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How to Write a Sociological Essay: Explained with Examples

This article will discuss “How to Write a Sociological Essay” with insider pro tips and give you a map that is tried and tested. An essay writing is done in three phases: a) preparing for the essay, b) writing the essay, and c) editing the essay. We will take it step-by-step so that nothing is left behind because the devil, as well as good grades and presentation, lies in the details.

Sociology essay writing examples

Writing is a skill that we learn throughout the courses of our lives. Learning how to write is a process that we begin as soon as we turn 4, and the learning process never stops. But the question is, “is all writing the same?”. The answer is NO. Do you remember your initial lessons of English when you were in school, and how the teacher taught various formats of writing such as formal, informal, essay, letter, and much more? Therefore, writing is never that simple. Different occasions demand different styles and commands over the writing style. Thus, the art of writing improves with time and experience. 

Those who belong to the world of academia know that writing is something that they cannot escape. No writing is the same when it comes to different disciplines of academia. Similarly, the discipline of sociology demands a particular style of formal academic writing. If you’re a new student of sociology, it can be an overwhelming subject, and writing assignments don’t make the course easier. Having some tips handy can surely help you write and articulate your thoughts better. 

[Let us take a running example throughout the article so that every point becomes crystal clear. Let us assume that the topic we have with us is to “Explore Culinary Discourse among the Indian Diasporic Communities” .]

Phase I: Preparing for the Essay  

Step 1: make an outline.

So you have to write a sociological essay, which means that you already either received or have a topic in mind. The first thing for you to do is PLAN how you will attempt to write this essay. To plan, the best way is to make an outline. The topic you have, certainly string some thread in your mind. They can be instances you heard or read, some assumptions you hold, something you studied in the past, or based on your own experience, etc. Make a rough outline where you note down all the themes you would like to talk about in your essay. The easiest way to make an outline is to make bullet points. List all the thoughts and examples that you have in find and create a flow for your essay. Remember that this is only a rough outline so you can always make changes and reshuffle your points. 

[Explanation through example, assumed topic: “Explore Culinary Discourse among the Indian Diasporic Communities” . Your outline will look something like this:

  • Importance of food
  • Definition of Diaspora 
  • Relationship between food and culture
  • Relationship between food and nation
  • Relationship between food and media 
  • Relationship between food and nostalgia 
  • How food travels with people 
  • Is food practices different for different sections of society, such as caste, class, gender ]

Step 2: Start Reading 

Once you have prepared an outline for your essay, the next step is to start your RESEARCH . You cannot write a sociological essay out of thin air. The essay needs to be thoroughly researched and based on facts. Sociology is the subject of social science that is based on facts and evidence. Therefore, start reading as soon as you have your outline determined. The more you read, the more factual data you will collect. But the question which now emerges is “what to read” . You cannot do a basic Google search to write an academic essay. Your research has to be narrow and concept-based. For writing a sociological essay, make sure that the sources from where you read are academically acclaimed and accepted.  

Some of the websites that you can use for academic research are: 

  • Google Scholar
  • Shodhganga 

[Explanation through example, assumed topic: “Explore Culinary Discourse among the Indian Diasporic Communities” . 

For best search, search for your articles by typing “Food+Diaspora”, “Food+Nostalgia”, adding a plus sign (+) improves the search result.]

Step 3: Make Notes 

This is a step that a lot of people miss when they are preparing to write their essays. It is important to read, but how you read is also a very vital part. When you are reading from multiple sources then all that you read becomes a big jumble of information in your mind. It is not possible to remember who said what at all times. Therefore, what you need to do while reading is to maintain an ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY . Whenever you’re reading for writing an academic essay then have a notebook handy, or if you prefer electronic notes then prepare a Word Document, Google Docs, Notes, or any tool of your choice to make notes. 

As you begin reading, note down the title of the article, its author, and the year of publication. As you read, keep writing down all the significant points that you find. You can either copy whole sentences or make shorthand notes, whatever suits you best. Once you’ve read the article and made your notes, write a summary of what you just read in 8 to 10 lines. Also, write keywords, these are the words that are most used in the article and reflect its essence. Having keywords and a summary makes it easier for you to revisit the article. A sociological essay needs a good amount of research, which means that you have to read plenty, thus maintaining an annotated bibliography helps you in the greater picture.  

Annotate and divide your notes based on the outline you made. Having organized notes will help you directly apply the concepts where they are needed rather than you going and searching for them again.] 

Phase II: Write a Sociological Essay

A basic essay includes a title, an introduction, the main body, and a conclusion. A sociological essay is not that different as far as the body of contents goes, but it does include some additional categories. When you write a sociological essay, it should have the following contents and chronology: 

  • Subtitle (optional)
  • Introduction

Conclusion 

  • References/ Bibliography 

Now let us get into the details which go into the writing of a sociological essay.  

Step 4: Writing a Title, Subtitle, Abstract, and Keywords 

The title of any document is the first thing that a reader comes across. Therefore, the title should be provocative, specific, and the most well-thought part of any essay. Your title should reflect what your essay will discuss further. There has to be a sync between the title and the rest of your content. The title should be the biggest font size you use in your essay. 

Pro Tip by Sociology Group: A title preferably should not exceed 5 to 7 words.  

This is an optional component of any essay. If you think that your title cannot justify the rest of the contents of your essay, then you opt for a subtitle. The subtitle is the secondary part of the title which is used to further elucidate the title. A subtitle should be smaller in font than the Title but bigger than the rest of the essay body.  

Pro Tip by Sociology Group: Make the font color of your subtitle Gray instead of Black for it to stand out. 

The abstract is a 6 to 10 line description of what you will talk about in your essay. An abstract is a very substantial component of a sociological essay. Most of the essays written in academia exceed the word limit of 2000 words. Therefore, a writer, i.e., you, provides the reader with a short abstract at the beginning of your essay so that they can know what you are going to discuss. From the point of view of the reader, a good abstract can save time and help determine if the piece is worth reading or not. Thus, make sure to make your abstract as reflective to your essay as possible using the least amount of words.  

Pro Tip by Sociology Group: If you are not sure about your abstract at first, it is always great to write the abstract in the end after you are done with your essay. 

Your abstract should highlight all the points that you will further discuss. Therefore your abstract should mention how diasporic communities are formed and how they are not homogeneous communities. There are differences within this large population. In your essay, you will talk in detail about all the various aspects that affect food and diasporic relationships. ]

Keywords are an extension of your abstract. Whereas in your abstract you will use a paragraph to tell the reader what to expect ahead, by stating keywords, you point out the essence of your essay by using only individual words. These words are mostly concepts of social sciences. At first, glance, looking at your keywords, the reader should get informed about all the concepts and themes you will explain in detail later. 

Pro Tip by Sociology Group: Bold your Keywords so that they get highlighted.

Your keywords could be: Food, Diaspora, Migration, and so on. Build on these as you continue to write your essay.]   

sociology essay format

Step 5: Writing the Introduction, Main Body, and Conclusion 

Introduction 

Your introduction should talk about the subject on which you are writing at the broadest level. In an introduction, you make your readers aware of what you are going to argue later in the essay. An introduction can discuss a little about the history of the topic, how it was understood till now, and a framework of what you are going to talk about ahead. You can think of your introduction as an extended form of the abstract. Since it is the first portion of your essay, it should paint a picture where the readers know exactly what’s ahead of them. 

Pro Tip by Sociology Group: An apt introduction can be covered in 2 to 3 paragraphs (Look at the introduction on this article if you need proof). 

Since your focus is on “food” and “diaspora”, your introductory paragraph can dwell into a little history of the relationship between the two and the importance of food in community building.] 

This is the most extensive part of any essay. It is also the one that takes up the most number of words. All the research and note-making which you did was for this part. The main body of your essay is where you put all the knowledge you gathered into words. When you are writing the body, your aim should be to make it flow, which means that all paragraphs should have a connection between them. When read in its entirety, the paragraphs should sing together rather than float all around. 

The main body is mostly around 4 to 6 paragraphs long. A sociological essay is filled with debates, theories, theorists, and examples. When writing the main body it is best to target making one or two paragraphs about the same revolving theme. When you shift to the other theme, it is best to connect it with the theme you discussed in the paragraph right above it to form a connection between the two. If you are dividing your essay into various sub-themes then the best way to correlate them is starting each new subtheme by reflecting on the last main arguments presented in the theme before it. To make a sociological essay even more enriching, include examples that exemplify the theoretical concepts better. 

Pro Tip by Sociology Group: Though there is no word limit to the length of the paragraphs, if you keep one paragraph between 100 to 200 words, it makes the essay look more organized. 

The main body can here be divided into the categories which you formed during the first step of making the rough outline. Therefore, your essay could have 3 to 4 sub-sections discussing different themes such as: Food and Media, Caste and Class influence food practices, Politics of Food, Gendered Lens, etc.] 

This is the section where you end your essay. But ending the essay does not mean that you lose your flair in conclusion. A conclusion is an essential part of any essay because it sums up everything you just wrote. Your conclusion should be similar to a summary of your essay. You can include shortened versions of the various arguments you have referred to above in the main body, or it can raise questions for further research, and it can also provide solutions if your topic seeks one. Hence, a conclusion is a part where you get the last chance to tell your reader what you are saying through your article. 

Pro Tip by Sociology Group: As the introduction, the conclusion is smaller compared to the main body. Keep your conclusion within the range of 1 to 2 paragraphs. 

Your conclusion should again reiterate all the main arguments provided by you throughout the essay. Therefore it should bind together everything you have written starting from your introduction to all the debates and examples you have cited.]

Step 6: Citation and Referencing 

This is the most academic part of your sociological essay. Any academic essay should be free of plagiarism. But how can one avoid plagiarism when their essay is based on research which was originally done by others. The solution for this is to give credit to the original author for their work. In the world of academia, this is done through the processes of Citation and Referencing (sometimes also called Bibliography). Citation is done within/in-between the text, where you directly or indirectly quote the original text. Whereas, Referencing or Bibliography is done at the end of an essay where you give resources of the books or articles which you have quoted in your essay at various points. Both these processes are done so that the reader can search beyond your essay to get a better grasp of the topic. 

There are many different styles of citations and you can determine which you want to follow. Some of the most common styles of citation and referencing are MLA, APA, and Chicago style. If you are working on Google Docs or Word then the application makes your work easier because they help you curate your citations. There are also various online tools that can make citing references far easier, faster, and adhering to citation guidelines, such as an APA generator. This can save you a lot of time when it comes to referencing, and makes the task far more manageable. 

How to add citations in Google Doc: Tools → Citation

How to add citations in Word Document: References → Insert Citations 

But for those who want to cite manually, this is the basic format to follow:

  • Author’s Name with Surname mentioned first, then initials 
  • Article’s Title in single or double quotes
  • Journal Title in Italics 
  • Volume, issue number 
  • Year of Publication

Example: Syrkin, A. 1984. “Notes on the Buddha’s Threats in the Dīgha Nikāya ”, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies , vol. 7(1), pp.147-58.

Pro Tip by Sociology Group: Always make sure that your Bibliography/References are alphabetically ordered based on the first alphabet of the surname of the author and NOT numbered or bulleted. 

Phase III: Editing 

Step 7: edit/review your essay.

The truth of academic writing is that it can never be written in one go. You need to write, rewrite, and revisit your material more than once. Once you have written the first draft of your essay, do not revise it immediately. Leave it for some time, at least for four hours. Then revisit your essay and edit it based on 3 criteria. The first criteria you need to recheck for is any grammatical and/or spelling mistakes. The second criteria are to check the arguments you have posed and if the examples you have cited correlate or not. The final criteria are to read the essay as a reader and read it objectively. 

Pro Tip by Sociology Group: The more you edit the better results you get. But we think that your 3rd draft is the magic draft. Draft 1: rough essay, Draft 2: edited essay, Draft 3: final essay.

essay on work in sociology

Hello! Eiti is a budding sociologist whose passion lies in reading, researching, and writing. She thrives on coffee, to-do lists, deadlines, and organization. Eiti's primary interest areas encompass food, gender, and academia.

Sociology of Work and Industry

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No matter what society one lives in, all human beings depend on systems of production to survive. For people in all societies, productive activity, or work, makes up the largest part of their lives—it takes up more time than any other single type of behavior.

Defining Work

Work, in sociology, is defined as the carrying out of tasks, which involves the expenditure of mental and physical effort, and its objective is the production of goods and services that cater to human needs. An occupation, or job, is work that is done in exchange for a regular wage or salary.

In all cultures, work is the basis of the economy or economic system. The economic system for any given culture is made up of the institutions that provide for the production and distribution of goods and services. These institutions may vary from culture to culture, particularly in traditional societies versus modern societies.

In traditional cultures , food gathering and food production is the type of work occupied by the majority of the population. In larger traditional societies, carpentry, stonemasonry, and shipbuilding are also prominent. In modern societies where industrial development exists, people work in a much wider variety of occupations.

Sociological Theory

The study of work, industry, and economic institutions is a major part of sociology because the economy influences all other parts of society and therefore social reproduction in general. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about a hunter-gatherer society, pastoral society , agricultural society, or industrial society ; all are centered around an economic system that affects all parts of society, not just personal identities and daily activities. Work is closely intertwined with social structures , social processes, and especially social inequality.

The sociology of work goes back to the classical sociological theorists. Karl Marx , Emile Durkheim , and Max Weber all considered the analysis of modern work to be central to the field of sociology . Marx was the first social theorist to really examine the conditions of work in factories that were popping up during the industrial revolution, looking at how the transition from independent craftwork to working for a boss in a factory resulted in alienation and deskilling. Durkheim, on the other hand, was concerned with how societies achieved stability through norms, customs, and traditions as work and industry changed during the industrial revolution. Weber focused on the development of new types of authority that emerged in modern bureaucratic organizations.

Important Research

Many studies in the sociology of work are comparative. For instance, researchers might look at differences in employment and organizational forms across societies as well as across time. Why, for example, do Americans work on average more than 400 hours more per year than those in the Netherlands while South Koreans work more than 700 hours more per year than Americans? Another big topic often studied in the sociology of work is how work is tied to social inequality . For instance, sociologists might look at racial and gender discrimination in the workplace.

At the macro level of analysis, sociologists are interested in studying things such as occupational structure, the United States and global economies, and how changes in technology lead to changes in demographics. At the micro level of analysis, sociologists look at topics such as the demands that the workplace and occupations place on workers’ sense of self and identity, and the influence of work on families.

  • Giddens, A. (1991) Introduction to Sociology. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Vidal, M. (2011). The Sociology of Work. Accessed March 2012 from http://www.everydaysociologyblog.com/2011/11/the-sociology-of-work.html
  • Introduction to Sociology
  • What Is an Industrial Society?
  • What Is Social Order in Sociology?
  • The Sociology of Consumption
  • Sociology Of Religion
  • The Sociology of Education
  • All About Marxist Sociology
  • 15 Major Sociological Studies and Publications
  • The Sociology of Social Inequality
  • The History of Sociology Is Rooted in Ancient Times
  • Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge
  • Theories of Ideology
  • Max Weber's Three Biggest Contributions to Sociology
  • Sociology of Health and Illness
  • The Sociology of the Internet and Digital Sociology
  • Karl Marx's Greatest Hits

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12.2 Sociological Perspectives on Work and the Economy

Learning objectives.

  • List any two functions of work and the economy as emphasized by functionalism.
  • Summarize conflict theory’s critique of work and the economy.
  • Explain the overall approach of symbolic interactionism to understanding work and the economy.

The three sociological perspectives examined in earlier chapters continue to offer insights that help us understand the economy, including the nature of work on which any economy rests. Table 12.1 “Theory Snapshot” summarizes these insights.

Table 12.1 Theory Snapshot

Functionalism

Recall that the functionalist perspective highlights the many functions that social institutions serve for society. Accordingly, this perspective paints a positive picture of work and the economy by pointing to their many benefits.

The economy’s major function is also an absolutely essential function: the provision of goods and services. Because the economy provides the goods and services that any society needs, the economy makes a society possible. As we saw earlier, capitalist and socialist societies provide goods and services in different ways, and each type of economy has its advantages and disadvantages. Regardless of the relative merits of capitalism and socialism, however, both a capitalist economy and socialist economy make possible the societies in which they are found.

Many high school students have summer jobs or after-school jobs. Whether or not they go to college, most people work for pay once they reach adulthood. Some work full-time until they retire, some alternate full-time work and part-time work, and some may start out with a job but drop out of the labor force to raise their children. Regardless of these various work patterns, the most important function that most people derive from working is their paycheck. Simply put, work provides the income that most people need for food, clothing, shelter, and other essential needs in today’s society.

But work has important, nonmaterial functions beyond helping us pay the bills. Many people consider their job part of their overall identity, just as the college students reading this book consider being a student as part of their current identity. As we enter adulthood, we are not just a spouse, partner, parent, or child of our parents; we are also an accountant, banker, claims adjuster, day care worker, elementary school teacher, financial consultant, garage door installer, and so forth. The job we have helps provide us with a sense of who we are, or, to put it another way, a sense of our identity.

Especially if we enjoy our jobs, work can also give us a sense of self-fulfillment, self-confidence, and self-esteem. These psychological effects combine to form yet another important function of work.

Co-workers laughing at Fat Smitty's

An important function of work is that it provides a context for coworker friendships. Many people have friends whom they met in their workplaces or through their work.

Wonderlane – Co-workers laughing at Fat Smitty’s – CC BY 2.0.

A third function is friendships. Many people have friends and acquaintances whom they met at their workplaces or at least through their work (McGuire, 2007). Coworkers discuss all kinds of topics with each other, including personal matters, sports, and political affairs, and they often will invite other coworkers over to their homes or go out with them to a movie or a restaurant. These friendships are yet another benefit that work often provides.

The nonmaterial benefits that work provides for many people are important and should not be discounted. Although this is speculative, many wealthy people no longer need to work but continue to work because of these nonmaterial benefits. National survey data support the importance of work’s nonmaterial benefits in this regard. In the 2010 General Social Survey (GSS), respondents in the labor force were asked, “If you were to get enough money to live as comfortably as you would like for the rest of your life, would you continue to work or would you stop working?” More than two-thirds (68.7 percent) of these respondents replied that they would indeed continue working.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory’s views of work and the economy largely derive from the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels during the nineteenth century. As Chapter 1 “Understanding Social Problems” discussed, Marx and Engels sharply criticized capitalism as an economic system that inherently oppresses workers. In their view, the bourgeoisie , or ruling class, owns the means of production, while the proletariat , or working class, does not own the means of production. The bourgeoisie uses its wealth, power, and influence to oppress and exploit the proletariat.

Although today’s conflict theorists are not necessarily Marxists, they nonetheless criticize many aspects of capitalism, and the earlier discussion of the disadvantages of capitalism reflects their views. They also criticize how large companies treat their workers. As just one example, they call attention to the fact that many companies maintain dangerous workplaces that result in injury, illness, and/or death for tens of thousands of workers annually. We return to this particular problem later in this chapter.

Conflict theorists also point out that the workplace is a setting for sexual harassment, which was discussed in Chapter 4 “Gender Inequality” . Although work can and does bring the many benefits assumed by functionalist theory, work can also be a source of great distress for the hundreds of thousands of women and men who are sexually harassed every year.

Marx also wrote that work in a capitalist society is inherently alienating. This is so, he said, because workers do not design the products they build, because factory work (which was the dominant mode of production in Marx’s time) involves boring and repetitive tasks, and because workers are treated by their employers as mere commodities to be hired and fired at will. Reflecting Marx’s views, conflict theory today also points to the alienating nature of work.

Following up on this concern, social scientists have tried to determine the extent of worker alienation and job satisfaction, as well as the correlates of these two attitudes (Mauno, Kinnunen, & Feldt, 2012). They generally find that American workers like their jobs much more than Marx anticipated but also that the extent to which they like their jobs depends on the income their jobs bring, the degree of autonomy they enjoy in their jobs, and other factors. In the 2010 GSS, 88 percent of respondents said they are “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with the work they do, and only 12 percent said they were dissatisfied. This latter figure is probably much lower than Marx would have predicted for a capitalist society like the United States. One possible reason for this low amount of job dissatisfaction, and one that Marx did not foresee, is the number of workplace friendships as described earlier. Such friendships can lead workers to like their jobs more than they otherwise would and help overcome the alienation they might feel without the friendships.

Symbolic Interactionism

Recall that symbolic interactionism focuses on the interaction of individuals and on how they interpret their interaction. In line with this “micro” focus, many scholars have generated rich descriptions of how certain workplaces’ behaviors and understandings are “negotiated” and of how certain kinds of workers view aspects of their work and interpret the meaning of their work. Numerous studies of this type exist of police officers, prostitutes, attorneys, nurses and physicians, teachers, and a variety of other occupations. Most of these studies are based on intensive interviews of people in these occupations. Taken together, they provide a sensitive portrait of why people enter these various jobs and careers, what they like and dislike about their jobs, how they interact with other people in their workplaces, and a host of other issues.

PCSOs on Patrol in Birmingham

Studies of police officers’ behavior and perceptions provide an excellent example of the symbolic interactionist understanding of work. According to Jonathan Rubinstein, an important goal of officers is to maintain the respect of other officers.

West Midlands Police – Day 4 – PCSOs on Patrol in Birmingham – CC BY-SA 2.0.

A classic study of the workplace grounded in the symbolic interactionist tradition was sociologist Joan Emerson’s (1970) study of gynecological exams. At the time Emerson wrote her study, most gynecologists were men. Because they are necessarily viewing and touching their women patients’ genitals, they have to ensure their patients do not think their doctor is behaving in a sexual manner. For this to happen, Emerson wrote, (male) gynecologists take pains to appear as medical professionals rather than as men interested in having sex or aroused by what they were seeing and feeling. In this way, they “define the situation” as a professional encounter rather than as a sexual encounter.

Male gynecologists use several strategies to appear as professionals, according to Emerson. For example, they have a (female) nurse present during the exam to help the patient feel comfortable. They also certainly avoid saying anything that might suggest they are sexually aroused. More generally, gynecologists and nurses always act in a nonchalant, matter-of-fact manner, which sends the patient an implicit message: “In the medical world the pelvic area is like any other part of the body; its private and sexual connotations are left behind when you enter the hospital” (Emerson, 1970, p. 78). In all these ways, gynecological exams are defined only as medical encounters, and patients are helped to feel as comfortable as possible under rather uncomfortable circumstances.

In another classic study grounded in the symbolic interactionist tradition, Jonathan Rubinstein (1993) spent a year riding around and otherwise interacting with police officers in Philadelphia. He later wrote compellingly about police officers’ constant fear for their safety, about how they try to control suspects and other threatening people without drawing their guns, about how they interact with each other and with their superiors, and many other matters. In one passage, he wrote about how officers (he interviewed police men ) try to win and keep the respect of other officers: “A patrolman must learn to avoid any appearance or incompetency if he hopes to maintain the respect of his colleagues. Every man must go to considerable lengths to cover up any weakness or error that might reflect poorly on his competence” (Rubinstein, 1993, p. 105). Thus officers learn to record dispatchers’ information promptly and accurately, and they avoid remarks that question the competence of other officers.

Key Takeaways

  • Functionalism emphasizes the importance of the economy for any society, and the income and self-fulfillment that work often provides.
  • Conflict theory highlights the control of the economy by the economic elite, the alienation of work, and various problems in the workplace.
  • Symbolic interactionism focuses on interaction in the workplace and how workers perceive many aspects of their work and workplace interaction.

For Your Review

  • Which of the three major sociological approaches to understanding work and the economy do you most prefer? Why?
  • Write a brief essay in which you use a symbolic interactionist approach to understand some aspect of a job you have held or hold now.

Emerson, J. P. (1970). Behavior in private places: Sustaining definitions of reality in gynecological examinations. In H. P. Dreitzel (Ed.), Recent sociology (Vol. 2, pp. 74–97). New York, NY: Collier.

Mauno, S., Kinnunen, U., & Feldt, T. (2012). Work-family culture and job satisfaction: Does gender and parenting status alter the relationship? Community, Work & Family, 15 (1), 101–129.

McGuire, G. M. (2007). Intimate work: A typology of the social support that workers provide to their network members. Work and Occupations, 34 , 125–147.

