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Sociology is the study of human society that focuses on society, human social behavior, patterns of social relationships, social interaction, and aspects of culture associated with everyday life. Regarded as a part of both the social sciences and humanities, sociology uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis: 3–5 to develop a body of knowledge about social order and social change.: 32–40 Sociological subject matter ranges from micro-level analyses of individual interaction and agency to macro-level analyses of social systems and social structure. Applied sociological research may be applied directly to social policy and welfare, whereas theoretical approaches may focus on the understanding of social processes and phenomenological method.
Traditional focuses of sociology include social stratification, social class, social mobility, religion, secularization, law, sexuality, gender, and deviance. Recent studies have added socio-technical aspects of the digital divide as a new focus. As all spheres of human activity are affected by the interplay between social structure and individual agency, sociology has gradually expanded its focus to other subjects and institutions, such as health and the institution of medicine; economy; military; punishment and systems of control; the Internet; sociology of education; social capital; and the role of social activity in the development of scientific knowledge.
The range of social scientific methods has also expanded, as social researchers draw upon a variety of qualitative and quantitative techniques. The linguistic and cultural turns of the mid-20th century, especially, have led to increasingly interpretative, hermeneutic, and philosophical approaches towards the analysis of society. Conversely, the turn of the 21st century has seen the rise of new analytically, mathematically, and computationally rigorous techniques, such as agent-based modelling and social network analysis.
Social research has influence throughout various industries and sectors of life, such as among politicians, policy makers, and legislators; educators; planners; administrators; developers; business magnates and managers; social workers; non-governmental organizations; and non-profit organizations, as well as individuals interested in resolving social issues in general.
Sociological reasoning predates the foundation of the discipline itself. Social analysis has origins in the common stock of universal, global knowledge and philosophy, having been carried out from as far back as the time of old comic poetry which features social and political criticism, and ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. For instance, the origin of the survey can be traced back to at least the Domesday Book in 1086, while ancient philosophers such as Confucius wrote about the importance of social roles.
Medieval Arabic writings encompass a rich tradition that unveils early insights into the field of sociology. Some sources consider Ibn Khaldun, a 14th-century Muslim scholar from Tunisia, to have been the father of sociology, although there is no reference to his work in the writings of European contributors to modern sociology. Khaldun's Muqaddimah was considered to be amongst the first work to advance social-scientific reasoning on social cohesion and social conflict.
The word sociology derives part of its name from the Latin word socius ('companion' or 'fellowship'). The suffix -logy ('the study of') comes from that of the Greek -λογία, derived from λόγος (lógos, 'word' or 'knowledge').
The term sociology was first coined in 1780 by the French essayist Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès in an unpublished manuscript. