Week 0 – Starting Points Ch. 1

Starting Points:

Estimated Reading Time 00:16:59

Chapter 1
Question: How did sociology come about?

  • Auguste Comte – sociology in early 19th century
  • Plato through The Republic
  • Enlightenment

General opinion: sociology emerged in response to modernization, need new ideas about the MOST RATIONAL way to organize society

Emerged after Industrial revolution and the French revolution. You know.

The sociological triumvirate:
Multiple paradigms but too confusing so this book is a fusion.

Sociology due to its social nature will inevitably be plagued by inherent bias “determined by [the observer’s] position in society”
“No one can be a perfect reader of the outside world.”
This is a sort of “elephant in the room” in sociological discussions.

Sociology: a systematic study of social behaviour or society
Society: the largest-scale human group whose members interact with one another, share a common geographic territory, and share common institutions.

Functions of sociology:

  1. Understand other cultures (Herodotus, Voltaire)
  2. Find better ways to live together (i.e. consequences of industrialization and how to deal with it)

When doing sociology, don’t blame. It’s easy to blame. But don’t. You’re better than that.
In fact, everyone is to blame for something. By simply living in the first world we are contributing to problems in the third world as we fuel demands for industrial exploitation, etc.

Unlike general population sociologists find “common sense” not enough. Study and research is the scientific method. For example do you know school bullies are often victims?

But sociologists avoid psychological explanations for a widespread social phenomenon.
Psychology – case by case. Sociology – societal causes for mass behaviour.
Many psychological problems have social origins.

Another topic of study of sociology: distribution of social rewards.

The average person thinks that people get what they deserve. But sociologists note that people may lead bad lives due to situation beyond their control. E.g. caste system, etc.


study of social institutions and large social groups

Functional Theory

Views society as a set of interconnected parts that work together to preserve the overall stability and efficiency of the whole. Like, an ant hive. Or an RLC circuit. Or homeostasis. Or Gaia theory. Or Zerg.
Textbook examples: families, economy, government, education, etc.

Robert Merton – Social Theory and Social Structure (1957): social institutions perform both manifest (obvious) and latent (unobvious) functions.
e.g. Education:
manifest – knowledge, skills, “leaders of tomorrow”
latent – babysitting services so that parents can actually go away and work; matchmaking so that you may meet your significant other
e.g. by DURKHEIM: crime.
manifest – benefits the lawbreaker
latent – benefits society by enhancing solidarity

Latent functions are considered latent because they aren’t intended (or typically admitted).

This distinction helps us understand how every social institution has a purpose. With this you can do analysis in system dynamics to determine cause and effect and predict systemic behaviours and consequences.

Functionalists explain social problems by focusing on failure of institutions. DURKHEIM introduces term anomie (normlessness) to reflect tumultuous times.

Critical Theory

Arises out of conflicts between “haves” and “have-nots”. Unequal distribution.
Views society as a collection of groups (especially social classes) that are constantly involved in a power struggle. Like Prometheus with that falcon that eats away at his liver but then his liver grows back again immediately, you know? Or Sisyphus and the cruel laughing gods described by the Greeks then echoed by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus? Good book by the way. I think every well-educated person should read it.

Originated from MARX. Class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat. Economic inequality. Capitalistic exploitation. Alienation (in the Marxist sense; it’s really well depicted in Chaplin’s movie Modern Times; good movie).

Marxist solution? Abolish the bourgeoisie (by forcible overthrowing).

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

Proletarier aller Länder vereinigt Euch! Proletariats of the world, unite!

WEBER on the other hand wasn’t so extreme and so just described status groups instead.

Symbolic Interactionism

Focuses on small-group interactions – the “glue” that holds people together in social relationships. Shared meanings, definitions, interpretations.

Labelling theory – any given social problem is viewed as a problem because influential people say so.
e.g. Howard Becker, 1963 – Marijuana isn’t intrinsically harmful, but “moral entrepreneurs” make a big deal out of it geez I mean come on let’s all get high already forget school partay partay partay #yolo

Herbert Blumer, 1971 – social problems develop like this:
social recognition, social legitimating, mobilization for action, development and implementation of official plan.

Also interested in what happens when people gets labelled as criminals, etc. Role of “stigma” as forms of social control.
(Reputation can make or break a man.)

