Chapter 1: A Sociological Compass
sociology- the systematic study of human behaviour in social context
appears to be the supreme antisocial and non-social act
nearly everyone is society condemns it
typically committed in private, far from the publics intrusive glare
comparatively rare in recent years
people are likely to be interested in the aspects of the specific individuals'
lives or state of mind that caused them to commit the act rather than
the state of society and social relations that might encourage or
inhibit such actions in general
The Sociological Explanation of Suicide:
Emilie Durkheim (one of the pioneers of sociology) demonstrated that
suicide is more than just an individual act of desperation that results
from psychological disorder, as was commonly believed.
Durkheim found that suicide rates are strongly influenced by social forces.
He first tried to prove that there was an correlation between rates of
suicide and psychological disorder, but he soon found this was
Instead he discovered that slightly more women than men were in insane
asylums and that four male suicides occurred for every female suicide.
Also, Jews had the highest rate for psychological disorders of all the major
religious groups in France, but they also had the lowest suicide rate.
Finally, he discovered that psychological disorders occurred most frequently
when a person reached maturity, but suicide rates increase steadily
with advancing age.
It was then clear that suicide rates and psychological disorders did not
directly relate, and often appeared to relate inversely.
Why? Durkheim argued that suicide rates varied as a result of differences in
the degree of social solidarity in different categories of the population.
Social solidarity: refers to (1) degree to which group members share
beliefs and values, and (2) intensity and frequency of their interaction.
According to Durkheim: if group members share beliefs and values --> more
frequent and intense interaction results --> more social solidarity
Also: if more social solidarity exists in a group --> more firmly anchored
individuals result --> less likely to commit suicide
Values: ideas about what is good and bad, right and wrong.
Therefore, Durkheim expected that high-solidarity groups have lower suicide rates than low-solidarity groups.
Support: married adults are half as likely as unmarried adults to commit
suicide because marriage creates social ties and "moral cement that
bind the individual to society". (6)
Support: women are less likely to commit suicide than men are because
women are more involved in "the intimate social relations of family
Support: jews are less likely to commit suicide than Christians are because
"centuries of persecution have turned them into a group that is more
defensive and tightly knit". (6)
Support: seniors are more prone to commit suicide than the young and
middle-aged because they are more likely "to live alone, to have lost a
spouse, and to lack a job and a wide network of friends." (6)
In general, Durkheim wrote, "suicide varies with the degree of integration of
the social groups of which the individual forms a part" (6)
Of course, this tells us nothing about why any particular individual may
commit suicide because that is the province of psychology.
It does tell us that an individuals likelihood of committing suicide decreases
as the degree to which he or she is anchored in society increases. It
tells us that something surprising and uniquely sociological about how
and why the suicide rate varies across groups.
Altruistic suicide: occurs in settings that exhibit very high levels of social
solidarity and results from norms very highly governing behaviour.
(example: Soldiers going to war knowing they are putting their lives on
Egoistic suicide: occurs in settings that exhibit very low levels of social
solidarity and results from the poor integration of people into society
because of weak social ties to others. (example: Someone who is
unmarried and unemployed is more likely to commit suicide than
someone married and employed)
Anomic suicide: occurs in settings that exhibit very low levels of social
solidarity and results from vaguely defined norms governing
behaviour. (example: Rate of this suicide is likely to be high among
people living in a society that lacks a widely shared moral code)
Theory: a tentative explanation of some aspect of social life that states how
and why certain facts are related.
Note: Emile Durkheim was the first professor of sociology in France and is
often considered to the the first modern sociologist. He argued that
human behaviour is shaped by our "social facts," or the social context
in which people are embedded. In his view, social facts define the
constraints and opportunities within which people must act. Durkheim
was also interested in the conditions that promote social order in
"primitive" and modern societies.
Suicide in Canada Today: In brief, shared moral principles and strong social ties have eroded since the
early 1960s for Canada's youth.
Support: attendance has halved in religious institutions to 25%, youth
unemployment has risen, the divorce rate has increased sixfold, births
outside marriage are more common, single-parents are more common
and children are spending less time with their parent(s).
This suggests that social solidarity is now lower than it was a few decades
ago, especially for young people. "Less firmly rooted in society, and
less likely to share moral standards, young people in Canada today are
more likely than young people were a half century ago to take their
own lives if they find themselves in a deep personal crisis". (7-8)
Social structures: relatively stable patterns of social relations.
Social structures such as social solidarity can affect your innermost thoughts
and feelings, influence your actions, and this help to shape who you
More than half a century ago (1959), C. Wright Mills invented the term
sociological imagination and wrote a argument about it. (8)
Sociological imagination: the quality of mind that enables one to see the
connection between personal troubles and social structures.
Mill argued that one of sociologies main tasks is to identify and explain the
connection between people's personal troubles and the social
structures in which people are embedded.
To broaden our awareness involves recognizing that three levels of social
structure surround and permeate us. They can be described as
concentric circles radiating out from you.
