Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 17
SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 1 one Theory and Methods ··
SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 1
one
Theory and
Methods
··

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 2

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 2 Why study sociology? 6 Is sociology a science? 14 Understanding

Why study sociology?

6

Is sociology a science?

14

Understanding our world

6

What is a science?

14

Understanding our place in the world

6

Is sociology a natural science?

15

Understanding ourselves

7

Is sociology a science at all?

16

Freeing ourselves

7

Summary points

16

Applying sociology

8

 

Key concepts

17

Careers in sociology

9

 

Further reading

17

What is society?

10

Web links

17

A complex of institutions

10

Levels of society

11

Inequality and domination

12

Structure and culture

13

··

institutions 10 Levels of society 11 Inequality and domination 12 Structure and culture 13 · ·

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 3

1

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 3 1 What is sociology? · ·
SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 3 1 What is sociology? · ·

What is sociology?

··

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 4

4 1: What is sociology?

We introduce you to sociology in this chapter. We begin by explaining why we think that you should study sociology, and by telling you what you can get out of it and what you can use it for. We go on to tackle two fundamental questions. Sociologists study society but what do we mean by this term? How do sociologists study society—is sociology a science?

Four sociologists reflect on their subject

Zygmunt Bauman One could say that the main service the art of thinking sociologically may render to each and every one of us is to make us more sensitive; it may sharpen up our senses, open our eyes wider so that we can explore human con- ditions which thus far had remained all but invisible. Once we understand better how the apparently natural, inevitable, immutable, eternal aspects of our lives have been brought into being through the exercise of human power and human resources, we will find it hard to ac- cept once more that they are immune and impenetrable to human action—our own action included. Sociological thinking is, one might say, a power in its own right, an anti-fixating power. It renders flexible again the world hitherto oppressive in its apparent fixity; it shows it as a world which could be different from what it is now. It can be argued that the art of sociological thinking tends to widen the scope, the daring and the practical effectiveness of your and my freedom. Once the art has been learned and mastered, the individual may well become just a bit less manipulable, more resilient to oppression and regulation from outside, more likely to resist being fixed by forces that claim to be irresistible.

Source: Bauman, Z. (1990) Thinking Sociologically (Oxford: Basil Blackwell), p. 16.

Zygmunt Bauman (19XX–) has been Professor of Sociology at the Universities of Leeds and Warsaw. Among his many reflections on sociological theory and contemporary society are Modernity and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Polity), 1989; Globalization: The Human Consequences (Cambridge: Polity), 1998; Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity), 2000. A second edition of Thinking Sociologically (written with Tim May) was published in 2001.

Steve Bruce To summarize, whatever reservations we may have about how closely actual scientists conform to the high standards set in their programmatic statements about what they and why it works, we need not doubt that the natural sciences offer the best available template for acquiring knowledge about the material world. Critical reasoning, honest and diligent accumulation of evid- ence, subjecting ideas to test for internal consistency and for fit with the best available evidence, seeking evid- ence that refutes rather than supports an argument, engaging in open exchanges of ideas and data uncon- strained by ideological commitments: all of those can be profitably adopted by the social sciences. However, we need to appreciate the differences between the subject matter of the natural and the human sciences. People think. They act as they do, not because they are bound to follow unvarying rules but because they have beliefs, values, interests, and intentions. That simple fact means that, while some forms of sociological re- search look rather like the work of chemists or physicists, for the sociologist there is always a further step to take. Our notion of explanation does not stop at identifying regular patterns in social action. It requires that we understand.

Source: Bruce, S. (1999), Sociology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp . 18–19.

Steve Bruce (19XX–) has been Professor of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen since 1991. He is the author of The Edge of the Union: The Ulster Loyalist Political Vision (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 1994; Religion in Modern Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 1995; Choice and Religion: a Critique of Rational Choice Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press); and many other publications in the sociology of religion.

··

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 5

What is sociology?

5

Four sociologists reflect on their subject

C. Wright Mills The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its

meaning for the inner life and the external career of a

variety of

The sociological imagination

enables us to grasp history and biography and the

relations between the two within society. That is its task

and its

those who have been imaginatively

aware of the promise of their work have consistently asked three sorts of questions:

1 What is the structure of this particular society as a whole? What are its essential components, and how are they related to one another? How does it differ from other varieties of social order? Within it, what is the meaning of any particular feature for its continu- ance and for its change?

2 Where does this society stand in human history? What are the mechanics by which it is changing? What is its place within and its meaning for the development of humanity as a whole? How does any particular fea- ture we are examining affect, and how is it affected by, the historical period in which it moves?

3 What varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and in this period? And what varieties are coming to prevail? In what ways are they selected and formed, liberated and repressed, made sensitive and blunted?

Source: Mills, C. W. (1959), The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 5–7.

C. Wright Mills (1916–62) was an American sociologist well-known for his criticism of abstract approaches in sociology, and his belief that sociology should relate the ‘personal troubles’ of the individual to the ‘public issues’ of social structure. Apart from The Sociological Imagination, he is most well-known for White Collar: The American Middle Classes (New York: Oxford University Press), 1951; and The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press), 1956.

