Sociological Approach

What is sociology? What exactly does it cover and explain? These are logical questions for a first-timer delving into the theoretical world of sociology. 

Sociological Approach Sociological Approach

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Table of contents

    We will outline some of the key topics and concepts covered in the sociological approach.

    The Sociological Approach, individuals on a train, StudySmarterSociologists study the development, structure, and collective behaviour of organised groups of human beings. Unsplash.com.

    The sociological approach to human behaviour

    Let's clarify what we mean by sociology and then go over social processes, structures and issues that intrigue sociologists.

    What is sociology?

    Sociology is the systematic study of the development, structure, interaction, and collective behaviour of organised groups of human beings (Merriam-Webster, 2022).

    The sociological approach refers to using theory and experience to go beyond everyday understandings of people and situations. Sociologists study a range of subjects, and they have to make sure what they're saying goes beyond 'common sense'. Ways to ensure this are to conduct research using specific sociological methods and to read all the key literature on a subject (a literature review).

    Below you will find a list of topics that sociologists might typically study:

    • Crime

    • The media

    • Family life and structures

    • Health, illness and disability

    • Religion

    • The education system

    • Social class and poverty

    • Gender and inequality

    • Ethnicity and racism

    Questions sociologists may ask in relation to these questions include:

    • How has family structure changed over time?

    • Does our education system contribute to gender stereotyping?

    • Is religion an opiate of the masses?

    • Are income and wealth evenly distributed throughout society?

    Have a go and try and answer the questions yourself. There is no right or wrong answer, but by questioning things, you will begin to develop your sociological imagination.

    Social structures, processes, and issues

    Sociologists are intrigued by the various aspects of society and how they work (or don’t work) together. The term social structure refers to particular parts of society, the media, family, the education system, etc.

    Sociologists also dispute the role of social processes such as socialisation, which refers to how children learn the norms and values of the culture they live in.

    Social control is another process that interests sociologists. When considering power, sociologists ask questions such as:

    • Where is power concentrated in society?

    • How far with groups go in order to maintain their power?

    • How do laws benefit those with the most power?

    You may have heard of social issues - these refer to problems that affect communities. Social issues can be and include:

    • Sexism

    • Racism

    • Homophobia

    • Inflation

    • Homelessness

    • Teenage pregnancy rates

    Can you think of any social issues which impact your community in particular?

    Key sociological concepts

    In this section, we will explore three key concepts that sociologists often refer to; culture, norms, and values.

    Culture

    Put simply; culture refers to a particular community's way of life. Consider British culture as an example. As the picture below highlights, drinking tea is seen as part of the British way of life.

    Cultural norms can differ greatly. In Ecuador, it is common for people to eat guinea pigs. Is this common in your community?

    When theorising about ways of life, sociologists recognise that cultures can vary in many ways. When comparing British to American culture, we may instantly notice differences in spelling, but there are also bigger differences, e.g. how the education systems are set up.

    The Sociological Approach, a cup of tea with cookies, StudySmarterDrinking black tea with milk has become part of the British way of life. Unsplash.com.

    Norms

    Norms are typically specific to a situation. They are reinforced through positive and negative reinforcement.

    Values

    Values are our ideals on what is right or wrong and to be strived for. They provide us with guidelines for proper conduct.

    Key classical sociologists

    Below, we will touch on some of the key theorists you will encounter during your sociological studies.

    Émile Durkheim

    Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist who is considered one of the "fathers" of sociology. He contributed ideas such as social solidarity.

    Durkheim published very influential works such as The Division of Labour in Society and The Rules of the Sociological Method.

    Talcott Parsons

    Talcott Parsons was an American sociologist often associated with the theory of functionalism. Parsons thought of society as operating similarly to a human body. Parsons contributed ideas such as role allocation.

    Among his notable works is The Social System.

    Karl Marx

    One of the most significant sociologists of all time is Karl Marx. The creator of the theory of Marxism, Marx argued that society is divided into the ruling class and working class. The ruling class own the means of production, while the working class must work to sustain themselves. According to Marx, there will always be a struggle between these two classes, which can only be resolved through a communist revolution.

    Marx published Capital and the Communist Manifesto.

    Max Weber

    Max Weber is another theorist who is central to the study of sociology. Weber, like Marx, was intrigued by the development of capitalism and social class. He agreed with Marx that property ownership was one of the main defining features of social class. But unlike Marx, he saw social class as more complicated than that.

    Weber was also intrigued by social stratification and power.

    Social Stratification refers to the way society is structured or divided into layers (stratas).

    According to Weber, power was the means by which groups and individuals went about influencing each other.