1) Microstructures: are patterns of intimate social relations formed during
face-to-face interaction. Families, friendship circles, and work
association are all examples of microstructures.
2) Macrostructures: are patterns of social relations that lie outside and
above your circle of intimates and acquaintances. Religious institutions
and social classes are examples or macrostructures. One important
macrostructure is patriarchy: the traditional system of economic and
political inequality between women and men in most societies.
3) Global structures: are the third level of social structure. International
organizations, patterns of worldwide travel and communication, and
economic relations among countries are examples of global structures.
Global structures are increasingly important because inexpensive
travel and communication allow all parts of the world to become
interconnected culturally, economically, and politically.
Personal problems are connected to social structures. At the micro, macro,
and global levels. Whether the personal problem involves finding a job,
keeping a marriage intact, or finding out a way to act justly to end
world poverty, social structure considerations broaden our
understanding of the problem and suggest appropriate courses of
action. The Origin of the Sociological Imagination:
The sociological imagination is only a few hundred years old.
In ancient times, philosophers mentioned society, but their thinking was not
They believed that God and nature controlled society and sketched
blueprints for the ideal society, urging people to follow their lead.
But unfortunately, they relied on speculation, rather than evidence, to reach
conclusions about how the world worked.
The sociological imagination was born when three modern revolutions
pushed people to think about society in an entirely new way.
The Scientific Revolution:
The Scientific revolution began in about 1550. It encouraged the view that
sound conclusions about the working of society must be based on
evidence, not just speculation.
People often link the Scientific Revolution to specific ideas, such as
Copernicus's theory that the earth revolves around the sun. However,
science is less a collection of ideas and a method of inquiry.
Example: in 1609 Galileo pointed his newly invented telescope at the sky,
made some careful observations, and showed that his observations fit
This is the core of the scientific method: using evidence to make a case for a
particular point of view.
By the mid-seventeenth century, some philosophers were calling for a
science of society.
When sociology, emerged as a distinct discipline in the nineteenth century,
commitment to the scientific method was on firm pillar of the
The Democratic Revolution:
The Democratic Revolution began in 1750. It suggested that people are
responsible for organizing society and that human interaction can
therefore solve special problems.
Before the Democratic Revolution, most people thought otherwise. They
believe that God ordained the social order.
The American Revolution, and the French Revolution helped undermine that
idea. These democratic political upheavals showed that society could
experience massive change in a short period. They proved that people
could replace unsatisfactory rulers. They suggested that people control
The implications for social thought were profound, for if it was impossible to
change society through human action, a science of society could play a
big role. Much of the justification for sociology as a science arose out of the
democratic revolutions that shook Europe and North America.
The Industrial Revolution:
The Industrial Revolution began about 1775. It creates a host of new and
serious social problems that attracted the attention of social thinkers.
As a result of the growth of the industry, masses of people moved from
countryside to city, worked agonizingly long hours in crowded and
dangerous mines and factories, lost faith in their religions, confronted
faceless bureaucracies, and reacted to the filth and poverty of their
existence by means of strikes, crime, revolutions, and wars.
The Scientific Revolution suggested that a science of society was possible.
The Democratic Revolution suggested that people could intervene to
improve society. The Industrial Revolution now presented social
thinkers with a host of pressing social problems crying out for solution.
They responded by creating the sociological imagination.
Auguste Comte and the Tension between Science and Values:
Auguste Comte, French social thinker, coined the term sociology in 1838.
Comte tried to place the study of society on scientific foundations.
He said he wanted to understand the social world as it was, not as he or
anyone else imagined it should be.
Yet there was a tension in his work: although Comte was eager to adopt the
scientific method in the study of society, he was a conservative
thinker, motivated by strong opposition to rapid change in French
society, as is evident in his writings.
When he moved from his small hometown to Paris, he witnessd the
democratic forces unleashed by the French Revolution. The rapid social
change was destroying much of what he valued, especially respect for
traditional authority. He therefore urged slow change and the
preservation of all that was traditional in social life.
To varying degrees, we see the same tension in the work of three giants in
the early history of sociology: Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max
They witnessed various phases of Europe's wrenching transition to industrial
capitalism. They wanted to explain the great transformation of Europe
and suggest ways to improve people's lives.
Like Comte, they were committed to the scientific method of research. Like
many sociological ideas, they are prescriptions for combating social
Durkheim, Marx and Weber stood close to the origins of major theoretical
traditions in sociology: functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic
interactionism. Feminism has arisen in recent decades to correct some
deficiencies in the three long-established traditions. These four traditions have been especially influential in the development of
Sociological Theory and Theorists
Emile Durkheim's theory of suicide is an early example of what sociologists
now call functionalism.
Functionalism: theory that human behaviour is governed by relatively
stable social structures. It underlines how social structures maintain or
undermine social stability. It emphasizes that social structures are
based mainly on shared values or preferences. And it suggests that re-
establishing equilibrium can best solve most social problems.