Peter Berger

A more adequate representation of social reality now

would be the puppet theatre, with the curtain rising on

the little puppets jumping about on the ends of their

invisible strings, cheerfully acting out the little parts that have been assigned to them in the tragi-comedy to be We see the puppets dancing on their minia- ture stage, moving up and down as the strings pull them around, following the prescribed course of their various little parts. We learn to understand the logic of this theatre and we find ourselves in its motions. We locate ourselves in society and thus recognize our own position

as we hang from its subtle strings. For a moment we see

ourselves as puppets indeed. But then we grasp a decis- ive difference between the puppet theatre and our own drama. Unlike the puppets, we have the possibility of stopping in our movements, looking up and perceiving the machinery by which we have been moved. In this act lies the first step towards freedom.

Source: Berger, P. (1963), Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (Harmondsworth: Penguin), pp. 140, 199.

Peter Berger (1929–) is an American sociologist, who (with Thomas Luckmann) wrote The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Harmondsworth: Penguin), 1971. Two other well- known books by him are: The Sacred Canopy: Ele- ments of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York:

Doubleday); The Capitalist Revolution: Fifty Propositions about Prosperity, Equality, and Liberty (Aldershot:

Wildwood House), 1987.

··

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 6

6

1: What is sociology?

Why study sociology?

Sociology enables us to understand the world we live in but also to understand ourselves, for we are the products of that world. This understanding can help us to gain more control over our lives but it can also be put to more practical uses as well.

Understanding our world

We live in a world of extraordinary choice. Our choice of food to eat, holiday destinations to visit, and tele- vision channels to watch seems almost limitless. We can in many ways choose our own identity, by con- structing a lifestyle that suits us or creating a new persona in a virtual community. We can choose the body shape that we want and through a combina- tion of diet, exercise, and cosmetic surgery at least try to change our body accordingly. The provision of choice, whether in education or health-care, has also become one of the main priorities of government policy. Although we have a strong sense of choice, we are, none the less, subject to social pressures that in many ways seem to make these choices for us. Our values and our opportunities are shaped by the society in which we grow up and our position in this society. We are under pressure to conform to other people’s ideas of how we should look and how we should live. While we may think that we choose certain products or decide to hold certain views, we are subject to extensive manipulation by advertisers, media moguls, and spin doctors. Many people anyway feel that work pressures and shortage of time leave them with very little opportunity to do anything but get up in the morning, work all day, and do the housework or look after the children when they get home at night. We also live in a world where the ability to choose varies enormously between people. In our own soci- ety the poor, the unemployed, the single parent, the refugee, all have less choice than others. In most African, Asian, or Latin American countries, where there is far more poverty and far fewer opportunities to escape it, many people struggle to just survive from day to day. Choice is, therefore, unequally distrib- uted and has become steadily more so, as inequality has increased—not only within our own society but also in the world as a whole, for the gap between rich and poor countries has been widening as well. How are we to understand and explain this strange world we live in, a world that gives us choice but also

takes it away, that provides some with enormous choice but others with very little, that makes us think that we have choice when we often have hardly any? It is above all sociology that has tackled these issues and you will find that they come up again and again in this book, when we examine the way that beliefs, values, and identities are shaped and created; or analyse inequalities of class, gender, and ethnicity; or discuss the influence of the mass media on the way that we think and behave; or consider the conflicting pressures of work demands and household obligations.

Understanding our place in the world

Sociology enables us not only to understand the world around us but also our place within it. This is not just

a matter of where we live, important as this is, but of

where we are located within social structures and the changes taking place in these structures.

Sociologists use the term social structure to refer to any relatively stable pattern of relationships between people. In our panel of four sociologists, C. Wright Mills refers to the structure of ‘society as a whole’ but any social group, however big or small, from

a family to a political party, has a social structure.

So does any organization, such as a university, a work-place, or a hospital. There are also the wider structures of class, gender, and ethnicity that stretch across a whole society and, indeed, beyond it. Some organizations, such as transnational corporations, cross national boundaries, and national societies themselves exist within a global structure of inter- national relationships. By describing such structures, sociology provides us with a map of society within which we can place ourselves, so that we can begin to understand the social forces that act upon us. These structures are, however, constantly changing and one of the main tasks of sociology is to understand and explain social change and the impact that it has on people. We examine social structures in Part Three of this book and you will find that each of the chapters is cent- rally concerned with processes of social change. Some recent changes that have in one way or another impacted on all of us are:

Advances in communications that have made it possible to transfer huge quantities of information

··

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 7

and money instantly across the world, and enabled the emergence of an electronic world of cyber- culture, virtual communities, and anonymous identities.

The decentralization of cities, as superstores, hos- pitals, hotels, and leisure complexes have moved from the centre to the edge of the city, and the transformation of city centres by a rapidly expand- ing night-time world of pubs and clubs where bouncers rule.

Changes in family life, as more people have decided to live on their own, more couples have cohabited without marriage, women have increas- ingly found employment in paid work, divorce rates have risen, and the number of single-parent families has increased.

The transformation of work, with the decline of old industries and the expansion of service occupa- tions requiring emotional labour, while more flexible and less secure forms of part-time and temporary work have spread, and more employees have teleworked from home.

increasing inequality, as more people have experi- enced poverty and exclusion, and the gap has widened not only between the rich and the poor within societies but also between rich and poor countries.

You will find that we discuss all these changes and many others in this book. Each may seem to be quite distinctive in character, but they have many processes in common and are interconnected in various ways. Globalization, for example, is centrally involved in almost all of them and connects one process of change with another. It is sociology that has the concepts that enable us to comprehend these processes of change and grasp the connections be- tween them.

