Sociology, or the scientific study of society, emerged as a discipline in the nineteenth
century in Western Europe. Auguste Comte is credited with coining the term sociology, but the
founding fathers of the discipline are Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber. In contrast
to psychology, which explains people’s behaviour by focusing on internal influences, sociology
focuses on external influences. A particularly useful concept is the sociological imagination,
which situates the personal experiences
of individuals within the societal context in which these experiences occur.
A number of theoretical perspectives or paradigms have been developed in the field of
sociology. Sociologists using a functionalist perspective view society as a set of inter-connected
parts. These sociologists emphasize cohesion, stability, and order in a society. Critical theorists,
on the other hand, believe society is composed of groups competing for scarce resources.
Symbolic interactionists differ from both the functionalist and critical paradigms by viewing
society as a product of interaction between people in their everyday social relationships. For
symbolic interactionists, the focus is on the individual, rather than on society.
More recently, other perspectives have emerged. For example, feminist theory stresses
the importance of gender, while postmodernists challenge the existence of reality and objectivity.
Sociology students should note that individually, none of these perspectives can explain the
complexity of human behaviour. Moreover, although each provides a different explanation of
how society works, they should not be seen as competing with each other; rather, they are
complementing each other.
In this chapter, you will
• come to understand the main competing approaches of sociology and see how they can be
fused together to give us an understanding of society; and,
• learn about the history and development of sociology as a social scientific discipline.
expectation: A shared idea about how people should carry out the duties attached to a particular
interaction: The processes by which, and manner in which, social actors—people trying to meet
each other’s expectations—relate to each other, especially in face-to-face encounters.
macrosociology: The study of social institutions (e.g., the Roman Catholic Church or marriage)
and large social groups (e.g., ethnic minorities or college students).
microsociology: The study of the processes and patterns of personal interaction that take place
among people within groups.
negotiation: The ways in which people try to make sense of one another, and make sense to one
another; for example, by conferring, bargaining, making arrangements, compromising, and
role: The expected pattern of interaction with others.
social institution: One kind of social structure, made up of a number of relationships (i.e., stable
patterns of meaningful orientations to one another).
social structure: Any enduring, predictable pattern of social relations among people in society.
society: The largest-scale human group, whose members interact with one another, share a
common geographic territory, and share common institutions.
sociology: The systematic study of social behaviour, or the study of society.
sociological imagination: An approach to sociology that situates the personal experiences of
individuals within the societal context in which these experiences occur.
status: A socially defined position that delineates people’s rights and responsibilities.
Allan, K. (2007). The Social Lens: An Invitation to Social and Sociological Theory. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
The goal of this book is to provide a comprehensive discussion of both classical and
contemporary social theory, outlining different approaches to sociology and describing the
scholars who put these forth; however, Allan does not present these perspectives as
competing with each other, as do some other books. Instead, each perspective is intended as a
starting point for students, an introduction to its ideas and a base for future exploration.
Bell, V. (2007). Culture and Performance: The Challenges of Ethics, Politics, and Feminist
Theory. Oxford and New York: Berg. 3
Bell places feminist theory within the context of ethics, politics, and the concept of
‘performativity’. She considers both this latter concept and feminist theory with reference to
other philosophers and presents a new approach to considering contemporary feminist ideas.
Blackledge, P. (2006). Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History. Manchester, UK:
Manchester University Press.
Blackledge takes his reader on a journey of the Marxist tradition in social theory. Each
chapter outlines the theory’s transition, from Europe in the nineteenth century, to the Soviet
Union in the twentieth, to its relevance in modern sociology.
Cheal, D. (2005). Dimensions of Sociological Theory. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
This is a clear and reader-friendly discussion of five key debates in relation to sociological
perspectives. The organization is innovative, taking a thematic mode of introducing the
paradigms, rather than a conventionally historical one.
Kimmel, M. S. (2007). Classical Sociological Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kimmel’s main purpose is to expand the sociological ‘canon’, to describe the life and works
of more than just the sociologists who are typically included in historical discussions. He
discusses the work of early feminist sociological theorists and also the work of individuals of
non-European descent with ethnic backgrounds other than European, which predominates
among the scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Turner, J. H. (ed.) (2001). Handbook of Sociological Theory. New York: Kluwer
This is a collection of essays written by prominent scholars on sociological theory. It focuses
on five main themes that highlight the diversity of theoretical perspectives in modern
E-STAT for Education
Marxist Internet Archive (mia)
Verstehen: The Sociology of Max Weber
Émile Durkheim Archive
Sociology Undergraduate Network (SUN)
Multiple Choice Questions
1. Who coined the term sociology?
a) Émile Durkheim
b) Karl Marx
c) Auguste Comte
d) Max Weber
2. Who is considered to be the father of modern sociology?
a) Auguste Comte
b) Karl Marx
c) Talcott Parsons
d) Émile Durkheim
3. According to sociologists,
a) human behaviour is very difficult to analyze, as we can’t be certain exactly why people
act as they do.
b) how any of us views the world is determined in large part by our position in society.
c) it is much more productive to focus on individuals’ internal characteristics to explain
d) all of the above
4. Sociology is defined as 5
a) the systematic study of social behaviour.
b) the systematic study of individual behaviour in social context.
c) the systematic study of culture in modern societies.
d) the systematic study of the unequal distribution of social rewards.
5. A __________ is defined as the largest-scale human group, whose members interact with one
another, share a common geographic territory, and share common institutions.
b) global community
6. __________ theory views society as a set of interconnected parts that work together to
preserve the overall stability and efficiency of the whole.
b) Symbolic interactionist
7. According to Robert Merton, __________ are functions of social institutions that are
intended and easily recognized.
a) manifest functions
b) overt functions
c) intentional functions
d) latent functions
8. Robert Merton used the term, __________ to describe the unintended consequences of social
a) manifest functions
b) accidental functions
c) hidden functions
d) latent functions
9. An approach to sociology that situates the personal experiences of individuals within the
societal context in which these experiences occur is known as the
a) fusion perspective. 6
b) sociological imagination.
c) dual concepts approach.
d) bi-directional analysis
10. Émile Durkheim used the term __________ to reflect the condition that is typical in times of
rapid social change.
11. The main characteristic of __________ is its view of society as a collection of groups that
constantly struggle with each other to dominate society and it