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Home  /  Sociology


What is Sociology? by Elisa Padilla

Sociology is the social science that studies groups of people and the society they inhabit.  Whereas Psychology studies the individual and how they are impacted by society, Sociology focuses on how groups create and even define a society.  Sociologists generate theories about social issues such as the role of gender roles, crime, age, racism, and culture through three theoretical perspectives:  Functionalist, Conflict and Symbolic Interactionist. Over the course of the semester you will learn to view various themes in sociology through those theoretical perspectives.  This course serves as a good introduction to the study of Sociology and will give you a solid foundation if you choose to take a Sociology course at the college level.  

Chapter 1: Intro to Sociology

The Sociological Perspective Sociology is the scientific study of social structure, examining human social behavior from a group, rather than an individual, perspective. Sociologists focus on the patterns of behavior shared by members of a group or society. The sociological perspective enables us to develop a sociological imagination—the ability to see the relationship between events in our personal lives and events in society. Using our sociological imagination helps us to make our own decisions rather than merely conform, and to question common interpretations of human social behavior.

The Origins of Sociology Sociology is a relatively young science, beginning in late nineteenth-century Europe during a time of great social upheaval. Intellectuals such as Auguste Comte, Harriet Martineau, Emile Durkheim, and others began to explore ideas for regaining a sense of community and restoring order. After World War II, however, the greatest development of sociology has taken place in the United States. Two early contributors were activists Jane Addams and W.E.B. DuBois, who helped focus people’s attention on social issues.

Theoretical Perspectives Sociology includes three major theoretical perspectives. Functionalism focuses on the contributions of each part of society; the conflict perspective looks at conflict, competition, change, and constraint within a society; and symbolic interactionism considers the actual interaction among people. Each of these perspectives provides a different slant on human social behavior, so by considering all three perspectives together we can see most of the important dimensions of human social behavior.

Chapter 3: Culture

The Basis of CultureCulture consists of the knowledge, language, values, customs, and physical objects that are passed from generation to generation among members of a group. It defines how people in a society behave in relation to others and to physical objects. Although among animals most behavior is determined by instincts, human social behavior is learned. Sociobiologists try to find a relationship among heredity, culture, and behavior.

Language and Culture One very important medium for transmitting and teaching culture is language. The hypothesis of linguistic relativity states that our idea of reality depends largely upon language; that is, our perceptions of the world depend in part on the particular language we have learned.

Norms and Values Two essential components of culture are norms and values. Norms are rules that define appropriate and inappropriate behavior; folkways, mores, and laws are three basic types of norms found in societies. Norms must be learned and are enforced through sanctions. Values are general and broad ideas shared by people in a society about what is good or desirable. They have a tremendous influence on human social behavior because they form the basis for norms. In the United States, examples of basic values include equality, democracy, and achievement and success.

Beliefs and Material Culture Along with norms and values, beliefs and physical objects also make up culture. Beliefs are part of the non-material culture. People base their behavior on beliefs, regardless of whether these are true or false. Material culture consists of concrete objects which gain meaning through the context in which they are placed. Sometimes in a culture, a gap exists between cultural guidelines and actual behavior. Ideal culture refers to cultural guidelines publicly embraced by member of a society, while real culture refers to actual behavior patterns.

Cultural Diversity and Similarity Cultures change over time according to three major processes—discovery, invention, and diffusion. Although cultural diversity exists within all societies, people tend to be committed to their culture—a behavior called ethnocentrism. However, some cultural traits called cultural universals can be found in all societies.

Chapter 4: Socialization

The Importance of Socialization Socialization is the cultural process of learning to participate in group life. It begins at birth and continues throughout life, and without it, we would not develop many of the characteristics we associate with being human.

Socialization and the Self All three theoretical perspectives agree that socialization is needed if cultural and societal values are to be learned. Symbolic interactionists, however, have the most extensive interpretation of the relationship between socialization and human nature. They use a number of concepts—the self-concept, the looking-glass self, significant others, role taking, and the generalized other—to explain the processes of socialization.

Agents of Socialization Various agents influence the socialization of a person, namely the family, school, peer groups, and mass media. For children, the peer group is the only agent of socialization not controlled primarily by adults.

Processes of Socialization Symbolic interactionism views socialization as a lifelong process. Learning new behaviors and skills is important to socialization, and it occurs through four major processes—desocialization, resocialization, anticipatory socialization, and reference groups.

