Theory and Methods


Is sociology a science?

  • Comte - sociology should be based on the principles of natural sciences
    - only observable evidence is acceptable
    -should be ojectively measured and quantitative
    -should find cause and effect relationships
  • Durkheim - The rules of sociological method
    1. social facts
    2. external reality
    3. social facts of suicide
    4. statistical evidence
    5. correlation and analysis
    6. causation
  • Popper - science is based on the development of theories that can be tested
    - need to be falsifiable
    - sociology cannot fit into this view of science
    -deductive (uses evidence to falisify the theory you have made)
    Human studies are open systems, not controlled labs, impossible to control all variables, lots of sociology cannot be falsified
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Is sociology a science? (2)

  • Kuhn - paradigms (a general agreement between the scientific community, about the theories they all agree are true)
    -there isnt a single parasigm for sociology, because everyone has different views of everything
    -paradigms are learnt through socialisation
  • Interpretivists - social world is full of meanings
    - to understand human actions, we must find the meanings behind it
    - people have conciousness so they actively construct their own reality
  • Phenomenology - cannot objectively measure and classify the world
    - cannot produce causal explanations of human behaviour
  • Realism - sociologists study open systems (cannot control and measure all variables) so are too complex to make exact predictions
    - have go observable phenomena, but there are also unobservable structures that cannot be scientifically measured
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Sociology and social policy

  • Social problem - problems in society
  • Sociological problems - any pattern of relationships that call for explanation
  • Positivists and functionalists - sociological problems, not trying to explain it to enable social policies to be influenced
  • Social demcratic group - interested in poverty,
  • factors that affect whether the research suceeds in influencing policy
    • electoral popularity, policy preferences of government, cost 
  • Positivism and functionalism - rational social policies for the good of all, policies based on social problems and their causes, tackle one issue at one time
  • Social democratic - policies to eradicate social problems, e.g. more public spending on health and education, Black Report- free school meals
  • Marxism - social policies only serve interests of capitalism, do sometimes provide benefits to working class
  • Feminism - family policies encourage nuclear family making it difficult for people to live in other kinds of family, radical feminists established womens refugees to escape domestic violence
  • New Right - state should have minimal involvement, state intervention causes dependency culture, aim to restore responsibility e.g. parenting classes, to enable people to help themselves
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  • Society is similar to a biological organism - both self regulating systems, both have basic needs in order to survive, and both have functions that help get those needs to survive
  • social order achieved through shared culture or central value system
  • A culture provides a framework that allows individuals to cooperate by laying down rules, goals
  • Social order is only possible if all members agree on norms and values- value consensus
  • Value consensus integrates individuals into the social system
  • To ensure indivduals conform to shared norms and values there must be socialistion and social control (positive reward conformity, negative punish deviance)
  • 4 basic needs for the system: 1. Adaptation (instrumental) - material needs, 2. Goal attainment (instrumental)- resources to achieve goals, 3. Integration (expressive)- all parts integrated to pursue shared goals,  4. Latency (expressive) - process maintains society over time
  • Modern society - students pursue own self-interest, achieve status through education efforts, attained through deterred gratification
  • Traditional society - status is ascribed, groups interests before their own
  • change is gradual, evolutionary, simple to complex, dynamic equilibrium (change in one part of system is compensated by another)
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Functionalism - Critiques

Internal - Merton

  • Indispensability - assumes everything is functionally indispensible in its existing form, however their may be functional alternatives
  • Functional Unity - assumes all parts of society are integrated into a whole, however complex societies have many parts which may only be distantly related
  • universal functionalism - assumes everything forms a positive function, some things may be functional for some but dysfunctional for others
  • Manifest function - e.g. rain dance aim to magically produce rain
  • Latent function - e.g. promoting solidarity in times of hardship


  • Logical - unscientific (unfalsifiable), doesnt indentify cause before explains the effect
  • Conflict theorists - unable to explain conflict and change,
  • Action theorists - deterministic, ignores free will and choice
  • Postmodernists - assume society is stable and orderly, ignores diversity and instability
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  • Materialism - humans have material needs, so must work to achieve them using forces of production
  • When they work to meet their needs, they cooperate entering social relations of production
  • As forces of production grows, social relations of production change causes a division of labour and 2 classes
  • Bourgeoisie control societies surplus product
  • Proletariat are legally free from means of production as they sell labour for wages
  • Through competition, ownership of means of production in fewer hands
  • capitalism creates working class consciousness and become a class for itself
  • Ruling class use state as a weapon to protect their property, suppress opposition and prevent revolution
  • only focuses on class no other divides, simplistic, economic determinism - ignors free will
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Humanistic Marxism

  • Gramsci - rejects economic determinism
  • ruling class maintain dominance over coercion (institutions force classes to accept rule) and consent/hegemony (ideas and values persuade rule is legitimate)
  • Ruling class rely heavily on consent to maintain their rule, which theyre able to do because they control institutions that spread ideas
  • hegemony of ruling class is never complete because the ruling class are the minority so will need to make a power bolc with alliances which will mean they will need to compromise to take acoount the interests of their alliances, and because the proletariat have a dual consciousness
  • working class need to create a political party to formulate an alternative way to run society - based on socialist rather than capitalist values
  • overemphasises role of ideas, underemphasised role on state coercion and economic factors
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Structuralist Marxism

  • Althusserr
  • Capitalist society has 3 levels: economic, political and ideological
  • economic level determines the other 2 levels
  • Political and ideological functions perform indispensible functions that ensure reproduction of capitalism:
    • The repressive state apparatuses - 'armed bodies of men' e.g. police
    • The ideological state apparatuses - manipulate working class to accept e.g. media 
  • we arent free agents, we are products of social structures that determine everything about us
  • stresses role of structural factors that can do little to effect, ignore struggles of working class that can change society,
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  • Liberal - all human beings should have equal rights
    • equal rights can be achieved through gradual reforms, e.g. law change
    • Sex is biological, gender is culturally constructed differences.
    • Sexist attitudes and stereotypical beliefs about gender are culturally constructed transmitted through socialisation. 
    • To achieve gender equality, need to change societies socialisation patterns
    • seek to promote appropriate role models in education and family
    • men and women are equally capable of performing all roles
    • over optimism - ignore deep structures causing women oppresion e.g. capitalism or patriarchy
  • Radical - all men oppress all women causing social inequality and conflict
    • patriarchy is direct and personal, where men try to dominate women
    • patriarchy constructs sexuality to satisfy mens desires
    • Solutions to free women include seperatism (living apart from men), consciousness-raising (sharing experiences so they know theyre not on their own), political lesbianism (lesbianism is the only non-oppressive form of sexuality)
    • doesnt explain why female subordination takes different forms in different societies, solutions are unachieveable
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Feminism (2)

  • Marxist - womens subordination rooted in capitalism
    • womens primary role as unpaid homemaker places them in dependent economic position
    • subordination performs number of important functions for capitalism: 1. source of cheap, exploitable labour, 2. reserve army of labour, 3. reproduce the labour force, 4. absorb anger
    • ignores non-capitalist societies,
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Action theories

  • Weber - social action theory
    • structural and action approaches necessary
    • must explain objective structural factors that shape behaviour, and understand the subjective meanings that individuals attach to their actions
    • Four types of actions: 1. Instrumentally rational - most efficient menas of achieveing a goal, 2. Value rational - actions towards a desireable goal for their own sake, 3. traditional - customary, routine or habitual actions, 4. Affectual - express emotion
    • individualistic so cant explain shared nature of meanings, typology of action is difficult to apply, we can never truely understand the meaning as we arent them
  • Labelling theory - the looking glass self
    • how we develop our self-concept (our idea of who we are)
    • self-concept arises out of our ability to take the role of the other
    • by taking the role of other, we come to see ourselves the way they see us
    • self-fulfilling prophecy occurs
    • the label becomes part of the individuals self-concept
  • Goffman - dramaturgical model-we construct ourself by munipulating other people impressions of us
    • we are actors, acting out scripts, using props
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Action theories (2)