    The consensus versus conflict debate

    Consensus versus conflict is a sociological debate about how the social world functions.

    The consensus position believes that society is generally stable, apart from a few quirks in the system. On the other hand, the conflict position argues that many of the institutions in society partake in exploitation and oppression.

    What are the main sociological theories?

    In the next few sections, we will explore some of the key sociological theories.

    Functionalism

    Functionalists believe each institution in society works together like organs in a body. If one part or one organ of the body is working inefficiently, then the body will malfunction. Therefore, all parts are necessary for the proper functioning of society. When considering the education system, for example, functionalists argue it plays a role in creating social solidarity. The process of a child developing a sense of belonging to the nation.

    Functionalist theorists include Durkheim and Parsons.

    Evaluations of functionalism

    • Functionalists are often criticized for their overly uncritical view of society and its institutions.

    • Marxists highlight that the ruling class exerts the greatest influence over institutions.

    Marxism

    Marxism is a type of conflict theory that develops the ideas conceptualised by Karl Marx. Marxism argues that there is a class struggle between the working class (the proletariat) and the ruling class (the bourgeoisie). The ruling class, who have modified institutions to suit their purpose, exploit the working class for economic gain.

    To achieve class equality, the working class must bring about a revolution which will end capitalism and establish a communist system. Within the sociological approach, modern-day Marxists are referred to as Neo-Marxists.

    Evaluations of Marxism

    • Functionalists would argue Marxists have a pessimistic view of society and that institutions such as the education system play a clear role in preparing the future generation for future roles. Consider for example a doctor, GCSE Biology provides them with the foundation knowledge to progress to A-Level Biology and then further on to medical school.

    • Feminists would agree with some Marxist claims, pointing out that capitalism exploits women by, for example, paying women less.

    Feminism

    Feminists are interested in how patriarchal (male-dominated) society treats women and men unequally. They examine social processes and institutions and point out how they oppress and control women.

    Feminists are not a monolith. As you engage with the perspective further, you will come to differentiate between liberal, Marxist, socialist, and radical feminists. Feminism is important to the sociological approach as it explores gender and power relations throughout society.

    Evaluations of feminism

    • Functionalists would argue society is a meritocracy whereby anyone can achieve if they work hard enough
    • Marxist feminists would argue against liberal feminists who believe legal changes are enough to empower women, arguing that a communist overthrow of the system is necessary

    Symbolic Interactionism

    Symbolic interactionism is a significant sociological perspective. In many ways, interactionism overlooks structure, focusing on individual action.

    Howard S. Becker created the “labelling theory”, which argues that people are labelled by others and through internalising these labels, they perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy and come to believe these ideas of themselves.

    Evaluation of symbolic interactionism

    • Marxists would argue symbolic interactionists place too much emphasis on individual action when the bourgeoisie are structurally exploiting the working class.
    • However, unlike the other theories, symbolic interactionism recognises the role of internalised, personal action in shaping an individual's life.

      The Sociological Approach - Key takeaways

      • Sociology is the systematic study of the development, structure, interaction, and collective behaviour of organised groups of human beings (Merriam-Webster, 2022). The sociological approach refers to using theory and experience to go beyond everyday understandings of people and situations.
      • Functionalists believe each institution in society works together like organs in a body. If one part or one organ of the body is working inefficiently, then the body will malfunction.
      • Marxism argues that there is a class struggle between the working class (the proletariat) and the ruling class (the bourgeoisie). The ruling class, who have modified institutions to suit their purpose, exploit the working class for economic gain.
      • Feminists are interested in how patriarchal (male-dominated) society treats women and men unequally. They examine social processes and institutions and point out how they oppress and control women.
      • Interactionism focuses on the impact of individual actions, behaviours, and labels in shaping society. It is different from other sociological approaches because it is not structural.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sociological Approach

    What is a Sociological Approach?

    The Sociological Approach refers to using theory and experience to go beyond everyday understandings of people and situations. Sociologists study a range of subjects and they have to make sure what they're saying goes beyond 'common sense'.

    What is a positivist approach in sociology?

    The positivist approach in sociology is the consensus position. 

    What are the 5 sociological approaches?

    The 5 sociological approaches include Functionalism, Marxism, Feminism, Interactionism, and Neo-Liberalism. 

    What are the major approaches and theories of sociology?

    Functionalism, Marxism, and Feminism are major sociological approaches. 

    What is a theoretical approach in sociology?

    A theoretical approach is a theory devised to explain a (or many) social phenomena. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of these statements is true?

    Which theoretical approach suggests that humans have very little control over their thoughts and actions?

    The theory most famously associated with the consensus approach is...

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