Rubinstein, J. (1993). City police . New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Social Problems Copyright © 2015 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

Introduction to Work and the Economy

Chapter outline.

What if the U.S. economy thrived solely on basic bartering instead of its bustling agricultural and technological goods? Would you still see a busy building like the one shown in Figure 18.1 ?

In sociology, economy refers to the social institution through which a society’s resources are exchanged and managed. The earliest economies were based on trade, which is often a simple exchange in which people traded one item for another. While today’s economic activities are more complex than those early trades, the underlying goals remain the same: exchanging goods and services allows individuals to meet their needs and wants. In 1893, Émile Durkheim described what he called “mechanical” and “organic” solidarity that correlates to a society’s economy. Mechanical solidarity exists in simpler societies where social cohesion comes from sharing similar work, education, and religion. Organic solidarity arises out of the mutual interdependence created by the specialization of work. The complex U.S. economy, and the economies of other industrialized nations, meet the definition of organic solidarity. Most individuals perform a specialized task to earn money they use to trade for goods and services provided by others who perform different specialized tasks. In a simplified example, an elementary school teacher relies on farmers for food, doctors for healthcare, carpenters to build shelter, and so on. The farmers, doctors, and carpenters all rely on the teacher to educate their children. They are all dependent on each other and their work.

Economy is one of human society’s earliest social structures. Our earliest forms of writing (such as Sumerian clay tablets) were developed to record transactions, payments, and debts between merchants. As societies grow and change, so do their economies. The economy of a small farming community is very different from the economy of a large nation with advanced technology. In this chapter, we will examine different types of economic systems and how they have functioned in various societies.

Detroit, once the roaring headquarters of the country’s large and profitable automotive industry, had already been in a population decline for several decades as auto manufacturing jobs were being outsourced to other countries and foreign car brands began to take increasing portions of U.S. market share. According to State of Michigan population data (State of Michigan, n.d.), Detroit was home to approximately 1.85 million residents in 1950, which dwindled to slightly more than 700,000 in 2010 following the economic crash. The drastic reduction took its toll on the city. It is estimated that a third of the buildings in Detroit have been abandoned. The current average home price hovers around $7,000, while homes nationwide sell on average for around $200,000. The city has filed for bankruptcy, and its unemployment rate hovers around 30 percent.

The Wage Gap in the United States

The Equal Pay Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1963, was designed to reduce the wage gap between men and women. The act in essence required employers to pay equal wages to men and women who were performing substantially similar jobs. However, more than fifty years later, women continue to make less money than their male counterparts. According to a report released by the White House in 2013, full-time working women made just 77 cents for every dollar a man made (National Equal Pay Taskforce 2013). Seven years later, the gap had only closed by four cents, with women making 81 cents for every dollar a man makes (Payscale 2020).

A part of the White House report read, “This significant gap is more than a statistic—it has real-life consequences. When women, who make up nearly half the workforce, bring home less money each day, it means they have less for the everyday needs of their families, and over a lifetime of work, far less savings for retirement.”

As shocking as it is, the gap actually widens when we add race and ethnicity to the picture. For example, African American women make on average 64 cents for every dollar a White male makes. Latina women make 56 cents, or 44 percent less, for every dollar a White man makes. African American and Latino men also make notably less than White men. Asian Americans tend to be the only minority that earns as much as or more than White men.

Certain professions have their own differences in wage gaps, even those whose participants have higher levels of education and supposedly a more merit-based method of promotion and credit. For example, U.S. and Canadian scientists have a significant wage gap that begins as soon as people enter the workforce. For example, of the PhD recipients that have jobs lined up after earning their degree, men reported an initial salary average of $92,000 per year, while women's was only $72,500. Men with permanent jobs in the life sciences reported an expected median salary of $87,000, compared with $80,000 for women. In mathematics and computer sciences, men reported an expected median salary of $125,000; for women, that figure was $101,500 (Woolston 2021).

Recent Economic Conditions

In 2015, the United States continued its recovery from the “Great Recession,” arguably the worst economic downturn since the stock market collapse in 1929 and the Great Depression that ensued.

The 2008 recession was brought on by aggressive lending, extremely risky behavior by investment firms, and lax oversight by the government. During this time, banks provided mortgages to people with poor credit histories, sometimes with deceptively low introductory interest rates. When the rates rose, borrowers' mortgage payments increased to the point where they couldn't make payments. At the same time, investment firms had purchased these risky mortgages in the form of large bundled investments worth billions of dollars each (mortgage-backed securities or MBS). Rating agencies were supposed to rate mortgage securities according to their level of risk, but they typically rated all MBS as high-quality no matter what types of mortgages they contained. When the mortgages defaulted, the investment firms' holdings went down. The massive rate of loan defaults put a strain on the financial institutions that had made the loans as well as those that had purchased the MBS, and this stress rippled throughout the entire economy and around the globe.

With the entire financial system on the verge of permanent damage, the U.S. government bailed out many of these firms and provided support to other industries, such as airlines and automobile companies. But the Recession couldn't be stopped. The United States fell into a period of high and prolonged unemployment, extreme reductions in wealth (except at the very top), stagnant wages, and loss of value in personal property (houses and land).

Starting in 2009, however, employment began to tick back up as companies found their footing. By 2012, most of the country's employment rates were similar to the levels prior to the Great Recession. However, for most segments of the population, median income had not increased, and in fact it has receded in many cases. The size, income, and wealth of the middle class have been declining since the 1970s— effects that were perhaps hastened by the recession. Today, wealth is distributed inequitably at the top. Corporate profits have increased more than 141 percent, and CEO pay has risen by more than 298 percent.

Although wages had not increased, and certain parts of the economy, such as brick-and-mortar retail (department stores and similar chains) were doing poorly, the economy as a whole grew from the time after the Great Recession through 2020. Unemployment reached a historic low in late 2019. COVID-19 changed all that. As you may have experienced yourself, entire industries suffered incredible losses as they were forced to shut down or severely reduce operations. Some people were laid off from their jobs, while others had their hours or wages reduced. Unemployment skyrocketed again, reaching a new high of nearly 15 percent, only about six months after it had been at its record low. Industries as diverse as hospitality and mining reported massive decreases in employment, and part-time workers in particular were hard hit. By early 2021, the overall unemployment rate had returned to generally normal levels. The impact on those who had gone without work for so long, however, was significant (Congressional Research Service 2021).

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gender and Work

Introduction, general overviews.

  • Data Sources
  • Gender and Work: Past, Present, and Future
  • Theoretical Perspectives
  • Intersectionality: Gender, Race, and Class Inequalities
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  • Constructions of Gender in Global Service and Production Work
  • Overviews of Gender, Work, and Family
  • Meanings of Work and Family Across the Occupational Spectrum
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  • Care Work: Paid and Unpaid
  • Social Policies, the State, and Gender Inequality in Cross-National Perspective

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Gender and Work by Amy Wharton LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013 LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0127

Gender operates at all levels of social life and is deeply embedded in how work is organized, rewarded, and experienced. The sociological study of gender and work emerged during the 1960s and 1970s, as women’s labor force participation rates rose and as the Women’s Movement began calling attention to gender inequality at home and on the job. The field has evolved over time; conceptual frameworks have expanded and empirical foci have shifted in response to economic and societal changes. Early research focused primarily on workers and sought to determine whether and how men and women differ in their work attitudes and behavior. Over time, researchers have paid more attention to the social relations of work. Studies here focus on how the structure and culture of the workplace shape men’s and women’s social interactions and behavior. A more recent stream of literature in the gender and work area views gender as embedded within work structures and organizations. In this view, gender is not just an attribute that people bring with them to the job, but is built into the workplace itself. The development of new conceptual frameworks has been accompanied by new issues and topics. For example, the rise of the highly feminized service sector prompted an interest in the distinctive characteristics of these jobs. As dual-earner families became the norm, researchers increased attention to the ways that gender shapes work-family relations. Other topics, such as those related to gender discrimination and inequality, have been of interest to gender and work scholars since the field’s emergence in the 1960s.

Overviews of gender and work are especially valuable for introducing the topic and conveying the range of issues that have been investigated. Padavic and Reskin 2002 is a useful starting point as it provides a concise discussion of the field and includes fairly recent US data on men’s and women’s work situations. The edited collections Powell 1999 and Goodman 2010 also aim for breadth in their coverage of gender and work. Both collections contain chapters by well-known gender and work scholars. Powell 1999 includes in-depth literature reviews of key topics, while the chapters in Goodman 2010 are excerpts from classic books and articles. Powell and Graves 2003 focuses on women and men in management, which is a narrower subject but one of considerable interest to gender and work scholars, as well as researchers in management and business. Kabeer, et al. 2008 differs from the other selections in its focus and approach. The readings in this collection examine gender inequality in Norway and Sweden, but the authors are scholars from developing countries. Viewing gender inequality in the developed world from the vantage point of those representing less-developed regions provides new insights on this topic. It also reminds us that in a global society, there is no one single perspective that can best enable us to understand gender and work.

Goodman, Jacqueline, ed. 2010. Global perspectives on gender and work: Readings and interpretations . Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

The readings in this edited collection on gender and work are organized into several topical areas, including historical perspectives, wage inequality, discrimination, household work, managerial and professional work, low-wage work, global perspectives, work and family, and policy.

Kabeer, Naila, Agneta Stark, and Edda Magnus, eds. 2008. Global perspectives on gender equality: Reversing the gaze . Routledge/UNRISD research in gender and development 3. New York: Routledge.

This collection of readings examines gender inequality in Norway and Sweden. The contributors all have personal or professional ties to developing countries. Developing countries are often examined from the perspective of those situated in developed societies. This book “reverse[s] the gaze,” thus offering a new perspective on gender equality in a developed region of the world (p. 1).

Padavic, Irene, and Barbara F. Reskin. 2002. Women and men at work . 2d ed. Sociology for a New Century. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.

Padavic and Reskin provide a concisely written overview of major topics relating to women and men in the US workplace. The book will be especially helpful for those seeking an introduction to this area of research and interested in recent data on labor market trends and patterns related to gender and work.

Powell, Gary N., ed. 1999. Handbook of gender and work . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

This edited volume provides a comprehensive look at gender in organizations. Divided into five major parts; each of the twenty-four chapters provides an overview of research on a particular topic, such as the wage gap, gender and leadership, work and family, etc. Also discussed are methodological issues in conducting research on gender and work.

Powell, Gary N., and Laura M. Graves. 2003. Women and men in management . 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

This volume summarizes the large literature on women and men in management. The book includes discussions of gender socialization and the employment patterns of women and men. It then turns to issues affecting women and men in management, such as working in teams, leadership, and career development.

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Writing Guide

Writing sociological topics.

“Sociology is the scientific study of human social life. Sociologists seek to describe social patterns and to develop theories for explanation and prediction of social processes of all sizes. Sociology applies objective and systematic methods of investigation to identify patterns and forms of social life and to understand the processes of development and change in human societies.”

Sociology can be described as the scientific study of society.

Sociologists follow the scientific method in research and translate that research into language that is applicable to diverse audiences.

Even if you don’t plan on becoming a sociologist, learning to communicate in the writing and oral styles that are specific to sociology can be useful in many professions. Even though sociological writing is presenting research about the social world, which we all live in and experience that does not mean that the sociological style of writing will come naturally.

Whether you’re writing a “low-stakes” summary of assigned readings, or a “high-stakes” research proposal, there are stylistic rules specific to sociology that need to be followed. This writing guide aims to help students in sociology courses understand these guidelines and improve their sociological writing.

Departmental Expectations

  • Enable students to understand the interactions among individuals, groups, and social institutions in society.
  • Develop student competence in understanding, critically assessing, and applying major sociological concepts.
  • Introduce students to the various theoretical perspectives of sociology.
  • Develop student understanding of research methods appropriate to sociological inquiry.
  • Develop student competence in posing research questions, evaluating evidence, and developing logical arguments.

Disciplinary Genres

Writing in sociology can be either argumentative or analytical. Too often, students in sociology try to find the “right” answer, rather than taking a stance on the literature.

There are various writing genres within sociology. These genres include, but are not limited to: social issue analyses, article critiques, literature reviews, quantitative research designs, quantitative research papers, qualitative research designs, and qualitative research papers. Common types of writing in sociology classes at UNC Charlotte include summaries of readings, topic essays, literature reviews, methodological designs, and research proposals.

For these writing assignments, you will be asked to analyze and critique previous research or make an argument for proposed research, or both. While the exact style of writing will vary by assignment, and by professor, the writing norms of sociology will always apply.

Writing and Speaking Norms in Sociology

The learning objectives for sociology courses can be reached through communicating in a way that is appropriate to the field of Sociology. As a student in Sociology, you will regularly engage in various types of writing.

As is the case in other academic disciplines, sociologists have developed a style of writing that is most appropriate. The American Sociological Association style guide presents the fundamentals of sociological writing.

Following these guidelines, writing in sociology should be:

  • Clear in expression, with respect to ideas and structure
  • Concise and coherent, avoiding wordy phrases
  • Absent of language reflecting bias or stereotypes
  • Using an active voice
  • Use verb tense that is consistent within a section
  • Proper citations, using American Sociological Association (ASA) guidelines

Examples of Common Assignments

The sociology department, as well as all departments at UNC Charlotte, incorporates low-stakes, medium-stakes, and high-stakes writing into the curriculum. It is not uncommon for sociology courses to assign written work from all of these levels.

Low-stakes assignments serve as a means for input: exploration, discovery, hypothesizing, problem-solving, and so on. Think of these assignments as “writing to learn”. Below are some examples of low-stakes assignments commonly used in sociology courses.

  • Brief in-class writing assignments on course topics.
  • Summaries of assigned readings.
  • Creating a hypothesis.
  • Brief, or list-like, writings about a topic.

Medium Stakes

Medium-stakes assignments focus on certain thinking processes within the discipline. These assignments are still primarily informal but require more guidelines for format, structure, and style that are appropriate to sociology . These assignments are typically done in one sitting and do not require extensive revision. Below are some examples of medium-stakes assignments commonly used in sociology courses.

  • Response papers on lecture or other course materials that incorporate sociological perspectives.
  • Wiki contributions, blog posts, discussion board posts.
  • Reflection papers on personal experiences.
  • Analyses of current issues or events.

High Stakes

High-stakes assignments are easily recognizable. These assignments incorporate analysis, argumentation, or both to a broad range of concepts or readings. High-stakes writing assignments are subject to several revisions and follow more closely the style guidelines of sociology. Below are some common high-stakes writing assignments in sociology:

  • Research proposal or research report.
  • Written report on qualitative or quantitative research done by the student.
  • Final papers that integrate the entirety of course topics.

Here’s an example of a high-stakes research proposal with instructor comments.

Writing Outcomes

Listed at the bottom of this page in the attachments section is an example of a survey research paper done by a UNC Charlotte student as well as the rubric the instructor utilized for grading purposes.

Below are several tools and tips to help you communicate effectively in sociology.

General Advice for Non-Majors will help students not familiar with writing in sociology.

ASA Style Guide will provide examples of the writing and speaking norms in sociology, as well as show how to properly cite resources.

This Reading Guide will help students learn how to approach sociological literature.

The Writing Resource Center at UNC Charlotte provides writing services to students.

Citation Guide will help you make sure that all of your resources are properly cited.

List of ASA (American Sociological Association) Writing Style Guides

The University Center for Academic Excellence (UCAE) provides academic support for UNC Charlotte students.

The Dr. Abel Scribe citation tool is another useful guide for learning about the ASA’s formatting rules as well as its citation guidelines.

Endnote – Citation software program available to UNC Charlotte students.

Marquette University’s Writing Guide for Social Science Majors

University of California, Berkeley’s Writing Guide for Sociology Majors

These sections adapted from:

American Sociological Association. 2010. American Sociological Association Style Guide. 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Sociological Association.

Bean, John C. 2001. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Darmouth Institute for Writing and Rhetoric “General Advice for Non-Majors” accessed 2013.

Harris, Angelique and Alia R. Tyner-Mullings. 2013. Writing for Emerging Sociologists. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications

Johnson, William A. et al. 2004. The Sociology Student Writer’s Manual. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall

UNC Charlotte Department of Sociology “Home” section accessed 2013.

Oxford University Press

Oxford University Press's Academic Insights for the Thinking World

essay on work in sociology

Three top tips for writing sociology essays

essay on work in sociology

The Craft of Writing in Sociology

  • By Andrew Balmer and Anne Murcott
  • September 19 th 2017

As the academic semester gets underway, we talked to three senior colleagues in Sociology at the University of Manchester to come up with their ‘pet peeves’ when marking student’s essays. Here are some of their comments, and some of our top tips to help you to improve your work.

First, lecturers said they were frustrated with the way that students write their opening paragraphs:

“A main peeve of mine in student writing is poor introductions. Three common errors regularly stand out: throat clearing sentences (e.g. ‘globalisation is an important topic’, ‘Marx was an important writer’); dictionary definitions for core sociological concepts; and introductions that merely restate the question. What I really want to see from an introduction is a brief account of how the student is approaching the question at hand, what key questions the essay will address, and what answer the student will come to at the end of the essay.” – Senior Lecturer in Sociology

This was a point on which our three colleagues agreed: students often waste the introduction. Here is top tip number one to help you improve your essays:

1. Give the reader a guide to your argument. Much as you would give someone directions in how to get to where they’re going, tell your reader what steps you will take, what the key turning points will be, why it is important to take this route and, ultimately, where you will end up. In other words, tell your reader exactly what you will conclude and why, right at the beginning.

Another point on which our colleagues agreed was that sociological essays can be imprecise, and are sometimes written in a style which is meant to sound intellectual, but which is more confusing than it is enlightening. As one senior lecturer put it:

“A pet peeve of mine is imprecise language, for example peppering an essay with terms like ‘however’, ‘therefore’, and ‘consequently’, but without attending to the logical relationship between sentences that those words are supposed to signal. If the logical connector is wrong then the argument fails. This kind of error is often motivated, I think, by students wanting their essays to ‘sound academic’, when often they would have been more convincing by using simpler language more precisely.” – Senior Lecturer in Sociology

It is worth planning the time needed to rework your essays because a good argument can be let down by poor presentation. Here is top tip number two:

2. Your written work should prioritise clarity and concision over entertainment and erudition when making an argument. Students often write in a style which they think makes their points sound important, but get lost in the meaning of what they are saying by doing so. It might be that you have quite a command of English and want to show off your knowledge of polysyllabic or unusual words, or it might be that you wish to imitate the sociological writers whom you admire. Whatever additional reasons you have for writing, there is none more important in a sociological essay than making your argument clear. Words such as ‘however’ and ‘moreover’ should be used to indicate how your ideas are linked together, not to start a sentence with a good word. Be sure that when you edit your work, you edit for the argument, prioritising the word choices which best help to make your point. Such decisions will reflect maturity and consideration in your written work, and it is these which will truly impress a reader.

A final element which our three colleagues all listed in their top pet peeves was poor structure:

“I am often frustrated by the poor structuring of an essay. In other words, with the order in which ideas are presented, either at the level of the whole essay or at paragraph level. Essays that ping-pong from one idea to another, and then back to the original idea, indicate that the student has not really thought their argument through. A trickier thing to get right is the structuring of paragraphs, and some students seem keen to cram in as many (often unconnected) points into one paragraph as possible.” – Senior Lecturer in Sociology

The key point to learn when it comes to structuring your work is to make your writing serve your argument. You should present the main turns of your argument clearly, so as to reach a natural conclusion. Here is top tip number three for improving your essays:

3. Redraft your work for your argument, before you edit and proof-read it. Students often write to tight deadlines and do not plan enough time for a good second draft of their work. Instead, they write a first draft and then edit it as they proof-read it. When writing the first draft of an essay you will still be working out what the argument is. This is because writing helps you to think, so as you write your full first draft you will be meandering around a little, finding the best route as you go. Instead of merely editing this and checking the grammar, you should seriously re-draft the essay in light of the argument you now know you wish to make. This will help you to write a good introduction, since you can now say clearly from the outset what you will go on to argue, and a good conclusion, for you will now be able to say exactly what you have argued and why. Re-drafting for the argument means taking out material, adding in material and ensuring that each paragraph has a main point to contribute. It is an essential step in producing a good essay, which must be undertaken prior to editing for sense and proof-reading for typographical mistakes.

These tips point you towards the most important part of learning to write good sociological essays: bringing everything you do into the service of producing an argument which responds to the question and provides a satisfying answer.

Featured image credit: meeting by Eric Bailey. CC0 Public Domain via Pexels .

Andrew Balmer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester and member of the Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives. He is co-author of a new book, The Craft of Writing in Sociology: Developing the Argument in Undergraduate Essays and Dissertations , published by Manchester University Press. Andrew can be found on Twitter @AndyBalmer .

Anne Murcott is Honorary Professor at the University of Nottingham and Honorary Professorial Research Associate at SOAS, University of London. She is author of numerous books and edited collections, including The Craft of Writing in Sociology .

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Chapter 1. An Introduction to Sociology

Learning objectives.

1.1. What Is Sociology?

  • Explain concepts central to sociology
  • Describe the different levels of analysis in sociology: micro-sociology and macro-sociology
  • Understand how different sociological perspectives have developed

1.2. The History of Sociology

  • Explain why sociology emerged when it did
  • Describe the central ideas of the founders of sociology
  • Describe how sociology became a separate academic discipline

1.3. Theoretical Perspectives

  • Explain what sociological theories are and how they are used
  • Describe sociology as a multi-perspectival social science, which is divided into positivist, interpretive and critical paradigms
  • Understand the similarities and differences between structural functionalism, critical sociology, and symbolic interactionism

1.4. Why Study Sociology?

  • Explain why it is worthwhile to study sociology
  • Identify ways sociology is applied in the real world

Introduction to Sociology

Concerts, sports games, and political rallies can have very large crowds. When you attend one of these events, you may know only the people you came with. Yet you may experience a feeling of connection to the group. You are one of the crowd. You cheer and applaud when everyone else does. You boo and yell alongside them. You move out of the way when someone needs to get by, and you say “excuse me” when you need to leave. You know how to behave in this kind of crowd.

It can be a very different experience if you are travelling in a foreign country and find yourself in a crowd moving down the street. You may have trouble figuring out what is happening. Is the crowd just the usual morning rush, or is it a political protest of some kind? Perhaps there was some sort of accident or disaster. Is it safe in this crowd, or should you try to extract yourself? How can you find out what is going on? Although you are in it, you may not feel like you are part of this crowd. You may not know what to do or how to behave.

Even within one type of crowd, different groups exist and different behaviours are on display. At a rock concert, for example, some may enjoy singing along, others may prefer to sit and observe, while still others may join in a mosh pit or try crowd surfing. On February 28, 2010, Sydney Crosby scored the winning goal against the United States team in the gold medal hockey game at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Two hundred thousand jubilant people filled the streets of downtown Vancouver to celebrate and cap off two weeks of uncharacteristically vibrant, joyful street life in Vancouver. Just over a year later, on June 15, 2011, the Vancouver Canucks lost the seventh hockey game of the Stanley Cup finals against the Boston Bruins. One hundred thousand people had been watching the game on outdoor screens. Eventually 155,000 people filled the downtown streets. Rioting and looting led to hundreds of injuries, burnt cars, trashed storefronts and property damage totaling an estimated $4.2 million. Why was the crowd response to the two events so different?

A key insight of sociology is that the simple fact of being in a group changes your behaviour. The group is a phenomenon that is more than the sum of its parts. Why do we feel and act differently in different types of social situations? Why might people of a single group exhibit different behaviours in the same situation? Why might people acting similarly not feel connected to others exhibiting the same behaviour? These are some of the many questions sociologists ask as they study people and societies.

A dictionary defines sociology as the systematic study of society and social interaction. The word “sociology” is derived from the Latin word socius (companion) and the Greek word logos (speech or reason), which together mean “reasoned speech about companionship”. How can the experience of companionship or togetherness be put into words or explained? While this is a starting point for the discipline, sociology is actually much more complex. It uses many different methods to study a wide range of subject matter and to apply these studies to the real world.

