Unit 1: The Sociological Perspective


What is Sociology?

crowded_street_largeWhat is sociology? Sociology is the study of society. That begs the next question, what then is society? Society is a group of people who share a culture and a territory.  While not discounting our uniqueness as individuals, sociology studies the social forces that influence  our lives in so many unseen, yet significant ways.

What is Sociology? (American Sociological Association)

Why should we study sociology? Because it gives us a way to view the world. It offers a way of explaining behavior and beliefs in familiar and unfamiliar cultures.  As sociologists, we want to look for general social patterns in the behavior of particular individuals.  For example, sociologists might be interested in finding out why the elderly in the United States vote more regularly than do Americans in the 18 – 25 year old range.  Such an understanding might shed light onto why certain pieces of legislation get passed into law, while others do not.

To sum up then, sociology involves the systematic study of society.

There are thousands of people in the United States with  Ph.D’s, M.A’s and B.A’s in sociology who use the discipline of sociology to make our society better.  Sociology is applied through teaching at the university,  doing consulting work for corporations,  conducting research for private companies, and working for international agencies.  But sociology has benefits for individuals even if they don’t make a living at it.  Sociology can be used to understand social issues and to see solutions to improving society. It can also allow us to study the larger world and see our society’s place in it.

The Sociological Perspective

perspectThe usefulness of sociology in our everyday lives is referred to as the sociological perspective.   The sociological perspective allows us to see general patterns in the behavior of people.  It sheds light on the connection between personal troubles and the social structures in society.  The sociological perspective allows us to see the “strange in the familiar”.   In other words, it allows us to view everyday events differently.  There are other ways that having the sociological perspective benefits our lives.  A sociological approach encourages us to explore how factors outside the control of individuals can influence a person’s live either positively or negatively.  It also allows us to understand and live in a diverse world.  Finally, the sociological perspective empowers us to be active participants in our society.

Sociology is a relatively new field of study.  It emerged from the political, economic, and intellectual upheavals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Such historical movements as the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and Industrialization, led to changes in government, economics and family life.  Many societies moved from centuries old rural based communities to urban based communities.  This movement of societies from the rural to the urban brought about disorganization, poverty, and an accelerated pace of change.  Many people hoped the miracles of science could be applied to understanding and controlling a rapidly changing world.  In such a context, the discipline of sociology was developed.

The Development of Sociology as a field of study

The following list below is a thumbnail sketch of some of the early contributors to the field.

augusteAuguste Comte  ( 1798 – 1857 )  Was among the first to apply the scientific method to the study of social events.  He believed that the study of society requires a concern for both the sources of continuity and the sources for change.  Comte claimed society is a system we can study scientifically, and based on what we learn, we can act intentionally to improve our lives.  In 1839 he coined the term “sociology”.  He is considered the father of sociology.  For more information on Auguste Comte, click on one of the links below.

1.  Auguste Comte
2.  The World of Auguste Comte

martineauHarriet Martineau  (  1802 – 1876 )  She studied sociology at a time when few women received formal education.  She translated Comte’s work into English.  She traveled extensively and wrote some of the first works that looked at American family customs.  Her book, Society in America, was one of the first to report on the United States customs.  For more information on Harriet Martineau, click on one of the links below.

1.  Harriet Martineau Website

2.  Harriet Martineau

marxKarl Marx  ( 1818 – 1883 )  Karl Marx’s analysis of society has provided ideas that have inspired historians, economists and sociologists.  One of the main contributions Marx has had on sociology is his concept of economic determinism.  Economic determinism describes how economic relationships provide the foundation on which all other social and political relationships are built.  An example of this is the multiple economic factors that influence our decision of who to marry.  Marx believed that to understand human history and how human society operates, you had to look at the conflict that existed between classes.  Those who owned the means of production and owned great wealth (bourgeoisie) were locked in a battle with those who did not own wealth or own the means of production (proletariat).  In the field of sociology, Marx’s writing has influenced conflict theorists.  For more  information on Karl Marx, click on one of the links below.

1.  Karl Marx
2.  The Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels Internet Archive

durkEmile Durkheim  (  1858 – 1917 )  French sociologist. He was the first to get sociology recognized as a separate discipline.  Durkheim was among the first to stress the importance of using reliable statistics to examine theories of social life.  His classic study, Suicide,  looked at how social factors (religion, gender, marital status) influence a person’s decision to commit suicide.  His idea of the sociologist being an objective observer has become the standard in the profession today.  Emile Durkheim emphasized that social forces in society can explain human behavior. For more information on Emile Durkheim, please click on one of the links below.

