Sept. 17 – Sociological Theory I
Historical Shifts leading to the development of Sociology
- The growth of science
• Some of the earliest sociologists were trying to adopt a social model of science
• Durkheim in particular, was one of the earliest who was interested in adopting a
principle of science into a study of society
• Positivism – objective and value-free research (i.e. physics)
• He said that we needed a similar science society; strongly influenced by
Science also opened the door for a move away from religion. Things became more secular. There was
less of a concern with religious authority.
- The industrial revolution and capitalism
• Industrial revolution (18 and 19 century) shifted the forms of employments
• Capitalism emerged – new economic system
• Shift from agricultural based economy to that of industry based
• Migration from agricultural area to urban cities
- The rise of state control and political revolutions
o The state started to formalize (i.e. tax collection, road building, etc)
The growth of science, industrial revolution led to shift in earning of money, urbanization led to shift
away from agriculturally-based, closed-knit society to urban-based communities and time of huge
turmoil with rise of state control and political revolutions.
Early sociologists were trying to make sense of the chaos and change. They tried to adopt the principles
of science into understanding the major historical changes that they were seeing and the effect of those
changes on the communities.
The four major theories of sociology
- Structural functionalism
- Conflict theory
- Symbolic interactionism
- Feminist theory
These theories are different perspectives on how to interpret a trend, historical shift, or observation in
Two criterion of sociological theory
- Empirical component
o The idea is: Can these ideas be tested? This is to determine the validity
- Ideas must be sociological
Structural Functionalism (or Functionalism)
- Society: a complex system of parts working together to promote solidarity and stability - Emile Durkheim
The idea is that society is consisted of multiple parts and in order for society to function smoothly, all
the parts have to work together – society as an organism, a machine.
For Durkheim, society has all these parts that have to work well together for society to be stable – in a
state of equilibrium. He was really thinking about the big picture: he was thinking at the macro
structure level. He was thinking about society.
Some key ideas related to Functionalism:
- Social solidarity: Refers to the degree to which group members share beliefs and values and the
intensity and frequency of their interaction.
This is about the norms of the society and the ties people have to one another.
Social solidarity was important to Durkheim and to Functionalism because he believed that the
problems of society came down to solidarity. Recall his work on suicide, it was about the norms or the
connections people had to others. Durkheim understood everything in terms of social solidarity.
o Manifest: Visible and intended effects of social structures.
o Latent: The invisible and unintended effects of social structures.
Everything in society serves a function in the operation of society. There are two key functions: manifest
Manifest functions are obvious and visible. For example, the education system is designed in part to
teach us the ABCs and 123s. it is a visible and tangible effect of the education system. Another function
of the education system is that school socializes children. This is a manifest function. The schools are
helping to socialize the kids, show them how to be law-abiding, good citizens.
Latent functions are the ones that are still producing results but it was unintended; hidden. For example,
a latent function of the education system is when you see peer culture development: kids moving away
from family and influenced by friends and peers. This is an unintended effect. Those developed the
education system did not intend for the development of peer culture to take place; it just happened.
Another latent function of the education system, claimed by sociologists, is that it reproduces inequality.
This is a hidden function of the education system.
Latent functions can sometimes be a side-effect but most of the time, it is just something that is hidden.
E.g. Durkheim claims that prostitution serves a function. Men have sexual needs and prostitution fulfills
this need. The man can have a sexual relationship with a prostitute but does not harm his relations with
families since the prostitute is a stranger and has no ties to any of the family members. The family is not
placed in jeopardy and the man can be satisfied individually. Hence, prostitutions serve a function in
society. Dysfunctions such as crimes, could serve as a function to our society. Durkheim claims that when crimes
take place, communities come together and share a sense of right and wrong. It would be contributing
to stability of society; reinforce community values. Even dysfunctions can be functional. He would not
argue that society is better with crime but rather, he would argue that crimes could serve a function and
contribute to social solidarity (creates jobs).
Conflict Theory (or Marxism)
- Karl Marx
- Contradictions, conflict and change
Marx was interested in the chaos and change that was taking place in his society. He saw it as an
opportunity to gain an insight into how society works, the different contradictions in society. In
particular, he was interested in how there was different groups now: factory workers and factory
For Marx, he was okay with the contradictions because you could gain insight about the different groups
and propose change. For him, it was not enough to just think about the different groups having more or
less but rather how change can be brought about. Durkheim on the other hand, was not keen on the
contradictions which are why he proposed the function of each thing.
A lot of conflict theory stems down to money. How people are earning their livelihood. How people earn
shapes everything else in their lives.
- Like Structural Functionalism: macro (focused on the economy)
- Important: how people earn their livelihood
- Two key groups:
• “Owners” and profits
• “Workers” and wages
Shift to capitalism led to a lot of inequality.
The bourgeoisie are the factory owners, the tools and the means of production. They are the modern
capitalists. They do not work; they earn profits.
The proletariat only own their labour. They can exchange their physical labour for wages.
Marx really believed that the bourgeoisie, the capitalist quest for power, came at the expense of the
proletariats. To reduce the wages would enable higher profits.
There are significant contradictions between these two groups: their resources, etc.
He predicted that the proletariats would rise up against the capitalists and abolish capitalism. We would
then live in a socialist society (leading to communism).
He was the first to mention inequality. Comparing SF and Conflict Theory
The graph demonstrates that there is a relationship between the educational background you have and
the kind of money you can make in your life.
Analyzing the graph in these two perspectives:
Society would not function well if everyone had the same education and job. We need people
with different educational backgrounds, different skills, to fulfill all the different roles in society.
All of these roles need to be filled in order for society to function well. We cannot all try to be
If everyone is properly sorted into these different roles, society will run smoothly.
(2) Conflict Theory
Though it is great that those with a university degree find higher earning jobs, not everyone has
this privilege or opportunity. There are obstacles in place that might prevent people from
getting a higher education to earn higher paying jobs. The conflict theory recognizes the social
inequalities that exist.
The SF argument and the CF are saying that education serves a sorting function. For SF, they are sorted
into a function into society and that is okay. For the CF, people are being sorted into different
opportunities and this is not okay; not a level playing field.
Sept. 19 – Sociological Theory II
This image is a good representation of the structural
functionalism understanding of education as serving a
socialization function. The picture shows an organized
system whereby the students are lined up in an orderly
fashion and told of what constitutes good behaviour.
This is an image of the Quebec students protesting against higher
tuition fees. It is a good representation of the conflict theory
approach to education in that it showcases the tensions felt
between the students and the university administration. This not
only shows the divide between the different groups in the society
but it also shows how students have no control over the conditions