The sociologist Dorothy Smith (1926 – ) defines the social as the “ongoing concerting and coordinating of individuals’ activities” (Smith 1999). Sociology is the systematic study of all those aspects of life designated by the adjective “social.” These aspects of social life never simply occur; they are organized processes. They can be the briefest of everyday interactions—moving to the right to let someone pass on a busy sidewalk, for example—or the largest and most enduring interactions—such as the billions of daily exchanges that constitute the circuits of global capitalism. If there are at least two people involved, even in the seclusion of one’s mind, then there is a social interaction that entails the “ongoing concerting and coordinating of activities.” Why does the person move to the right on the sidewalk? What collective process lead to the decision that moving to the right rather than the left is normal? Think about the T-shirts in your drawer at home. What are the sequences of linkages and social relationships that link the T-shirts in your chest of drawers to the dangerous and hyper-exploitive garment factories in rural China or Bangladesh? These are the type of questions that point to the unique domain and puzzles of the social that sociology seeks to explore and understand.

What Are Society and Culture?

Sociologists study all aspects and levels of society. A society is a group of people whose members interact, reside in a definable area, and share a culture. A culture includes the group’s shared practices, values, beliefs, norms and artifacts. One sociologist might analyze video of people from different societies as they carry on everyday conversations to study the rules of polite conversation from different world cultures. Another sociologist might interview a representative sample of people to see how email and instant messaging have changed the way organizations are run. Yet another sociologist might study how migration determined the way in which language spread and changed over time. A fourth sociologist might study the history of international agencies like the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund to examine how the globe became divided into a First World and a Third World after the end of the colonial era.

These examples illustrate the ways society and culture can be studied at different levels of analysis , from the detailed study of face-to-face interactions to the examination of large-scale historical processes affecting entire civilizations. It is common to divide these levels of analysis into different gradations based on the scale of interaction involved. As discussed in later chapters, sociologists break the study of society down into four separate levels of analysis: micro, meso, macro, and global. The basic distinction, however, is between micro-sociology and macro-sociology .

The study of cultural rules of politeness in conversation is an example of micro-sociology. At the micro- level of analysis, the focus is on the social dynamics of intimate, face-to-face interactions. Research is conducted with a specific set of individuals such as conversational partners, family members, work associates, or friendship groups. In the conversation study example, sociologists might try to determine how people from different cultures interpret each other’s behaviour to see how different rules of politeness lead to misunderstandings. If the same misunderstandings occur consistently in a number of different interactions, the sociologists may be able to propose some generalizations about rules of politeness that would be helpful in reducing tensions in mixed-group dynamics (e.g., during staff meetings or international negotiations). Other examples of micro-level research include seeing how informal networks become a key source of support and advancement in formal bureaucracies or how loyalty to criminal gangs is established.

Macro -sociology focuses on the properties of large-scale, society-wide social interactions: the dynamics of institutions, classes, or whole societies. The example above of the influence of migration on changing patterns of language usage is a macro-level phenomenon because it refers to structures or processes of social interaction that occur outside or beyond the intimate circle of individual social acquaintances. These include the economic and other circumstances that lead to migration; the educational, media, and other communication structures that help or hinder the spread of speech patterns; the class, racial, or ethnic divisions that create different slangs or cultures of language use; the relative isolation or integration of different communities within a population; and so on. Other examples of macro-level research include  examining why women are far less likely than men to reach positions of power in society or why fundamentalist Christian religious movements play a more prominent role in American politics than they do in Canadian politics. In each case, the site of the analysis shifts away from the nuances and detail of micro-level interpersonal life to the broader, macro-level systematic patterns that structure social change and social cohesion in society.

The relationship between the micro and the macro remains one of the key problems confronting sociology. The German sociologist Georg Simmel pointed out that macro-level processes are in fact nothing more than the sum of all the unique interactions between specific individuals at any one time (1908), yet they have properties of their own which would be missed if sociologists only focused on the interactions of specific individuals. Émile Durkheim’s classic study of suicide (1897) is a case in point. While suicide is one of the most personal, individual, and intimate acts imaginable, Durkheim demonstrated that rates of suicide differed between religious communities—Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—in a way that could not be explained by the individual factors involved in each specific case. The different rates of suicide had to be explained by macro-level variables associated with the different religious beliefs and practices of the faith communities. We will return to this example in more detail later. On the other hand, macro-level phenomena like class structures, institutional organizations, legal systems, gender stereotypes, and urban ways of life provide the shared context for everyday life but do not explain its nuances and micro-variations very well. Macro-level structures constrain the daily interactions of the intimate circles in which we move, but they are also filtered through localized perceptions and “lived” in a myriad of inventive and unpredictable ways.

The Sociological Imagination

Although the scale of sociological studies and the methods of carrying them out are different, the sociologists involved in them all have something in common. Each of them looks at society using what pioneer sociologist C. Wright Mills called the sociological imagination , sometimes also referred to as the “sociological lens” or “sociological perspective.” In a sense, this was Mills’ way of addressing the dilemmas of the macro/micro divide in sociology. Mills defined sociological imagination as how individuals understand their own and others’ pasts in relation to history and social structure (1959). It is the capacity to see an individual’s private troubles in the context of the broader social processes that structure them. This enables the sociologist to examine what Mills called “personal troubles of milieu” as “public issues of social structure,” and vice versa.

Mills reasoned that private troubles like being overweight, being unemployed, having marital difficulties, or feeling purposeless or depressed can be purely personal in nature. It is possible for them to be addressed and understood in terms of personal, psychological, or moral attributes, either one’s own or those of the people in one’s immediate milieu. In an individualistic society like our own, this is in fact the most likely way that people will regard the issues they confront: “I have an addictive personality;” “I can’t get a break in the job market;” “My husband is unsupportive;” etc. However, if private troubles are widely shared with others, they indicate that there is a common social problem that has its source in the way social life is structured. At this level, the issues are not adequately understood as simply private troubles. They are best addressed as public issues that require a collective response to resolve.

Obesity, for example, has been increasingly recognized as a growing problem for both children and adults in North America. Michael Pollan cites statistics that three out of five Americans are overweight and one out of five is obese (2006). In Canada in 2012, just under one in five adults (18.4 percent) were obese, up from 16 percent of men and 14.5 percent of women in 2003 (Statistics Canada 2013). Obesity is therefore not simply a private trouble concerning the medical issues, dietary practices, or exercise habits of specific individuals. It is a widely shared social issue that puts people at risk for chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. It also creates significant social costs for the medical system.

Pollan argues that obesity is in part a product of the increasingly sedentary and stressful lifestyle of modern, capitalist society, but more importantly it is a product of the industrialization of the food chain, which since the 1970s has produced increasingly cheap and abundant food with significantly more calories due to processing. Additives like corn syrup, which are much cheaper to produce than natural sugars, led to the trend of super-sized fast foods and soft drinks in the 1980s. As Pollan argues, trying to find a processed food in the supermarket without a cheap, calorie-rich, corn-based additive is a challenge. The sociological imagination in this example is the capacity to see the private troubles and attitudes associated with being overweight as an issue of how the industrialization of the food chain has altered the human/environment relationship, in particular with respect to the types of food we eat and the way we eat them.

By looking at individuals and societies and how they interact through this lens, sociologists are able to examine what influences behaviour, attitudes, and culture. By applying systematic and scientific methods to this process, they try to do so without letting their own biases and pre-conceived ideas influence their conclusions.

Studying Patterns: How Sociologists View Society

All sociologists are interested in the experiences of individuals and how those experiences are shaped by interactions with social groups and society as a whole. To a sociologist, the personal decisions an individual makes do not exist in a vacuum. Cultural patterns and social forces put pressure on people to select one choice over another. Sociologists try to identify these general patterns by examining the behaviour of large groups of people living in the same society and experiencing the same societal pressures.

Understanding the relationship between the individual and society is one of the most difficult sociological problems, however. Partly this is because of the reified way these two terms are used in everyday speech. Reification refers to the way in which abstract concepts, complex processes, or mutable social relationships come to be thought of as “things.” A prime example of this is when people say that “society” caused an individual to do something or to turn out in a particular way. In writing essays, first-year sociology students sometimes refer to “society” as a cause of social behaviour or as an entity with independent agency. On the other hand, the “individual” is a being that seems solid, tangible, and independent of anything going on outside of the skin sack that contains its essence. This conventional distinction between society and the individual is a product of reification in so far as both society and the individual appear as independent objects. A concept of “the individual” and a concept of “society” have been given the status of real, substantial, independent objects. As we will see in the chapters to come, society and the individual are neither objects, nor are they independent of one another. An “individual” is inconceivable without the relationships to others that define his or her internal subjective life and his or her external socially defined roles.

The problem for sociologists is that these concepts of the individual and society and the relationship between them are thought of in terms established by a very common moral framework in modern democratic societies, namely that of individual responsibility and individual choice. Often in this framework, any suggestion that an individual’s behaviour needs to be understood in terms of that person’s social context is dismissed as “letting the individual off” of taking personal responsibility for their actions.

Talking about society is akin to being morally soft or lenient. Sociology, as a social science, remains neutral on these type of moral questions. The conceptualization of the individual and society is much more complex. The sociological problem is to be able to see the individual as a thoroughly social being and yet as a being who has agency and free choice. Individuals are beings who do take on individual responsibilities in their everyday social roles and risk social consequences when they fail to live up to them. The manner in which they take on responsibilities and sometimes the compulsion to do so are socially defined however. The sociological problem is to be able to see society as a dimension of experience characterized by regular and predictable patterns of behaviour that exist independently of any specific individual’s desires or self-understanding. Yet at the same time a society is nothing but the ongoing social relationships and activities of specific individuals.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

The individual in society: choices of aboriginal gang members.

In 2010 the CBC program The Current aired a report about several young aboriginal men who were serving time in prison in Saskatchewan for gang-related activities (CBC   2010). They all expressed desires to be able to deal with their drug addiction issues, return to their families, and assume their responsibilities when their sentences were complete. They wanted to have their own places with nice things in them. However, according to the CBC report, 80 percent of the prison population in the Saskatchewan Correctional Centre were aboriginal and 20 percent of those were gang members. This is consistent with national statistics on aboriginal incarceration which showed that in 2010–2011, the aboriginal incarceration rate was 10 times higher than for the non-aboriginal population. While aboriginal people account for about 4 percent of the Canadian population, in 2013 they made up 23.2 percent of the federal penitentiary population. In 2001 they made up only 17 percent of the penitentiary population. Aboriginal overrepresentation in prisons has continued to grow substantially (Office of the Correctional Investigator 2013).The outcomes of aboriginal incarceration are also bleak. The federal Office of the Correctional Investigator summarized the situation as follows. Aboriginal inmates are:

  • Routinely classified as higher risk and higher need in categories such as employment, community reintegration, and family supports
  • Released later in their sentence (lower parole grant rates); most leave prison at Statutory Release or Warrant Expiry dates
  • Overrepresented in segregation and maximum security populations
  • Disproportionately involved in use-of-force interventions and incidents of prison self-injury
  • More likely to return to prison on revocation of parole, often for administrative reasons, not criminal violations (2013)

The federal report notes that “the high rate of incarceration for aboriginal peoples has been linked to systemic discrimination and attitudes based on racial or cultural prejudice, as well as economic and social disadvantage, substance abuse and intergenerational loss, violence and trauma” (2013).

This is clearly a case in which the situation of the incarcerated inmates interviewed on the CBC program has been structured by historical social patterns and power relationships that confront aboriginal people in Canada generally. How do we understand it at the individual level however, at the level of personal decision making and individual responsibilities? One young inmate described how, at the age of 13, he began to hang around with his cousins who were part of a gang. He had not grown up with “the best life” with family members suffering from addiction issues and traumas. The appeal of what appeared as a fast and exciting lifestyle—the sense of freedom and of being able to make one’s own life, instead of enduring poverty—was compelling. He began to earn money by “running dope” but also began to develop addictions. He was expelled from school for recruiting gang members. The only job he ever had was selling drugs. The circumstances in which he and the other inmates had entered the gang life and the difficulties getting out of it they knew awaited them when they left prison reflect a set of decision-making parameters fundamentally different than those facing most non-aboriginal people in Canada.

A key basis of the sociological perspective is the concept that the individual and society are inseparable. It is impossible to study one without the other. German sociologist Norbert Elias called the process of simultaneously analyzing the behaviour of individuals and the society that shapes that behaviour figuration . He described it through a metaphor of dancing. There can be no dance without the dancers, but there can be no dancers without the dance. Without the dancers, a dance is just an idea about motions in a choreographer’s head. Without a dance, there is just a group of people moving around a floor. Similarly, there is no society without the individuals that make it up, and there are also no individuals who are not affected by the society in which they live (Elias 1978).

Since ancient times, people have been fascinated by the relationship between individuals and the societies to which they belong. The ancient Greeks might be said to have provided the foundations of sociology through the distinction they drew between physis (nature) and nomos (law or custom). Whereas nature or physis for the Greeks was “what emerges from itself” without human intervention, nomos in the form of laws or customs, were human conventions designed to constrain human behaviour. Histories by Herodotus (484–425 BCE)   was a proto-anthropological work that described the great variations in the nomos of different ancient societies around the Mediterranean, indicating that human social life was not a product of nature but a product of human creation. If human social life was the product of an invariable human or biological nature, all cultures would be the same. The concerns of the later Greek philosophers Socrates (469–399 BCE), Plato (428–347 BCE), and Aristotle (384–322 BCE) with the ideal form of human community (the polis or city-state) can be derived from the ethical dilemmas of this difference between human nature and human norms. The modern sociological term “norm” (i.e., a social rule that regulates human behaviour) comes from the Greek term nomos .

In the 13th century, Ma Tuan-Lin, a Chinese historian, first recognized social dynamics as an underlying component of historical development in his seminal encyclopedia, General Study of Literary Remains . The study charted the historical development of Chinese state administration from antiquity in a manner akin to contemporary institutional analyses. The next century saw the emergence of the historian some consider to be the world’s first sociologist, the Berber scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) of Tunisia. His Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History is known for going beyond descriptive history to an analysis of historical processes of change based on an understanding of “the nature of things which are born of civilization” (Khaldun quoted in Becker and Barnes 1961). Key to his analysis was the distinction between the sedentary life of cities and the nomadic life of pastoral peoples like the Bedouin and Berbers. The nomads, who exist independent of external authority, developed a social bond based on blood lineage and “ esprit de corps” (‘Asabijja) ,” which enabled them to mobilize quickly and act in a unified and concerted manner in response to the rugged circumstances of desert life. The sedentaries of the city entered into a different cycle in which esprit de corp is subsumed to institutional power and political factions and the need to be focused on subsistence is replaced by a trend toward increasing luxury, ease and refinements of taste. The relationship between the two poles of existence, nomadism and sedentary life, was at the basis of the development and decay of civilizations” (Becker and Barnes 1961).

However, it was not until the 19th century that the basis of the modern discipline of sociology can be said to have been truly established. The impetus for the ideas that culminated in sociology can be found in the three major transformations that defined modern society and the culture of modernity: the development of modern science from the 16th century onward, the emergence of democratic forms of government with the American and French Revolutions (1775–1783 and 1789–1799 respectively), and the Industrial Revolution beginning in the 18th century. Not only was the framework for sociological knowledge established in these events, but also the initial motivation for creating a science of society. Early sociologists like Comte and Marx sought to formulate a rational, evidence-based response to the experience of massive social dislocation and unprecedented social problems brought about by the transition from the European feudal era to capitalism. Whether the intention was to restore order to the chaotic disintegration of society, as in Comte’s case, or to provide the basis for a revolutionary transformation in Marx’s, a rational and scientifically comprehensive knowledge of society and its processes was required. It was in this context that “society” itself, in the modern sense of the word, became visible as a phenomenon to early investigators of the social condition.

The development of modern science provided the model of knowledge needed for sociology to move beyond earlier moral, philosophical, and religious types of reflection on the human condition. Key to the development of science was the technological mindset that Max Weber termed the disenchantment of the world : “principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather one can, in principle, master all things by calculation” (1919). Modern science abandoned the medieval view of the world in which God, “the unmoved mover,” defined the natural and social world as a changeless, cyclical creation ordered and given purpose by divine will. Instead modern science combined two philosophical traditions that had historically been at odds: Plato’s rationalism and Aristotle’s empiricism. Rationalism sought the laws that governed the truth of reason and ideas, and in the hands of early scientists like Galileo and Newton, found its highest form of expression in the logical formulations of mathematics. Empiricism sought to discover the laws of the operation of the world through the careful, methodical, and detailed observation of the world. The new scientific worldview therefore combined the clear and logically coherent conceptual formulation of propositions from rationalism with an empirical method of inquiry based on observation through the senses. Sociology adopted these core principles to emphasize that claims about society had to be clearly formulated and based on evidence-based procedures.

The emergence of democratic forms of government in the 18th century demonstrated that humans had the capacity to change the world. The rigid hierarchy of medieval society was not a God-given eternal order, but a human order that could be challenged and improved upon through human intervention. Society came to be seen as both historical and the product of human endeavours. Age of Enlightenment philosophers like Locke, Voltaire, Montaigne, and Rousseau developed general principles that could be used to explain social life. Their emphasis shifted from the histories and exploits of the aristocracy to the life of ordinary people. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) extended the critical analysis of her male Enlightenment contemporaries to the situation of women. Significantly for modern sociology they proposed that the use of reason could be applied to address social ills and to emancipate humanity from servitude. Wollstonecraft for example argued that simply allowing women to have a proper education would enable them to contribute to the improvement of society, especially through their influence on children. On the other hand, the bloody experience of the democratic revolutions, particularly the French Revolution, which resulted in the “Reign of Terror” and ultimately Napoleon’s attempt to subjugate Europe, also provided a cautionary tale for the early sociologists about the need for sober scientific assessment of society to address social problems.

The Industrial Revolution in a strict sense refers to the development of industrial methods of production, the introduction of industrial machinery, and the organization of labour in new manufacturing systems. These economic changes emblemize the massive transformation of human life brought about by the creation of wage labour, capitalist competition, increased mobility, urbanization, individualism, and all the social problems they wrought: poverty, exploitation, dangerous working conditions, crime, filth, disease, and the loss of family and other traditional support networks, etc. It was a time of great social and political upheaval with the rise of empires that exposed many people—for the first time—to societies and cultures other than their own. Millions of people were moving into cities and many people were turning away from their traditional religious beliefs. Wars, strikes, revolts, and revolutionary actions were reactions to underlying social tensions that had never existed before and called for critical examination. August Comte in particular envisioned the new science of sociology as the antidote to conditions that he described as “moral anarchy.”

Sociology therefore emerged as an extension of the new worldview of science; as a part of the Enlightenment project and its appreciation of historical change, social injustice, and the possibilities of social reform; and as a crucial response to the new and unprecedented types of social problems that appeared in the 19th century. It did not emerge as a unified science, however, as its founders brought distinctly different perspectives to its early formulations.

August Comte: The Father of Sociology

The term sociology was first coined in 1780 by the French essayist Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (1748–1836) in an unpublished manuscript (Fauré et al. 1999). In 1838, the term was reinvented by Auguste Comte (1798–1857). The contradictions of Comte’s life and the times he lived through can be in large part read into the concerns that led to his development of sociology. He was born in 1798, year 6 of the new French Republic, to staunch monarchist and Catholic parents, who lived comfortably off the father’s earnings as a minor bureaucrat in the tax office. Comte originally studied to be an engineer, but after rejecting his parents’ conservative views and declaring himself a republican and free spirit at the age of 13, he got kicked out of school at 18 for leading a school riot, which ended his chances of getting a formal education and a position as an academic or government official.

He became a secretary of the utopian socialist philosopher Claude Henri de Rouvroy Comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) until they had a falling out in 1824 (after St. Simon perhaps purloined some of Comte’s essays and signed his own name to them). Nevertheless, they both thought that society could be studied using the same scientific methods utilized in the natural sciences. Comte also believed in the potential of social scientists to work toward the betterment of society and coined the slogan “order and progress” to reconcile the opposing progressive and conservative factions that had divided the crisis-ridden, post-revolutionary French society. Comte proposed a renewed, organic spiritual order in which the authority of science would be the means to reconcile the people in each social strata with their place in the order. It is a testament to his influence that the phrase “order and progress” adorns the Brazilian coat of arms (Collins and Makowsky 1989).

Comte named the scientific study of social patterns positivism . He described his philosophy in a well-attended and popular series of lectures, which he published as The Course in Positive Philosophy (1830–1842) and A General View of Positivism (1848). He believed that using scientific methods to reveal the laws by which societies and individuals interact would usher in a new “positivist” age of history. His main sociological theory was the law of three stages , which held that all human societies and all forms of human knowledge evolve through three distinct stages from primitive to advanced: the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive.The key variable in defining these stages was the way a people understand the concept of causation or think about their place in the world.

In the theological stage, humans explain causes in terms of the will of anthropocentric gods (the gods cause things to happen). In the metaphysical stage, humans explain causes in terms of abstract, “speculative” ideas like nature, natural rights, or “self-evident” truths. This was the basis of his critique of the Enlightenment philosophers whose ideas about natural rights and freedoms had led to the French Revolution but also to the chaos of its aftermath. In his view, the “negative” or metaphysical knowledge of the philosophers was based on dogmatic ideas that could not be reconciled when they were in contraction. This lead to irreconcilable conflict and moral anarchy. Finally, in the positive stage, humans explain causes in terms of scientific procedures and laws (i.e., “positive” knowledge based on propositions limited to what can be empirically observed). Comte believed that this would be the final stage of human social evolution because science would reconcile the division between political factions of order and progress by eliminating the basis for moral and intellectual anarchy. The application of positive philosophy would lead to the unification of society and of the sciences (Comte 1830).

Although Comte’s positivism is a little odd by today’s standards, it inaugurated the development of the positivist tradition within sociology. In principle,  positivism is the sociological perspective that attempts to approach the study of society in the same way that the natural sciences approach the natural world. In fact, Comte’s preferred term for this approach was “social physics”—the “sciences of observation” applied to social phenomena, which he saw as the culmination of the historical development of the sciences. More specifically, for Comte, positivism:

  • “Regards all phenomena as subjected to invariable natural laws”
  • Pursues “an accurate discovery of these laws, with a view of reducing them to the smallest possible number”
  • Limits itself to analyzing the observable circumstances of phenomena and to connecting them by the “natural relations of succession and resemblance” instead of making metaphysical claims about their essential or divine nature (Comte 1830)

While Comte never in fact conducted any social research and took, as the object of analysis, the laws that governed what he called the general human “mind” of a society (difficult to observe empirically), his notion of sociology as a positivist science that might effectively socially engineer a better society was deeply influential. Where his influence waned was a result of the way in which he became increasingly obsessive and hostile to all criticism as his ideas progressed beyond positivism as the “science of society” to positivism as the basis of a new cult-like, technocratic “religion of humanity.” The new social order he imagined was deeply conservative and hierarchical, a kind of a caste system with every level of society obliged to reconcile itself with its “scientifically” allotted place. Comte imagined himself at the pinnacle of society, taking the title of “Great Priest of Humanity.” The moral and intellectual anarchy he decried would be resolved, but only because the rule of sociologists would eliminate the need for unnecessary and divisive democratic dialogue. Social order “must ever be incompatible with a perpetual discussion of the foundations of society” (Comte 1830).

Karl Marx: The Ruthless Critique of Everything Existing

Karl Marx (1818–1883) was a German philosopher and economist. In 1848 he and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) co-authored the Communist Manifesto . This book is one of the most influential political manuscripts in history. It also presents in a highly condensed form Marx’s theory of society, which differed from what Comte proposed. Whereas Comte viewed the goal of sociology as recreating a unified, post-feudal spiritual order that would help to institutionalize a new era of political and social stability, Marx developed a critical analysis of capitalism that saw the material or economic basis of inequality and power relations as the cause of social instability and conflict. The focus of sociology, or what Marx called historical materialism (the “materialist conception of history”), should be the “ruthless critique of everything existing,” as he said in a letter to his friend Arnold Ruge. In this way the goal of sociology would not simply be to scientifically analyze or objectively describe society, but to use a rigorous scientific analysis as a basis to change it. This framework became the foundation of contemporary critical sociology .

