The Sociological Perspective

Studying Sociology

Sociological studies range from the analysis of conversations and behaviors to the development of theories in order to understand how the world works.

Learning Objectives

Identify ways in which sociology is applied in the real world

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Sociology uses both quantitative and qualitative methods to study both face-to-face human social interactions and large scale social trends.
  • Sociology uses empirical and critical analysis methods to study human social interaction.
  • Sociology includes both macrosociology and microsociology; microsociology examines the study of people in face-to-face interactions, and macrosociology involves the study of widespread social processes.
  • Sociology is a branch of the social sciences that uses systematic methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop and refine a body of knowledge about human social structure and activity.

Key Terms

  • sociology: The study of society, human social interaction, and the rules and processes that bind and separate people, not only as individuals, but as members of associations, groups, and institutions
  • quantitative: Of a measurement based on some quantity or number rather than on some quality.
  • qualitative: Of descriptions or distinctions based on some quality rather than on some quantity.

Sociology is the study of human social life. Sociology has many sub-sections of study, ranging from the analysis of conversations to the development of theories to try to understand how the entire world works. This chapter will introduce you to sociology and explain why it is important and how it can change your perspective of the world around you, and give a brief history of the discipline.

Sociology is a branch of the social sciences that uses systematic methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop and refine a body of knowledge about human social structure and activity. Sometimes the goal of sociology is to apply such knowledge to the pursuit of government policies designed to benefit the general social welfare. Its subject matter ranges from the micro level to the macro level. Microsociology involves the study of people in face-to-face interactions. Macrosociology involves the study of widespread social processes. Sociology is a broad discipline in terms of both methodology and subject matter. The traditional focuses of sociology have included social relations, social stratification, social interaction, culture, and deviance, and the approaches of sociology have included both qualitative and quantitative research techniques.

Much of what human activity falls under the category of social structure or social activity; because of this, sociology has gradually expanded its focus to such far-flung subjects as the study of economic activity, health disparities, and even the role of social activity in the creation of scientific knowledge. The range of social scientific methods has also been broadly expanded. For example, the “cultural turn” of the 1970s and 1980s brought more humanistic interpretive approaches to the study of culture in sociology. Conversely, the same decades saw the rise of new mathematically rigorous approaches, such as social network analysis.

The Sociological Imagination

The sociological imagination is the ability to situate personal troubles within an informed framework of larger social processes.

Learning Objectives

Discuss C. Wright Mills’ claim concerning the importance of the “sociological imagination” for individuals

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Because they tried to understand the larger processes that were affecting their own personal experience of the world, it might be said that the founders of sociology, like Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, exercised what C. Wright Mills later called the sociological imagination.
  • C. Wright Mills, a prominent mid-20th century American sociologist, described the sociological imagination as the ability to situate personal troubles and life trajectories within an informed framework of larger social processes.
  • Other scholars after Mills have employed the phrase more generally, as the type of insight offered by sociology and its relevance in daily life. Another way of describing sociological imagination is the understanding that social outcomes are shaped by social context, actors, and social actions.

Key Terms

  • the sociological imagination: Coined by C. Wright Mills, the sociological imagination is the ability to situate personal troubles and life trajectories within an informed framework of larger social processes.

The Sociological Imagination

Early sociological theorists, like Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, were concerned with the phenomena they believed to be driving social change in their time. Naturally, in pursuing answers to these large questions, they received intellectual stimulation. These founders of sociology were some of the earliest individuals to employ what C. Wright Mills (a prominent mid-20th century American sociologist) would later call the sociological imagination: the ability to situate personal troubles and life trajectories within an informed framework of larger social processes. The term sociological imagination describes the type of insight offered by the discipline of sociology. While scholars have quarreled over interpretations of the phrase, it is also sometimes used to emphasize sociology’s relevance in daily life.

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Émile Durkheim: Durkheim formally established the academic discipline and, with Karl Marx and Max Weber, is commonly cited as the principal architect of modern social science and father of sociology.

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Karl Marx: Karl Marx, another one of the founders of sociology, used his sociological imagination to understand and critique industrial society.

C. Wright Mills

In describing the sociological imagination, Mills asserted the following. “What people need… is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves. The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. ” Mills believed in the power of the sociological imagination to connect “personal troubles to public issues. ”

As Mills saw it, the sociological imagination helped individuals cope with the social world by enabling them to step outside their own, personal, self-centered view of the world. By employing the sociological imagination, individual people are forced to perceive, from an objective position, events and social structures that influence behavior, attitudes, and culture.

In the decades after Mills, other scholars have employed the term to describe the sociological approach in a more general way. Another way of defining the sociological imagination is the understanding that social outcomes are shaped by social context, actors, and actions.

Sociology and Science

Early sociological studies were thought to be similar to the natural sciences due to their use of empiricism and the scientific method.