Understanding ourselves

Perhaps most fundamentally of all, sociology enables us to understand ourselves. The way that we think, behave, and feel, indeed our very sense of identity, is socially produced. It is only through a knowledge and understanding of the social processes that turn us into the people we are that we can truly under- stand ourselves. Socialization is the general term that sociologists use for this process. We use this term, because this is a process that makes us into social beings, that turns an individual into a member of society. It begins with

··

Why study sociology?

a child’s upbringing in the family and continues

through education but does not stop there, for it con- tinues throughout our life. Every time that we join a new group, perhaps of first-years at university or col-

leagues at work, a process of socialization goes on.

Each time that we enter a new stage in life, we learn

to play certain roles, the role of a parent, the role of a

grandparent, and so on. Socialization is so funda- mental to the understanding of the workings of a society that we discuss it at some length in Chapter 4. Part Two of this book is primarily concerned with identities. Our sense of personal identity seems so strong and so individual that we think it is produced by some process going on mysteriously inside us that makes us who we really are. Sociologists argue, however, that identities are socially constructed. Even such basic features of our identity as sex, race, or age are socially not biologically constructed. The categories that we place ourselves in, such as ‘men’ or ‘women’, ‘blacks’ or ‘whites’, ‘young’ or ‘old’, ‘healthy’ or ‘sick’, refer to our physical characteristics but they are, none the less, social categories that reflect certain ways of thinking about people that vary between societies. We learn these categories through socialization and then see ourselves as hav- ing the characteristics that these categories specify.

Freeing ourselves

A knowledge of the social structures that constrain

us, and the social processes that give us identities, does not, however, condemn us to passivity. Indeed, the reverse is the case, for by making us aware of the forces acting upon us, sociology also enables us to see

them for what they are, resist them if we wish to, and,

to some extent, free ourselves from them.

This point is made well by two of the sociologists in our panel of four (see p. XXX). Berger uses the meta- phor of the puppet theatre to represent ‘social reality’.

He suggests that, as in a puppet theatre, people act out certain parts that are prescribed for them, and are pulled this way and that by the ‘invisible strings’ of society. Through sociology, they can, however, see the strings that pull them and the social machinery that operates the strings. Once they do this they are no longer puppets and have taken ‘the first step towards freedom’. Bauman similarly points out that through sociology we can become aware of, and can then explore, the previously invisible social context of our lives. This means that we discover that much that appeared to be beyond human control, that seemed natural or inevitable, is actually the result of human actions. To

7

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 8

8 1: What is sociology?

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 8 8 1: What is sociology? Challenging gender stereotypes. return to

Challenging gender stereotypes.

return to Berger’s metaphor, we find out that it is in fact other people who are pulling the puppets’ strings. Once we realize this, we understand that things do not have to be the way they are. If human actions make the world the way it is, then the world can be changed. If the way we live is not the result of human nature, then we can live differently. People have, for example, often thought that pat- terns of behaviour are biologically determined when they are not. It has been widely believed that the different roles performed by men and women are biologically prescribed. This can lead to the false idea that for biological reasons men cannot be, say, nurses and women cannot be, say, pilots. In Britain, beliefs of this sort became established in the nineteenth cen- tury as men sought to exclude women from many occupations and confine them to domestic and caring roles. Knowledge of the way this idea became estab- lished and the socializing processes that maintain help us to understand that gender role differences are socially constructed (we discuss this in Chapter 5). This awareness makes it possible to challenge them and change them, as people have done, for there are now many male nurses and female pilots.

Applying sociology

You may reasonably say that this is all very well but what is sociology useful for? Sociology may provide plenty of knowledge and understanding but what else can it do? Sociological knowledge has important applications in many areas of work. It has made major contribu- tions to the study of social problems and the work of those who seek to deal with them. Thus, sociolog- ists have carried out research into drug use, crime, violence, industrial disputes, family problems, and mental illness, to name some of the more well- known problems of society. Indeed, no investiga- tion of the causes and consequences of these social problems would be complete without an input form sociology. Sociologists have not just been concerned with explaining why some people behave in ways that are considered problematic. They are also interested in the sources of such behaviour in, say, the patterns of family relationships, the structure of organiza- tions, or the social distribution of resources. They are concerned, too, with the processes that lead to the treatment of certain actions as deviant or criminal behaviour. Why, for example, are poor people prose- cuted for a failure to pay the community charge, when the rich are allowed to avoid paying taxes by shifting their money into tax havens? Sociology has also made a central contribution to the study of the management of people and the training of managers. One aspect of this is the devel- opment of structures that enable organizations to function productively and ebciently. This might seem a relatively straightforward matter but, as we show in Chapter 18, sociologists have demonstrated that rationally designed organizations are commonly disrupted by internal conflicts and the unintended consequences of their rules and regulations. Those sociologists working in this area have not, however, just focused on issues of organizational ebciency. They are also concerned with the perspectives of those who find themselves under growing pressure from their employer and seek to find ways both of continuing to carry out their work in a professional way and protecting themselves against exploitation. One of the current frontiers here, which we discuss in Chapters 15 and 18, is the struggle between managers and employees in call centres and, more generally, in the ‘emotional labour’ of customer service work. In the application of sociology, there is, indeed, a constant tension between those who seek to use it to solve social problems by making social control more effective and those who try to use it to change the

··

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 9

structures that have generated these problems and bring about social reform.