Marx rejected Comte’s positivism with its emphasis on describing the logical laws of the general “mind.” For Marx, Comte’s sociology was a form of idealism , a way of explaining the nature of society based on the ideas that people hold. In an idealist perspective, people invent ideas of “freedom,” “morality,” or “causality,” etc. and then change their lives and society’s institutions to conform to these ideas. This type of understanding could only ever lead to a partial analysis of social life according to Marx. Instead he believed that societies grew and changed as a result of the struggles of different social classes over control of the means of production. Historical materialism is an approach to understanding society that explains social change and human ideas in terms of underlying changes in the “mode of production” or economy; i.e., the historical transformations in the way human societies act upon their material world (the environment and its resources) in order to use it to meet their needs. Marx argues therefore that the consciousness or ideas people have about the world develop from changes in this material, economic basis. As such, the ideas of people in hunter-gatherer societies will be different than the ideas of people in feudal societies, which in turn will be different from the ideas of people in capitalist societies.

The source of historical change and transition between different historical types of society was class struggle. At the time Marx was developing his theories, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism had led to a massive increase in the wealth of society but also massive disparities in wealth and power between the owners of the factories (the bourgeoisie) and workers (the proletariat). Capitalism was still a relatively new economic system, an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of goods and the means to produce them. It was also a system that was inherently unstable and prone to crisis, yet increasingly global in its reach.

As Marx demonstrated in his masterpiece Capital (1867), capitalism’s instability is based on the processes by which capitalists accumulate their capital or assets, namely by engaging in cold-blooded competition with each other through the sale of commodities in the competitive market. There is a continuous need to expand markets for goods and to reduce the costs of production in order to create ever cheaper and more competitive products. This leads to a downward pressure on wages, the introduction of labour-saving technologies that increase unemployment, the failure of non-competitive businesses, periodic economic crises and recessions, and the global expansion of capitalism as businesses seek markets to exploit and cheaper sources of labour. Yet as he pointed out, it was the workers’ labour that actually produces wealth. The capitalists who owned the factories and means of production were in a sense parasitic on workers’ labour. The injustice of the system was palpable. Marx predicted that inequalities of capitalism would become so extreme that workers would eventually recognize their common class interests, develop a common “class consciousness” or understanding of their situation, and revolt. Class struggle would lead to the destruction of the institution of private capital and to the final stage in human history, which he called “communism.”

Although Marx did not call his analysis sociology, his sociological innovation was to provide a social analysis of the economic system. Whereas Adam Smith (1723–1790) and the political economists of the 19th century tried to explain the economic laws of supply and demand solely as a market mechanism (similar to the abstract discussions of stock market indices and investment returns in business pages of newspapers today), Marx’s analysis showed the social relationships that had created the market system and the social repercussions of their operation. As such, his analysis of modern society was not static or simply descriptive. He was able to put his finger on the underlying dynamism and continuous change that characterized capitalist society. In a famous passage from The Communist Manifesto , he and Engels described the restless and destructive penchant for change inherent in the capitalist mode of production:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all which is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind (Marx and Engels 1848).

Marx was also able to create an effective basis for critical sociology in that what he aimed for in his analysis was, as he put it in another letter to Arnold Ruge, “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age.” While he took a clear and principled value position in his critique, he did not do so dogmatically, based on an arbitrary moral position of what he personally thought was good and bad. He felt rather that a critical social theory must engage in clarifying and supporting the issues of social justice that were inherent within the existing struggles and wishes of the age. In his own work, he endeavoured to show how the variety of specific work actions, strikes, and revolts by workers in different occupations for better pay, safer working conditions, shorter hours, the right to unionize, etc. contained the seeds for a vision of universal equality, collective justice, and ultimately the ideal of a classless society.

Harriet Martineau: The First Woman Sociologist?

Harriet Martineau (1802–1876) was one of the first women sociologists in the 19th century. There are a number of other women who might compete with her for the title of the first woman sociologist, such as Catherine Macauley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Flora Tristan, and Beatrice Webb, but Martineau’s specifically sociological credentials are strong. She was for a long time known principally for her English translation of Comte’s Course in Positive Philosophy. Through this popular translation she introduced the concept of sociology as a methodologically rigorous discipline to an English-speaking audience. But she also created a body of her own work in the tradition of the great social reform movements of the 19th century and introduced a sorely missing woman’s perspective into the discourse on society.

It was a testament to her abilities that after she became impoverished at the age of 24 with the death of her father, brother, and fiancé, she was able to earn her own income as the first woman journalist in Britain to write under her own name. From the age of 12, she suffered from severe hearing loss and was obliged to use a large ear trumpet to converse. She impressed a wide audience with a series of articles on political economy in 1832. In 1834 she left England to engage in two years of study of the new republic of the United States and its emerging institutions: prisons, insane asylums, factories, farms, Southern plantations, universities, hospitals, and churches. On the basis of extensive research, interviews and observations, she published Society in America and worked with abolitionists on the social reform of slavery (Zeitlin 1997). She also worked for social reform in the situation of women: the right to vote, have an education, pursue an occupation, and enjoy the same legal rights as men. Together with Florence Nightingale, she worked on the development of public health care, which led to early formulations of the welfare system in Britain (McDonald 1998).

Particularly innovative was her early work on sociological methodology, How to Observe Manners and Morals (1838) . In this volume she developed the ground work for a systematic social-scientific approach to studying human behaviour. She recognized that the issues of the researcher/subject relationship would have to be addressed differently in a social, as opposed to a natural, science. The observer, or “traveller,” as she put it, needed to respect three criteria to obtain valid research: impartiality, critique, and sympathy. The impartial observer could not allow herself to be “perplexed or disgusted” by foreign practices that she could not personally reconcile herself with. Yet at the same time she saw the goal of sociology to be the fair but critical assessment of the moral status of a culture. In particular, the goal of sociology was to challenge forms of racial, sexual, or class domination in the name of autonomy: the right of every person to be a “self-directing moral being.” Finally, what distinguished the science of social observation from the natural sciences was that the researcher had to have unqualified sympathy for the subjects being studied (Lengermann and Niebrugge 2007). This later became a central principle of Max Weber’s interpretive sociology , although it is not clear that Weber read Martineau’s work.

A large part of her research in the United States analyzed the situations of contradiction between stated public morality and actual moral practices. For example, she was fascinated with the way that the formal democratic right to free speech enabled slavery abolitionists to hold public meetings, but when the meetings were violently attacked by mobs, the abolitionists and not the mobs were accused of inciting the violence (Zeitlin 1997). This emphasis on studying contradictions followed from the distinction she drew between morals —society’s collective ideas of permitted and forbidden behaviour—and manners— the actual patterns of social action and association in society. As she realized the difficulty in getting an accurate representation of an entire society based on a limited number of interviews, she developed the idea that one could identify key “Things” experienced by all people—age, gender, illness, death, etc.—and examine how they were experienced differently by a sample of people from different walks of life (Lengermann and Niebrugge 2007). Martineau’s sociology therefore focused on surveying different attitudes toward “Things” and studying the anomalies that emerged when manners toward them contradicted a society’s formal morals.

Émile Durkheim: The Pathologies of the Social Order

Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) helped establish sociology as a formal academic discipline by establishing the first European department of sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 1895 and by publishing his Rules of the Sociological Method in 1895. He was born to a Jewish family in the Lorraine province of France (one of the two provinces along with Alsace that were lost to the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871). With the German occupation of Lorraine, the Jewish community suddenly became subject to sporadic anti-Semitic violence, with the Jews often being blamed for the French defeat and the economic/political instability that followed. Durkheim attributed this strange experience of anti-Semitism and scapegoating to the lack of moral purpose in modern society.

As in Comte’s time, France in the late 19th century was the site of major upheavals and sharp political divisions: the loss of the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune (1871) in which 20,000 workers died, the fall and capture of Emperor Napoleon III (Napoleon I’s nephew), the creation of the Third Republic, and the Dreyfus Affair. This undoubtedly led to the focus in Durkheim’s sociology on themes of moral anarchy, decadence, disunity, and disorganization. For Durkheim, sociology was a scientific but also a “moral calling” and one of the central tasks of the sociologist was to determine “the causes of the general temporary malajustment being undergone by European societies and remedies which may relieve it” (1897). In this respect, Durkheim represented the sociologist as a kind of medical doctor, studying social pathologies of the moral order and proposing social remedies and cures. He saw healthy societies as stable, while pathological societies experienced a breakdown in social norms between individuals and society. The state of normlessness or anomie —the lack of norms that give clear direction and purpose to individual actions—was the result of “society’s insufficient presence in individuals” (1897).

His father was the eighth in a line of father-son rabbis. Although Émile was the second son, he was chosen to pursue his father’s vocation and was given a good religious and secular education. He abandoned the idea of a religious or rabbinical career, however, and became very secular in his outlook. His sociological analysis of religion in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) was an example of this. In this work he was not interested in the theological questions of God’s existence or purpose, but in developing a very secular, sociological question: Whether God exists or not, how does religion function socially in a society? He argued that beneath the irrationalism and the “barbarous and fantastic rites” of both the most primitive and the most modern religions is their ability to satisfy real social and human needs. “There are no religions which are false” (Durkheim 1912) he said. Religion performs the key function of providing social solidarity in a society. The rituals, the worship of icons, and the belief in supernatural beings “excite, maintain or recreate certain mental states” (Durkheim 1912) that bring people together, provide a ritual and symbolic focus, and unify them. This type of analysis became the basis of the functionalist perspective in sociology. He explained the existence and persistence of religion on the basis of the necessary function it performed in unifying society.

Durkheim was also a key figure in the development of positivist sociology . He did not adopt the term positivism , because of the connection it had with Comte’s quasi-religious sociological cult. However, in Rules of the Sociological Method he defined sociology as the study of objective social facts . Social facts are those things like law, custom, morality, religious beliefs and practices, language, systems of money, credit and debt, business or professional practices, etc. that are defined externally to the individual. Social facts:

  • Precede the individual and will continue to exist after he or she is gone
  • Consist of details and obligations of which individuals are frequently unaware
  • Are endowed with an external coercive power by reason of which individuals are controlled

For Durkheim, social facts were like the facts of the natural sciences. They could be studied without reference to the subjective experience of individuals. He argued that “social facts must be studied as things, that is, as realities external to the individual” (Durkheim 1895). Individuals experience them as obligations, duties, and restraints on their behaviour, operating independently of their will. They are hardly noticeable when individuals consent to them but provoke reaction when individuals resist.

In this way, Durkheim was very influential in defining the subject matter of the new discipline of sociology. For Durkheim, sociology was not about just any phenomena to do with the life of human beings but only those phenomena which pertained exclusively to a social level of analysis. It was not about the biological or psychological dynamics of human life, for example, but about the social facts through which the lives of individuals were constrained. Moreover, the dimension of human experience described by social facts had to be explained in its own terms. It could not be explained by biological drives or psychological characteristics of individuals. It was a dimension of reality sui generis (of its own kind, unique in its characteristics). It could not be explained by, or reduced to, its individual components without missing its most important features. As Durkheim put it, “a social fact can only be explained by another social fact” (Durkheim 1895).

This is the framework of Durkheim’s famous study of suicide. In Suicide: A Study in Sociology (1897), Durkheim attempted to demonstrate the effectiveness of his rules of social research by examining suicide statistics in different police districts. Suicide is perhaps the most personal and most individual of all acts. Its motives would seem to be absolutely unique to the individual and to individual psychopathology. However, what Durkheim observed was that statistical rates of suicide remained fairly constant year by year and region by region. There was no correlation between rates of suicide and rates of psychopathology. Suicide rates did vary, however, according to the social context of the suicides: namely the religious affiliation of suicides. Protestants had higher rates of suicide than Catholics, whereas Catholics had higher rates of suicide than Jews. Durkheim argued that the key factor that explained the difference in suicide rates  (i.e., the statistical rates, not the purely individual motives for the suicides) were the different degrees of social integration of the different religious communities, measured by the amount of ritual and degree of mutual involvement in religious practice. The religious groups had differing levels of anomie, or normlessness, which Durkheim associated with high rates of suicide. Durkheim’s study was unique and insightful because he did not try to explain suicide rates in terms of individual psychopathology. Instead, he regarded the regularity of the suicide rates as a factual order, implying “the existence of collective tendencies exterior to the individual” (Durkheim 1897), and explained their variation with respect to another social fact: “Suicide varies inversely with the degree of integration of the social groups of which the individual forms a part” (Durkheim 1897).

Max Weber: Verstehende Soziologie

Prominent sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) established a sociology department in Germany at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich in 1919. Weber wrote on many topics related to sociology including political change in Russia, the condition of German farm workers, and the history of world religions. He was also a prominent public figure, playing an important role in the German peace delegation in Versailles and in drafting the ill-fated German (Weimar) constitution following the defeat of Germany in World War I.

Weber is known best for his 1904 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism . He noted that in modern industrial societies, business leaders and owners of capital, the higher grades of skilled labour, and the most technically and commercially trained personnel were overwhelmingly Protestant. He also noted the uneven development of capitalism in Europe, and in particular how capitalism developed first in those areas dominated by Protestant sects. He asked, “Why were the districts of highest economic development at the same time particularly favourable to a revolution in the Church?” (i.e., the Protestant Reformation (1517–1648)) (Weber 1904). His answer focused on the development of the Protestant ethic— the duty to “work hard in one’s calling”—in particular Protestant sects such as Calvinism, Pietism, and Baptism.

As opposed to the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church in which poverty was a virtue and labour simply a means for maintaining the individual and community, the Protestant sects began to see hard, continuous labour as a spiritual end in itself. Hard labour was firstly an ascetic technique of worldly renunciation and a defence against temptations and distractions: the unclean life, sexual temptations, and religious doubts. Secondly, the Protestant sects believed that God’s disposition toward the individual was predetermined and could never be known or influenced by traditional Christian practices like confession, penance, and buying indulgences. However, one’s chosen occupation was a “calling” given by God, and the only sign of God’s favour or recognition in this world was to receive good fortune in one’s calling. Thus material success and the steady accumulation of wealth through personal effort and prudence was seen as a sign of an individual’s state of grace. Weber argued that the ethic , or way of life, that developed around these beliefs was a key factor in creating the conditions for both the accumulation of capital, as the goal of economic activity, and for the creation of an industrious and disciplined labour force.

In this regard, Weber has often been seen as presenting an idealist explanation of the development of capital, as opposed to Marx’s historical materialist explanation. It is an element of cultural belief that leads to social change rather than the concrete organization and class struggles of the economic structure. It might be more accurate, however, to see Weber’s work building on Marx’s and to see his Protestant ethic thesis as part of a broader set of themes concerning the process of rationalization . Why did the Western world modernize and develop modern science, industry, and democracy when, for centuries, the Orient, the Indian subcontinent, and the Middle East were technically, scientifically, and culturally more advanced than the West? Weber argued that the modern forms of society developed in the West because of the process of rationalization: the general tendency of modern institutions and most areas of life to be transformed by the application of instrumental reason—rational bureaucratic organization, calculation, and technical reason—and the overcoming of “magical” thinking (which we earlier referred to as the “disenchantment of the world”). As the impediments toward rationalization were removed, organizations and institutions were restructured on the principle of maximum efficiency and specialization, while older, traditional (inefficient) types of organization were gradually eliminated.

The irony of the Protestant ethic as one stage in this process was that the rationalization of capitalist business practices and organization of labour eventually dispensed with the religious goals of the ethic. At the end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber pessimistically describes the fate of modern humanity as an “iron cage.” The iron cage is Weber’s metaphor for the condition of modern humanity in a technical, rationally defined, and “efficiently” organized society. Having forgotten its spiritual or other purposes of life, humanity succumbs to an order “now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production” (Weber 1904). The modern subject in the iron cage is “only a single cog in an ever-moving mechanism which prescribes to him an essentially fixed route of march” (Weber 1922).

Weber also made a major contribution to the methodology of sociological research. Along with the philosophers Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) and Heinrich Rickert (1863–1936), Weber believed that it was difficult if not impossible to apply natural science methods to accurately predict the behaviour of groups as positivist sociology hoped to do. They argued that the influence of culture on human behaviour had to be taken into account. What was distinct about human behaviour was that it is essentially meaningful. Human behaviour could not be understood independently of the meanings that individuals attributed to it. A Martian’s analysis of the activities in a skateboard park would be hopelessly confused unless it  understood that the skateboarders were motivated by the excitement of risk taking and the pleasure in developing skills. This insight into the meaningful nature of human behaviour even applied to the sociologists themselves, who, they believed, should be aware of how their own cultural biases could influence their research. To deal with this problem, Weber and Dilthey introduced the concept of Verstehen , a German word that means to understand in a deep way. In seeking Verstehen , outside observers of a social world—an entire culture or a small setting—attempt to understand it empathetically from an insider’s point of view.

In his essay “The Methodological Foundations of Sociology,” Weber described sociology as “a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects” (Weber 1922). In this way he delimited the field that sociology studies in a manner almost opposite to that of Émile Durkheim. Rather than defining sociology as the study of the unique dimension of external social facts, sociology was concerned with social action : actions to which individuals attach subjective meanings. “Action is social in so far as, by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual (or individuals), it takes account of the behaviour of others and is thereby oriented in its course” (Weber 1922). The actions of the young skateboarders can be explained because they hold the experienced boarders in esteem and attempt to emulate their skills even if it means scraping their bodies on hard concrete from time to time. Weber and other like-minded sociologists founded interpretive sociology whereby social researchers strive to find systematic means to interpret and describe the subjective meanings behind social processes, cultural norms, and societal values. This approach led to research methods like ethnography, participant observation, and phenomenological analysis whose aim was not to generalize or predict (as in positivistic social science), but to systematically gain an in-depth understanding of social worlds. The natural sciences may be precise, but from the interpretive sociology point of view their methods confine them to study only the external characteristics of things.

Georg Simmel: A Sociology of Forms

Georg Simmel (1858–1918) was one of the founding fathers of sociology, although his place in the discipline is not always recognized. In part, this oversight may be explained by the fact that Simmel was a Jewish scholar in Germany at the turn of 20th century, and until 1914 was unable to attain a proper position as a professor due to anti-Semitism. Despite the brilliance of his sociological insights, the quantity of his publications, and the popularity of his public lectures as Privatdozent at the University of Berlin, his lack of a regular academic position prevented him from having the kind of student following that would create a legacy around his ideas. It might also be explained by some of the unconventional and varied topics that he wrote on: the structure of flirting, the sociology of adventure, the importance of secrecy, the patterns of fashion, the social significance of money, etc. He was generally seen at the time as not having a systematic or integrated theory of society. However, his insights into how social forms emerge at the micro-level of interaction and how they relate to macro-level phenomena remain valuable in contemporary sociology.

Simmel’s sociology focused on the key question, “How is society possible?” His answer led him to develop what he called formal sociology , or the sociology of social forms. In his essay “The Problem of Sociology,” Simmel reaches a strange conclusion for a sociologist: “There is no such thing as society ‘as such.’” “Society” is just the name we give to the “extraordinary multitude and variety of interactions [that] operate at any one moment” (Simmel 1908). This is a basic insight of micro-sociology. However useful it is to talk about macro-level phenomena like capitalism, the moral order, or rationalization, in the end what these phenomena refer to is a multitude of ongoing, unfinished processes of interaction between specific individuals . Nevertheless, the phenomena of social life do have recognizable forms, and the forms do guide the behaviour of individuals in a regularized way. A bureaucracy is a form of social interaction that persists from day to day. One does not come into work one morning to discover that the rules, job descriptions, paperwork, and hierarchical order of the bureaucracy have disappeared. Simmel’s questions were: How do the forms of social life persist? How did they emerge in the first place? What happens when they get fixed and permanent?

Simmel notes that “society exists where a number of individuals enter into interaction” (1908). What he means is that whenever people gather, something happens that would not have happened if the individuals had remained alone. People attune themselves to one another in a way that is very similar to musicians tuning their instruments to one another. A pattern or form of interaction emerges that begins to guide or coordinate the behaviour of the individuals. An example Simmel uses is of a cocktail party where a subtle set of instructions begins to emerge which defines what can and cannot be said. In a cocktail party where the conversation is light and witty, the effect would be jarring of someone suddenly trying to sell you an insurance policy or talking about the spousal abuse they had suffered. The person would be thought of as being crass or inappropriate. Similarly in the pleasant pastime of flirtation, if one of the parties began to press the other to consummate the flirtation by having sex, the flirtation would be over. Flirtation is a form of interaction in which the answer to the question of having sex—yes or no—is perpetually suspended.

In both examples, Simmel argued that the social interaction had taken on a specific form . Both were examples of what he called the play form of social interaction, or pure “sociability”: the pleasure people experience from the mere fact of being together, regardless of the content of the interaction (Simmel 1910). If the cocktail party conversation suddenly turns to a business proposition or an overly personal confession, it is no longer playful. The underlying form of the interaction has been violated, even if the participants were not consciously aware that they had adopted a particular form of interaction. Simmel proposed that sociology would be the study of the social forms that recur in different contexts and with different social contents. The same play form governs the interaction in two different contexts with two different contents of interaction: one is the free-ranging content of polite conversation; the other is sexual desire. Among other common forms that Simmel studied were superiority and subordination, cooperation, competition, division of labour, and money transactions. These forms can be applied in a variety of different contexts to give social form to a variety of different contents or specific drives: erotic, spiritual, acquisitive, defensive, playful, etc. The emphasis on forms is why Simmel called his approach to the study of society “formal sociology.”

Simmel’s focus on how social forms emerge became very important for micro-sociology, symbolic interactionism, and the studies of hotel lobbies, cigarette girls, and street-corner societies, etc. popularized by the Chicago School in the mid-20th century. His analysis of the creation of new social forms was particularly tuned in to capturing the fragmentary everyday experience of modern social life that was bound up with the unprecedented nature and scale of the modern city. In his lifetime, the city of Berlin where he lived and taught for most of his career had become a major European metropolis of 4 million people by 1900, after the unification of Germany in the 1870s. However, his work was not confined to micro-level interactions. He developed an analysis of the tragedy of culture in which he argued that the cultural creations of “subjective culture”—like the emergent social forms created by people in their face-to-face interactions, as well as art, literature, political analyses, etc.—tended to detach themselves from lived experience and become fixed and elaborated in the form of “objective culture”—the accumulated products of human cultural creation. There are intrinsic limits to an individual’s ability to organize, appreciate, and assimilate these forms. As the quantity of objective culture increases and becomes more complex, it becomes progressively more alienating, incomprehensible, and overwhelming. It takes on a life of its own and the individual can no longer see him- or herself reflected in it. Music, for example, can be enriching, but going to an orchestral performance of contemporary music can often be baffling, as if you need an advanced music degree just to be able to understand that what you are hearing is music.

In his famous study “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” Simmel described how the built environment and the sheer size and anonymity of the city had become a social form, which he called the “metropolitan way of life.” Although the metropolis, its architecture, and the variety of ways of life it contained were products of human creation and expression, as an entity it confronted the individual as a kind of overwhelming monstrosity that threatened to swallow him or her up in its “social-technological mechanism” (Simmel 1903). As a means of self-protection against the city’s overpowering sensory input, people cut themselves off from potentially enriching contact with others and become cold, callous, indifferent, impatient, and blasé.

Making Connections: Social Policy & Debate

How do working moms impact society.

What constitutes a “typical family” in Canada has changed tremendously over the past decades. One of the most notable changes has been the increasing number of mothers who work outside the home. Earlier in Canadian society, most family households consisted of one parent working outside the home and the other being the primary child care provider. Because of traditional gender roles and family structures, this was typically a working father and a stay-at-home mom. Research shows that in 1951 only 24 percent of all women worked outside the home (Li 1996). In 2009, 58.3 percent of all women did, and 64.4 percent of women with children younger than three years of age were employed (Statistics Canada 2011).