Learning Objectives

Contrast positivist sociology with “verstehen”-oriented sociological approaches

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Early sociological approaches were primarily positivist—they treated sensory data as the sole source of authentic knowledge, and they tried to predict human behavior.
  • Max Weber and Wilhelm Dilthey introduced the idea of verstehen, which is an attempt to understand and interpret meanings behind social behavior.
  • The difference between positivism and verstehen has often been understood as the difference between quantitative and qualitative sociology.
  • Quantitative sociology seeks to answer a question using numerical analysis of patterns, while qualitative sociology seeks to arrive at deeper a understanding based on how people talk about and interpret their actions.

Key Terms

  • positivism: A doctrine that states that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method, refusing every form of metaphysics.
  • Verstehen: A systematic interpretive process of understanding the meaning of action from the actor’s point of view; in the context of German philosophy and social sciences in general, the special sense of “interpretive or participatory examination” of social phenomena.
  • empirical: Pertaining to, derived from, or testable by observations made using the physical senses or using instruments which extend the senses.

Early sociological studies considered the field of sociology to be similar to the natural sciences, like physics or biology. As a result, many researchers argued that the methodology used in the natural sciences was perfectly suited for use in the social sciences. The effect of employing the scientific method and stressing empiricism was the distinction of sociology from theology, philosophy, and metaphysics. This also resulted in sociology being recognized as an empirical science.

Positivism and Verstehen

This early sociological approach, supported by August Comte, led to positivism, an idea that data derived from sensory experience and that logical and mathematical treatments of such data are together the exclusive source of all authentic knowledge. The goal of positivism, like the natural sciences, is prediction. But in the case of sociology, positivism’s goal is prediction of human behavior, which is a complicated proposition.

The goal of predicting human behavior was quickly realized to be a bit lofty. Scientists like Wilhelm Dilthey and Heinrich Rickert argued that the natural world differs from the social world; human society has culture, unlike the societies of most other animals. The behavior of ants and wolves, for example, is primarily based on genetic instructions and is not passed from generation to generation through socialization. As a result, an additional goal was proposed for sociology. Max Weber and Wilhelm Dilthey introduced the concept of verstehen. The goal of verstehen is less to predict behavior than it is to understand behavior. Weber said that he was after meaningful social action, not simply statistical or mathematical knowledge about society. Arriving at a verstehen-like understanding of society thus involves not only quantitative approaches, but more interpretive, qualitative approaches.

The inability of sociology and other social sciences to perfectly predict the behavior of humans or to fully comprehend a different culture has led to the social sciences being labeled “soft sciences. ” While some might consider this label derogatory, in a sense it can be seen as an admission of the remarkable complexity of humans as social animals. Any animal as complex as humans is bound to be difficult to fully comprehend. Humans, human society, and human culture are all constantly changing, which means the social sciences will constantly be works in progress.

Quantitative and Qualitative Sociology

The contrast between positivist sociology and the verstehen approach has been reformulated in modern sociology as a distinction between quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches, respectively. Quantitative sociology is generally a numerical approach to understanding human behavior. Surveys with large numbers of participants are aggregated into data sets and analyzed using statistics, allowing researchers to discern patterns in human behavior. Qualitative sociology generally opts for depth over breadth. The qualitative approach uses in-depth interviews, focus groups, or the analysis of content sources (books, magazines, journals, TV shows, etc.) as data sources. These sources are then analyzed systematically to discern patterns and to arrive at a better understanding of human behavior.

Drawing a hard and fast distinction between quantitative and qualitative sociology is a bit misleading, however. Both share a similar approach in that the first step in all sciences is the development of a theory and the generation of testable hypotheses. While there are some individuals who begin analyzing data without a theoretical orientation to guide their analysis, most begin with a theoretical idea or question and gather data to test that theory. The second step is the collection of data, and this is really where the two approaches differ. Quantitative sociology focuses on numerical representations of the research subjects, while qualitative sociology focuses on the ideas found within the discourse and rhetoric of the research subjects.

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Max Weber: Max Weber and Wilhelm Dilthey introduced verstehen—understanding behaviors—as goal of sociology.

Sociology and the Social Sciences

As a social science, sociology explores the application of scientific methods to the study of the human aspects of the world.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the similarities and differences between the social sciences

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the 17th century, scholars began to define the natural world as a reality separate from human or spiritual reality. As such, they thought the natural world should be studied using scientific and empirical methods.
  • The pressure to discover mathematical relationships between objects of study carried into the study of human behavior, thus distinguishing social sciences from the humanities.
  • By the 19th century, scholars began studying human behavior from a scientific perspective in an attempt to discover law-like properties of human interaction.
  • In the attempt to study human behavior using scientific and empirical principles, sociologists always encounter dilemmas, as humans do not always operate predictably according to natural laws.
  • Even as Durkheim and Marx formulated law-like models of the transition from pre-industrial to industrial societies, Weber was interested in the seemingly “irrational” ideas and values, which, in his view, also contributed to the transition.

