they exist by observing effects.

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