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Social Studies

‘Socio’ comes from the Latin ‘socius’, meaning ‘companion’ or ‘ally’. In modern terms, ‘socio’ has evolved to mean ‘society’ or ‘relating to society’. The suffix ‘-logy’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘the study of’. Quite literally, ‘sociology’ means ‘the study of society’.

So what does the study of society involve? Studying society, or Sociology, is a complex and complex field of study. It studies human interactions, processes, changes and developments in society. Simply put, it is the study of social phenomena. As you can imagine, this is a very broad area. The subject ranges from studying small subcultures to large-scale cohort studies.

Sociology can be studied in many different contexts, either nationally or internationally, and either specific to a culture or cross-culturally. Sociology explains certain social phenomena by analysing patterns, understanding motivations for human behaviour, and examining dynamics, such as the influence of history, culture, politics and religion on human societies.

Sociologists use a range of research methods to gather information about society and to test sociological theories. Sociology is a social science because it uses scientific tools. In our study of Sociology, we will not only be looking at what is studied in society but also how it is studied.

Sociology studies humans and society StudySmarter

A brief history and background of human sociology

The study of society and human behaviour within society is not new; in fact, ancient philosophers began asking sociological questions long before sociology became an independent academic discipline. Ancient philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Confucius were interested in human behaviour within their societies and produced theories explaining social conflict and power structures.

In the 18th century, philosophers such as Locke, Kant and Hobbes used their philosophical perspectives and theories to suggest social reforms for common social problems. In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution brought about many changes to socio-economic structures, mobility (including global mobility), politics and religion. These developments helped people understand societal structures and changes affecting their own lives and also exposed them to other societies and cultures.

The academic discipline of sociology

In 1838, French philosopher Auguste Comte, often referred to as the father of modern Sociology, used the term sociology to describe the study of the social world. He acknowledged that it was a discipline in its own right. However, this term was first coined by French writer Emmanuel Sieyes in 1780. Comte rediscovered and defined it.

Because of the French origin of the field, the word ‘sociology’ comes from the French word ‘sociologie’. Comte believed in using scientific methods; this is known as the positivist approach.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, some key thinkers became ‘pioneers’ in Sociology and developed theories to help bring about social change. These included Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber; their knowledge of other disciplines, such as history, economics, philosophy and psychology, contributed to their sociological research.

Sociology became a growing academic discipline in the United States in universities and schools during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The American Sociological Association (ASA) was founded in 1905 and other countries soon formed their own national Sociology associations. The International Sociological Association (ISA) was founded in 1949. It sponsors research in over 50 areas, including children, religion, employment, law and families.

Sociology, graphic of people forming a question mark, StudySmarter

The sociological imagination

In 1959, American sociologist C. Wright Mills established the concept of the ‘sociological imagination’. Social imagination is the ability to take everyday personal events and interactions and connect them to wider society. The concept encourages us to challenge the familiar and look beyond our “limited perspective of personal experiences and cultural biases” (C. Wright Mills, 1959). By doing so, we can understand the relationship between personal and public issues.

Non-western sociology

It is important to note the value of non-western Sociology. Although the majority of sociologists came from the Western world and studied Western societies, non-Western sociology has largely been unaddressed by sociological studies conducted by Western academics working in the West. After claims of Western ethnocentrism (the perception or belief that one culture is ‘normal’ or ‘natural’), many sociologists are acknowledging and encouraging international and multicultural research.

A notable example of Eastern sociological research is the work of Ibn Khaldun on the social phenomena of Arab-Muslim civilisations. He explains ‘how and why’ societies were the way they were using detailed accounts and historical insights. French geographer Yves Lacoste and English historian Arnold Toynbee considered his work the greatest of its kind.

The Journal of Chinese Sociology facilitates the development of sociological research in China and promotes the Chinese sociological perspective around the world. The Journal publishes empirical studies on modern Chinese society, covering topics such as social inequality, social movements and politics, economic reform, and migrant and family demographics in China. The research presented in this journal has valuable theoretical and policy implications.