Careers in sociology

What can you do with sociology? How can sociology help you in finding a career? One possible career is to become a professional sociologist, carrying out sociological research and communicating its results. This might be in an educational institution but not necessarily, as there are many other organizations, such as specialized research institutes and think tanks, that employ pro- fessional sociologists. Sociology is an exceptionally rewarding area in which to do research. It is an enormously diverse and dynamic field, with frontiers opening up in all directions, as our Frontiers Boxes and the Studies at the end of each of the Part Two and Part Three chapters will show. The range of methods involved, which stretch from large-scale quantitative surveys to intensive observational studies of the social life of small groups, provides scope for many different skills and inclinations. Research is, further- more, not just a matter of acquiring knowledge, but also of developing the ideas, concepts, and methods of sociology itself. As a subject to teach, it has much to offer, as it deals all the time with topics and issues that are central to the lives of those being taught. As you teach sociology you can draw on the experiences of those you are teaching, using their daily lives to illustrate sociolo- gical theories and concepts, while using sociology to provide them with a greater understanding of their situation in the world, the forces acting upon them, and the sources of their own beliefs and identities. Those who teach in schools and colleges can also play their part in developing the subject by contributing articles to such publications as the Sociology Review or writing pieces for sociology web sites. Most sociology graduates will probably not, how- ever, go into teaching or research careers. What other things can sociologists do? Sociology is not a voca- tional subject, in the sense of providing a training for a specific occupation. It is, however, relevant to a very wide range of occupations, a wider range than you probably realize, as the box on careers shows. Indeed, this broad range of occupational destinations makes sociology a good choice for those who have not decided what career they wish to pursue or simply want to keep their options open. You can be sure that a subject that gives you a greater understand- ing of social situations, social interaction, and human behaviour in general, will provide you with insights

··

Why study sociology?

9

that will come in useful whoever employs you and whatever you do. The skills and knowledge of the sociologist also become increasingly relevant as information about people becomes more and more central to the func- tioning of the society we live in. Most expanding occupations, in such areas as marketing, public relations, opinion formation, the media, human re- source management, education, research, and social policy, depend on the collection, analysis, and com- munication of information about people, and this is, after all, what sociology is about.

BRIEFING

Careers for sociologists

The traditional occupation for Sociology graduates has been social work or some other form of public sector welfare work, such as the probation service. However, in practice sociology graduates go into a much wider range of jobs. In industry, for instance, human resource management (or personnel as it used to be called) is one application close to welfare but, additionally, aspects of marketing draw upon sociological skills. Virtually all sociology courses include methods of social research and these can have an enlightening effect upon market research. Some of the large retail firms, from Laura Ashley through Marks and Spencer to Tesco, recognize that their chief concern is with people and consequently have taken sociology graduates into their management training schemes. In fact the range has tended to broaden in both the public and private sectors. For example, in recent returns graduate entry into the police force is a noticeable addition to the former and journalism to the latter. Many sociology graduates go into teaching. This embraces school teaching, further education, and the option to stay in higher education. Prospective school teachers and teachers in further education go on after graduation to take a postgraduate certificate in

education (PGCE)

If you plan to study for a PGCE, you

will need to ensure that the subjects you study as part of your degree will allow you entry to a PGCE course, as there are some restrictions. Talk to the Admissions Tutor of the course for more advice. Students who achieve the best results during their undergraduate courses may get the chance to go on to postgraduate research for a higher degree with the aim

of making a career in higher

However,

resources for this are scarce and therefore competition is fierce.

Source: British Sociological Association (2002), see Web Links.

this are scarce and therefore competition is fierce. Source : British Sociological Association (2002), see Web

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 10

10

1: What is sociology?

What is society?

Skills

Taxes

We can all agree that sociologists study society but what do we mean by this term? It is used in many dif- ferent ways in sociology but most commonly to refer to a national unit, though some would argue that we now live not in distinct national societies but a global society. It is not really possible to give a short definition of something as complex as a society and the easiest way to get a sense of what it means is to examine its main aspects in turn. These are also the main lines of enquiry along which sociology has developed.

A complex of institutions

Institutions are the established practices that regu- late the various activities that make up social life. Examples of institutions are marriages, markets, educa- tional curricula, religious rituals, and governments, which in their different ways all give order to differ- ent aspects of the way that we live. In contemporary societies, these institutions, and also the organiza- tions associated with them, are highly specialized. Thus, the educational, economic, political, military, and religious activities of society each have specialized institutions and organizations. We speak of a complex of institutions because these specialized institutions are closely interrelated with each other. Consider, for example, educational institutions and their organizations. In Britain, public-sector schools, colleges, and universities are dependent on political institutions for their funding. It is ultimately the government that decides how much money to distribute to them. Governments are them- selves dependent on the economy. The amount of money that the government has to spend on educa- tion depends on how much it can raise in taxes. While this is partly a political question, it also depends on the state of the economy. This itself depends,

Figure 1.1

Institutional interdependence

Education

Funds

Economy

Government

however, on education, for it is education that sup- plies the economy with skilled labour. This has been an important issue in Britain since the 1970s, for it has been argued that education has not been giving people the skills that the economy needs, an issue that we take up in Chapter 9, pp. XXX–XXX. These interrelationships mean that institutions should not be studied in isolation from each other. Sociologists cannot, of course, study everything simul- taneously and they tend to specialize in the study of particular areas, such as the family or religion or the media. Part Three of this book is divided into chap- ters that specialize in distinct areas of this sort. To achieve a complete understanding of what is going on in any one of these areas, you must always, how- ever, bear in mind its links with others. In this book we have indicated what we see as the more important links through cross-references and hint boxes. It is one of the distinctive features of sociology that it is concerned with whole societies. As C. Wright Mills put it, sociologists should ask: ‘What is the structure of this particular society as a whole?’ Sociology is, indeed, the only subject that sees societies as ‘wholes’ in this way. This distinctive perspective means that it overlaps with many other fields of specialized enquiry. Economics and politics,

that it overlaps with many other fields of specialized enquiry. Economics and politics, Education and politics.

Education and politics.

··

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 11

for example, are subjects in their own right, which explore in detail the workings of the areas concerned and the issues specific to them. Economic and polit- ical institutions are, however, crucial to the function- ing of any society and there is also, therefore, a sociology of economic life and a sociology of politics. These particularly address the relationships between these areas and the wider society. Sociology’s concern with whole societies and all activities that occur within them means that any as- pect of social life can become a field within sociology. Indeed, one of the exciting and dynamic things about sociology is the way that new specialities are con- stantly opening up within it as sociologists begin to explore new areas of activity that have not been studied before or have newly emerged through social change. Examples of new fields are the sociology of sport, the sociology of tourism, and the sociology of the body.

Levels of society

In discussing society as a complex of institutions we have been operating at one particular level, the national level, of society. People do commonly see themselves as members of national societies. If some- one asks you which society you belong to, you will probably reply that you live in, say, British or American or Indian society. If you live in Britain, you might of course prefer to say that you live in Scottish or Welsh society, for nationality is a contentious matter, which we discuss in Chapter 14, pp. XXX–XX. The point that

What is society?

we are making, here, however, is that the national level is one level of society but only one level. Most people live in family or household units con- sisting of a small number of closely related people. They have a sense of obligation to each other which is greater than that to those outside the group, and they see themselves as members of a family. They often speak of themselves as living ‘in a family’. In thinly populated rural areas where people practise a self-subcient form of agriculture one family may have very little contact with another and a person’s society may consist almost entirely of other members of the immediate family group. This is a rare situ- ation, however, particularly nowadays, and the vast majority of people are involved on a daily basis with much larger social units. One such unit is the community. Two centuries or so ago most people lived in small, relatively self- subcient and self-contained communities based on the rural village or the small town, where everyone knew everyone else. Industrialization and urbaniza- tion disrupted communities of this sort and brought large numbers of people who did not know each other together. As we show in Chapter 13, pp. XXX–XX, new kinds of community have, however, established them- selves within cities. Many people still see themselves as members of communities of one kind or another. Whether or not people feel that they are members of a community, they are inevitably members of a larger social unit, the nation state, which during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries became steadily more important in people’s lives. With the

Can family be a society.

and twentieth centuries became steadily more important in people’s lives. With the Can family be a

··

11

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 12

12 1: What is sociology?

Figure 1.2

Levels of society

International and global organizations

Family

Community

Nation state

Family

Community

Nation state

development of the nation state, national institutions emerged. At its centre is the state apparatus itself, but there are also national educational systems, national economic institutions, national health services, na- tional armies, and national churches, to name some of the more obvious examples. As members of a nation state, people have the rights and responsibil- ities of citizens of that state, and a sense of national identity. We examine the development of nations and nation states in Chapter 14, pp. XXX–XX. Nation states are not, however, self-subcient, for they are interlinked with each other and dependent on each other in complex ways. These links developed particularly strongly with industrialization, which made national economies highly dependent on one another through an international division of labour. The industrial societies specialized in producing manufactured goods for the world as a whole, while other parts of the world specialized in producing food for the workers, and raw materials for the factor- ies, of the industrial societies. National societies have become ever more integ- rated with each other through a process known as globalization, which we discuss at length in Chap- ter 14. The world—the globe—has become a ‘smaller’ place. Improvements in communication mean that one can travel to most places in the world within a day or so, while information can be transmitted in- stantly to any part of it. Nowadays many companies are global corporations operating in large numbers of countries on every continent. There are also global political organizations, such as the United Nations, and global movements such as Greenpeace. As well as being members of national societies, people are also members of a global society. Indeed, the term ‘the global village’ is sometimes used to express the idea that people have become closely linked with each other across the globe.

As society has developed, social units have become steadily larger in their scale. Communities became part of national societies and national societies have be- come part of a global society. At one time or another it has been argued that the family, the community, and the nation went into decline as social units grew in size. Smaller-scale units have, however, not so much disappeared as changed, as society has become multi- level in character. There are many important issues here for sociologists as they examine the relationships between the overlapping units that make up society.

Inequality and domination

In our discussion of society as a complex of insti- tutions, we emphasized the way in which each organized a particular activity for society as a whole. Societies are also, however, divided by inequality. Some groups benefit more from these activities than others and seek to maintain or increase their advant- ages. Structures of inequality and domination may stretch right across a society, indeed across the world as a whole, as a dominant group tries to gain control of all areas of activity and secure benefits in all as- pects of life. We particularly address the issues raised by inequality in Chapters 16 and 17, but you will find them cropping up throughout the book. There are various dimensions of inequality within national societies. There are class inequalities between, say, aristocracies and commoners or employers and workers. There are ethnic inequalities between, say, whites, Asians, and African-Caribbeans. There are gen- der inequalities between men and women. In some societies, religion or nationality have become major lines of division. There are also inequalities between national societies, for increasing global integration has not resulted in greater international equality, as we show in Chapter 14. The study of inequality and its consequences brings up a number of important issues that have been much discussed in sociology. These can be grouped under three headings:

Figure 1.3

Social stratification by class

Upper class Middle class Lower class
Upper class
Middle class
Lower class

Social

mobility

··

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 13

social stratification;

social control;

social conflict.

Social stratification. Social stratification is con- cerned with the way in which a structure of layers, or strata, emerge within society. Typically there is a top layer of the rich and powerful, a bottom layer of the poor and powerless, and various other layers in between. Important questions that are raised are the number of layers that exist in a society, where the boundaries between them should be drawn, the ease with which people can move between them (social mobility), and the way in which the layers persist and change from one generation to the next. Social control. This raises the question of how inequality is maintained. How do the upper layers control those below them and maintain their various advantages? One way is through control of the use of force—that is, control of the military and police forces of a society. Sociologists generally emphasize, however, that there are more subtle means of control that operate by influencing beliefs and attitudes. Thus, it has been variously argued that people are controlled through education, religion, the mass media, or social policy, and we discuss these argu- ments in the chapters on these areas. Social conflict. Here the issue is whether and under what conditions inequality generates conflict. Do the mechanisms of social control break down? Do those in the lower layers organize themselves to improve their situation and challenge the domination of society by those with wealth and power? Under what conditions, for example, can workers organize themselves collectively to demand higher wages and challenge the power of the employer? Under what conditions do women organize themselves through feminist movements to challenge male domination? The study of inequality is linked to the study of institutions and their interrelationships, for the rich and powerful largely maintain their wealth and power by controlling the institutions of society. Similarly, those who challenge their position have to contest their control of these institutions. Thus, the study of this aspect of society is closely related to the issues we raised in our discussion of institutions.

Structure and culture

Sociologists distinguish between the social structure of a society and its culture. As we explained earlier (see p. XXX), by social structure they generally mean a relatively stable pattern of relationships between social groups or organizations. By culture sociologists

··

What is society?

mean the beliefs of the society and their symbolic representation through its creative activities. A sym- bol is simply a representation, such as a word or a gesture or an image, which communicates an idea or feeling. Culture can best be discussed by distinguish- ing between beliefs, which are the content of the culture, and creative activities, which express this content in actions or objects. Beliefs are concerned with both ideas about the way things are and ideas about how they ought to be. Ideas about how things are include beliefs about the nature of things—the physical world, human nature, and the character of society. Ideas about how things ought to be are embodied in values and norms:

Values specify what people ought to do. Thus, the belief that people should accumulate wealth or the belief that they should live in harmony with the natural environment are both values, though rather different ones.

Norms are rules of behaviour that regulate how people behave. A typical norm, for example, is the rule that people should not accumulate wealth by stealing from each other. Such norms are often embodied in laws.

Beliefs about the way that the world is and the way that it ought to be are commonly linked together by religion and politics. Thus, Christianity contains ideas about God’s creation of the world and the belief that human beings are naturally sinful. Christianity also emphasizes certain values, such as love and char- ity, and provides a set of norms, such as the prohibi- tion of sexual behaviour outside marriage. Political beliefs, such as socialism or liberalism, similarly link together ideas about the nature of society and dis- tinctive visions of what a society should be like. Culture also takes the form of creative activities that express ideas and feelings. The term culture is often used to refer to the high culture of a society, its collec- tions of paintings, its opera houses, and great works of literature. But there is also its popular culture, and this has become an area of growing interest in sociology, which we discuss in Chapter 10. Cinema, popular music, magazines, and soap operas are part of our cul- ture in this sense. Activities as various as gardening, craftwork, dressing, cooking, and talking are all creat- ive activities that can be considered part of culture. Indeed, the term culture is often used in a very broad way to refer to the general customs and way of life of a society or a group within it, as in references to working-class culture or Asian culture. Culture in this sense includes the way that people meet and greet each other, the way they behave towards each other at work and at leisure, their sporting and religious activities, and so on. All social activity has a cultural

13

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 14

14 1: What is sociology?

aspect, for all social actions express people’s ideas and feelings, and therefore communicate their culture. The question then arises of the relationship between structure and culture, an issue that has been much dis- cussed in sociology. One example of this is the rela- tionship between structures of inequality and culture. As we pointed out above, one way in which those at the top of society dominate those at the bottom is

through their control of education, religion, and the mass media. This enables them to influence people’s beliefs and shape the way that they think and behave. Culture can, therefore, reinforce the existing struc- ture of society, though subordinate groups can also challenge this structure by developing alternative ideas and beliefs, as shown, for example, by the growth of oppositional socialist and feminist cultures.

Is sociology a science?

In the previous section we discussed what sociolo- gists mean by society. Here we take up issues raised by the way in which they study it. The question of whether sociology should be considered a science has been hotly debated both inside and outside the subject. It is an interesting and important question that enables us to explore the nature of the subject, its distinctiveness, and its relationships with other subjects. Before discussing it, we must, however, first consider what is meant by science.

What is a science?

It is first very important to clear away certain miscon- ceptions about science. It is popularly associated with two things, the use of the experimental method and the collection of facts. Many scientists certainly do carry out experiments and collect facts but science in- volves considerably more than this. The experiment is an important and powerful method but not the only one used by science. It is a powerful method because it enables the isolation and measurement of the effect of one variable. Thus, for example, the effect of an antibiotic can be established by preparing two identical dishes of bacteria, adding the antibiotic to one only, and then comparing the results after a suitable period of time. There are, how- ever, various fields of investigation, commonly regarded as sciences, that cannot make much use of the experi- mental method. Astronomy, geology, and meteorology are obvious examples. They have to rely largely on other kinds of observational method for the collec- tion of data. Important as the laboratory experiment undoubtedly is to the natural sciences, the use of this method is not a defining characteristic of science. If experimental methods are not the only method used by scientists, surely, you might say, there can be no doubt that sciences are concerned with the collec-

tion of facts by one means or another. The first prob- lem this raises is that facts are not simply collected. Scientists do not just look around to see what facts they can discover, for scientific enquiry is directed by the theoretical concerns of scientists. Scientific ideas lie behind the design of experiments or the search for data of a particular kind. The ‘dark matter’ of the uni- verse was not exactly visible, by its very nature, and astronomers discovered it not because they came across it but because the currently dominant theory of the origins of the universe suggested that there had to be far more matter in the universe than could be accounted for by its visible material. Secondly, the conventional idea of a fact is of something existing ‘out there’ waiting to be dis- covered. What actually happens is that scientists make observations, which then have to be interpreted and made sense of before they can become facts. Inter- pretation always involves explanatory ideas and this returns us again to the importance of theories. The existence of ‘black holes’ is now an accepted fact in astronomy. This fact is certainly based on observa- tions of the behaviour of stars but it depends also upon a theory of what happens when matter be- comes so highly concentrated that nothing can escape its gravitational pull. Without this theory, we could not conceive of black holes. Science is both an empirical and a theoretical enter- prise. In saying that it is empirical we mean that it is based on observations. The word empirical is derived from the Greek word for experience and is commonly used to refer to observational work that provides us with experience of the world. In saying that science is theoretical we mean that it also involves systematic thought about the world. A theory is a logically con- nected set of ideas. Theories guide empirical work and are used to interpret and explain its observations, which may or may not fit the existing theory. If they do not fit it, the theory needs at least to be revised

··

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 15

and may have to be abandoned. Science advances through the constant interplay of theoretical and empirical work. While it is important to be clear about the logic of scientific activity, it is also important to bear in mind the scientific spirit. By this we mean the set of ideals which motivate and guide scientific work. Science is both rational and critical. It is rational in that it rejects explanations of the world that are based on religious beliefs or mysterious forces, rather than reasoned thought. It is critical, as it questions received ideas and accepted beliefs. It is concerned with establish- ing the truth about how the world is and how things actually work, rather than how they ought to be or how they are supposed to be. This does not mean that scientists lack values and beliefs. Like anyone else, they hold values and be- liefs, which may well influence what they do. For example, scientists concerned about the state of the natural environment might well carry out research into global warming. Values and beliefs should not, however, influence the scientist’s investigation or interpretation of observations. Thus, however con- cerned such a scientist might be about pollution, if the observations did not support the theory of global warming, the scientist would be expected to say so. We have in some ways presented an idealized picture of science. Most scientific enquiry is driven by the requirements of industry or government rather than the pursuit of knowledge. Scientists sometimes sup- press results that do not fit their theories or that might damage their careers, because they conflict with their employer’s interest in a particular policy or product. Research results are faked by some researchers who are more concerned to achieve publications and ad- vance their careers than advance knowledge. At the heart of science there is, none the less, an ideal of dis- interested enquiry into the nature of things and it is against this ideal that the work of scientists is judged.

Is sociology a natural science?

The first sciences to develop were the natural sciences and they therefore became the model for scientific activity. Some sociologists adopted this model and tried to develop a natural science of human beha- viour. Most contemporary sociologists would, how- ever, argue that society cannot be studied in the way that the natural world is studied. Social behaviour is in important respects quite different from natural behaviour. Human behaviour is meaningful behaviour, for whatever human beings do means something to

··

Is sociology a science?

them. It is a characteristic of human beings that they act in the context of beliefs and purposes that give their actions meaning and shape the way that they behave. If sociologists are to understand and explain human behaviour, they have to take account of the meanings that people give to their actions. Thus, no universal statements can be made about human behaviour, for the same behaviour means different things in different societies. Let us take eat- ing practices as a simple example. The eating of roast beef has been traditional in England and regarded as one of the distinctive features of English life. In India, however, cows are considered sacred and may not be killed, let alone eaten. On the other hand, while the eating of dogs in the Far East is commonplace, it is quite abhorrent to most British people. Behaviour considered quite normal in one society is quite unac- ceptable in another. This means that no general state- ments can be made about human eating behaviour in the way that they can about the eating behaviour of animals. Human behaviour is also different because people think about what they are doing. They are at least partly aware of the forces acting upon them and can resist these forces and act differently. Thus, while the eating of snails and frogs’ legs is not a normal feature of the British diet and is generally viewed in Britain with some disgust, some British people may consider that there is no good reason for rejecting these foods. They may decide that it must be possible to enjoy them, if the French eat them with such relish, and may then try them out. Similarly veget- arians may reject traditional British beef-eating prac- tices. Behaviour is not entirely culture bound because individuals can break out from their culture and, indeed, change their culture. None the less, it clearly remains the case that there are broad differences of culture between, say, British people and French people that result in different eat- ing habits. Furthermore, those who do break away from established patterns will themselves be distinct- ive in certain ways. They may, for example, be edu- cated to a higher level. Thus, we are not arguing that what people do is a matter simply of choice but rather that there is a cultural patterning of social behaviour that makes it more complex than natural behaviour.

Weber particularly emphasized the importance to sociological explanation of understanding the meaning of human action. See Chapter 2, pp. XXX–XX.

The cultural content of social behaviour means that it cannot just be observed, it has to be understood.

15

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 16

16 1: What is sociology?

This special requirement of sociology comes out clearly in the reflections of the sociologists in our panel (see p. XXX). Thus, after arguing that many of the features of natural science should be adopted by the sociologist, Steve Bruce insists that the sociologist must go further. As he puts it: ‘Our notion of explana- tion does not stop at identifying regular patterns in social action. It requires that we understand’. C. Wright Mills insisted that the mechanical ap- plication of the rules of scientific method was insub- cient, that the understanding of social structures required a special quality of mind, what he calls the ‘sociological imagination’. To Zygmunt Bauman it is the ‘art of thinking sociologically’ that can make us free. This does not mean that sociology can learn nothing from science—it can learn much, as Steve Bruce indicates—but science alone is not enough.

Is sociology a science at all?

Some have gone further and questioned whether there can be a science of society. If sociology is centrally concerned with understanding what people do, is there any real difference between sociology and common sense? The answer to this question is a resounding yes. In their everyday lives people are too involved in what is going on around them to have any detachment from it. They are immersed in their own situations, their own families, their own work relationships, and their own friendship and leisure patterns. These colour their view of the world. Their knowledge of the world is limited to the situations that they have experienced. They generally interpret their own and other people’s behaviour in terms of preconceived ideas and beliefs. In doing so they make little distinction between the way the world is and the way they think it ought to be. Their experience is fitted into these ideas and beliefs, which are import- ant to their sense of identity, and they are therefore usually very reluctant to alter them. The sociologist’s knowledge of the world is very different. Sociology builds up a knowledge of society that is not based upon the experience of one indi- vidual but accumulated from the research of large numbers of sociologists. This is knowledge of many different aspects of many different societies at many different times. It is a cumulative knowledge that is constantly being added to by further research. This bank of knowledge means that the experience of large numbers of people in many very different situ- ations and from very different cultures is available to the sociologist.

Sociologists are trained to develop their ideas in a logical, disciplined, and explicit way by constructing theories, which are quite unlike the everyday beliefs of common sense. They are explicit, because their as- sumptions have been brought into the open, thought about, and justified. Logical connections are made between the various ideas that make up a theory so that its train of thought can be followed. Theories are also subject to the scrutiny of other sociologists, who will critically examine their assumptions and check the logic of their arguments. Sociologists then test out their theories in an object- ive and systematic way. They do not assume that they know the answers or that their theory is right. They demonstrate the truth or falsity of their ideas by collecting appropriate information, using a wide variety of methods to do this. These range from large- scale surveys to the small-scale, in-depth, participant observation of particular situations. Sociologists draw on many different sources of material, from docu- ments to census data or interview responses. As we show in Chapter 3, pp. XXX–XXX, different methods are appropriate to different issues and different situ- ations but can also be used to complement and check upon each other. As with their theories, their methods and the way that they interpret their data are open to the scrutiny of other sociologists. Sociology is then a science. It has explicit theor- ies and ways of collecting data in an objective and systematic way, in order to check those theories and revise them if they are found wanting. It is not a nat- ural science because there are important differences between the social and natural worlds as objects of study, differences that actually require sociologists, as we showed above, to go beyond the methods of the natural sciences. It is a social science, not a natu- ral science, but a science none the less.

Summary points

In this chapter we have discussed a number of gen- eral issues raised by the subject of sociology. We began by exploring why one should study sociology:

We argued that sociology enables us to understand the world that we live in and our place within that world.

In doing so, sociology enables us to understand ourselves, and self-understanding can help us to free ourselves.

Sociology also has many practical applications to social problems, though sociologists are also interested in the sources of these problems in

··

SocC01 10/9/02 4:24 PM Page 17

the structure of society, and in what leads to certain kinds of behaviour being defined as ‘a problem’.

We also suggested that sociology can open the way to a wide range of careers.

We then moved on to consider what sociologists mean by society, by examining the main features of societies:

Societies consist of a complex of interdependent institutions.

Societies are, however, organized at a number of different levels, from the family, through the com- munity and the nation state, to the global level.

Societies also consist of structures of inequality and domination.

Web links

17

There is a cultural dimension to society, consisting of people’s beliefs and their symbolic representa- tion in actions and objects.

Lastly, we discussed whether sociology should be considered a science:

Science involves systematic observation and the development of theories to explain observations.

Sociology is not a natural science because social behaviour is different from natural behaviour.

The explanation of social behaviour requires the understanding of the meaning of actions.

Sociology is, none the less, a social science that is based on systematic observational methods and the construction of explicit theories.

Key concepts

community

culture

family

globalization

household

institutions

nation state

norms

personal identity

science

social stratification

social structure

socialization

society

values

Further reading

The following, which we have quoted in our panel on p. XXX, all provide interesting and perceptive discussions of the nature of sociology:

Bauman, Z., and May, T. (2001), Thinking Sociologically, (2nd edn.), (Oxford: Basil Blackwell). Berger, P. (1963), Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (Harmondsworth: Penguin). Bruce, S. (1999), Sociology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Mills, C. W. (1959), The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press).

Web links

W

Visit our own web site, with lots of interesting additional material and links for each chapter, at http://www.oup.co.uk/best.textbooks/sociology/fulcher/

The web site of the British Sociological Association, where you can find general information about the subject, including another answer to the question ‘What is sociology?’, and advice about career opportunities for sociologists, is at http://www.britsoc.org.uk/about/oppsociol.htm

For a comprehensive but carefully selected list of sociology web links, with very helpful descriptions of what can be found at each one, visit http://www.sosig.ac.uk/sociology

··