1.  About Durkheim
2.  The Durkheim Archive

3. Durheim’s Theory on Suicide  (youtube)

weberMax Weber ( 1864 – 1920 )  German sociologist.  He contributed much to the field of sociology.  One of his main contributions was his study of bureaucracies.  Weber believed that  knowing patterns of behavior is less important than knowing the meaning people attach to the behavior.  He also studied the influence of religion on society.  His book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, described the relationship between religious and social values. He found changes in religion helped bring about capitalism. Capitalism was more likely to flourish in Protestant countries than Catholic countries.  For more information on Max Weber, please click on one of the links below.

1.  Max Weber, An Introduction
2.  Max Weber

webduboisW. E. B. DuBois  (  1868 – 1963 )  Was one of the first sociologists to describe how racism and ethnic discrimination influenced society.  He wrote a book each year from 1896 – 1914 describing relations between whites and African-Americans.  He was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  He was a sociologist whose contributions came from both theory and social reform.  For more information on W.E.B. DuBois, please click on the links below.

1.  Short biography
2.  The W.E.B. Learning Center

Research in Sociology

socresearchIn every society people look at the world around them and formulate ideas on how the world “is”.  They then assume that everyone else sees things the same way and that a person just needs to use “common sense” to figure things out. Sociologists prefer a more reliable way to explaining the world: research.  Research is an important component of the field of sociology.  It allows sociologists to test their theories. Keep in mind that research is closely related to sociological theories, which we will examine in the next topic.

As was mentioned above, theory and research go hand in hand.  There are two levels of analysis in sociology.  The first, microsociology, focuses on what people do when they are in the presence of other people.  The symbolic interactionist theory of sociology subscribes to the microsociology method of analysis.  The other method of analysis, macrosociology, focuses on examining the large scale structure of society. Structural-Functionalists and conflict theorists focus their research on the macrolevel of sociology.

The Basis of Sociological Investigation

Sociology is one of the social sciences.  The term science is important to note here.  Science refers to a logical system that bases knowledge on direct, systematic observation.    Science relies on empirical evidence, or information we can verify with our senses.   Through the use of empirical evidence, sociologists can construct theories.  A theory is a statement of how and why specific facts are related.  Sociologists need to constantly test and reevaluate their theories.  Good sociological research should contain both reliability and validity.   Reliability refers to consistency in measurement.  In other words, the research should produce the same results when repeated.  Validity refers to how research should measure exactly what it set out to measure.

1.  The Growing Problem of Replication/Reliability in Scientific Research

The Difference Between Causation and Correlation

One of the most misunderstood concepts in research is recognizing the difference between causation and correlation. Causation is the relationship between cause and effect.  If a person is walking down a hallway and he\she does not notice a box on the floor, and then that person subsequently trips over the box, then it  can be said that the person’s inattention and the box “caused” the person to fall.  In sociological research,  a causal relationship in which a condition or variables leads directly to a certain consequence is extremely rare. Some have argued that it is impossible.

Correlation is an indication that one factor might be the cause for another factor. How does this relate to sociological research? It means there are going to be lots of correlations and few if any causations.  For example, statistics show that people with college degrees have lower unemployment rates. Does this mean every person with a college degree has a job?  No. But it does suggest that there is a correlation between education and unemployment rates.  However, there may be other factors (age, geography, race) that must be considered.

The Research Model

To conduct proper research, sociologists rely on the research model. Listed below are some of the basic steps involved in the research model.

1.  Selecting a topic.

2.  Defining the problem.

3.  Reviewing the literature.

4.  Formulating a hypothesis.  This predicts a relationship between and among variables.

5.  Choose a research method.

6.  Collect the data.  This involves the need for validity and reliability.

7.  Analyze the results.

8.  Share the results.


  1.  Follow the Money: How to Read Peer Review Science

Research Methods

randomsample1.  Survey.  This involves asking people a series of questions.  Once you have decided on your questions, the next thing to do is focus on your population, or target group, that you will study. You must then select a sample, or a group of individuals from among your target population.  The best way to get a representative sample is to use a random sample.  This means everyone in your population has the same chance of being included in the study.  The questions in a survey can be one of two types.  The first are close-ended questions.  These are questions that are followed by a list of possible answers. The second type of question is an open-ended question.  This allows respondents to respond in their own words.

2.  Participant Observation.  This involves observing what is happening in a setting. The researcher participates in a research setting while observing what is happening in that setting. For example, if you want to study how fans react at a sporting event, then you would have to go the sporting event to observe.

3.  Secondary Analysis.  This involves analyzing data that someone has already collected.

4.  Documents.  This involves studying such things as books, newspapers, bank records, or diaries.

5.  Unobtrusive Measures.  This involves observing people who do not know they are being studied.  Examples would be using one-way mirrors or videotape.