Sociologists interested in this topic might approach its study from a variety of angles. One might be interested in its impact on a child’s development, another may explore its effect on family income, while a third might examine how other social institutions have responded to this shift in society. A sociologist studying the impact of working mothers on a child’s development might ask questions about children raised in child care settings. How is a child socialized differently when raised largely by a child care provider rather than a parent? Do early experiences in a school-like child care setting lead to improved academic performance later in life? How does a child with two working parents perceive gender roles compared to a child raised with a stay-at-home parent? Another sociologist might be interested in the increase in working mothers from an economic perspective. Why do so many households today have dual incomes? Has this changed the income of families substantially? How do women’s dual roles in the household and in the wider economy affect their occupational achievements and ability to participate on an equal basis with men in the workforce? What impact does the larger economy play in the economic conditions of an individual household? Do people view money—savings, spending, debt—differently than they have in the past?

Curiosity about this trend’s influence on social institutions might lead a researcher to explore its effect on the nation’s educational and child care systems. Has the increase in working mothers shifted traditional family responsibilities onto schools, such as providing lunch and even breakfast for students? How does the creation of after-school care programs shift resources away from traditional school programs? What would the effect be of providing a universal, subsidized child care program on the ability of women to pursue uninterrupted careers?

As these examples show, sociologists study many real-world topics. Their research often influences social policies and political issues. Results from sociological studies on this topic might play a role in developing federal policies like the Employment Insurance maternity and parental benefits program, or they might bolster the efforts of an advocacy group striving to reduce social stigmas placed on stay-at-home dads, or they might help governments determine how to best allocate funding for education. Many European countries like Sweden have substantial family support policies, such as a full year of parental leave at 80 percent of wages when a child is born and heavily subsidized, high-quality daycare and preschool programs. In Canada, a national subsidized daycare program existed briefly in 2005 but was scrapped in 2006 by the Conservative government and replaced with a $100-a-month direct payment to parents for each child. Sociologists might be interested in studying whether the benefits of the Swedish system—in terms of children’s well-being, lower family poverty, and gender equality—outweigh the drawbacks of higher Swedish tax rates.

Sociologists study social events, interactions, and patterns. They then develop theories to explain why these occur and what can result from them. In sociology, a theory is a way to explain different aspects of social interactions and create testable propositions about society (Allan 2006). For example, Durkheim’s proposition that differences in suicide rate can be explained by differences in the degree of social integration in different communities is a theory.

As this brief survey of the history of sociology suggests, however, there is considerable diversity in the theoretical approaches sociology takes to studying society. Sociology is a multi-perspectival science : a number of distinct perspectives or paradigms offer competing explanations of social phenomena. Paradigms are philosophical and theoretical frameworks used within a discipline to formulate theories, generalizations, and the research performed in support of them. They refer to the underlying organizing principles that tie different constellations of concepts, theories, and ways of formulating problems together (Drengson 1983). Talcott Parsons’ reformulation of Durkheim’s and others work as structural functionalism in the 1950s is an example of a paradigm because it provided a general model of analysis suited to an unlimited number of research topics. Parsons proposed that any identifiable structure (e.g., roles, families, religions, or states) could be explained by the particular function it performed in maintaining the operation of society as a whole. Critical sociology and symbolic interactionism would formulate the explanatory framework and research problem differently.

The multi-perspectival approach of sociology can be confusing to the newcomer, especially given most people’s familiarity with the more “unified perspective” of the natural sciences where divisions in perspective are less visible. The natural sciences are largely able to dispense with issues of multiple perspective and build cumulative explanations based on the “facts” because the objects they study are indifferent to their observation. The chemical composition and behaviour of a protein can be assumed to be the same wherever it is observed and by whomever it is observed. The same cannot be said of social phenomena, which are mediated by meanings and interpretations, divided by politics and value orientations, subject to historical change and human agency, characterized by contradictions and reconciliations, and transfigured if they are observed at a micro or macro-level. Social reality is different , depending on the historical moment, the perspective, and the criteria from which it is viewed.

Nevertheless, the different sociological paradigms do rest on a form of knowledge that is scientific, if science is taken in the broad sense to mean the use of reasoned argument, the ability to see the general in the particular, and the reliance on evidence from systematic observation of social reality. Within this general scientific framework, however, sociology is broken into the same divisions that separate the forms of modern knowledge more generally. By the time of the Enlightenment the unified perspective of Christendom had broken into three distinct spheres of knowledge: the natural sciences, hermeneutics (or interpretive sciences), and critique (Habermas 1972). Sociology is similarly divided into three types of sociological knowledge, each with its own strengths, limitations, and practical uses:  positivist sociology , interpretive sociology , and critical sociology . Within these three types of sociological knowledge, four paradigms have come to dominate sociological thinking: structural functionalism , critical sociology , feminism ,   and symbolic interactionism .

The positivist perspective in sociology—introduced above with regard to the pioneers of the discipline August Comte and Émile Durkheim—is most closely aligned with the forms of knowledge associated with the natural sciences. The emphasis is on empirical observation and measurement (i.e., observation through the senses), value neutrality or objectivity, and the search for law-like statements about the social world (analogous to Newton’s laws of gravity for the natural world). Since mathematics and statistical operations are the main forms of logical demonstration in the natural scientific explanation, positivism relies on translating human phenomena into quantifiable units of measurement. It regards the social world as an objective or “positive” reality, in no essential respects different from the natural world. Positivism is oriented to developing a knowledge useful for controlling or administering social life, which explains its ties to the projects of social engineering going back to Comte’s original vision for sociology. Two forms of positivism have been dominant in sociology since the 1940s: quantitative sociology and structural functionalism .

Quantitative Sociology

In contemporary sociology, positivism is based on four main “rules” that define what constitutes valid knowledge and what types of questions may be reasonably asked (Bryant 1985):

  • The rule of empiricism: We can only know about things that are actually given in experience. We cannot validly make claims about things that are invisible, unobservable, or supersensible like metaphysical, spiritual, or moral truths.
  • The rule of value neutrality: Scientists should remain value-neutral in their research because it follows from the rule of empiricism that “values” have no empirical content that would allow their validity to be scientifically tested.
  • The unity of the scientific method: All sciences have the same basic principles and practices whether their object is natural or human.
  • Law-like statements: The type of explanation sought by scientific inquiry is the formulation of general laws (like the law of gravity) to explain specific phenomena (like the falling of a stone).

Much of what is referred to today as quantitative sociology fits within this paradigm of positivism. Quantitative sociology uses statistical methods such as surveys with large numbers of participants. Researchers analyze data using statistical techniques to see if they can uncover patterns of human behaviour. Law-like relationships between variables are often posed in the form of statistical relationships or multiple linear regression formulas that quantify the degree of influence different causal or independent variables have on a particular outcome (or dependent variable). For example, the degree of religiosity of an individual in Canada, measured by the frequency of church attendance or religious practice, can be predicted by a combination of different independent variables such as age, gender, income, immigrant status, and region (Bibby 2012).

Structural Functionalism

Structural Functionalism also falls within the positivist tradition in sociology due to Durkheim’s early efforts to describe the subject matter of sociology in terms of objective social facts —“social facts must be studied as things, that is, as realities external to the individual” (Durkheim 1895)—and to explain them in terms of their social functions. Durkheim argued that in order to study society, sociologists have to look beyond individuals to social facts: the laws, morals, values, religious beliefs, customs, fashions, rituals, and all of the cultural rules that govern social life (Durkheim 1895). Each of these social facts serves one or more functions within a society. For example, one function of a society’s laws may be to protect society from violence, while another is to punish criminal behaviour, while another is to preserve public health.

Following Durkheim’s insight, structural functionalism sees society as a structure with interrelated parts designed to meet the biological and social needs of individuals who make up that society. In this respect, society is like a body that relies on different organs to perform crucial functions. In fact the English philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) likened society to a human body. He argued that just as the various organs in the body work together to keep the entire system functioning and regulated, the various parts of society work together to keep the entire society functioning and regulated (Spencer 1898). By parts of society, Spencer was referring to such social institutions as the economy, political systems, health care, education, media, and religion. Spencer continued the analogy by pointing out that societies evolve just as the bodies of humans and other animals do (Maryanski and Turner 1992).

As we have seen, Émile Durkheim developed a similar analogy to explain the structure of societies and how they change and survive over time. Durkheim believed that earlier, more primitive societies were held together because most people performed similar tasks and shared values, language, and symbols. There was a low division of labour, a common religious system of social beliefs, and a low degree of individual autonomy. Society was held together on the basis of mechanical solidarity : a shared collective consciousness with harsh punishment for deviation from the norms. Modern societies, according to Durkheim, were more complex. People served many different functions in society and their ability to carry out their function depended upon others being able to carry out theirs. Modern society was held together on the basis of a division of labour or organic solidarity: a complex system of interrelated parts, working together to maintain stability, i.e., an organism (Durkheim 1893). According to this sociological paradigm, the parts of society are interdependent. The academic relies on the mechanic for the specialized skills required to fix his or her car, the mechanic sends his or her children to university to learn from the academic, and both rely on the baker to provide them with bread for their morning toast. Each part influences and relies on the others.

According to American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1881–1955), in a healthy society, all of these parts work together to produce a stable state called dynamic equilibrium (Parsons 1961). Parsons was a key figure in systematizing Durkheim’s views in the 1940s and 1950s. He argued that a sociological approach to social phenomena must emphasize the systematic nature of society at all levels of social existence: the relation of definable “structures” to their “functions” in relation to the needs or “maintenance” of the system. His AGIL schema provided a useful analytical grid for sociological theory in which an individual, an institution, or an entire society could be seen as a system composed of structures that satisfied four primary functions:

  • Adaptation (A): how the system adapts to its environment
  • Goal attainment (G): how the system determines what its goals are and how it will attain them
  • Integration (I): how the system integrates its members into harmonious participation and social cohesion
  • (Latent) Pattern Maintenance (L): how basic cultural patterns, values, belief systems, etc. are regulated and maintained

So for example, the social system as a whole relied on the economy to distribute goods and services as its means of adaptation to the natural environment; on the political system to make decisions as it means of goal attainment ; on roles and norms to regulate social behaviour as its means of social integration; and on culture to institutionalize and reproduce common values as its means of latent pattern maintenance.  Following Durkheim, he argued that these explanations of social functions had to be made at the level of systems and not involve the specific wants and needs of individuals. In a system, there is an interrelation of component parts where a change in one component affects the others regardless of the perspectives of individuals.

Another noted structural functionalist, Robert Merton (1910–2003), pointed out that social processes often have many functions. Manifest functions are the consequences of a social process that are sought or anticipated, while latent functions are the unsought consequences of a social process. A manifest function of college education, for example, includes gaining knowledge, preparing for a career, and finding a good job that utilizes that education. Latent functions of your college years include meeting new people, participating in extracurricular activities, or even finding a spouse or partner. Another latent function of education is creating a hierarchy of employment based on the level of education attained. Latent functions can be beneficial, neutral, or harmful. Social processes that have undesirable consequences for the operation of society are called dysfunctions . In education, examples of dysfunction include getting bad grades, truancy, dropping out, not graduating, and not finding suitable employment.

The main criticisms of both quantitative positivism and structural functionalism have to do with the way in which social phenomena are turned into objective social facts. On one hand, interpretive sociology suggests that the quantification of variables in quantitative sociology reduces the rich complexity and ambiguity of social life to an abstract set of numbers and statistical relationships that cannot capture the meaning it holds for individuals. Measuring someone’s depth of religious belief or “religiosity” by the number of times they attend church in a week explains very little about the religious experience. Similarly, interpretive sociology argues that structural functionalism , with its emphasis on systems of structures and functions tends to reduce the individual to the status of a sociological dupe, assuming pre-assigned roles and functions without any individual agency or capacity for self-creation.

On the other hand, critical sociology challenges the conservative tendencies of quantitative sociology and structural functionalism. Both types of positivist analysis represent themselves as being objective, or value-neutral, which is a problem in the context of critical sociology’s advocacy for social justice. However, both types of positivism also have conservative assumptions built into their basic approach to social facts. The focus in quantitative sociology on observable facts and law-like statements presents a historical and deterministic picture of the world that cannot account for the underlying historical dynamics of power relationships and class or other contradictions. One can empirically observe the trees but not the forest so to speak. Similarly, the focus on the needs and the smooth functioning of social systems in structural functionalism supports a conservative viewpoint because it tends to see the functioning and dynamic equilibrium of society as good or normal, whereas change is pathological. In Davis and Moore’s famous essay “Some Principles of Stratification” (1944) for example, the authos argued that social inequality was essentially “good” because it functioned to preserve the motivation of individuals to work hard to get ahead. Critical sociology challenges both the justice and practical consequences of social inequality.

Table 1.1. Sociological Theories or Perspectives. Different sociological perspectives enable sociologists to view social issues through a variety of useful lenses.

Interpretive Sociology

The interpretive perspective in sociology is aligned with the hermeneutic traditions of the humanities like literature, philosophy, and history. The focus is on understanding or interpreting human activity in terms of the meanings that humans attribute to it. Max Weber’s Verstehende (understanding) sociology is often cited as the origin of this perspective in sociology because of his emphasis on the centrality of meaning and intention in social action:

Sociology… is a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects. In “action” is included all human behaviour when and in so far as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to it…. [Social action is] action mutually oriented to that of each other (Weber 1922).

This emphasis on the meaningfulness of social action is taken up later by phenomenology, ethnomethodology, and symbolic interactionism. The interpretive perspective is concerned with developing a knowledge of social interaction as a meaning-oriented practice. It promotes the goal of greater mutual understanding and the possibility of consensus among members of society.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism provides a theoretical perspective that helps scholars examine the relationship of individuals within their society. This perspective is centred on the notion that communication—or the exchange of meaning through language and symbols—is how people make sense of their social worlds. As pointed out by Herman and Reynolds (1994), this viewpoint sees people as active in shaping their world, rather than as entities who are acted upon by society (Herman and Reynolds 1994). This approach looks at society and people from a micro-level perspective.

George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) is considered one of the founders of symbolic interactionism. His work in Mind, Self and Society (1934) on the “self” as a social structure and on the stages of child development as a sequence of role-playing capacities provides the classic analyses of the perspective.

His student Herbert Blumer (1900–1987) synthesized Mead’s work and popularized the theory. Blumer coined the term “symbolic interactionism” and identified its three basic premises:

  • Humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things.
  • The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society.
  • These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he or she encounters (Blumer 1969).

In other words, human interaction is not determined in the same manner as natural events. Nor do people directly react to each other as forces acting upon forces or as stimuli provoking automatic responses. Rather people interact indirectly , by interpreting the meaning of each other’s actions, gestures, or words. Interaction is symbolic in the sense that it occurs through the mediation, exchange, and interpretation of symbols. One person’s action refers beyond itself to a meaning that calls out for the response of the other: it indicates what the receiver is supposed to do; it indicates what the actor intends to do; and together they form a mutual definition of the situation, which enables joint action to take place. Social life can be seen as the stringing together or aligning of multiple joint actions.

Social scientists who apply symbolic-interactionist thinking look for patterns of interaction between individuals. Their studies often involve observation of one-on-one interactions. For example, while a structural functionalist studying a political protest might focus on the function protest plays in realigning the priorities of the political system, a symbolic interactionist would be more interested in seeing the ways in which individuals in the protesting group interact, or how the signs and symbols protesters use enable a common definition of the situation—e.g., an environmental or social justice “issue”—to get established.

The focus on the importance of symbols in building a society led sociologists like Erving Goffman (1922–1982) to develop a framework called dramaturgical analysis . Goffman used theatre as an analogy for social interaction and recognized that people’s interactions showed patterns of cultural “scripts.” In social encounters, individuals make a claim for a positive social status within the group—they present a “face”—but it is never certain that their audience will accept their claim. There is always the possibility that individuals will make a gaff that prevents them from successfully maintaining face. They have to manage the impression they are making in the same way and often using the same type of “props” as an actor. Moreover, because it can be unclear what part a person may play in a given situation, he or she has to improvise his or her role as the situation unfolds. This led to Goffman’s focus on the ritual nature of social interaction—the way in which the “scripts” of social encounters become routine, repetitive, and unconscious. Nevertheless, the emphasis in Goffman’s analysis, as in symbolic interactionism as a whole, is that the social encounter, and social reality itself, is open and unpredictable. Social reality is not predetermined by structures, functions, roles, or history (Goffman 1958).

Symbolic interactionism has also been important in bringing to light the experiences and worlds of individuals who are typically excluded from official accounts of the world. Howard Becker’s Outsiders (1963) for example described the process of labelling in which individuals come to be characterized or labelled as deviants by authorities. The sequence of events in which a young person is picked up by police for an offence, defined as a “young offender,” processed by the criminal justice system, and then introduced to the criminal subculture through contact with experienced convicts is told from the subjective point of view of the young person. The significance of labelling theory is to show that individuals are not born deviant or criminal, but become criminal through an institutionalized symbolic interaction with authorities. As Becker says:

… social groups create deviance by making rules whose infraction creates deviance , and by applying those roles to particular people and labelling them as outsiders. From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by other of rules and sanctions to an “offender.” The deviant is one to whom that label has been successfully applied; deviant behavior is behaviour that people so label (1963).

Studies that use the symbolic interactionist perspective are more likely to use qualitative research methods, such as in-depth interviews or participant observation, because they seek to understand the symbolic worlds in which research subjects live.

Research done from this perspective is often scrutinized because of the difficulty of remaining objective. Others criticize the extremely narrow focus on symbolic interaction. Proponents, of course, consider this one of its greatest strengths.

One of the problems of sociology that focuses on micro-level interactions is that it is difficult to generalize from very specific situations, involving very few individuals, to make social scientific claims about the nature of society as a whole. The danger is that, while the rich texture of face-to-face social life can be examined in detail, the results will remain purely descriptive without any explanatory or analytical strength. In a similar fashion, it is very difficult to get at the historical context or relations of power that structure or condition face-to-face symbolic interactions. The perspective on social life as an unstructured and unconstrained domain of agency and subjective meanings has difficulty accounting for the ways that social life does become structured and constrained.

Making Connections: The Big Picture

A global culture.

Sociologists around the world are looking closely for signs of what would be an unprecedented event: the emergence of a global culture. In the past, empires such as those that existed in China, Europe, Africa, and Central and South America linked people from many different countries, but those people rarely became part of a common culture. They lived too far from each other, spoke different languages, practised different religions, and traded few goods. Today, increases in communication, travel, and trade have made the world a much smaller place. More and more people are able to communicate with each other instantly—wherever they are located—by telephone, video, and text. They share movies, television shows, music, games, and information over the internet. Students can study with teachers and pupils from the other side of the globe. Governments find it harder to hide conditions inside their countries from the rest of the world.

Sociologists are researching many different aspects of this potential global culture. Some are exploring the dynamics involved in the social interactions of global online communities, such as when members feel a closer kinship to other group members than to people residing in their own country. Other sociologists are studying the impact this growing international culture has on smaller, less-powerful local cultures. Yet other researchers are exploring how international markets and the outsourcing of labour impact social inequalities. Sociology can play a key role in people’s ability to understand the nature of this emerging global culture and how to respond to it.

Critical Sociology

The critical perspective in sociology has its origins in social activism, social justice movements, revolutionary struggles, and radical critique. As Karl Marx put it, its focus was the “ruthless critique of everything existing” (Marx 1843). The key elements of this analysis are the emphases on power relations and the understanding of society as historical—subject to change, struggle, contradiction, instability, social movement and radical transformation. Rather than objectivity and value neutrality, the tradition of critical sociology promotes practices of liberation and social change in order to achieve universal social justice. As Marx stated, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it” (1845). This is why it is misleading to call critical sociology “conflict theory” as some introductory textbooks do. While conflict is certainly central to the critical analyses of power and domination, the focus of critical sociology is on developing types of knowledge and political action that enable emancipation from power relations (i.e., from the conditions of conflict in society). Historical materialism, feminism, environmentalism, anti-racism, queer studies, and poststructuralism are all examples of the critical perspective in sociology.

One of the outcomes of a systematic analysis such as these is that it generates questions about the relationship between our everyday life and issues concerning social justice and environmental sustainability. In line with the philosophical traditions of the Enlightenment, critical sociology is sociology with an “emancipatory interest” (Habermas 1972); that is, a sociology that seeks not simply to understand or describe the world, but to use sociological knowledge to change and improve the world, to emancipate people from conditions of servitude. What does the word critical mean in this context? Critical sociologists argue that it is important to understand that the critical tradition in sociology is not about complaining or being “negative.” Nor is it about adopting a moral position from which to judge people or society. It is not about being “subjective” or “biased” as opposed to “objective.” As Herbert Marcuse put it in One Dimensional Man (1964), critical sociology involves two value judgments:

  • The judgment that human life is worth living, or rather that it can be and ought to be made worth living
  • The judgment that, in a given society, specific possibilities exist for the amelioration of human life and specific ways and means of realizing these possibilities

Critical sociology therefore rejects the notion of a value-free social science, but does not thereby become a moral exercise or an individual “subjective” value preference as a result. Being critical in the context of sociology is about using objective, empirical knowledge to assess the possibilities and barriers to improving or “ameliorating” human life.

Historical Materialism

The tradition of historical materialism that developed from Karl Marx’s work is one of the central frameworks of critical sociology. As we noted in the discussion of Marx above, historical materialism concentrates on the study of how our everyday lives are structured by the connection between relations of power and economic processes. The basis of this approach begins with the macro-level question of how specific relations of power and specific economic formations have developed historically. These form the context in which the institutions, practices, beliefs, and social rules (norms) of everyday life are situated. The elements that make up a culture—a society’s shared practices, values, beliefs, and artifacts—are structured by the society’s economic mode of production : the way human societies act upon their environment and its resources in order to use them to meet their needs. Hunter-gatherer, agrarian, feudal, and capitalist modes of production have been the economic basis for very different types of society throughout world history.

It is not as if this relationship is always clear to the people living in these different periods of history, however. Often the mechanisms and structures of social life are obscure. For example, it might not have been clear to the Scots who were expelled from their ancestral lands in Scotland during the Highland clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries and who emigrated to the Red River settlements in Rupert’s Land (now Manitoba) that they were living through the epochal transformation from feudalism to capitalism. This transition was nevertheless the context for the decisions individuals and families made to emigrate from Scotland and attempt to found the Red River Colony. It might also not have been clear to them that they were participating in the development of colonial power relationships between the indigenous people of North America and the Europeans that persist up until today. Through contact with the Scots and the French fur traders, the Cree and Anishinabe were gradually drawn out of their own indigenous modes of production and into the developing global capitalist economy as fur trappers and provisioners for the early European settlements. It was a process that eventually led to the loss of control over their lands, the destruction of their way of life, the devastating spread of European diseases, the imposition of the Indian Act, the establishment of the residential school system, institutional and everyday racism, and an enduring legacy of intractable social problems.

In a similar way, historical materialism analyzes the constraints that define the way individuals review their options and make their decisions in present-day society. From the types of career to pursue to the number of children to have, the decisions and practices of everyday life must be understood in terms of the 20th century shift to corporate ownership and the 21st century context of globalization in which corporate decisions about investments are made.

The historical materialist approach emphasizes three components (Naiman 2012). The first is that everything in society is related—it is not possible to study social processes in isolation. The second is that everything in society is dynamic (i.e., in a process of continuous social change). It is not possible to study social processes as if they existed outside of history. The third is that the tensions that form around relationships of power and inequality in society are the key drivers of social change. In the language of Marx, these tensions are based on “contradictions” built into the organization of the economic or material relationships that structure our livelihoods, our relationships to each other, our relationship to the environment, and our place within the global community. It is not possible to study social processes as if they were independent of the historical formations of power that both structure them and destabilize them.

Another major school of critical sociology is feminism. From the early work of women sociologists like Harriet Martineau, feminist sociology has focused on the power relationships and inequalities between women and men. How can the conditions of inequality faced by women be addressed? As Harriet Martineau put it in Society in America (1837):

All women should inform themselves of the condition of their sex, and of their own position. It must necessarily follow that the noblest of them will, sooner or later, put forth a moral power which shall prostrate cant [hypocracy], and burst asunder the bonds (silken to some but cold iron to others) of feudal prejudice and usages. In the meantime is it to be understood that the principles of the Declaration of Independence bear no relation to half of the human race? If so, what is the ground of this limitation?

Feminist sociology focuses on analyzing the grounds of the limitations faced by women when they claim the right to equality with men.