Feminist Theories

Branch of critical theory concerned with inequality (and power struggle) between man and woman. Socially predefined gender roles. Except women’s role is more costly and dangerous than men’s role. (O_O traditionally men go to war! Also do you know how expensive a three-piece suit is?)
(Actually I rectify my statement. Women give birth. That’s a pretty darn important biological function exclusive to the feminine sex. I suppose they should enjoy some prerogatives.)

Domination of women result of socio-economics and ideology. Closure and usurpation by WEBER. Divorce is unfair to women. Women are vulnerable. Women are victimized. Women are disadvantaged. Both in the private sphere and in the public sphere. Patriarchal values in society. Husband raping his wife?! A man that doesn’t respect women is unfit to be called a man.

Postmodern Theories

A form of critical theory but more than that.

Modernism – only one truth. Can change society through social engineering. Postmodernism – rationality is neither sure nor clear, and our knowledge is always limited. Denial of objectivity, but that itself is a paradox. Reality is fragmentary. No universal, knowable truth (gee, so pessimistic). In fact if you look for truth you are a self-deluding snob brainwashed by propaganda. It is the sacred duty of postmodernists to “expose the flaws” of universalizing accounts. There is no normality. There is nothing you can rely on. Everything is an illusion.

Michael Foucault – Discipline and Punish, 1975: modern society is a prison, a panopticon, in which unseen guards are watching your every move. (Speaking of which, check out The Peep Diaries, good book.) This modern prison can lead to super-effective control.

(RANT: Come on, these postmodernists are in too much denial. It’s dangerous. It leads to nihilism. As a human being you need something to live for. A human being without a sense of purpose or fulfillment is a despicable thing.)

Classic Studies: Suicide

Suicide (1897) laid foundation for quantitative methods in modern sociology, and established sociology as a distinct science. Durkheim says that sociology must become more than a new philosophical literature. He based his analysis on “sociological method” – quantitative, systematic analysis on suicide statistics.
“Social facts must be studied as things, as realities external to the individual.”
So group suicide is not merely individual but reflects something about society.

Suicide not purely psychological (which categorizes suicide into maniacal, melancholic, obsessional, and impulsive). But if it were true then there’d be no social patterns, contrary to the case.

Durkheim’s categorization: egoistic, altruistic, and anomic.
Egoistic: when people fall out of social groups, or when group is individualistic.
e.g. Protestants vs. Catholics. So families are important. If you are married you’re less likely to kill yourself. Especially if you are a man. Strong independent women can live alone and resist impulses to kill themselves, men can’t.

Altruistic: suicide as a sense of societal duty.
e.g. Soldiers. Japanese Kamikaze pilots. Suicide bombers.
Reflects too much social integration; motivated by self abnegation (for glory).

Anomic: suicide resulting from absence of social regulation and norms.
e.g. Financial crisis. Natural disasters in New Orleans or Haïti.
People kill themselves because they are confused. They are in distress. They are in pain, and the society isn’t telling them how to live.
(How cowardly.)

General conclusion: rates of suicide inversely proportional to degree of integration. In fact this can be generalized to other deviant behaviour. Mental health needs “stake in conformity”. So Suicide is an important work and a good Starting Point (ha ha! see what I did there?).

Modern Functionalism

Builds on DURKHEIM’s macrosociological view. Sense of equilibrium.

Solution to anomie is to strengthen social norms and slow pace of social change. (How vague, but that brings to mind a reading I did on the Amish society.)

Insufficient social control results in suicide. Functionalists emphasize interconnectedness.

Deviance and Conformity

Foucault – social institutions and groups continuously impose rules on us.
DURKHEIM – without rules we will perish.
Question: when are people likely to break rules? When are people likely to obey them?

All societies allow a margin of deviance. (e.g. you don’t get jailed up if you chewed gum and just spat it out on the floor when you’re done, except maybe in Singapore.) Conformity is easier if we know we can break rules occasionally.

People conform when they gain rewards from conforming. Else they break rules. Functionalist tradition. Social Control Theory. People develop a “stake in conformity” to avoid punishment. (Like that experiment that Milgram did where he made his subjects believe they were actually electrocuting someone, but they were actually not, and he had a good time watching his subjects squirm?) Feeling secure and socially connected, people are unmotivated to deviate.
(Brings to mind The Social Contract by Rousseau. Another essential read indeed.)

Now some people conform to a new set of rules while breaking an old set of rules. Like in revolution. Or when you join a gang.

Rational Choice Theory. People are competing for resources. If they believe that they won’t get caught or punished then they’d break rules. Like cheating in heads up 7-up or something. An interesting commentary can be made about politicians but I’ll shut up now.