    • our aim is to carry off a convincing performance of the role we have adopted
    • we constantly study our audiences to see how theyre responding
    • there is role-distance between our real self and our roles
    • roles are only loosly scripted by society, we have freedom in the way we want to play them
  • Phenomenology
    • the world as we know can only be a product of our mind
    • Schutz - the categories and concepts we use to classify information arent unique to ourselves, but we share them with other members of society
    • typifications enable us to organise our experiences into a shared world of meaning
  • Giddens - duality of structure (neither structure or action can exist without the other)
    • through our actions we produce and reproduce structures over time and space, and the structures make the actions possible in the first place
    • Rule and resources can either be reproduced or changes through human action
    • Although our action can change structures, it tends to produce them because 1. societies rules about how we should behave in everyday situations, 2. we have deep seated need for ontological security(the world is what you think)
    • structures resist change,no explanation of what happens,not large scale structures
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Objectivity and values

  • Comte and Durkheim - sociologists should be able to say objectively and with scientific certainty what was really best for society
  • Weber - we select what we wish to study in terms of what we regard as important based on our own values so values are essential to select what to study. We must be objective and unbiased when collecting data, so keep values out. Values important when interpreting the data as our choice of theoretical framework or perspective is influenced by our values. Values are important in deciding how to use the findings as they can have major implications.
  • Modern positivists - sociologists should remain morally neutral, scientific approached were higly values so must keep research value free
  • Myrdal - should take sides by espousing the values and interests of particular individuals or groups, impossible and undesireable to keep values out of research
  • Becker - traditionally we take the side of the powerful, but we should take the side of the underdogs (criminals) as less is known
  • Gouldner - all research is inevitably influenced by values either of the sociologist, or the funding body. These influence the topics that theywish to research. There is a link between the kind of method chosen, and their value-stance.
  • Postmodernists and relativists - all knowledge is based on values so cant be true. but this makes it self defeating, as their view cant be true either
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Modernity and globalisation

  • enlightenment project - society can progress through the use of human reason
  • the state is the focal point of modern society, organising social life
  • modern society have a capitalist economy which means the distribution of wealth is uneven
  • due to globalisation, we live in an interdependent 'global village' and our lives are shaped by a global framework
  • technological changes man we can exchange information accross the world
  • economic activity now takes place within global networks and involves commodities
  • globalisation undermines power of nation state as TNCs and consumers have more economic power than national governments
  • live in a global culture
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  • living in an unstable, fragmented, media-saturated global village
  • no objective criteria we can use to prove if a theory is true or false which has 2 consequences: 1. cant use enlightenment project to improve society if we dont know its correct, 2. there is no reason to accept a theory because it is just someones version of reality, not the truth
  • take a relativist approach - all views are true for them, all acounts of reality are equally valid
  • Baudrillard - society no longer based on material goods, but the buying and selling of knowledge (images and signs)
  • no longer a set of values shared by members in society
  • can construct our own identity from images and lifestyles offered in the media
  • media hyper-reality means we can no longer establish what is reality and whats just an image
  • self defeating, pessimistic - nothing can be done to improve society, doesnt explain just identifies, highlights significance of media for culture and identity
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Late modernity

  • Giddens - experiencing rapid change due to disembedding and reflexity
  • disembedding - no longer need face-to-face contact to interact, interaction more impersonal
  • Reflexive - tradition no longer tells us how to act  so we constantly reflect and monitor our actions about possible risks and opportunities they may involve - nothing is fixed, increasingly unstable and subject to change
  • these help drive globalisation
  • face a number of high consequence risk with major threats to human society e.g. nuclear war, which are man-made rather than natural risks
  • Beck - we face manufactured risks as a result of human activity
  • growing individualisation means we constantly look at the risks for different actions (reflexive modernisation) - we become more 'risk conscious' mainly from mass media
  • we are capable of reflexitivity, we can rationally evaluate risks&take political action to reduce it
  • not everyone has the option to reshape our life to reduce risks, recognise knowledge may not be perfect, can use to improve society and reduce risks
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