6.  Experiments.  This method involves the use of experimental and control groups, along with dependent and independent variables to test causation.  There are four factors essential in a good experiment: an independent variable, dependent variable, an experimental group, and a control group.  An independent variable is a factor that causes a change in another variable. A dependent variable is a factor that is changed by a independent variable.  The experimental group is the group that is exposed to the independent variable.  The control group is the group not exposed to the independent variable.  One goal of scientific research is to establish a cause and effect relationship.  A cause and effect relationship means that a change in one variable will cause a change in another variable.  For example, if we wanted to establish a cause and effect relationship between studying and performing well on a test, then studying would be the independent variable and the grade on the test would be the dependent variable.

1.  The Five Research Methods

2.  Beware of Polls That Exclude Cell phone Only Voters

3.  This Week In Sociology

Ethics in Sociological Research

There are ethical standards involved in conducting research. Ethical research involves:

A)  Openness.  Findings should be shared with the rest of the scientific community.

B)  There are prohibitions against the falsification of results.

C)  There should be no plagiarism.

D)  Research subjects should not be harmed by the research.

E)  There should be a safeguard protecting the anonymity of people who participated in the research.

F)  Finally, researchers should not misrepresent themselves.


1.  The Tearoom Trade Study

Theory Versus Reform

Over the last century or so, there has been a debate in the field of sociology between the two aims of sociology- analyzing society and constructing theories or working to reform society.  Some sociologists believe the proper role of sociology is to analyze society, construct theories, and publish them in sociological journals.  Others  believe that sociologists should use their knowledge and expertise to bring about social justice.

Another area that has grown in the field of sociology is applied sociology.  Applied sociology refers to using sociology to solve problems either in a specific setting (the workplace) or a specific issue (reducing the spread of AIDS).  Click on the link below to learn more about applied sociology can provide a career for someone with a degree in sociology.

1.  American Sociological Association:  Careers in Sociology

2.  Sociology Majors and Types of Jobs

Sociological Theories

In architectural design, it is important for the designer to view the building in three dimensions: top, side, and front.  Each perspective offers the designer an opportunity to see something that might not be apparent from the other views.  In sociology, there are three main perspectives or theories which offer the sociologist an opportunity to view society in a different way.  Each perspective or school of thought has been heavily influenced by some of the sociologists that were discussed earlier.  Many sociologists subscribe to one perspective over the others.  You too, might find that one perspective speaks to you more clearly than the other two.  Or you might find that all three perspectives offer you insight into understanding the society around you.  A more detailed discussion of the three main perspectives can be found in the lesson outline and notes below.

There are three dominant sociological theories:  symbolic interactionist, conflict, and structural-functionalist.  The symbolic interactionist view takes a micro sociological look at society.  Structural-functionalist and conflict theory take a macro sociological look at the social structure of society.  Each perspective is a theory, or a system of assumptions, accepted principles, and rules of procedure devised to analyze and explain.

Structural-functionalist Theory

This perspective tries to answer the question of how societies are organized and maintained.  It begins by identifying the various parts of society (structure )and then tries to analyze how these parts interrelate ( function).  This theory states that society is composed of many parts each with their own function. When all the parts are functioning properly, society is in a normal state. If they are not functioning normally, then they are in an abnormal state. These sociologists examine both structure ( how the parts of a society fit together to make the whole) and function ( how each part contributes to society).

Robert Merton is one of the most influential structural-functionalist theorists. His ideas of functions and dysfunctions make up some of the core beliefs of this perspective.  Functions are the beneficial consequences of people’s actions that have positive effects on the stability of society.  Some actions are intended to help some part of the system.  These are called manifest functions.  These are functions that are intended and easily observed.    For example, in higher education,  the manifest function is to provide students with the education and skills they will need to both perform at their future jobs and to be good citizens. There are also latent functions.  These are unintended and less obvious.  For example, again looking at colleges, they sometimes operate as “marriage brokers”, where young people of similar backgrounds experience courtship and perhaps marriage. Dysfunctions are the harmful and undesirable consequences of people’s actions that have negative effects on the stability of society.   Examples of dysfunctions at college would be the inability of large numbers of poor people being able to attend, or a youth subculture that might come into conflict with parents’ values.  Other actions unintentionally hurt the system.  These are called latent dysfunctions.  For example, each year a number of women are raped on college campuses across the country. Structural functionalism bases the idea of social order exclusively on a CONSENSUAL (shared)  set of norms, a common culture and a common set of social institutions (structures) that control the roles which human beings act out.  So, the “cement” of social existence is the idea that members of the same community, society, nation and so on, share a sense of what social life “expects” of them. There are three main assumptions to structural-functionalist theory.  They are:

1.  Stability.  The most effective way to evaluate a social pattern is see if it contributes to the maintenance of society.