DURKHEIM notes that deviance and crime are universal. Is it possible then that deviance and crime are necessary for the well-being of society? Like forest fires?

Functions of Conflict

Deviance and conflict may be normal and universal and healthy.
(It’s true when you think about husband-and-wife relationships. Is it possible to never argue with your spouse and live happily? Perhaps. But in American Beauty the husband and the wife never argued and the wife took a pistol home and husband got shot in the head by the end of the movie. Quite sobering if you think about it.)

DURKHEIM elaborates on mutual dependency and the division of labour in this book The Division of Labor in Society (1893).

Critical Theory

Conflicts focuses attention. Like demonstrations and stuff. Ideology of the dominant social class is dominant ideology, which justifies that class’s power and wealth and prevents lesser classes from rebellion. (Like how some animals are more equal than others.) WEBER and MARX. WEBER interested in “status”, a more general classification than classes. Frankfurt school of sociology to distinguish academic Marxism from political Marxism.

Conflicts over Power and Authority

Power: ability to get your own way or get others to do what you want.

Authority: “legitimate power”.

  • Traditional: this is what we’ve always done, so do it
  • Rational-legal: this is fair, so do it
  • Charismatic: I’m so attractive, oh won’t you do it for me darling (well more like Jesus, Gandhi, Hitler)

Marxian class conflict is a subset of Weber’s conflict?!

Classic Studies: The Vertical Mosaic

Canadian critical theorist: John Porter. Best known for his The Vertical Mosaic (1965). Landmark study that proves Canada is a class-based society (unlike popular belief). But Canada, unlike U. S., is also a cultural mosaic of unassimilated groups. He uses sociological theory that draws on Marx and Weber.

Canada is socially stratified with an elite economic oligarchy. (Quite true, when I think about the ridiculous rates Rogers offers). Also an ethnic division. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) tend to fare better. Native American and Inuit tend to do worse.

In Canada, ethnic differences reinforce social inequality. Low-status groups meekly accept their inferior position. “Charter groups” (i.e. English and French Canadians) maintain their historial advantage in part by monopolizing higher education.

Porter calls for opening up of educational system. (Affirmative action!??!) Also calls for cultural assimilation. Widely influential and inspired studies on Canadian elites. e.g. Wallace Clements’s The Canadian Corporate Elite: An Analysis of Economic Power (1975) and Dennis Olsen’s The State and Power (1980). Which showed that the problem Porter identified is getting worse.

Criticism: findings are dated by now; findings are inaccurate. Ethnic origins pose little obstacle, though racial minorities continue to suffer a disadvantage.

This book is significant.

Modern Critical Theories

Dominance and subordination. From Marx – vertical oppression of workers by ruling class.
From Weber, horizontal power struggles where groups compete to seize (usurp) and protect their resources. To protect their resources groups practice closure and exclusivity. To keep dominance groups usurp and raid for resources. Crime and deviance may result as part of struggle.

Classic Studies: Stigma

Let’s talk about Erving Goffman. He was interested in people’s interactions (micro) instead of large social structures (macro). He wrote a book called Stigma (1963). He 1) examined people who are stigmatized and 2) considers how this stigmatization affects their social interactions and sense of self. Back then norm was “young, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight and height, and a recent record in sports“. But there are of course people who don’t fit this norm.

Assumption: people don’t wanna make waves or be subject for ridicule. In social interactions people present themselves as “normal” and follow scripts. But that means they have to hide their dirty little secrets through passing and covering.

Passing: effort to hide discreditable facts about one’s identity.
e.g. making up stories about his past, denying discreditable stories. Ex-convicts. Blind people make an effort to look towards speaking voice.
But what if your features are visible? Passing is not always feasible.

Covering: for visible stigma. Manages tension in interaction, and diverts attention away from visible stigma.
e.g. wearing large dark glasses for disfigurement around eyes. Artificial limbs. Name-changing to fit the majority.

What if these techniques don’t work? People devise strategies for dealing with pains — to spend time only with people like themselves. e.g. segregation.

Criticism: little firsthand interview data. Mostly qualitative analysis. Goffman had little contact with people he wrote about. Unrigourous.
But still, this work is considered “seminal” to many.

Key Ideas of Symbolic Interactionism

Society as a product of face-to-face interaction between people using symbols. Language is a symbol, etc. Studies how social structures arise out of processes by which people understand each other. Georg Simmel studied urbanization and its alienating effects in 1950s. Culture in modern societies is fluid and not static.