Inequality between the genders is a phenomenon that goes back at least 4,000 years (Lerner 1986). Although the forms and ways in which it has been practised differ between cultures and change significantly through history, its persistence has led to the formulation of the concept of patriarchy. Patriarchy refers to a set of institutional structures (like property rights, access to positions of power, relationship to sources of income) that are based on the belief that men and women are dichotomous and unequal categories. Key to patriarchy is what might be called the dominant gender ideology toward sexual differences: the assumption that physiological sex differences between males and females are related to differences in their character, behaviour, and ability (i.e., their gender). These differences are used to justify a gendered division of social roles and inequality in access to rewards, positions of power, and privilege. The question that feminists ask therefore is: How does this distinction between male and female, and the attribution of different qualities to each, serve to organize our institutions (e.g., the family, law, the occupational structure, religious institutions, the division between public and private) and to perpetuate inequality between the sexes?

Feminism is a distinct type of critical sociology. There are considerable differences between types of feminism, however; for example, the differences often attributed to the first wave of feminism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the second wave of feminism from the 1950s to the 1970s, and the third wave of feminism from the 1980s onward. Despite the variations between different types of feminist approach, there are four characteristics that are common to the feminist perspective:

  • Gender is a central focus or subject matter of the perspective.
  • Gender relations are viewed as a problem: the site of social inequities, strains, and contradictions.
  • Gender relations are not immutable: they are sociological and historical in nature, subject to change and progress.
  • Feminism is about an emancipatory commitment to change: the conditions of life that are oppressive for women need to be transformed.

One of the keen sociological insights that emerged with the feminist perspective in sociology is that “the personal is political.” Many of the most immediate and fundamental experiences of social life—from childbirth to who washes the dishes to the experience of sexual violence—had simply been invisible or regarded as unimportant politically or socially. Dorothy Smith’s development of standpoint theory was a key innovation in sociology that enabled these issues to be seen and addressed in a systematic way (Smith 1977). She recognized from the consciousness-raising exercises and encounter groups initiated by feminists in the 1960s and1970s that many of the immediate concerns expressed by women about their personal lives had a commonality of themes. These themes were nevertheless difficult to articulate in sociological terms let alone in the language of politics or law.

Part of the issue was sociology itself. Smith argued that instead of beginning sociological analysis from the abstract point of view of institutions or systems, women’s lives could be more effectively examined if one began from the “actualities” of their lived experience in the immediate local settings of “everyday/everynight” life. She asked, What are the common features of women’s everyday lives? From this standpoint, Smith observed that women’s position in modern society is acutely divided by the experience of dual consciousness . Every day women crossed a tangible dividing line when they went from the “particularizing work in relation to children, spouse, and household” to the institutional world of text-mediated, abstract concerns at work, or in their dealings with schools, medical systems, or government bureaucracies. In the abstract world of institutional life, the actualities of local consciousness and lived life are “obliterated” (Smith 1977). While the standpoint of women is grounded in bodily, localized, “here and now” relationships between people, due to their obligations in the domestic sphere, society is organized through “relations of ruling,” which translate the substance of actual lived experiences into abstract bureaucratic categories. Power and rule in society, especially the power and rule that constrain and coordinate the lives of women, operate through a problematic “move into transcendence” that provides accounts of social life as if it were possible to stand outside of it. Smith argued that the abstract concepts of sociology, at least in the way that it was taught at the time, only contributed to the problem.

Whereas critical sociologists often criticize positivist and interpretive sociology for their conservative biases, the reverse is also true. In part the issue is about whether sociology can be “objective,” or value-neutral, or not. However, at a deeper level the criticism is often aimed at the radical nature of critical analyses. Marx’s critique of capitalism and the feminist critique of patriarchy for example led to very interesting insights into how structures of power and inequality work, but from a point of view that sees only the most revolutionary transformation of society as a solution.

Critical sociology is also criticized from the point of view of interpretive sociology for overstating the power of dominant groups to manipulate subordinate groups. For example, media representations of women are said to promote unobtainable standards of beauty or to reduce women to objects of male desire. This type of critique suggests that individuals are controlled by media images rather than recognizing their independent ability to reject media influences or to interpret media images for themselves. In a similar way, critical sociology is criticized for implying that people are purely the products of macro-level historical forces rather than individuals with a capacity for individual and collective agency. To be fair, Marx did argue that “Men make their own history;” it is just that they “do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances encountered, given, and transmitted from the past” (Marx 1851).

Farming and Locavores: How Sociological Perspectives Might View Food Consumption

The consumption of food is a commonplace, daily occurrence, yet it can also be associated with important moments in our lives. Eating can be an individual or a group action, and eating habits and customs are influenced by our cultures. In the context of society, our nation’s food system is at the core of numerous social movements, political issues, and economic debates. Any of these factors might become a topic of sociological study.

A structural-functional approach to the topic of food consumption might be interested in the role of the agriculture industry within the nation’s economy and how this has changed from the early days of manual-labour farming to modern mechanized production. Food production is a primary example of how human systems adapt to environmental systems. In many respects the concerns of environmentalists and others with respect to the destructive relationship between industrial agriculture and the ecosystem are the results of a dysfunctional system of adaptation. The concept of sustainable agriculture points to the changes needed to return the interface between humans and the natural environment to a state of dynamic equilibrium.

A sociologist viewing food consumption through a symbolic interactionist lens would be more interested in micro-level topics, such as the symbolic use of food in religious rituals, or the role it plays in the social interaction of a family dinner. This perspective might also study the interactions among group members who identify themselves based on their sharing a particular diet, such as vegetarians (people who don’t eat meat) or locavores (people who strive to eat locally produced food). The increasing concern that people have with their diets speaks to the way that the life of the biological body is as much a symbolic reality, interpreted within contemporary discourses on health risks and beauty, as it is a biological reality.

A critical sociologist might be interested in the power differentials present in the regulation of food, exploring where people’s right to information intersects with corporations’ drive for profit and how the government mediates those interests. Or a critical sociologist might be interested in the power and powerlessness experienced by local farmers versus large farming conglomerates. In the documentary Food Inc., the plight of farmers resulting from Monsanto’s patenting of seed technology is depicted as a product of the corporatization of the food industry. Another topic of study might be how nutrition varies between different social classes.

When Bernard Blishen picked up the phone one day in 1961, he was surprised to hear Chief Justice Emmett Hall on the other end of the line asking him to be the research director for the newly established Royal Commission on Health Services. Publically funded health care had been introduced for the first time in Canada that year by a socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) government in Saskatchewan amid bitter controversy. Doctors in Saskatchewan went on strike and private health care insurers mounted an expensive anti-public health care campaign. Because it was a Conservative government commission, appointed by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, Blishen’s colleagues advised him that it was going to be a whitewash document to defend the interests of private medical care. However, Blishen took on the project as a challenge, and when the commission’s report was published it advocated that the Saskatchewan plan be adopted nationally (Vaughan 2004).

Blishen went on to work in the field of medical sociology and also created a widely used index to measure socioeconomic status known as the Blishen scale. He received the Order of Canada in 2011 in recognition of his contributions to the creation of public health care in Canada.

Since it was first founded, many people interested in sociology have been driven by the scholarly desire to contribute knowledge to this field, while others have seen it as way not only to study society, but also to improve it. Besides the creation of public health care in Canada, sociology has played a crucial role in many important social reforms such as equal opportunity for women in the workplace, improved treatment for individuals with mental and learning disabilities, increased recognition and accommodation for people from different ethnic backgrounds, the creation of hate crime legislation, the right of aboriginal populations to preserve their land and culture, and prison system reforms.

The prominent sociologist Peter L. Berger (1929– ), in his 1963 book Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective , describes a sociologist as “someone concerned with understanding society in a disciplined way.” He asserts that sociologists have a natural interest in the monumental moments of people’s lives, as well as a fascination with banal, everyday occurrences. Berger also describes the “aha” moment when a sociological theory becomes applicable and understood:

[T]here is a deceptive simplicity and obviousness about some sociological investigations. One reads them, nods at the familiar scene, remarks that one has heard all this before and don’t people have better things to do than to waste their time on truisms—until one is suddenly brought up against an insight that radically questions everything one had previously assumed about this familiar scene. This is the point at which one begins to sense the excitement of sociology (Berger 1963).

Sociology can be exciting because it teaches people ways to recognize how they fit into the world and how others perceive them. Looking at themselves and society from a sociological perspective helps people see where they connect to different groups based on the many different ways they classify themselves and how society classifies them in turn. It raises awareness of how those classifications—such as economic and status levels, education, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—affect perceptions.

Sociology teaches people not to accept easy explanations. It teaches them a way to organize their thinking so that they can ask better questions and formulate better answers. It makes people more aware that there are many different kinds of people in the world who do not necessarily think the way they do. It increases their willingness and ability to try to see the world from other people’s perspectives. This prepares them to live and work in an increasingly diverse and integrated world.

Sociology in the Workplace

Employers continue to seek people with what are called “transferable skills.” This means that they want to hire people whose knowledge and education can be applied in a variety of settings and whose skills will contribute to various tasks. Studying sociology can provide people with this wide knowledge and a skill set that can contribute to many workplaces, including:

  • An understanding of social systems and large bureaucracies
  • The ability to devise and carry out research projects to assess whether a program or policy is working
  • The ability to collect, read, and analyze statistical information from polls or surveys
  • The ability to recognize important differences in people’s social, cultural, and economic backgrounds
  • Skills in preparing reports and communicating complex ideas
  • The capacity for critical thinking about social issues and problems that confront modern society (Department of Sociology, University of Alabama)

Sociology prepares people for a wide variety of careers. Besides actually conducting social research or training others in the field, people who graduate from college with a degree in sociology are hired by government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations in fields such as social services, counselling (e.g., family planning, career, substance abuse), designing and evaluating social policies and programs, health services, polling and independent research, market research, and human resources management. Even a small amount of training in sociology can be an asset in careers like sales, public relations, journalism, teaching, law, and criminal justice.

Please “Friend” Me: Students and Social Networking

The phenomenon known as Facebook was designed specifically for students. Whereas earlier generations wrote notes in each other’s printed yearbooks at the end of the academic year, modern technology and the internet ushered in dynamic new ways for people to interact socially. Instead of having to meet up on campus, students can call, text, and Skype from their dorm rooms. Instead of a study group gathering weekly in the library, online forums and chat rooms help learners connect. The availability and immediacy of computer technology has forever changed the ways students engage with each other.

Now, after several social networks have vied for primacy, a few have established their place in the market and some have attracted niche audience. While Facebook launched the social networking trend geared toward teens and young adults, now people of all ages are actively “friending” each other. LinkedIn distinguished itself by focusing on professional connections, serving as a virtual world for workplace networking. Newer offshoots like Foursquare help people connect based on the real-world places they frequent, while Twitter has cornered the market on brevity.

These newer modes of social interaction have also spawned questionable consequences, such as cyberbullying and what some call FAD, or Facebook addiction disorder. In an international study of smartphone users aged 18 to 30, 60 percent say they are “compulsive” about checking their smartphones and 42 percent admit to feeling “anxious” when disconnected; 75 percent check their smartphones in bed; more than 33 percent check them in the bathroom and 46 percent email and check social media while eating (Cisco 2012). An International Data Corporation (IDC) study of 7,446 smartphone users aged 18 to 44 in the United States in 2012 found that:

  • Half of the U.S. population have smartphones and of those 70 percent use Facebook. Using Facebook is the third most common smartphone activity, behind email (78 percent) and web browsing (73 percent).
  • 61 percent of smartphone users check Facebook every day.
  • 62 percent of smartphone users check their device first thing on waking up in the morning and 79 percent check within 15 minutes. Among 18-to-24-year-olds the figures are 74 percent and 89 percent, respectively.
  • Smartphone users check Facebook approximately 14 times a day.
  • 84 percent of the time using smartphones is spent on texting, emailing and using social media like Facebook, whereas only 16 percent of the time is spent on phone calls. People spend an average of 132 minutes a day on their smartphones including 33 minutes on Facebook.
  • People use Facebook throughout the day, even in places where they are not supposed to: 46 percent use Facebook while doing errands and shopping; 47 percent when they are eating out; 48 percent while working out; 46 percent in meetings or class; and 50 percent while at the movies.

The study noted that the dominant feeling the survey group reported was “a sense of feeling connected” (IDC 2012). Yet, in the international study cited above, two-thirds of 18- to 30-year-old smartphone users said they spend more time with friends online than they do in person.

All of these social networks demonstrate emerging ways that people interact, whether positive or negative. Sociologists ask whether there might be long-term effects of replacing face-to-face interaction with social media. In an interview on the Conan O’Brian Show that ironically circulated widely through social media, the comedian Louis CK described the use of smartphones as “toxic.” They do not allow for children who use them to build skills of empathy because the children do not interact face to face, or see the effects their comments have on others. Moreover, he argues, they do not allow people to be alone with their feelings. “The thing is, you need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away” (NewsComAu 2013). What do you think? How do social media like Facebook and communication technologies like smartphones change the way we communicate? How could this question be studied?

AGIL schema Talcott Parsons’ division of society into four functional requisites: A daptation, G oal attainment, I ntegration, and L atent pattern maintenance

anomie a social condition or normlessness in which a lack of clear norms fails to give direction and purpose to individual actions

capitalism an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership and production of goods and their sale in a competitive market

content the specific reasons or drives that motivate individuals to interact

critical sociology a theoretical perspective that focuses on inequality and power relations in society in order to achieve social justice and emancipation through their transformation

culture  includes the group’s shared practices, values, beliefs, norms and artifacts

disenchantment of the world the replacement of magical thinking by technological rationality and calculation

dominant gender ideology  the belief that physiological sex differences between males and females are related to differences in their character, behaviour, and ability

dramaturgical analysis a technique sociologists use in which they view society through the metaphor of theatrical performance

dual consciousness the experience of a fissure or dividing point in everyday life where one crosses a line between irreconcilable forms of consciousness or perspective

dynamic equilibrium a stable state in which all parts of a healthy society are working together properly

dysfunctions social patterns that have undesirable consequences for the operation of society

feminism the critical analysis of the way gender differences in society structure social inequality

figuration the process of simultaneously analyzing the behaviour of an individual and the society that shapes that behaviour

formal sociology a sociology that analytically separates the contents from the forms of social interaction to study the common forms that guide human behaviour

function  the part a recurrent activity plays in the social life as a whole and the contribution it makes to structural continuity

functionalism (functionalist perspective) a theoretical approach that sees society as a structure with interrelated parts designed to meet the biological and social needs of individuals that make up that society

historical materialism an approach to understanding society that explains social change, human ideas, and social organization in terms of underlying changes in the economic (or material) structure of society

idealism an approach to understanding society that emphasizes that the nature of society and social change is determined by a society’s ideas, knowledge, and beliefs

idealist one who believes in idealism

interpretive sociology a perspective that explains human behaviour in terms of the meanings individuals attribute to it

labelling a social process in which an individual’s social identity is established through the imposition of a definition by authorities

latent functions the unrecognized or unintended consequences of a social process

law of three stages the three stages of evolution that societies develop through: theological, metaphysical, and positive

macro-sociology a wide-scale view of the role of social structures within a society

manifest functions sought consequences of a social process

mechanical solidarity social solidarity or cohesion through a shared collective consciousness with harsh punishment for deviation from the norms

metaphysical stage a stage of social evolution in which people explain events in terms of abstract or speculative ideas

micro-sociology the study of specific relationships between individuals or small groups

mode of production the way human societies act upon their environment and its resources in order to use them to meet their needs

multi-perspectival science a science that is divided into competing or diverse paradigms

organic solidarity social solidarity or cohesion through a complex division of labour and restitutive law

paradigms philosophical and theoretical frameworks used within a discipline to formulate theories, generalizations, and the experiments performed in support of them

patriarchy institutions of male power in society

positive stage a stage of social evolution in which people explain events in terms of scientific principles and laws

positivism (positivist perspective or positivist sociology) the scientific study of social patterns based on methodological principles of the natural sciences

Protestant ethic the duty to work hard in one’s calling

quantitative sociology statistical methods such as surveys with large numbers of participants

rationalization the general tendency of modern institutions and most areas of life to be transformed by the application of instrumental reason

reification referring to abstract concepts, complex processes or mutable social relationships as “things”

social action actions to which individuals attach subjective meanings

social facts the external laws, morals, values, religious beliefs, customs, fashions, rituals, and cultural rules that govern social life

social reform an approach to social change that advocates slow, incremental improvements in social institutions rather than rapid, revolutionary change of society as a whole

social solidarity the social ties that bind a group of people together such as kinship, shared location, and religion

society  is a group of people whose members interact, reside in a definable area, and share a culture

sociological imagination the ability to understand how your own unique circumstances relate to that of other people, as well as to history in general and societal structures in particular

sociology the systematic study of society and social interaction

standpoint theory the examination of how society is organized and coordinated from the perspective of a particular social location or perspective in society

structural functionalism see functionalism

symbolic interactionism a theoretical perspective through which scholars examine the relationship of individuals within their society by studying their communication (language and symbols)

theological stage a stage of social evolution in which people explain events with respect to the will of God or gods

theory a proposed explanation about social interactions or society

tragedy of culture the tendency for the products of human cultural creation to accumulate and become increasingly complex, specialized, alienating, or oppressive

Verstehen German for “understanding”; in sociology it refers to the use of empathy, or putting oneself in another’s place, to understand the motives and logic of another’s action

Section Summary

1.1. What Is Sociology? Sociology is the systematic study of society and social interaction. In order to carry out their studies, sociologists identify cultural patterns and social forces and determine how they affect individuals and groups. They also develop ways to apply their findings to the real world.

1.2. The History of Sociology Sociology was developed as a way to study and try to understand the changes to society brought on by the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the earliest sociologists thought that societies and individuals’ roles in society could be studied using the same scientific methodologies that were used in the natural sciences, while others believed that is was impossible to predict human behaviour scientifically, and still others debated the value of such predictions. Those perspectives continue to be represented within sociology today.

1.3. Theoretical Perspectives Sociologists develop theories to explain social events, interactions, and patterns. A theory is a proposed explanation of those patterns. Theories have different scales. Macro-level theories, such as structural functionalism and conflict theory, attempt to explain how societies operate as a whole. Micro-level theories, such as symbolic interactionism, focus on interactions between individuals.

1.4. Why Study Sociology? Studying sociology is beneficial both for the individual and for society. By studying sociology people learn how to think critically about social issues and problems that confront our society. The study of sociology enriches students’ lives and prepares them for careers in an increasingly diverse world. Society benefits because people with sociological training are better prepared to make informed decisions about social issues and take effective action to deal with them.

Section Quiz

1.1. What Is Sociology? 1. Which of the following best describes sociology as a subject?

  • the study of individual behaviour
  • the study of cultures
  • the study of society and social interaction
  • the study of economics

2. Wright Mills once said that sociologists need to develop a sociological __________ to study how society affects individuals.

  • imagination

3. A sociologist defines society as a group of people who reside in a defined area, share a culture, and who:

  • work in the same industry
  • speak different languages
  • practise a recognized religion

4. Seeing patterns means that a sociologist needs to be able to:

  • compare the behaviour of individuals from different societies
  • compare one society to another
  • identify similarities in how social groups respond to social pressure
  • compare individuals to groups

1.2. The History of Sociology 5. Which of the following was a topic of study in early sociology?

6. Which founder of sociology believed societies changed due to class struggle?

  • Émile Comte
  • Herbert Spencer

7. The difference between positivism and interpretive sociology relates to:

  • whether individuals like or dislike their society
  • whether research methods use statistical data or person-to-person research
  • whether sociological studies can predict or improve society
  • all of the above

8. Which would a quantitative sociologists use to gather data?

  • a large survey
  • a literature search
  • an in-depth interview
  • a review of television programs

9. Weber believed humans could not be studied purely objectively because they were influenced by:

  • their culture
  • their genetic makeup
  • the researcher

1.3. Theoretical Perspectives 10. Which of these theories is most likely to look at the social world on a micro-level?

  • structural functionalism
  • conflict theory
  • symbolic interactionism

11. Who believed that the history of society was one of class struggle?

  • Émile Durkheim
  • Erving Goffmann
  • George Herbert Mead

12. Who coined the phrase symbolic interactionism?

  • Herbert Blumer
  • Lester F. Ward
  • W. I. Thomas

13. A symbolic interactionist may compare social interactions to:

  • human organs
  • theatrical roles

14. Which research technique would most likely be used by a symbolic interactionist?

  • participant observation
  • quantitative data analysis
  • none of the above

15. Which sociologist described sociology as the study of social forms?

1.4. Why Study Sociology? 16. Studying Sociology helps people analyze data because they learn:

  • interview techniques
  • to apply statistics
  • to generate theories

17. Berger describes sociologists as concerned with:

  • monumental moments in people’s lives
  • common everyday life events
  • both a and b

Short Answer

  • What do you think C. Wright Mills meant when he said that to be a sociologist, one had to develop a sociological imagination?
  • Describe a situation in which a choice you made was influenced by societal pressures.
  • What do you make of Karl Marx’s contributions to sociology? What perceptions of Marx have you been exposed to in your society, and how do those perceptions influence your views?
  • Do you tend to place more value on qualitative or quantitative research? Why? Does it matter what topic is being studied?
  • Which theory do you think better explains how societies operate—structural functionalism or conflict theory? Why?
  • Do you think the way people behave in social interactions is more due to the cause and effect of external social constraints or more like actors playing a role in a theatrical production? Why?
  • How do you think taking a sociology course might affect your social interactions?
  • What sort of career are you interested in? How could studying sociology help you in this career?

Further Research

1.1. What Is Sociology? Sociology is a broad discipline. Different kinds of sociologists employ various methods for exploring the relationship between individuals and society. Check out more about sociology at http://openstaxcollege.org/l/what-is-sociology .

1.2. The History of Sociology Many sociologists helped shape the discipline. To learn more about prominent sociologists and how they changed sociology check out http://openstaxcollege.org/l/ferdinand-toennies .

1.3. Theoretical Perspectives People often think of all conflict as violent, but many conflicts can be resolved nonviolently. To learn more about nonviolent methods of conflict resolution check out the Albert Einstein Institution http://openstaxcollege.org/l/ae-institution

1.4. Why Study Sociology? Social communication is rapidly evolving due to ever improving technologies. To learn more about how sociologists study the impact of these changes check out http://openstaxcollege.org/l/media

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Solutions to Section Quiz

1. C | 2. B | 3. A | 4. C | 5. B | 6. B | 7. C | 8. A | 9. B | 10. D | 11. B | 12. A | 13. D | 14. B | 15. B | 16. D | 17. C

Image Attributions

Figure 1.1  Canada Day National Capital by Derek Hatfield ( http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canada_Day_National_Capital.jpg ) used under CC BY 2.0 ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en )

Figure 1.2. Il (secondo?) bacio più famoso della storia: Vancouver Riot Kiss by Pasquale Borriello (https://www.flickr.com/photos/pazca/5844049845/in/photostream/) used under CC BY 2.0 ( https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ )

Figure 1.4   c  Ibn Khaldun by Waqas Ahmed ( http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ibn_Khaldun.jpg ) used under CC BY-SA 3.0 ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en );

Figure 1.5.   Newton-WilliamBlake by William Blake ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newton_(Blake)#mediaviewer/File:Newton-WilliamBlake.jpg ) is in the public domain ( http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Public_domain#Material_in_the_public_domain )

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The writings of Max Weber (1864-1920) contain one of the most fascinating and sophisticated attempts ever made to create an economic sociology. Economic sociologist and Weber scholar Richard Swedberg has selected the most important of Weber’s enormous body of writings on the topic, making these available for the first time in a single volume. The central themes around which the anthology is organized are modern capitalism and its relationships to politics, to law, and to culture and religion; a special section is devoted to theoretical aspects of economic sociology. Swedberg provides a valuable introduction illuminating biographical and intellectual dimensions of Weber’s work in economic sociology, as well as a glossary defining key concepts in Weber’s work in the field and a bibliographical guide to this corpus. Weber’s substantive views on economic sociology are represented in this volume through crucial excerpts from works such as his General Economic History and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , but the reader can follow his attempt to construct a conceptual foundation for economic sociology in Economy and Society as well . Also included is Weber’s celebrated inaugural lecture, “The Freiburg Address,” along with a number of central but hitherto inaccessible writings. Though written nearly a century ago, Weber’s work has the quality of a true classic, and the reader will find many ideas in his writings on economic topics that remain applicable in today’s world. These include Weber’s discussion of what is now called social capital, his analysis of the institutions needed for a well-functioning capitalist economy, and his more general attempt to introduce social structure into economic analysis. As this volume demonstrates, what basically motivated Weber to work with economic sociology was a realization shared by many economists and sociologists today: that the analysis of economic phenomena must include an understanding of the social dimension. Guided by volume editor Swedberg, the reader of this anthology discovers the significance and the enduring relevance of Weber’s contribution to economic sociology.

