Chapter 1: Sociological Theory
How do sociologists go about thinking about society?
• Historical (from past sociologists)
• Looked at the social world; determined that most of the social world works exactly the way we
think it does.
• Collectively known as functionalists; look at societies as functioning
• Argue that whatever we decide to do in a society is for our collective best interest (i.e. most think
it’s a good idea)
• Conflict theorists; they argue that societies don’t work in everyone’s best interest, rather they are
set up so that we are competing for available resources some people retain more resources than
• Look at society in the sense of understanding it’s inequalities
• “The first two look at ‘big pictures’, ‘big societies’, ‘big cities’,”; look at people in smaller groups
• Interactionists; interested i.e. in simply watching what people are doing
• Feminists; inequality of women
Introduction: Why Theory?
• Antonio Gramsci believed that everyone is a social theorist
Early thinkers got us thinking about societies; how to make sense of what people do.
Gramsci; everyone social theorist anyone can learn to cook up ideas or make judgments
about different tastes.
But that we already use our intellects to explain how society works (we are already trying
to understand how it works; how it changes, how we adapt to those changes)
• The nature of social life
Many social theorists want specifically to understand the takenfor granted nature of
social life: there’s much more to social life than just what happens on the surface.
Why it is so often unthinkingly orderly, routine, and generally predictable in sociological
**important** SEE TEXTBOOK** C. Wright Mills; suggested we should connect
personal problems with the larger societal forces.
Suggested whatever is happening to you personally in your own life; we can see
patterns and try to understand it.
We can look at these ordinary instances and try to see if we can
understand the larger patterns from our society.
“The Sociological Imagination”; where we look a bit beyond what we are simply seeing
(what is going on beneath the obvious surface)
Way of thinking many people contributed to this idea.
• The Sociological Imagination
Mill’s ideas were ignored for sometime in mainstream sociology; people thought we
needed to look deeper.
He believed that we needed to take people’s personal experiences and link them with the
way society is organized/ structured. Then develop an understanding of why and how
these things are happening.
The sociological imagination helps us to achieve this sort of thinking Mills also suggested that the discipline of sociology should understand and individual’s
private troubles as rooted in widespread public issues:
Example: Walking by a homeless person and feeling a feeling of
uncomfortableness; these theorists are suggested that ‘there’s this phenomenon
of homeless people when there shouldn’t be) why is this the case?’
Then they would look at all sorts of information to try to help us to
understand whatever it is we are observing looking into this case and
patterns we see that there are a lot of homeless people with mental
health issues (also seen in problem teens). The resources to support
these types of people have been ‘victims of cutbacks’ making the
resources just not present for them.
When we do so, we exhibit the sociological imagination…
• Structure and Agency
The Birth of Sociology in the Age of Revolution
• Sociology was developed in the 19 century by European scholars who were aware that their
world was changing rapidly and fundamentally.
• Born in the 1800s; lots of new thinkers coming along talking about new ways to think about things
• Sociology began to form and we began to see all the other types of social sciences as well.
People began to travel more, to understand the world was more complex than previous
New thinkers began to change many previously understood ‘facts’/ sciences
They changed EVERYTHING that people had understood up until then.
• What was new when sociology was invented about two centuries ago was the idea that society
could be studied scientifically
Big question at the time ‘was it right to mess with nature’ when science began to emerge
as a logical way to explain how things work (countering many previous beliefs where
‘God did it’) Think Newton
Sociology became more of the study of what people do in groups (in contrast to psych
that studies the brain)
Sociology does not do as many experiments whereas psych does; they both
developed as sciences
• The enlightenment encouraged the use of reason to understand the world (think scientific method
followed in sociology)
‘Laws’ of the universe that are already in place
• Auguste Comte (17981857)
• ****Coined the term ‘sociology’. The application of science to understand the social world.
Believed we can study society as a science; that there are natural laws we just have to
figure them out (‘natural social laws’ of human existence) (Think Darwin discoveries that
we still use today to explain things)
• Believed social thinking passed through three stages; 1)assumption that the world was run by
supernatural, powerful gods 3) idea that nature replaced the belief in a miraculous god 3)
application of science to understand the social world.
Important: emergence of the idea that you can study society as a science that you can
uncover existing truths Where do these natural laws come from? That’s up for debate.