Sociology, ontology and epistemology

Sociology can be viewed from the wider perspective of ontology. Ontology is a philosophical branch that studies ‘existence’ and ‘being’. It is relevant to Sociology and social research because it asks whether concepts are part of an objective reality or are socially constructed. Do facts discovered in social research exist outside of social research?

The study of ontology is also linked to epistemology. Epistemology is concerned with how we ‘know’ things. According to some epistemologists, we can only derive knowledge from our senses and that is how we know it exists. For example, we know that grass is green because we can see it and we know that the ocean exists because we can see, hear and feel it. Knowledge is based on our perceptions, which create our realities. If we could not see, would the grass still be green? If we did not see the ocean in person, would it exist?

Deep dive: There are many more philosophical perspectives that are relevant to the study of sociology. This section has given an overview of just one perspective. Although these are not relevant for your sociological studies, you may want to independently learn more about philosophical perspectives in sociology if you are interested.

Understanding how we can know things is directly relevant to sociology and social research. Do certain concepts exist outside of our understanding? How do we know whether society exists objectively or whether it is a social construct?

Key takeaways for Sociology

  • Sociology has Latin and Greek roots meaning ‘the study of society’.
  • Sociology studies human interactions, processes, changes and developments in society. Sociology is the study of social phenomena.
  • Sociologists put forward theories to explain certain phenomena, processes and changes. They also use research methods to gather information about society. Sociologists use scientific methods, which makes sociology a social science.
  • Sociology had origins in ancient philosophy before becoming an academic discipline. The father of sociology, Auguste Comte, believed in using a positivist approach to the study of sociology.
  • Sociology is now a well-known academic discipline around the world. There are national and international sociological associations that sponsor research in a variety of areas of interest.
  • Sociology is also linked to the philosophical studies of ontology and epistemology, which are concerned with whether there are objective realities or social constructs and how we come to know that things exist.

Sociology topics and learning objectives

Sociology can help us understand society, societal structures and processes and how they affect human behaviour. Sociology can be studied through the following topics.

  • Theory and methods
  • Education with methods in context
  • Cultural identity
  • Families and households
  • Health
  • Work, poverty and welfare
  • Beliefs in society
  • Global development
  • The media
  • Crime and deviance

Sociology: theory and methods

Sociological theories are suggested explanations of how society works and how humans behave. Sociological theories are key to the study of sociology and are studied throughout the topic. ‘Sociological methods’ look at research methods used in sociological research; for example, how can sociologists study employment patterns? Understanding how sociologists discover information about society is important in our study of sociology.

Sociology: education with methods in context

Education is an important topic in sociology as it looks at how education varies depending on social policies, external and internal processes and individual factors such as social class, race and gender.

Sociology: cultural identity

Cultural identity looks at the impact of culture on our identities. Cultures include global culture, mass culture, subcultures and the cultures of different backgrounds in society. This topic looks at how culture and socialisation form our identities.

Sociology: families and households

The topic of families and households looks at how families and households have changed over time. It studies demographic changes in different types of families and explores why these changes could have occurred. The concept of childhood is also discussed as a sociological construct.

Sociology: health

The topic of health discusses how health and illnesses may be social constructs. It also examines trends and patterns in the social distribution of healthcare and how medical access varies in social groups.

Sociology: work, poverty and welfare

The issues of poverty, welfare and the labour process are discussed in this topic. In particular, the distribution of wealth, the Welfare State, and how work and poverty have changed over time.

Sociology, rich and poor person, wealth and poverty in society, StudySmarter

Sociology: beliefs in society

Religions, ideologies and religious movements are discussed in this topic with relation to their roles in society. The topic also considers contemporary issues and changes in religion, such as the impact of secularisation.

Sociology: global development

Global development looks at the impact of globalisation on wider society, and global inequality. It looks at how global sociological changes such as industrialisation and urbanisation impact society, development and the environment.