Chapter 5: Social Structure & Society

Social Structure and Status The underlying pattern of social relationships in a group is called social structure, and it helps us to know how to act in various group situations. The major elements of social structure are statuses and roles. Status describes the position a person occupies in a social structure; it may be ascribed or achieved.

Social Structure and Roles An expected behavior associated with a particular status is called a role. Roles describe behaviors—rights are behaviors that individuals expect from others, while obligations are behaviors that individuals are expected to perform toward others. Conflict or strain sometimes results when a person has too many roles to play.

Preindustrial Societies Societies are categorized as preindustrial, which can include hunting and gathering, horticultural, pastoral, or agricultural; industrial; or postindustrial. The culture and social structure of a society are greatly affected by the way the society provides for basic needs. For example, hunting and gathering societies are small and nomadic; they are based on cooperation and sharing with little concept of ownership or status.

Chapter 6: Groups and Formal Organizations

Primary and Secondary Groups A group is composed of people who share several features: they must be in regular contact with one another; share some ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving; take one another’s behavior into account; and have one or more interests or goals in common. Groups are classified according to how they develop and function. Primary groups meet emotional and support needs, while secondary groups are impersonal and goal oriented.Other Groups and Networks Reference groups are important in helping us evaluate ourselves and form identities.
The formation of in-groups and out-groups demonstrates how groups form boundaries. A social network consists of all of a person’s social relationships.Types of Social Interaction Five types of social interaction are basic to group life. Cooperation occurs when individuals or groups combine their efforts to reach a common goal. Conflict can arise when groups or individuals work against one another. In social exchange, one person voluntarily does something for another and expects a reward in return. Coercion implies forcing others to give in, while conformity is behavior that matches group expectations.
Formal Organizations Two other types of groups are formal organizations and informal organizations. A formal organization is deliberately created to achieve one or more long-term goals. The most easily recognizable examples of formal organizations are bureaucracies. Informal organizations are groups within a formal organization in which personal relationships are guided by norms, rituals, and sentiments that are not part of the formal organization.

Chapter 7: Deviance & Social Control

Deviance and Social ControlDeviance refers to behavior that departs from societal or group norms, but it is difficult to define because not everyone agrees on what should be considered deviant behavior. Deviance may be either positive—involving behavior that overconforms to expectations, or negative—involving behavior that underconforms to accepted norms. All societies employ various means of social control to promote conformity to norms.

Functionalism and Deviance According to functionalists, deviance has both negative and positive consequences for society. A negative effect of deviance is that it erodes trust; benefits of deviance to society can be that it acts as a temporary safety valve and increases unity within a society or group. The strain theory and control theory of deviance are based on the functionalist perspective.

Symbolic Interactionism and Deviance Symbolic interactionists support the differential association theory of deviance—that deviance is transmitted through socialization. This perspective also yields the labeling theory, which states that an act is deviant only if other people identify it so. Symbolic interactionists also distinguish degrees of deviance—primary deviance describes isolated acts of deviance by a person, while secondary deviance refers to deviance as a lifestyle and a personal identity.

Conflict Theory and Deviance The conflict perspective looks at deviance in terms of social inequality and power. The rich and powerful use their positions to determine which acts are deviant and how deviants should be punished. Supporters of this theory believe that minorities receive unequal treatment in the American criminal justice system.

Crime and Punishment Crime statistics in the United States are gathered by the FBI and the Census Bureau. Juvenile crime—legal violations committed by those under 18 years of age—are the third largest category of crime in the United States. Various methods are employed to try to discourage crime, including deterrence, retribution, incarceration, and rehabilitation.

Chapter 8: Social Stratification

Dimensions of StratificationStratification is the division of society into classes that have unequal amounts of wealth, power, and prestige. The members of each particular social class hold similar amounts of scarce resources and share values, norms, and an identifiable lifestyle. Karl Marx and Max Weber made the most significant early contributions to the study of social stratification. Marx explained the importance of the economic foundations of social classes, while Weber emphasized the prestige and power aspects of stratification.

Explanations of Stratification Each of the three major theoretical perspectives explains stratification of society in a different way. According to functionalists, stratification assures that the most qualified people fill the most important positions, that these people perform their tasks competently, and that they are rewarded for the efforts. Inequality exists because some jobs are more important than others and often involve special talent and training. The conflict theory states that inequality exists because some people are willing to exploit others—stratification is based on force rather than people voluntarily agreeing to it. Symbolic interactionism focuses on how people are socialized to accept the existing stratification system.