Four features of functionalism:
1) Human behaviour is governed by stable patterns of social relations, or
social structures. For example, Durkheim emphasized how patterns of
social solidarity influence suicide rates. The social structures typically
analyzed by functionalists are macrostructures.
2) Social structures maintain or undermine social stability. This is why
functionalists are sometimes called structural functionalists; they
analyze how the parts of society (structure) fit together and how much
each part contributes to the stability of the whole (its function). For
example, Durkheim argued that high social solidarity contributes to the
maintenance of social order.
3) Social structures are based mainly on shared values. Thus, when
Durkheim wrote about social solidarity, he sometimes meant the
frequency and intensity of social interaction, but more often he
thought of social solidarity as a kind of moral cement that binds people
4) Re-establishing equilibrium can best solve most social problems. For
instance, Durkheim thought that social stability could be restored in
late nineteenth-century Europe by creating new associations of
empower employers and workers that would lower workers'
expectations about what they should hope for in life. If more people
could agree on wanting less, Durkheim wrote, social solidarity would
rise, fewer strikes would occur, and suicide rates would drop.
Functionalism was a conservative response to widespread social
unrest. A more liberal or radical response would have been to argue
that if people were expressing discontent because they were getting
less out of life than they expected, discontent could be lowered by
finding ways for them to get more out of life.
Conflict Theory: Generally focuses on large, macro level structures, such as the relations among classes. It shows how major patterns of
inequality in society produce social stability in some circumstances and
social change in others. It stresses how members of privileged groups
try to maintain their advantages while subordinate groups struggle to
acquires advantages. And it typically leads to the suggestion that
eliminating privileged will lower the level of conflict and increase the
sum total of human welfare.
Four features conflict theory:
1) Generally focuses on large, macro level structures, such as class relations
or patterns of domination, submission, and struggle between people of
high and low social standing.
2) Shows how major patterns of inequality in society produce social stability
in some circumstances and social change in others.
3) Stresses how much member of privileged groups try to maintain their
advantages while subordinate groups struggle to acquire advantages.
From this point of view, social conditions at a given time are the
expression of an ongoing power struggle between privileged and
4) Typically leads to the suggestion that lessening privilege will lower the
level of conflict and increase human welfare.
Karl Marx invented the term conflict theory.
Class conflict: the struggle between classes to resist and overcome
opposition of other classes.
Marx wrote, a large and growing class of poor workers opposes a small and
shrinking class of wealthy owners.
Class consciousness: awareness of belonging to the social class of which
one is a member.
According to Marx, eventually these organizations would try to put an end to
private ownership of property and replace it with communist society,
defined as a system in which everyone shares property and wealth
according to their needs, and no private property exists.
Note: Karl Marx was a revolutionary thinker who ideas affected not just the
growth of sociology but also the course of world history. He held that
major socio-historical changes are the result of conflict between
societies main social classes. In his major work, Marx argued that
capitalism would produce such misery and collective strength among
workers that they would eventually take state power and create a
classless society in which production would be based on human need
rather than profit.
Max Weber wrote his major works a generation after Marx. Weber was
among the first to point out some flaws in Marx's argument.
Weber noticed the rapid growth of the so called service sector of the
economy, with its many non-manual (white collar) workers and
professionals. He argued that these occupational groups would
stabilize society because they enjoyed more prestige and income than
manual (blue collar) workers in the manufacturing sector. Weber also showed that class conflict is not the only driving force of history. In his
view, politics and religion are also important sources of historical
change. Other writers pointed out that Marx did not appreciate how
investment in technology would make it possible for workers to toil
fewer hours under less oppressive conditions. Nor did Marx foresee
that higher wages, better working conditions, and welfare-state
benefits would pacify manual workers. Many particulars of Marx's
theory were called onto question by Weber and there sociologists but
nevertheless Marx's insights about the fundamental importance of
conflict in social life are still highly influential in modern sociology.
Note: Max Weber profoundly influenced the development of the discipline
world-wide. Weber held that economic circumstances alone do not
explain the rise of capitalism.
Contrary to Marx, Weber argued that favourable economic circumstances
alone did not cause the early capitalist development. In addition, he
said, certain religious beliefs encouraged robust capitalist growth.
Protestant ethic: the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant belief
that religious doubts can be reduced, and a state of grace assured, if
people work diligently and live ascetically. According to Weber, the
Protestant work ethic had the unintended effect of increasing savings
and investment and thus stimulating capitalist growth.
Weber concluded that capitalism did not develop just because of operation of
economic forces. Instead, it depended partly on the religious meaning
individuals attached to their work.
In much of his research, Weber emphasized the importance of
empathetically understanding people's motives and the meaning they
attach to things to gain a clear sense of the significance of their
The idea that subjective meaning and motives must be analyzed in any
complete sociological analysis was only one of Weber's contributions to
early sociological theory. Weber was also an important conflict
theorist. At present, however, it is enough to note that his emphasis on
subjective meanings found rich soil among sociologists in North
America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Functionalist and confli