• Throughout most of the 19 century, sociological thinking involved the search for lawlike
certainties that could explain social life.
Idea that there is a truth out there, that we just have to find it; if you are working on a
theory or experiment you are a positivist thinking there is a truth to find.
• Trying to eliminate chance as an explanation for what we are seeing if we eliminate chance then
there has to be a ‘law’ behind whatever it is.
• Many of the questions sociologists are interested in don’t have a rational basis
• We have to acknowledge that societies are often messy; stuff isn’t always rational, etc.
Maybe reducing everything to a positivism level is not always simple (not always clean
• Many social theorists seek to understand people’s intentions and bring the elements of thinking
and choosing into their analysis that the positive people don’t always have the straight forward
answers (it is complicated)
• Comte realized two apparently contradictory things appear true of society; it basically stays the
same over time and it is constantly changing. i.e.) voice plans for cell phones (we text mostly now
whereas as recently as 5 years ago this wasn’t the norm)
This is what they realized; there are constant aspects but we are also changing fast (think
that during 1800s industrial revolution)
• Functionalist theorists seek to identify the basic functions that must be fulfilled in all societies
• How do we understand what these functions are? If something is there in a society and lasts
overtime (good example; religion, financial systems, governmental system) then we can try to help
ourselves understand how these institutions work:
These institutions must perform a function (some believe crime could perform a function
We can see what religious do, governments, financial systems; so how do we
further understand these institutions
Educational systems are a good example of that today; but not before the early
• Emile Durkheim (18581917) was the most famous French sociologist of the 20 century.
• First professor of education; collection of his lectures given to teaching students one including
‘should we beat kids’
• One of the first sociologists that used what we could recognize as a quantitative methodology
positivistic approach (collected large quantities of data)
First real positivist
• Argued that societies were held together by practices such as religious celebrations/gift giving.
When these practices were practiced relationships were strengthened and given meaning
• Think small town; everyone knows your business.
• A second source of togetherness, Durkheim said, originated in regular, sacred gatherings, events in
which the tribe feasted and celebrated its community. A lot of what religions do is very positive for socieeties it an tie people together in a
• People were no longer united by a single code of right and wrong, and uncertainty Durkheim
Sense of being less attached to a community as you once were
This led him to one of his classic studies (the one he is famous for); suicide
He gathered information across the county on suicide rates; gathered all
other social variables and tried to analyze them together; conclusion
there was less suicide in Roman Catholic communities than in
Why? RC tends to encourage more togetherness than P
Therefore people who feel more disconnected are more likely to
• The task of sociology was to put an end to anomie and conflict this is controversial because many
sociologists today do not see themselves as needing to FIX the world today (it is not social work)
• Durkheim’s social theory examined society as a totality of interconnected parts,
Meaning that religious institutions, governmental, educational, financial, criminal justice,
institutions all work together; so if something goes wrong with one it affects all the others
Think education: criticism lately about the lack of career opportunities for
university grads (whether universities are really training people for the jobs that
are out there if not…) they need to identify the problems, get the system doing
what it is supposed to do and then the system will be back in balance.
Think financial system (the recession): people lost homes, jobs, everything…
because production of cars (and other factories) left the area we need to fix the
financial system so that it is doing its part and then the rest of society will be
back in harmony
Think crime out of control: if you actually study facts crime in Canada is
decreasing (still high, but not increasing) despite what the government is saying
(building prisons, longer sentences)
If it is then we need to take cnecessary steps although some are being
taken even when not needed
• Functionalists argue that when one thing steps out of line, it needs to get bak for the society to
• Functionalists were important right through into the 1970s (for more than 5 decades)
When they studied education they began with the assumption that it is doing what it
should be doing.
• While he did not describe his work as sociological, Karl Marx (18181883)
• As a theorist, not a communist
He came along in the 1900s (growing up being persecuted in particular by the Germans)
in a time where the industrial revolution was just started exploitation of workers was
Think children, poverty, horrid hours, laws; Marx saw these horrors that society
was ‘about’ and he started thinking:
Wasn’t in great health in later years kept writing, left us with interest ideas:
Was not actually a sociologist (sociologists sort of ‘claimed him’