Sociology: the media

This topic looks at the role and impact of media on society. It looks at representations in the media of different social groups and considers how audiences interact with the media.

Sociology: crime and deviance

The topic of crime and deviance looks at the social distribution of crime, the causes of crime, and effective punishments. A key focus of this topic is on the sociological theories on crime.

Sociology, criminal running, crime and deviance, StudySmarter

Sociology: stratification and differentiation

The topic of social stratification and differentiation looks at different social groups and their characteristics. A key focus of this topic is how differences between individuals and groups lead to differences in status, power and roles in society.

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Frequently Asked Questions about Sociology

What is sociology?
Sociology is a social science that studies human interactions, processes, changes and developments in society.

What does sociology mean?
The term ‘socio’ means society or ‘relating to society’. The suffix ‘-logy’ means ‘the study of’. Therefore, Sociology means the ‘study of society’.

Is sociology a science?
Sociology is considered a social science because it uses scientific methods to study social issues and phenomena. Some argue that sociology is an objective science, much like the natural sciences, as it is possible to obtain objective social facts through data collection and analysis.

What is culture in sociology?
Sociologists define culture as consisting of the shared values, beliefs, customs, languages, arts and history of a group of people.

Who came up with the term ‘sociology’ and is considered the father of Sociology?
Auguste Comte came up with the term ‘sociology’ in 1838.

Final Social Studies Quiz

Question

What are sociological research methods?

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Sociological research methods (or research methods in sociology) are a set of data collection, analysis and interpretation procedures based on the principles of social science. 


Researchers use synthesis methods to study how society works.


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What factors contribute to the context of sociological research?


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Factors contributing to the context of sociological research include:

  • the way researchers perceive the nature of the social phenomena, 
  • pre-existing literature, 
  • the inductive versus the deductive approach to developing theory,  
  • the research quality standards and rules.


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What is the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning?


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The difference between inductive and deductive reasoning is in the way researchers approach theory development. 

  • The inductive approach seeks to develop new theories. 
  • The deductive approach aims to test existing ones.

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Do researchers need to use existing literature?

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Yes, they do. They need to familiarise themselves with what other researchers have already said and done to build upon it.

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Are researchers subject to any research quality standards?

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Yes, they should ensure the utmost research integrity and obey ethical standards.

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What are the different types of research methods?


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Researchers broadly define quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods. 

  • Quantitative methods focus on producing objectively measurable data outputs that measure social phenomena in numerical terms. 
  • Qualitative methods emphasise the use of 'thick descriptions', i.e. deep insights full of details and particularities about each research subject. They are typically presented in a narrative format.
  • Mixed methods combine the use of both perspectives - that can, therefore, be called methodological pluralism.  

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What are the different types of data in research methods?

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Researchers collect primary and secondary data. Using primary data involves using data collected by the researcher first-hand, whilst using secondary data means using someone else's research outputs. Data can also be of quantitative and qualitative nature.

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What is operationalisation?


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Operationalization is the process of transforming concepts into measurable units by adopting an indicator or a proxy. For example, researchers can measure performance by using standardised test results.


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What is quantitative and qualitative data?


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  • Quantitative data is used to measure social phenomena in numerical, statistical or analytical terms. For example, you could measure the height of your classmates in numerical terms, eg 162cm, 175cm etc;
  • Qualitative data is used to describe phenomena examined in categorical terms. Using the same example, you could ask your classmates to describe each other using categories “short”, “medium height” and “tall”. 


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What are mixed methods? 


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Mixed methods combine qualitative and quantitative methods in pursuit of a more detailed picture of a social phenomenon.

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What is triangulation?


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Triangulation is a technique that facilitates the validation of data through cross-verification from two or more sources.


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What is methodological pluralism?


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Methodological pluralism involves adopting the use of a variety of sources due to believing that no single research approach is superior to another.