Key Terms

  • humanities: The humanities are academic disciplines that study the human condition, using methods that are primarily analytical, critical, or speculative, as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural sciences.
  • science: A particular discipline or branch of learning, especially one dealing with measurable or systematic principles rather than intuition or natural ability.
  • social science: A branch of science that studies society and the human behavior in it, including anthropology, communication studies, criminology, economics, geography, history, political science, psychology, social studies, and sociology.

As a social science, sociology involves the application of scientific methods to the study of the human aspects of the world. The social science disciplines also include psychology, political science, and economics, among other fields. As a generalization, psychology is the study of the human mind and micro-level (or individual) behavior; sociology examines human society; psychology focuses on mental and thought processes (internal), whereas sociology focuses on human behavior (external). Political science studies the governing of groups and countries; and economics concerns itself with the production and allocation of wealth in society. The use of scientific methods differentiates the social sciences from the humanities.

The Development of Social Science

In ancient philosophy, there was no difference between science and humanities. Only with the development of mathematical proof did there gradually arise a perceived difference between scientific disciplines and the humanities or liberal arts. Thus, Aristotle studied planetary motion and poetry with the same methods; Plato mixed geometrical proofs with his demonstration on the state of intrinsic knowledge.

During the 17th century, a revolution took place in what constituted science, particularly with the work of Isaac Newton in physics. Newton made a sharp distinction between the natural world, which he asserted was an independent reality that operated by its own laws, and the human or spiritual world. Newton’s ideas differed from other philosophers of the same period (such as Blaise Pascal, Gottfried Leibniz, and Johannes Kepler) for whom mathematical expressions of philosophical ideals were taken to be symbolic of natural human relationships as well; the same laws moved physical and spiritual reality. Newton, along with others, changed the basic framework by which individuals understood what was scientific.

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Isaac Newton, 1689: Isaac Newton was a key figure in the process which split the natural sciences from the humanities.

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Natural laws: Kepler’s law, which describes planet orbit, is an example of the sort of laws Newton believed science should seek. But social life is rarely predictable enough to be described by such laws.

In the realm of other disciplines, this reformulation of the scientific method created a pressure to express ideas in the form of mathematical relationships, that is, unchanging and abstract laws. In the late 19th century, attempts to discover laws regarding human behavior became increasingly common. The rise of statistics and probability theory in the 20th century also contributed to the attempt to mathematically model human behavior in the social sciences.

In the attempt to study human behavior using scientific and empirical principles, sociologists always encounter dilemmas, as humans do not always operate predictably according to natural laws. Hence, even as Durkheim and Marx formulated law-like models of the transition from pre-industrial to industrial societies, Weber was interested in the seemingly “irrational” ideas and values, which, in his view, also contributed to the transition. The social sciences occupy a middle position between the “hard” natural sciences and the interpretive bent of the humanities.

The Sociological Approach

The sociological approach goes beyond everyday common sense by using systematic methods of empirical observation and theorization.

Learning Objectives

Explain how the sociological approach differs from a “common sense” understanding of the social world

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Sociology is more rigorous than common sense because sociologists test and modify their understanding of how the world works through scientific analysis.
  • Sociologists gather data on the ground and formulate theories about what they find. These theories are then tested by using the scientific method to assess the theory’s validity.
  • Sociology, unlike common sense, utilizes methods of induction and deduction.

Key Terms

  • scientific method: A method of discovering knowledge about the natural world based in making falsifiable predictions (hypotheses), testing them empirically, and developing peer-reviewed theories that best explain the known data.
  • deduction: The process of reasoning in which a conclusion follows necessarily from the stated premises; inference by reasoning from the general to the specific.
  • induction: the derivation of general principles from specific instances

The sociological approach goes beyond everyday common sense. Many people believe they understand the world and the events taking place within it, often justifying their understandings by calling it “common sense. ” However, they have not actually engaged in a systematic attempt to understand the social world.

Sociology, is an attempt to understand the social world by situating social events in their corresponding environment (i.e., social structure, culture, history) and trying to understand social phenomena by collecting and analyzing empirical data. This scientific approach is what differentiates sociological knowledge from common sense.

For example, Peter Berger, a well-known sociologist, argued, that what distinguishes sociology from common sense is that sociologists:

“[try] to see what is there. [They] may have hopes or fears concerning what [they] may find. But [they] will try to see, regardless of [their] hopes or fears. It is thus an act of pure perception…”

Thus, to obtain sociological knowledge, sociologists must study their world methodically and systematically. They do this through induction and deduction. With induction, sociologists gather data on the ground and formulate theories about what they find. These theories are then tested by using the scientific method in order to assess the theory’s validity. In order to test a theory’s validity, they utilize deduction. Deduction is the act of evaluating their theories in light of new data. Thus, sociological knowledge is produced through a constant back and forth between empirical observation and theorization. In this way, sociology is more rigorous than common sense, because sociologists test and modify their understanding of how the world works through scientific analysis.

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Light Bulb: Obtaining sociological knowledge is not just a process of a light-bulb going off in someone’s head; it requires thorough empirical research and analysis.