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The Significance of Work in Sociological Theory

Max weber’s hard work as a means of salvation, the potential of work for meaningful self expression, peter berger’s problem of work, ulrich beck’s end of work, list of references.

The concept of work has drawn attention of many scholars over the years who are trying to determine its relevance in the society. Although many scholars have been analyzing work from the works of early scholars such as Max Weber, many prominent people had analyzed this concept several hundreds of years before them. In the Bible, King Solomon, son of King David, talked a lot about love from a philosophical perspective in the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. At one moment, he would encourage people to work hard because it is the only way of fighting poverty and motivating development in the society. On the other hand, he would dismiss work as a meaningless thing and a chasing after the wind (Treviñe 2001, p. 54).

He would argue that toiling is meaningless because the fate of death that awaits the rich man is the same fate that awaits a beggar in the street. If we have such a common destiny, then why would we spend most of our lives toiling while others take their time to rest. This is the basis that has forced the philosophical approach that contemporary sociologists have taken when addressing the concept of work. While a section of them have developed theories and concepts that holds that work is important, another section is arguing that work has no meaning in our society. It would be interesting to analyze these two contradictory concepts about work. In this research, the focus will be to analyze these contradictory concepts and the significance of work in sociological theory.

Max Weber is one of the revolutionary sociologists that took time to analyze work as a concept that helps in economic growth. In order to understand reasons why Weber considered work as a means of salvation, it would be important to understand the era in which he developed his concept. Weber was a German, and during this time, his country was preparing to go to war. The country was one of the leading powers in the world, but this could only be demonstrated by having as many overseas territories as possible. The country was finding it a challenge to manage other major powers, especially the United Kingdom.

There was therefore, a general feeling that every individual citizen had the responsibility to work for the nation to make it gain the much needed power. This explains why Weber used the term ‘salvation’ when talking about work. This was because at this time, international inversion was a common phenomenon, and the country had to stay vigilant and ready to counter such aggressions (Chui & Wilson 2006, p. 95).

This could only be achieved if individual citizens of the country accepted to work towards liberation of the country. If they failed to work, they will be forfeiting their salvation because the enemy force will take over the country and subject them to slavery. There was also a need for people to work in other sectors, especially agriculture, to ensure that food was readily available for the entire population, including those at war. The presence of food was another form of salvation because the country could only sustain war if it had enough food security. On his critical analysis of work therefore, he realized that the only salvation of the country and its population would come from hard work. Those in the military had to work hard, and those in other sector had to do the same in order to make the country strong.

One of the main concepts that have been attributed to Weber is about rationalism. Weber once said (Wharton 2013, p. 34), “The fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation and intellectualisation and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.” At this point Weber was appreciating the relevance of rationalism in a work where intellectualism was on the rise. He argued that although intellectuals may question some of the bureaucratic measures of the government, rationality should always guide our views towards fundament al issues in the society such as work (Collins 1986, p. 67).

Karl Marx is one of the prominent philosophers who have been very critical of capitalism as an ideology in our socio-economic structure. According to Scott (2012, p. 45), Karl Marx took a more radical approach when viewing work and its meaningfulness to the workers and the society in general. In his Theory of Alienation, Karl Marx argued that the society is socially stratified, and this stratification of basis of all social evils. In a capitalistic economy, Marx noted that there is always an attempt by everyone to amass as maximum wealth as can be possible. People would ignore rationalistic approach of reasoning in an attempt to gain economic power.

Marx said that it is always those who own factors of production who get to benefit from the capitalistic systems of economy. In such system, individual workers are denied the opportunity to define their destiny through their work. In this theory, Marx says that owners of factors of production would always dictate the destiny of workers. A worker is alienated from the work as a producer, to a mere laborer. For this reason, such a worker would get wages instead of profits. The profits go to the owner of factors of production who does very little in ensuring that the product is delivered to the market. He was very critical of the idea that one would toil to produce a given product only for him to be given ten percent of the benefit of what he or she has produced (Stolley 2005, p. 87).

The argument by Karl Marx made use conduct a primary survey to determine the truthfulness in this statement. We managed to convince the owner of a local carpentry workshop to allow us conduct a simple research at his facility. Most of his employees were casual laborers who were paid a weekly wage of about 250 dollars each. On a normal day, an employee would produce furniture worth over 350 dollars.

This meant that on a weekly basis, such an employee makes products worth over 1750 dollars. This means that the owner of the workshop gives the employees 14% of what they produce and remains with 86%. What is even more worrying out of our research was the fact that these casual laborers were comfortable with their weekly pay. They informed us that their previous employers paid lesser than what they were currently receiving at this firm (Korczynski 2006, p. 75). We related this to the news release that companies make on a quarterly and annual basis. It is common to hear them say that they have made billions of dollars in profit, but when the salaries of all its employees are added within the same period, it falls below ten percent of the profits they announce.

Following this independent research, it became apparent what Marx meant when he said, “In the capitalist system of production, the manual labour of the employed carpenter yields him wages, not profits. He went ahead to explain that it is the employer who determines the amount of wage or salary to pay. In explaining the potential of work for meaningful self expression, he held that although employees would want their hard work to be a reflection of their lifestyle and financial capacity, the owners of factors of productions will always get the maximum benefit. This makes hard work to be of little meaning to the worker.

Peter Berger was motivated by the works of both Karl Marx and Max Weber. This philosopher also analyzed the concept of work and its meaningfulness to the society. It will be necessary to analyze the period under which Berger developed his work and some of the social factors that could have influenced his work. During his era, the United States was experiencing a massive success in the manufacturing sector (Zondervan 2005, p. 37). Many of the American corporations were going beyond the markets in the United States. The economy was booming, but Berger believed that those who benefited from this were the owners of factors of production. For a long time, Berger had been analyzing the economic boom in the American society and its relevance to individual workers who worked in these multinational companies.

According to Sadovnik (1995, p. 87), during the 1960s-1980s, America experienced a stiff rise in its economy. However, Turner (2002, p. 69) observes that during this period, cases of industrial accidents were very common. Employers gave more emphasis on the ability to produce in mass than the welfare of the employees. The earnings of the employees did not reflect the massive profits made by their employers. Industrial action was common not only in the United States but also other countries that were experiencing economic growth such as Australia and the United Kingdom due to low wages and poor working environment. Technology was taking jobs away from home, hence promoting bureaucratization in the world. The larger the companies became, the lesser the benefits employees received. The government and large corporations were in strong collaboration to maintain a bureaucratic society where individual worker will be powerless without the support of the government or the corporation.

Workers can demonstrate and demand for their rights, but the two entities will always have their way in the end (Granter 2009, p. 25). When the employers are forced to increase the salaries and wages of their employees, this would be reflected in the increase in the price of their products. It means that what employees could buy with their previous little pay, would be the same as what they can buy with their higher income. Their purchasing power would remain the same. This is what Berger defined as meaninglessness of work. People work, but they cannot benefit from their own toil. Someone else who owns factors of production would finally benefit.

Ulrich Beck’s concept of work is one of the most radical approaches among the sociological philosophers of the recent times. Ulrich came up with the concept of a risky society (Dillon 2010, p. 78). He argued that risk has been in existence since the beginning of humankind. Technological advancements and critical skills that human has developed over the years were expected to reduce this risk. It was supposed to make the world safer for everyone. While Turner (2001, p. 35) argues that technological advancements have enhanced security around the world, Ulrich disagrees with this concept. According to him, the world has become more insecure than ever before because of the work of humankind (Rumney1934, p. 55).

During the World War One, the Russians had to take their soldiers to Western Europe to fight the Germans using guns and other weapons that needed the physical presence of the enemy close by. In World War Two, the United States used a single plane and one pilot to drop atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The effect of this is still being felt in this country today. Currently, Russia is thumping its chest that it has the capacity of reducing the entire United States of America into a radioactive ash. What it fails to realize is that the United States have a similar capacity to do the same. Given the sheer size of the two countries, such attempts will completely destroy the world and all the living things. This only confirms that the world is currently insecure than it has been ever before because of work (Unkel 1977, p. 86).

Ulrich developed the Theory of Reflex Modernization to explain some of the negative consequences that are related to work. Ulrich (1998, p. 95) says, “The theory of reflexive modernization works from the basic idea that the rise of the modern industrial age produces side-effects across the globe.” According to Grint (2005, p. 66), people have worked hard to have a society that safe. However, what globalization and technology has brought to the world is increased insecurity, pollution, and unemployment. In this theory, Ulrich argues that the normal worker do not benefit from his efforts. An engineer at Tesla Motors will develop a new design of a car, but the ultimate beneficiary out of the employee’s creativity will be the owner of the company. This theory closely relates with Karl Marx’s theory of alienation. They both agree on the fact that employees are not the ultimate beneficiaries of their work.

Ulrich has also been critical of the system of education, accusing it of promoting bureaucracy in the world and a lot of sufferings to the common worker (Ulrich 1992, p. 112). Unemployment is directly Education, which was meant to enlighten the society, helped the government and corporate institutions become even more powerful. It introduced a new form of bureaucracy of white collar jobs. Graduates believed that they could only survive when they get jobs in the government and large companies after school. He finally observes that work, as defined by the modern bureaucratic system, must come to an end (Dunlap 2001, p. 32).

Work has been viewed from different perspectives by various sociological theorists. Max Weber considered work as a source of liberation. Karl Marx on the other hand, viewed work as an alienation of the worker from the profits. Among the contemporary sociologists, Peter Berger argued that work is problematic in nature because the workers do not get direct benefit of his or her toil. Ulrich Beck came up with a more radical approach that seeks to end work as defined in the current bureaucratic systems.

Chui, W & Wilson, J 2006, Social work and human services best practice , Federation Press, Leichardt. Web.

Collins, R 1986, Weberian, sociological theory , Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Web.

Dillon, M 2010, Introduction to sociological theory: Theorists, concepts, and their applicability to the twenty-first century , Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester. Web.

Dunlap, R 2001, Sociological theory and the environment: Classical foundations, contemporary insights , Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham. Web.

Granter, E 2009, Critical social theory and the end of work , Ashgate, Farnham. Web.

Grint, K 2005, The sociology of work: Introduction , Polity Press, Cambridge. Web.

Korczynski, M 2006, Social theory at work , Oxford University Press, Oxford. Web.

Llewellyn, A, Agu, L & Mercer, D 2008, Sociology for social workers , Polity, Cambridge. Web.

Rumney, J 1934, Herbert Spencer’s sociology: A study of the history of social theory: to which is appended a bibliography of Spencer and his work , Williams and Norgate, London. Web.

Sadovnik, A 1995, Knowledge and pedagogy: The sociology of Basil Bernstein , Ablex Pub, Norwood. Web.

Scott, J 2012, Sociological Theory: Contemporary Debates , Edward Elgar Publishers, Cheltenham. Web.

Stolley, K 2005, The basics of sociology , Greenwood Press, Westport. Web.

Treviñe, A 2001, Talcott Parsons today: His theory and legacy in contemporary sociology , Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham. Web.

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Turner, J 2002, Face to face: Toward a sociological theory of interpersonal behavior , Stanford University, Press Palo Alto. Web.

Ulrich, B 1992, Theory, Culture & Society: From Industrial Society to the Risk Society: Questions of Survival, Social Structure and Ecological, Enlightenment, Theory Culture Society , vol. 9. no. 97, pp. 97-123. Web.

Ulrich, B 1998, Misunderstanding Reflexivity: the Controversy on Reflexive Modernization, Democracy Without Enemies , vol. 1. no. 1, pp. 84-102. Web.

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Zondervan, A 2005, Sociology and the sacred: An introduction to Philip Rieff’s theory of culture , University of Toronto Press, Toronto. Web.

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Research-Methodology

Sociological approach to changing nature of work

Sociological approach

The approach to sociology can be divided into two groups: micro and macro. Micro-sociology focuses on study of behaviour in various situations in a daily life.  Macro-sociology, on the other hand, has a broader scope and employed to explain the various aspects of broad social systems.

Changing nature of work can be explained from both perspectives – micro-sociology and macro-sociology. From micro-sociology perspective, changes in the nature of work as described above have certain implications for employees in individual and personal levels such as possibility to achieve greater levels of work-life balance in multiple ways.

Alternatively, from macro-sociology perspective, national and global implications of changes in the nature of work are assessed such as resulting changes in cultural values, competitive advantage to be gained by local producers due to cost reductions, and others. Relatively recently the notion of meso-sociology has also been introduced and this refers to “analysis of social phenomena in between the micro and macro levels” (Doda, 2005, p.17).

Moreover, embracing of alternative working patterns is becoming a popular pattern of social behaviour. Distinctive features of this behaviour include extensive use of internet for a wide range of purposes and social mobility.

Popular theoretical approaches to sociology include Functionalism, Marxism, Feminism, Post-Modernism, Theory of Rational Choice and others and each of these approaches is a broad topic on their own accounts. Nevertheless, assessment of implications of changing nature of work from these approaches is necessary in order to obtain better chances of controlling social circumstances.

The field of sociology can be divided into six broad areas and changing nature of work can be explained from the perspective of each of these areas in the following manner:

Firstly, sociology as a field of social organisation and theory of social order relates to institutions and groups, their relations to people and with each other. In this case in particular, this aspects of sociology is associated with implications of changing nature of work on organisational practices in public and private sector.

Secondly, social control aspect of sociology concentrates on maintaining social order and analysis of influence amongst society’s members. In terms of changing nature of work, social control can be exercised in order to analyse the spread of alternative working patterns in society due to the influence of opinions leaders within the society.

Thirdly, social change field of sociology analyses changes in society and its institutions due to the impact of technological innovations, diffusion of culture, and others. Within the settings of the present discussion social changes resulting from changing nature of work need to be analysed.

Fourthly, social processes field of sociology focuses on patterns of social change resulting from the changing nature of work. This may include digitalisation of communication with colleagues, de-urbanisation due to the possibilities of working from other geographical locations etc.

Fifthly, social groups field of sociology explains formation, structuring, functioning and change of social groups. In present case of changing nature of work social groups may relate to virtual teams and communities in organisations and work-related networking websites. Moreover, growing numbers of professional social networking websites such as LinkedIn, Biznik, and Cofoundr, as well as, a wide range of industry-specific social networking websites can be highlighted as new social groups emerged as a result of changing nature of work.

Sixthly, social problems field of sociology is focused on negative social conditions that need to be eliminated such as crime, discrimination, alcoholism, drug addiction etc.  Currently, there is a lack of social studies devoted to the analysis of social problems resulting from changing nature of work.

Moreover, changes in the nature of work as discussed above can result in development of relevant social structures which can be explained as “stable patterns of social relations” (Furze, 2011, p.5).

Microstructures to be developed as a result of the changing nature of work relate to changes in social relations in an intimate level such as patterns of interaction amongst colleagues, and

Macrostructures as an impact of changing nature of work, on the other hand, may involve elimination of bureaucracies within organisational processes and development of an open and culturally-sensitive organisational culture.

 References

Doda, Z. (2005) “Introduction to Sociology” Debub University

Furze, B., Savy, P., Brym, R. & Lie, J. (2011) “ Sociology in Today’s World” Cengage Learning

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Functionalist Perspective & Theory in Sociology

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Functional theories in sociology see society as a system of interconnected parts that work together to maintain stability and order. Each part (like family, education, or religion) serves a function to benefit society as a whole.

Key Takeaways

  • The functionalism perspective is a paradigm influenced by American sociology from roughly the 1930s to the 1960s, although its origins lay in the work of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, writing at the end of the 19th century.
  • Functionalism is a structural theory and posits that the social institutions and organization of society influence the running of society and individuals’ behaviors.
  • Talcott Parsons expanded upon Durkheim”s idea of the society as a moral regulator to create a “grand” theory of sociology intended to explain all of human behavior in relation to institutions.
  • According to both Parsons and Durkheim, societies undergo an evolution, and large, formalized structures (such as the family or education) evolve to serve the purpose that small communities once had. People become more interdependent.
  • Functionalism has been heavily criticized by a number of schools of thought, but has been revised beginning in the 1970s by American Sociologists. Functionalist theories largely argue that social problems and phenomena are, rather than a symptom of a societal flaw, in some way beneficial to society.

A graduation cap, judges gavel, and a pile of books on a table

What is a Functionalist Theory in Sociology?

Functionalism examines how the social institutions that make up society, such as the economy, education, family, religion, and media, all perform a useful purpose, and also influence members of society.

Functionalism is a theory that views society as a complex but orderly and stable system with interconnected structures and social patterns that operate to meet the needs of individuals’ needs.

The main ideas of the Functionalist perspective are that:

  • There is a social structure that exists independently of individuals. This social structure consists of norms and values passed on through institutions that shape the individual.
  • Sociologists should study society scientifically in a way that looks for the general laws explaining human action on a macro level.
  • Socialization is important because individuals need to be regulated for everyone’s benefit. Thus, the integration and regulation of individuals are good.
  • Sociologists should analyze society as a system by looking at each social phenomenon and the contribution it makes to the whole of society. Talcott Parsons believed that society acts in a similar way to the human body, as social institutions interact in the same way as human organs. Both are interconnected and interdependent parts that function for the good of the whole.
  • Social institutions usually perform positive functions — such as creating value consensus, social integration, social regulation, preventing anomie, etc. Functionalism is a consensus theory that assumes that the institutions of society are working together to maintain social cohesion and stability.

Functionalism originated in British anthropology. In particular, the Polish-British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1943) proposed functional analysis as a solution for sociologists to interpret social situations through intuition rather than observation.

According to Malinowski, this functional analysis brings scientific attention to the study of cultures different from those of the ones observing it. Thus, before analyzing a social phenomenon typical of a given culture — say, an institution, material object, or idea — people first must think about what function that social phenomenon has within this culture.

The essential assumption of Malinowski”s functionalism is that in every single civilization, every custom, material object, idea, and opinion fulfills some vital function, helping to both express and maintain it.

This expression and maintenance of culture through phenomena that take place within it is called integration.

Examples of Functionalism

An example of functionalism would be the family . According to functionalism, the family is a societal structure that provides for the reproduction and protection of children.

Families serve as a primary agent of socialization, fostering an understanding of expected behaviors, norms, and values.

By meeting the emotional needs of its members, stable families underpin social order and economic stability. Social Problems Mid-twentieth-century sociologists were often concerned with policy and, correspondingly, social problems (Tumin, 1965).

Crime and Deviance

Crime serves a function in society to reinforce what is acceptable behavior, as the public nature of the punishments shows people what will happen for breaking the rules. Very serious crimes can also lead to society coming together to condemn the perpetrators.

Deviance refers to actions that go against the norms and values of a society. These may not be against the law but are frowned upon by most in society.

The Education System

An example of functionalism would be the education system. Durkheim and Parsons argued that schools are a ‘society in miniature’ that teach universalistic values.

For functionalists, education is central in passing on the mainstream norms and values that keep society together, through the process of secondary socialization. This is achieved hidden curriculum and PSHE lessons

The education system also allows young people to specialize and train for specific jobs based on their abilities. This allows students to move from the ascribed status and particularistic values of the home to an achieved status within society.

Disengagement Theory of Aging

Functionalism underlines perhaps the oldest theory of aging — disengagement theory.

Disengagement theory suggests that withdrawal from society and social relationships is a natural part of becoming old. The theory, developed by Elaine Cumming and Warren Earl Henry in their 1961 book, “Growing Old,” has largely been disproven.

Nonetheless, disengagement theory has several key postulates, each of which suggests that the process of losing social ties as one ages is normal and even beneficial to society.

These are (Cumming & Henry, 1961):

  • Everyone expects death, and one”s abilities deteriorate over time. Thus, people will lose ties to those they cannot benefit from.
  • Individuals will become more freed from the norms imposed by interaction with others in society.
  • Because of men and women”s different roles in society, they will disengage differently.
  • Aging causes knowledge and skill to deteriorate. However, success in industrialized society demands knowledge and skill. Aging is functional in that it ensures that the young possess sufficient knowledge and skill to assume authority while the old retire before they lose skills.
  • Complete disengagement results when both the individual and society are ready for disengagement.
  • The loss of one”s functional role in society will cause crisis and demoralization until they assume the role of disengagement.
  • individuals become ready to disengage when they become aware of their mortality. Each level of society grants aging individuals permission to disengage based on their dwindling contribution to societal institutions.
  • Disengagement leads to relationships in one”s remaining roles changing.
  • Disengagement theory is independent of culture.

Durkheim and Functionalism

Emile Durkheim is widely considered to be the father of sociology. Durkheim believed that individuals are inherently selfish and social structure and social order are important in that they constrain their selfishness.

However, Durkheim also believed that, as societies evolved in a way that made people more individualistic, maintaining social order became an increasingly difficult problem for society (Pope, 1975).

Durkheim’s Key Ideas

Durkheim believed that there is a social structure made up of norms and values.

He believed that this structure existed above individuals because individuals are born into a society with norms and values.

People”s behaviors, according to Durkheim, were shaped by a social structure, consisting of social facts, such as norms and values, and institutions, which exist external to the individual and constrain the individuals’ behavior.

Secondly, Durkheim emphasized that sociologists should use scientific methods to uncover the basic laws that govern human behavior.

Durkheim’s work was largely aimed at demonstrating the importance of organic solidarity as well as trying to find out what societies must do in order to achieve this organic solidarity (Pope, 1975).

Thirdly, Durkheim believed that individuals have an inborn tendency to be selfish and that it was the goal of society to regulate these selfish desires. This means that Durkheim considered too much freedom to be bad for both the individual and society.

He thought that greater levels of human happiness and “progress” could be achieved if people cooperated together, rather than competing in a war of all against all for scarce resources.

Durkheim and Social Solidarity

Social solidarity and cohesion is achieved and maintained through socialization process and learning of norms and values of society.

To restrain naturally selfish tendencies, Durkheim believed that societies need to create a sense of social solidarity — making individuals feel as if they are part of something bigger and teaching them the standards of acceptable behavior.

This is what Durkheim called moral regulation. Both social solidarity and moral regulation rely on effectively socializing individuals into wider society (Pope, 1975).

While Durkheim believed that solidarity and moral regulation were achieved in different ways in primitive and advanced industrial societies, these goals were far harder to achieve in industrialized ones.

For example, in “primitive” societies such as Feudal Europe, social regulation worked on a small scale and was locally based, and people lived in the same area their entire lives. There was very little role differentiation and no complex division of labor.

That is to say, people generally had the shared experiences of living in the same village, carrying out the same activities, and living with the same people their entire lives.

Durkheim believed that, because the people in societies such as Feudal Britain shared the same reality, the same goals, and even the same religion, they are closely reliant on one another, meaning that moral regulation and social solidarity are easily achieved. Durkheim called this situation mechanical solidarity : solidarity based on similarity (Pope, 1975).

Meanwhile, during the Industrial Revolution, the number of specialized tasks increased. The division of labor , as a result, also became more complex.

Individuals, despite shifting more toward individualism, became more interdependent — trading self-sufficiency for dependence on a large number of people that they did not know.

As a result, the ability of large social institutions — like religion — to provide universal morals declined. As people within a society ceased to live the same lives, a need to find solidarity grounded in something other than similarity arose.

Durkheim called this organic solidarity , a social cohesion that results from the interdependence of people in a society.

Durkheim and Anomie

Without a sense of social solidarity society can fall into anomie , a normlessness where a person doesn’t know what it means to be normal within society.

Durkheim (1897) believed that the vast differences between individuals in industrialized societies created a crisis of moral regulation. Durkheim calls this condition anomie.