2.  Harmony.  If a social pattern works together for the good of the whole, then it contributes to social harmony.

3.  Evolution.  Social change in a society occurs through evolution- adaptation of social structure to new needs and demands.

Conflict Theory

This theory is the belief of sociologists that society is composed of groups that compete for scarce resources. There is a struggle for power. Karl Marx developed the theory. He said history is a class struggle.   For Marx, POWER not consensus produces social order because those who own the means of production, ( capitalists, owners of business) exploit the producers (slaves, serfs or factory workers usually called the proletariat) for everything they are worth.  This theory can even be extended to relationships between people.  Change in society comes from conflict between groups.  Some groups are winners, and others are losers from this struggle.  Conflict theorists are also interested in social structure.  They ask the questions, who benefits from the social structure, and how do those who benefit maintain their advantage?  The three main assumption underlying conflict theory are:

1.  Competition.  Competition over scarce resources is at the heart of all social relationships.

2.  Structural inequality.  Inequalities exist in all of society’s social structures.  Those who benefit work to maintain their advantage.

3.  Revolution.  Change occurs because of the struggle or conflict between competing groups.  It is revolutionary rather than evolutionary.

The following phrase from Fredrick Douglas, a former slave and abolitionist, sums up the basis of conflict theory: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” 

Symbolic Interaction Theory

Symbolic Interaction theory is a belief by sociologists that society is composed of symbols that people use to establish meaning, develop their views of the world, and communicate with one another.  This theory focuses on social interaction in specific situations. Symbolic interaction argues that human beings are ACTIVE participants in social life, not just passive actors in a set of structures.  Society can be best understood as the shared reality people construct as they interact with one another.   The three main assumptions of this perspective are:

1.  Symbolic meanings are important.  Behaviors, gestures, and words can have multiple meanings.  In order to understand human behavior, we have to understand what it means to the participants.

2.  Meanings grow out of relationships.  Our relationships with others provide meaning.  When relationships change, meanings do too.

3.  Meanings are negotiated.  We play an active role in negotiating the meaning of things around us.

Using the Three Sociological Perspectives to Understand an Element of Human Society

It would be helpful to have an example to see how the three perspectives  can provide insight into understanding the world around us.  A good example would be sports.  Most of us have been involved in sports either as a spectator or a participant.  So let’s take a look at how the three major perspectives view sports in society.

Structural-Functionalist.   With this perspective, the best place to begin is with the function of sports.  Sports function as an outlet for physical conditioning and as a form of recreation.  Latent functions would include learning how to work together in a group and providing jobs.  However, sports can also be dysfunctional.  Some colleges focus more on winning teams than successful student athletes.  Some athletes use drugs to enhance their performance.

Conflict Theory.   This sociological theory would point out how sports can reflect the social inequality that exists in society.  Some sports, such as tennis, golf, and skiing, are expensive, usually limiting participation to the upper classes.  In addition, some groups in society have been denied participation, for example African-Americans in baseball until 1947, and women from the first Olympics.  Finally, there is the issue of discrimination in the areas of coaching and team ownership.

Symbolic Interactionist.  This perspective would focus on the microlevel.  They would look at how team members interact with one another, with coaches, or with fans.  They would examine the meanings of “starter” or “reserve”.

Summary of the Major Theoretical Traditions

Theoretical Tradition Level of Analysis Primary Focus Central Questions



values,   stability, parts of society interrelated

What   are the parts of society?  How are they interrelated?  What causes   stability and instability?

Conflict   Theory


inequality,   conflict over scarce resources

How   do privileged groups maintain their status?  How do disadvantaged groups   challenge the status quo?

Symbolic   Interactionist


meaning,   the settings in which individuals interact

How   do individuals interact to give their social settings meaning?  How do   people interact to maintain or change social patterns?

  action Sociology in Film

Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

The Blair Witch Project.    This film examines the use of research, through the use of interviews, in understanding a local legend.

Control.  A sociopath on death row is given a chance to live if he agrees to take part in a chemical behavioral modification program.

books03Sociology in Books

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

Manifest and Latent Functions
From: Robert K. Merton [1957] Social Theory and Social Structure. Glencoe, IL: Free Press


Brym, Robert J.
2003  Sociology: Your Compass For A New World  Canada:   Wadsworth Thomson Learning

Ferrante, Joan

2000  Sociology:  The United States in a Global Community  United States:  Wadsworth Thomson Learning

Henslin, James M.
2000   Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach  (3rd Edition)   Boston:   Allyn and Bacon

Macionis, John J.

1999 Sociology.  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Macionis, John J.

2006  Society: The Basics  (Eight Edition)  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:  Prentice Hall

Copyright ©2005, 2013 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved

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