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What are the advantages of using primary data?


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1) Collected first-hand, no need to rely on another sociologist's figures.

2) It is the most up-to-date data.

3) Can present unexpected findings and steer the research in a new direction.

4) Data collected is unique to the specific research project.

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What are the disadvantages of using primary data?


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1) Some primary methods can be expensive, time-consuming, or even dangerous (eg conducting ethnographic research in a cannibalistic tribe).

2) Can be unethical if you do not have informed consent from the participants (eg cover observations).

3) Researchers' own values may bias the process.

4) The group you may be interested to study may not be accessible (eg too far away or may not want to participate)

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What are the advantages of using secondary data?


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1) Easy access to data, e.g. ONS website.

2) No need to seek informed consent.

3) Your values will not influence the data as it was collected by someone else.

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What are the disadvantages of using secondary data?


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1) If the data is unreliable, ungeneralisable or invalid, you may need to search for alternative sources.

2) Documents (eg old paintings or archive documents) may not be authentic or credible.

3) Official statistics may have a bias.

4) The data you need may not be available in the format that you require.

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What is Marxism?


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Marxism is a conflict theory that believes capitalist society is based on inequalities between the bourgeoisie (ruling capitalist class) and proletariat (working class).

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According to Marxism, what is the most important part of society?

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The economy is the most important part of society. Whoever is in control of the economy is in control of society.

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 What does the bourgeoisie own?


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The bourgeoisie has ownership of the means of production and relations of production.

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What is the role of the superstructure in ideological control?

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The superstructure reproduces bourgeoisie ideas and values, which helps to maintain the status quo and uphold the capitalist agenda.

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What is meant by false class consciousness?

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False class consciousness is the delusion held by the proletariat that its living and working conditions are normal.

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According to Marx, what needs to occur before the overthrow of capitalism?

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Before the overthrow of capitalism, the proletariat must become aware of its exploitation. 

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What was Gramsci's view of false class consciousness?

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Gramsci disagreed with Marx's idea that the proletariat does not know of its exploitation. He claimed the proletariat has dual consciousness, which means it is aware of its exploitation.

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What is a counter-hegemony?

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A counter-hegemony is the formation of ideas and values that oppose bourgeoisie ideology. According to Gramsci, a counter-hegemony is necessary to overthrow capitalism.

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What are the levels of control in capitalist society as claimed by Althusser?

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The levels of control are the economic, political and ideological levels.

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According to Althusser, how could a communist society form and is this different from what Marx suggested?

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Althusser claimed a communist society could form after the capitalist structure collapses, especially after a crisis. This is different from Marx's suggestion, as Marx stated that the proletariat could form a communist society after gaining consciousness of its exploitation.

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What does feminism in sociology study?

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Feminism in sociology studies the theory that society is based on inequalities between men and women. It is a conflict theory and has many different branches of feminism.

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According to feminist theory, what is the reason for gender inequality in society?


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The reason for gender inequality in society is the patriarchal structure of society. Feminists claim that society has been built by and for men at the expense of women. This leads to gender inequality as men have more power and status in society than women.

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How do liberal feminists seek to achieve change?


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Liberal feminists seek to use legal means to achieve change, namely through legislation and changes in the public spheres. An example of a liberal feminist achievement is the Equal Pay Act (1970) in the UK.

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What is a criticism of liberal feminism?


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 A criticism of liberal feminism is that it is an ethnocentric movement that does not consider different forms of oppression faced by women around the world. Another criticism is that legal changes do not ensure gender equality because there are still gender pay gaps despite equal pay laws.

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What do Marxist feminists state is the main reason for patriarchy?


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Marxist feminists state the main reason for patriarchy is the capitalist structure, which requires the exploitation of women to maintain the capitalist agenda.

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What is a strength of Marxist feminism?