He argued that the question of how modern societies could achieve moral regulation and keep individuals compliant was the primary problem of contemporary civilization.

He called this moral regulation organic solidarity: social solidarity based on difference (Pope, 1975).

Durkheim believed that labor organizations and education would provide society with necessary moral regulation because education could simultaneously teach people the diverse skills required for an advanced specialization of labor and provide them with shared norms and values through teaching subjects such as history.

Talcott Parsons’ Functionalism

While functionalism before Parsons attempted to produce explanations of everything that exists and happens in a particular time, Parsons aimed to use functionalism to create a general theory of how all social systems work.

Parsons melded together the theories and key issues of several other sociologists — Durkheim, Marshall and Pereto, and Weber — to create his grand theory.

The Organic Analogy

Talcott Parsons believed that society acts in a similar way to the human body, as social institutions interact in the same way as human organs.

Both are interconnected and interdependent parts that function for the good of the whole. This is called the organic analogy.

Organisms like the human body have needs that need to be met and so does society. Social institutions have evolved to meet society’s needs, such as value consensus and social order.

Parsons believed that one of the most important functions of social institutions is the creation of value consensus: an agreement around shared values. This commitment to common values was, for Parsons, the basis for order in society.

Value Consensus

Value consensus means that a majority of society agree with the goals that society sets to show success. These included values such as a belief in work ethic and meritocracy.

Parsons argued that work ethic ensures that people value working rather than leisure. This helps create more goods that can help society function, and a belief in meritocracy , that people believe that hard work should be rewarded, thus incentivizing people to work harder.

Value consensus and social order are maintained through institutions of formal social control, such as the police, and informal social groups, such as families and schools, who socialize children into social values and norms shared by the majority of society.

Parsons believed that the family is responsible for passing on society’s basic norms and values by providing early socialization, the stabilization of adult personalities, and a place for people to escape from the pressures of modern life.

Education integrates individuals into wider society, promoting a sense of belonging and identity. Parsons believed that education does this through teaching students a shared history and language.

Finally, other institutions can regulate individual behavior through social sanctions. This can prevent crime and deviance from becoming unmanageable.

Functional Prerequisites

Parsons also believed that societies have certain functional prerequisites — things that societies need in order to survive. For example, a society must produce and distribute food and shelter, organize and resolve conflicts, and socialize young people.

Parsons believed that social systems have four needs that must be met for continued survival: adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latency.

The Four Basic needs of society

  • Goal Attainment (Political Function): Parsons believed that a society is only possible when there are common standards: the society must have a collective goal, and acceptable means for achieving it.
  • Adaption (Economic Function) – Every society has to provide for the needs of its members in order for the society to survive.
  • Integration (Social Harmony) – Specialist institutions develop to reduce conflict in society. For example, education and media create a sense of belonging.
  • Latency : The unstated consequences of actions – there are 2 types of latency: Pattern Maintenance: Maintaining value consensus through socialization and Tension Management. Opportunities to release tension in a safe way.

Parsons also viewed social change as a process of social evolution.

That is to say; he thought that human societies underwent a progression from hunter-gatherers to complex industrial ones and that more complex societies were inherently better because they are more adaptive — able to respond to changes in the environment, more innovative, and more capable of utilizing the talents of a wider range of people.

As a result, in a conclusion echoing Darwinism, these advanced societies are better able to survive.

Parsons believed that several factors bolster societal progress. While economic and technological changes lead to societies evolving, he argued that values increasingly become the driver of social progress in advanced societies.

To Parsons, the values of advanced industrialized societies are superior to those of traditional societies because modern values allow society to be more adaptive.

Parsons believed that the collapse of major social institutions — family, education, and so forth, could cause regression into a more primitive form of social organization.

The Social System

Parsons was influenced by many European scholars, such as Malinowski and Weber. Some have argued that Parson’s sociology addresses American society in particular, and that it is, rather than an ideological justification of the state of America contemporary to him, an attempt to identify the minimum requirements of integration in a society composed of different ethnic groups with different traditions and cultures.

This means that an action is only a social action when social purposes and standards are identified in the context of interactions that consider their finalities and rules an integral part of the social situation.

Parsons (1951) introduced the idea of a system to address the problem of integration. Parsons said that since people perform actions according to defined principles, rather than in a random way, they have a “personality system.”

Here, a system is the set of symbols that make the interaction possible and the network of relationships between people that do not act in an uncoordinated way but according to the positions assigned to them in this network of relations.

Parsons believed that the cultural, personality, and society systems all had to be the same as each other. The culture helps people to create their personality through internalizing the rules and values of a society (Parsons, 1951).

Meanwhile, the internalization of these cultural models gives order and stability to society because all of the people in a society tend to behave in a way that conforms to society”s expectations.

There are three parts of every action, according to Parsons:

  • the finality — the goal to reach and negative consequences to avoid (the “cathetic” element);
  • the knowledge of a situation necessary to complete an action — the knowledge element; and, finally, the ability to pick out among many possible choices —
  • the “evaluation” element.

Parson believed that personality can only arise in the context of social relations, which can create a system of common signs and symbols for navigating symbols.

These social relations take place in mutual relations among people who act according to their status and roles. While status defines the position that a person occupies in a system of relations considered to be a structure regardless of personality, roles relate to what someone does in relation to others, and what is typical of a certain status.

Criticisms of Functionalism

Although Parson”s first attempts at creating a grand theory of sociology were well-regarded in the 1950s, Neo-Marxists, conflict theorists, and symbolic interactionists criticized him heavily.

Eventually, American sociologists attempted to revive the grand theory.

There are a number of criticisms of the functionalist perspective (Holmwood, 2005). Among the most notable include:

  • Criticism of whether there is really a societal “structure” that exists outside of individuals.

Because institutions cannot be isolated in controlled experiments, this task is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

If everyone, for example, believed in the value of achievement in meritocracy, then disorder might result because not everyone can reach the highest levels of achievement.

Thus, Mann believed (1970), social stability is more likely if those at the bottom of society do not follow the society”s principle values, which they are less likely to achieve.

  • Criticism of functionalism being a deterministic theory: some have criticized functionalism for portraying human behavior as if it is programmable in a precise way by social institutions.
  • Functionalism ignores class conflict and coercion: Marxists argue that mainstream social values are actually the values of elite groups, and that conflict arises from a small group of elite actors imposing social order on the majority.
  • Criticism that functionalism is ideological: In arguing that certain institutions are necessary, some have argued that functionalism justifies the existence of the social order. Micheal Mann (1970), for instance, argued that social stability might occur because of a lack of consensus rather than because of it. Not all social institutions are functionally indispensable, and there are functional alternatives. For example, the family is not the only institution that can perform primary socialization.
  • Not all the institutions of society perform a positive function for society, instead for some people they are dysfunctional. For example, domestic abuse makes the family dysfunctional for its members.

For that reason, gradual social reform should be all that is needed to address a social problem. Functionalism even suggests that social problems are functional in some ways for society because, otherwise, these problems would not continue.

For example, while crime is a major social problem, it creates hundreds of thousands of jobs in law enforcement, courts and corrections, home security, and the informal economy, where people engage or deal with crime.

Similarly, poverty, while a major social problem, coerces poor people to do jobs that people would otherwise not want to do (Gans, 1972). Poverty also provides employment, such as for those who work in social services that help the poor.

Bales, R. F., & Parsons, T. (2014). Family: Socialization and interaction process . Routledge.

Cumming, E., & Henry, W. E. (1961). Growing old, the process of disengagement . Basic books.

De Nardis, P. (2007). Function. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology , 1-2.

Durkheim, E. (1892). The division of labor in society . Free Pr.

Durkheim, E. (1951). Suicide [1897]. na.

Holmwood, J. (2005). Functionalism and its Critics . Modern social theory: An introduction , 87-109.

Murdock, G. P. (1943). Bronislaw Malinowski .

Parsons T. (1937,1968]). The Structure of Social Action . New York: Free Press.

Parsons, T. (1939). The professions and social structure . Social forces, 17 (4), 457-467.

Parsons T. (1951). The Social System . London: Routledge.

Parsons T. (1964). Essays in Sociological Theory. Revised Edition . New York: The Free Press.

Parsons T. (1978). Action Theory and the Human Condition . New York: The Free Press.

Parsons, T. (1970). On building social system theory: A personal history. Daedalus , 826-881.

Parsons, T., & Shils, E. A. (2017). The social system (pp. 190-233). Routledge.

Parsons, T. E., & Shils, E. A. (1951). Toward a general theory of action .

Parsons, T. (1971). The system of modern societies (p. 12). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Pope, W. (1975). Durkheim as a Functionalist . Sociological Quarterly, 16 (3), 361-379.

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From NPR President and CEO Katherine Maher: Thoughts on our mission and our work

The message below was sent by NPR's President and CEO to all staff:

This has been a long week. I'll apologize in advance for the length of this note, and for it being the first way so many of you hear from me on more substantive issues. Thanks for bearing with me, as there's a lot that should be said.

I joined this organization because public media is essential for an informed public. At its best, our work can help shape and illuminate the very sense of what it means to have a shared public identity as fellow Americans in this sprawling and enduringly complex nation.

NPR's service to this aspirational mission was called in question this week, in two distinct ways. The first was a critique of the quality of our editorial process and the integrity of our journalists. The second was a criticism of our people on the basis of who we are.

Asking a question about whether we're living up to our mission should always be fair game: after all, journalism is nothing if not hard questions. Questioning whether our people are serving our mission with integrity, based on little more than the recognition of their identity, is profoundly disrespectful, hurtful, and demeaning.

It is deeply simplistic to assert that the diversity of America can be reduced to any particular set of beliefs, and faulty reasoning to infer that identity is determinative of one's thoughts or political leanings. Each of our colleagues are here because they are excellent, accomplished professionals with an intense commitment to our work: we are stronger because of the work we do together, and we owe each other our utmost respect. We fulfill our mission best when we look and sound like the country we serve.

NPR has some of the finest reporters, editors, and producers in journalism. Our reporting and programming is not only consistently recognized and rewarded for its quality, depth, and nuance; but at its best, it makes a profound difference in people's lives. Parents, patients, veterans, students, and so many more have directly benefited from the impact of our journalism. People come to work here because they want to report, and report deeply, in service to an informed public, and to do work that makes a difference.

This is the work of our people, and our people represent America, our irreducibly complex nation. Given the very real challenges of covering the myriad perspectives, motivations, and interests of a nation of more than 330 million very different people, we succeed through our diversity. This is a bedrock institutional commitment, hard-won, and hard-protected.

We recognize that this work is a public trust, one established by Congress more than 50 years ago with the creation of the public broadcasting system. In order to hold that trust, we owe it our continued, rigorous accountability. When we are asked questions about who we serve and how that influences our editorial choices, we should be prepared to respond. It takes great strength to be comfortable with turning the eye of journalistic accountability inwards, but we are a news organization built on a foundation of robust editorial standards and practices, well-constructed to withstand the hardest of gazes.

It is true that our audiences have unquestionably changed over the course of the past two decades. There is much to be proud of here: through difficult, focused work, we have earned new trust from younger, more diverse audiences, particularly in our digital experiences. These audiences constitute new generations of listeners, are more representative of America, and our changing patterns of listening, viewing, and reading.

At the same time, we've seen some concerning changes: the diffusion of drivetime, an audience skewing further away in age from the general population, and significant changes in political affiliations have all been reflected in the changing composition of our broadcast radio audiences. Of course, some of these changes are representative of trends outside our control — but we owe it to our mission and public interest mandate to ask, what levers do we hold?

A common quality of exceptional organizations is humility and the ability to learn. We owe it to our public interest mandate to ask ourselves: could we serve more people, from broader audiences across America? Years ago we began asking this question as part of our North Star work to earn the trust of new audiences. And more recently, this is why the organization has taken up the call of audience data, awareness, and research: so we can better understand who we are serving, and who we are not.

Our initial research has shown that curiosity is the unifying throughline for people who enjoy NPR's journalism and programming. Curiosity to know more, to learn, to experience, to change. This is a compelling insight, as curiosity only further expands the universe of who we might serve. It's a cross-cutting trait, pretty universal to all people, and found in just about every demographic in every part of the nation.

As an organization, we must invest in the resources that will allow us to be as curious as the audiences we serve, and expand our efforts to understand how to serve our nation better. We recently completed in-depth qualitative research with a wide range of listeners across the country, learning in detail what they think about NPR and how they view our journalism. Over the next two years we plan to conduct audience research across our entire portfolio of programming, in order to give ourselves the insight we need to extend the depth and breadth of our service to the American public.

It is also essential that we listen closely to the insights and experiences of our colleagues at our 248 Member organizations. Their presence across America is foundational to our mission: serving and engaging audiences that are as diverse as our nation: urban and rural, liberal and conservative, rich and poor, often together in one community.

We will begin by implementing an idea that has been proposed for some time: establishing quarterly NPR Network-wide editorial planning and review meetings, as a complement to our other channels for Member station engagement. These will serve as a venue for NPR newsroom leadership to hear directly from Member organization editorial leaders on how our journalism serves the needs of audiences in their communities, and a coordination mechanism for Network-wide editorial planning and newsgathering. We're starting right away: next week we plan to invite Members to join us for an initial scoping conversation.

And in the spirit of learning from our own work, we will introduce regular opportunities to connect what our research is telling us about our audiences to the practical application of how we're serving them. As part of the ongoing unification of our Content division, Interim Chief Content Officer, Edith Chapin, will establish a broad-based, rotating group that will meet monthly to review our coverage across all platforms. Some professions call this a retro, a braintrust, a 'crit,' or tuning session — this is an opportunity to take a break from the relentless pressure of the clock in order to reflect on how we're meeting our mandate, what we're catching and what we're missing, and learn from our colleagues in a climate of respectful, open-minded discussion.

The spirit of our founding newsroom and network was one of experimentation, creativity, and direct connection with our listeners across America. Our values are a direct outgrowth of this moment: the independence of a public trust, the responsibility to capture the voice and spirit of a nation, a willingness to push boundaries to tell the stories that matter. We're no strangers to change, continuously evolving as our network has grown, our programming has expanded, and our audiences have diversified — and as we look to a strategy that captures these values and opportunities, the future holds more change yet.

Two final thoughts on our mission:

I once heard missions like ours described as asymptotic — we can see our destination and we strive for it, but may never fully meet it. The value is in the continued effort: the challenge stretches on toward infinity and we follow, ever closer. Some people might find that exhausting. I suspect they don't work here. I suspect that you do because you find that challenge a means to constantly renew your work, and to reinfuse our mission with meaning as our audiences and world continues to change.

The strongest, most effective, and enduring missions are those that are owned far beyond the walls of their institution. Our staff, our Member stations, our donors, our listeners and readers, our ardent fans, even our loyal opposition all have a part to play: each of us come to the work because we believe in it, even as we each may have different perspectives on how we succeed. Every person I have met so far in my three weeks here has shown me how they live our mission every day, in their work and in their contributions to the community.

Continuing to uphold our excellence with confidence, having inclusive conversations that bridge perspectives, and learning more about the audiences we serve in order to continue to grow and thrive, adding more light to the illumination of who we are as a shared body public: I look forward to how we will do this work together.

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Abstract: This work introduces an efficient method to scale Transformer-based Large Language Models (LLMs) to infinitely long inputs with bounded memory and computation. A key component in our proposed approach is a new attention technique dubbed Infini-attention. The Infini-attention incorporates a compressive memory into the vanilla attention mechanism and builds in both masked local attention and long-term linear attention mechanisms in a single Transformer block. We demonstrate the effectiveness of our approach on long-context language modeling benchmarks, 1M sequence length passkey context block retrieval and 500K length book summarization tasks with 1B and 8B LLMs. Our approach introduces minimal bounded memory parameters and enables fast streaming inference for LLMs.

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Three Rhode Island power players just launched a political nonprofit

The group’s goal is to “influence policy makers and constituents to work for progressive change in housing, education, labor, and health care, particularly women’s health care,” according to incorporation papers.

The Rhode Island State House

We’re still a few months away from Rhode Island’s elections taking center stage, but three of the best-known insiders in the state have just launched a new nonprofit “social welfare” organization that they believe will play a big role in local politics for years to come.

Kate Coyne-McCoy, a former executive director of the state Democratic Party, George Zainyeh, who was chief of staff to former governor Lincoln Chafee and is now one of the most influential lobbyists on Smith Hill, and Patti Doyle, a top communications pro for just about everyone, formed Better RI NOW on April 8.

The group’s plans are still vague, but its goal is to “influence policy makers and constituents to work for progressive change in housing, education, labor, and health care, particularly women’s health care,” according to incorporation papers.

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Asked to expand on the group’s goals, Doyle said the group plans to raise money, but won’t directly endorse candidates for office. She said “we can let voters know which candidates stand for issues important to them.”

”The three of us have been active in public policy for a while, we witness the ongoing national dialogue, and just want to be additive to a local conversation on a variety of key issues,” Doyle said.

Stepping back: Coyne-McCoy, Zainyeh, Doyle aren’t necessarily household names to the average Rhode Islander, but they’re a powerful trifecta in political circles. Doyle said the group plans to focus on the congressional delegation and statewide offices.

US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and US Representatives Seth Magaziner and Gabe Amo are all on the ballot this year, although all three are heavy favorites to be reelected (especially in a presidential election year). It’s more intriguing to think about the role Better RI NOW might play in 2026 in Rhode Island.

This story first appeared in Rhode Map, our free newsletter about Rhode Island that also contains information about local events, links to interesting stories, and more. If you’d like to receive it via e-mail Monday through Friday, you can sign up here.

Dan McGowan can be reached at [email protected] . Follow him @danmcgowan .

As Columbus pushes massive zoning overhaul, city hires PR firm to bolster public support

Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther announces money for a housing program for Columbus State in July. The city has enlisted a PR firm to help generate support for its housing strategy, which includes a massive zoning overhaul.

For more than two years Mayor Andrew J. Ginther's administration has been paying a private public relations firm more than $260,000 to help gain public support for his housing strategy, which includes expanding tax abatements citywide and a massive zoning overhaul unveiled in the past two weeks.

The firm's objectives include to "rally the community to this common vision" and to "create a strategic communications plan."

A Dispatch review of public records reveals a behind-the-scenes effort that included the firm writing an emotional draft letter to the editor on behalf of a supposed member of the public, creating and/or revising "quotes" supposedly said by the mayor and a citizen supporter of the rezoning effort, and a team of writers drafting a public essay on the initiative signed by the mayor, but for which it is unclear if Ginther ever saw.

In essence, documents suggest that Paul Werth Associates worked in concert with the city's Department of Development to create a top-down public relations campaign funded by city taxpayers, but also produced work product that sometimes gave the impression of a bottom-up grassroots movement. The city called the work "standard industry practice."

Key messages developed by the firm included that central Ohio residents "must embrace greater density in their neighborhoods if we are to remain economically competitive and create prosperity for everyone," or face a "housing crisis that could displace working families and force our most vulnerable residents into homelessness."

They also developed a marketing framework: Build, Preserve, Invest, Include. The region must build more units, preserve existing affordability, invest public dollars in housing the market won't provide, and include everyone by getting the public to embrace new-housing density "in their own neighborhoods."

The goal was to "sustain a drumbeat of communication on the Columbus Housing Strategy," according to a July 2022 email by Jennifer Fening, deputy director in the city Development Department, to Paul Werth officials. "...What other narratives should we put forth, to demonstrate action (for) the Build, Preserve, Invest, Include framework? What channels/tactics should we use?"

Much of what the firm did on behalf of the city remains unclear. The Development Department and the firm declined to answer a list of questions from The Dispatch, including what the firm provided under the section of its contract dealing with "social media." Its contract calls for it to develop and schedule social media content, including "monitoring channels, and engaging with followers."

But it was clear that the firm created other content under the contract designed to look like an everyday citizen had said it, and was not a product of a taxpayer-financed marketing effort.

Deliverables under the contract with Paul Werth include workshop agendas, discussion guides, fact sheets, policy briefs and "messaging documents to educate audiences." The city contract also requires Paul Werth to electronically submit "strategic communications plans" in a "final document." It is unclear whether the city provided those strategy plans in response to a public records request, as it repeatedly declined to discuss the matter.

Paul Werth firm writes emotional letter

In early December, upset over a Dispatch story on Ginther's efforts to expand property tax abatements from older neighborhoods into thriving sections of Columbus, Michael Stevens, director of the Development Department, informed The Dispatch by email that "one of the experts who spoke at (city) hearings will be submitting a letter to the editor on this coverage."

That same day, Dec. 8, 2023, Dan Williamson, once a senior adviser to former Mayor Michael B. Coleman — who was now heading the Paul Werth team assigned to the city PR project — emailed Fening and two other Development officials: "Here's a first draft."

Attached was a document that embedded metadata shows was created by Williamson earlier that day, which read:

"To the Editor:

"It saddened me to read Friday’s Dispatch story about the proposed Community Reinvestment Area (CRA) expansion in the City of Columbus. The Central Ohio community has come together to recognize the threat posed by our housing shortage and the consequences of inaction. Other media outlets have given balanced, thoughtful coverage to this important issue.

"I joined other community members (name them) to voice our support for the CRA proposal before City Council. But the Dispatch story didn’t mention any of us, quoting instead the mayor’s political opponent, who lost the November election. Those of us who work every day to provide housing to Columbus residents deserve better. So do your readers."

The "political opponent" referenced was Joe Motil, who unsuccessfully ran against Ginther in November.

Stevens declined to respond to questions, including whether this was the letter he referred to in his email to The Dispatch dated the same day, whether he asked Paul Werth to create it, and whether the city had asked anyone to lend their name to it.

The letter was never submitted to The Dispatch.

"Our engagement with Paul Werth reflects standard industry practice," Sheldon Goodrum, the Development Department spokesman who worked closely with Paul Werth on the project, said in an April 1 email in which he declined to answer questions about a series of incidents revealed in emails, including "media training" the firm gave to Department of Development employees in 2023.

"Today is my last day with the City of Columbus," Goodrum added in the email, referring questions to a new spokesman, Cameron Keir, the spokesperson for Ginther's mayoral campaign last year.

Firm crafts Affordable Housing Trust quote

In November 2022 Goodrum emailed Lark Mallory, president and CEO of the Affordable Housing Trust for Columbus and Franklin County, which has received millions of dollars from the city for affordable housing initiatives and which Stevens is a member of the 11-person board, five of whom are appointed by Ginther and Franklin County.

Goodrum asked Mallory to "share a quote with me" for an in-house city housing strategy publication. She responded that Williamson had already "offered to draft something I could tweak."

Williamson responded to the group email: "Thank you Lark. How's this? 'If we can speed up our review and permitting processes, it will be great news for affordable housing development and for our emerging developers.'"

Mallory responded that the suggested quote neither named her organization nor any projects it had partnered on. "I'd like the quote to include our name. Let me know if that's possible?" She gave them some projects to craft a different quote around.

Goodrum responded: "We'd like the quote to be a little broader, addressing the need for more housing in the region, why it's so important, what you and your partners are doing, etc. Thanks!"

The final quote that appeared under Mallory's name was similar to a draft that included mention of two housing projects, but added to it was that they were "the type of creative, transformational solutions we need to address our housing needs."

Mallory didn't return a call left with her office.

Emails show Williamson crafting and refining a quote for Ginther that appeared in the same report. The Dispatch asked the firm and the department when the mayor made that statement that was quoted, but received no response.

PR team writes Ginther op-ed

City records show a team of PR people from the firm and the city labored over the creation of a piece submitted under Ginther's name to The Dispatch in December.

"Our current zoning code was created to serve the Columbus of the 1950s," the piece said. "...We've engaged residents from all corners of the city to join us in visualizing and evaluating a modernized zoning code."

"Most of our changes are outlined with comments, but I also punched up the opening paragraph a bit," emailed Kevin Kilbane, city director of communications, to seven other people, including Williamson, showing numerous edits.

"Attached for your review is the mayor's contributed column to The Dispatch," Fening emailed to Robin Davis, Ginther's former chief of staff, who also recently left her city job.

No one at the firm or city responded when asked if Ginther ever saw this essay before it was published , which appeared under the byline: Andrew J. Ginther, guest columnist.

[email protected]

@ReporterBush

COMMENTS

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