Social Classes in America Sociologists have identified several social classes in the United States—the upper class, the middle class, the working class and the working poor, and the underclass. Most Americans think of themselves as middle class; in reality, however, only about 40 to 50 percent of Americans actually fit this description.

Poverty in America Poverty is widespread throughout the United States, with African Americans, Latinos, women, and children making up a disproportionately large percentage of the poor. In recent years, welfare reform has been undertaken. While it has succeeded in reducing the number of people receiving welfare, most of its former recipients hold low-paying jobs and continue to live in poverty.

Social Mobility Social mobility, the movement of people between social classes, is usually measured by changes in occupational status. Social mobility can be horizontal or vertical; sociologists are most interested in vertical mobility. Societies are classified as having either caste or open-class systems depending on the degree of social mobility that is possible. Although the United States provides considerable opportunities for advancement, great leaps in social-class level are rare.

Chapter 9: Inequalities of Race and Ethnicity

Minorities, Race, and Ethnicity Sociologists have developed specific definitions and characteristics to differentiate the terms minority, race, and ethnicity. A minority is a group of people with physical or cultural traits different from those of the dominant group in society. A race is people who share certain inherited physical characteristics that are considered important within a society. An ethnic group is one identified by cultural, religious, or national characteristics. Negative attitudes toward ethnic minorities exist in part because of ethnocentrism.

Racial and Ethnic Relations Generally, minority groups are either accepted by a society—which leads to assimilation, or they are rejected—which leads to conflict. Patterns of assimilation in the United States include Anglo-conformity, melting pot, cultural pluralism, and accommodation. Three basic patterns of conflict are subjugation, population transfer, and genocide—the most extreme form of conflict.

Theories of Prejudice and Discrimination To a sociologist, prejudice refers to widely held preconceptions of a group and its individual members. It involves a generalization based on biased or insufficient information. Racism is an extreme form of prejudice. Prejudice usually leads to discrimination. Functionalists recognize that by fostering prejudice, a dominant group can create a feeling of superiority over minority groups and thus strengthen its own members’ self concepts. According to conflict theorists, a majority uses prejudice and discrimination as weapons of power to control a minority. Symbolic interactionists believe that members of a society learn to be prejudiced.

Minority Groups in the United States Minorities in the United States continue to suffer from what sociologists call institutionalized discrimination. This type of discrimination results from unfair practices that are part of the structure of society and that have grown out of traditional, accepted behavior. It has caused some racial and ethnic groups to lag behind the white majority in jobs, income, and education. Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and white ethnics are the largest minority groups in the United States.

Chapter 10: Inequality of Gender and Age

Sex and Gender IndentityAll societies expect people to behave in certain ways based on their gender. Sociologists are part of an ongoing debate over whether biology or socialization plays a greater role in gender differences. Most argue that gender-related behavior is not primarily the result of biology, but rather that through socialization, members of a society acquire an awareness of themselves as masculine or feminine.

Theoretical Perspectives on Gender Since functionalists argue that any pattern of behavior that does not benefit society will eventually disappear, they believe that the division of responsibilities between males and females survived because it benefited human living. They recognize that today, however, the traditional division has created dysfunctions for society. Conflict theory looks at the reasons why gender differences continue to exist. They see traditional gender roles as outdated and inappropriate for the industrial and postindustrial era. Symbolic interactionists focus on the process of gender socialization.

Gender Inequality Although significant progress has been made, women continue to be subject to prejudice and discrimination—or sexism. Women face occupational and economic inequality, and various laws even show a bias against women. Women also hold a relatively small proportion of important political positions.

Ageism The relatively low regard for older people in American society is based on ageism—a set of beliefs, attitudes, norms, and values used to justify prejudice and discrimination against a certain age group. According to functionalists, elderly people are treated according to the role the aged play in a particular society. For conflict theorists, competition over scarce resources lies at the heart of ageism—elderly people compete with other age groups for economic resources, power, and prestige. Symbolic interactionists believe that negative images of older people are products of socialization just as are other aspects of culture.

Inequality in America’s Elderly Population Large segments of America’s elderly live either in poverty or near poverty. Given their limited economic resources, any power held by older people is gained through the political process—particularly voting and political interest groups.