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Any of the following options are acceptable answers:

  • Marxist feminism recognises the impact of social class on gender inequality. 
  • It recognises that the oppression of women is unnatural.
  • As the oppression of women started in capitalist societies, it can be traced back to those points in history.
  • Marxist feminism rejects biological determinist arguments, e.g., that men are in control because they are inherently smarter than women.

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According to radical feminism, what is the 'triple shift'?


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According to radical feminists, the 'triple shift' refers to the triple burden placed on women. The 'triple shift' claims that women have to carry out paid work, domestic work and emotional labour to take care of their husbands and children.

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Why do radical feminists not see the ability for women to do paid work as liberating?

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They argue that women now carry out a dual burden of paid work and domestic work, which continues to be primarily carried out by women. In this way, men benefit from women's unpaid labour.

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Apart from the critique that radical feminism ignores progress and achievements made by women, what are the weaknesses of radical feminism?


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The other weaknesses of radical feminism include the assumption that all women believe they are oppressed. Some women are complicit in their own oppression, which suggests not all women see the system as patriarchal. In addition, separating the two sexes is seen as unrealistic and extreme.

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How does postmodern feminism differ from other branches of feminism?


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Postmodern feminism differs from other branches of feminism in that it seeks to address differences in the oppression of women around the world. It takes into account race, culture, and sexuality as intersecting with patriarchy.

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What does a sociological theory aim to do?

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A sociological theory aims to explain social phenomena, societal structures, and how and why they are the way they are.

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What are two theories falling under the conflict paradigm?


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Two theories falling under the conflict paradigm are the theories of Marxism and feminism.

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How does the symbolic interactionist paradigm differ from the structural-functionalist and conflict paradigms?


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The symbolic interactionist paradigm differs from the structural-functionalist and conflict paradigms because it is interested in small-scale interactions between individuals and the meanings given to such interactions. In comparison, the structural-functionalist and conflict paradigms are interested in large-scale societal structures and processes.

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Which TWO of the following types of data are not primary data?

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Government statistics on education policies

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What is positivism?


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Positivism is the belief that sociologists should use quantitative research methods to study society and social phenomena. This is because positivists believe society has 'laws' and objective realities.

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What is interpretivism?


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Interpretivism is the belief that sociologists should use qualitative research methods to study society and social phenomena. This is because interpretivists believe individuals shape society and interact with their own perceptions of society. Therefore, gaining a deeper understanding of such perceptions is how we can best study society.

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What are important research considerations for sociologists before undertaking research?


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Important research considerations for sociologists before undertaking research are time, costs, research methods, and ethical issues.

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Why does a sociologist need to keep their own values ​​out of research?


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Sociologist needs to keep their own values ​​out of research because these may influence the research. If the research is influenced, the findings may not be reliable or valid.

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What are sociological theories?


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Sociological theories are ideas and explanations about how societies operate and change. They aim to explain why societies work the way they do. Sociological theories often fall under the three overarching paradigms of sociology.

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What do functionalists compare society to?


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Functionalists compare society to a human body, in that every organ has its own purpose and they are all needed for a functioning society.

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What feature of the societal structure do Marxists deem the most important and why?


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The most important feature of the societal structure is the economy because all other institutions are based on it. Therefore, whoever controls the economy controls society.

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What does feminism claim is the root cause of gender inequality in society?


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Feminism claims the patriarchal structure of society creates gender inequality due to the inherent favouritism and bias towards men.

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What is different about the way interactionism sees society in comparison to other sociological theories?


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Interactionism looks at small-scale interactions between people rather than theorising society on larger scales. It believes that our daily interactions help us shape society.

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Question

Which one of these may NOT be a result of a postmodernist society?

a. Believing that our identity is complex.

b. Incorporating diversity and global influences in the workplace.

c. Engaging in organised religious practices.

d. Considering the human impact on the environment.

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Answer

Option C is unlikely to be a result of postmodern society. While many still participate in organised religious practices, postmodernists argue that individuals are much more likely to 'pick and mix' from different religions and their practices.

Show question

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