“Definition of the Situation” – shared understanding of norms and meanings that govern a social situation. e.g. you kiss under mistletoes. This definition emerges out of negotiations. May be formal but often less tangible.

The impressions we give one another affects how people interact with us. Especially first impressions. They matter. So don’t go on interviews with a black turtleneck and blue jeans unless you’re equivalent or greater than Steve Jobs.

Social Constructionism

Examines how people interact to create a shared social reality. Berger and Luckmann (mnemonic: lucky burger man) claim that all knowledge are created socially. (Which is true! Science is largely a social activity which is why the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is now the most popular, because everyone else who didn’t believe in it all died out.)

So an idea is just an invention of a particular culture or society. Shared meanings is the basis of social order. Erving Goffman (1959) echoed Shakespeare saying that all the life is a stage and we are acting out self-composed scripts.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
-Shakespeare, Macbeth

Why is rose pretty and a cabbage ugly? Because the society as a whole thinks so. Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

Anthony Giddens

Interpreter of ideas of Durkheim, Weber, and Marx. Structuration theory.
In New Rules of Sociological Method (1976), sets out some principles:

  • Sociology is not about objects; people are producing it.
  • (Re)production of society is a skilled performance.
  • Humans are limited (by history, etc.) in what they can produce.
  • Social structures are constraints, but also enablers.
  • Structuration involves interaction between meanings, norms, and power.
  • Sociological observers cannot be fully bias-free. Framings exist.
  • Immersion, not abstraction, is the way to study society.
  • All sociological theories obey a “double hermeneutic”: they reveal both organization of society and organization of its viewer.
  • Task of sociological analysis: reveal structures of society in conceptual language of social science; specifically, explain how human actors manage to produce and reproduce society under constraints.

He revived and refined the sociological goal of positivism, a goal enunciated by Auguste Comte.
Positivism: scientific study conducted in hope of finding “it”. Finding “The Way”. Finding the general principles that apply everywhere. Positivism is polar opposite of postmodernism.

Yet Giddens recognizes the contingency and conditionality of social life. Social structure is not a visible thing, but result of ongoing performances. It has rules but regularities are (subtly) ever-changing.

No diametric opposition between Giddens and postmodernists. His theory still leaves ample room for notion of cultural discourse.

Criticism: providing “grand narratives” of late modernity (huh?). Implication that modernity leads to highly individualized social order which according to Elchardus is not true.

New Insights

Sociologists everywhere are struggling with traditional notions — starting points (I can’t agree more). The scientific/positivistic model is under attack.

Let’s Hear A Story
Erdmans (2007) says “the art of life-story telling” has begun to supplant traditional (scientific) methods in feminism, culture, history of ethnic groups, etc. This method of research incorporates “oral histories, life stories, etc.” in analysis. Story telling allows for the subjects to speak for themselves, instead of being described by some pompous academic.

Which inequalities are more unequal than others? Look at critical race theory (CRT). Race is a fundamental cause of inequality.

Putting Words in a Dead Man’s Mouth
Mills (2009) likens CRT to feminism. They both have many types and subtypes. There may even be Marxist version of CRT though Marx himself had nothing to say about it.

Go On and Add Some Colour
Preston (2008) links civil defence concerns and whiteness. He said that “civil defence pedagogies” focus only to protect white people (esp. middle class).

Marx Would be Proud
Cole (2009) says class relations form the most fundamental inequality. Cole said that Marxist analysis can be used to show awareness of race and gender. Marxist version of CRT is possible. He sees 4 problems with what the CRT call “white supremacy”:

  1. Diverts attention away from modes of production;
  2. Homogenizes all white people;
  3. Fails to consider “non-colour coded racism” (huh?);
  4. Counter-productive as a political unifier against racism (well, duh).

Babay, Babay, Babay, Ohh
Brown (2009) studied how performance of karaoke might reveal about construction of identity. Used karaoke is a “microscopic analysis” of how identity is constructed through performance in everyday life.

Shortest Distance Between Two Points
Slattery (2008) notes that new tram system to Dublin links both working-class and middle-class to centre of city, but not to each other.

Fur Trade in the 21st Century
Sangster (2007) analyzed the Canadian fur industry. Showed how gender, race, and labour interest intersect in creating a fur coat. Takes feminist approach and materialist view.

Creative Commons License
SOC103 Notes by digitalhardhat is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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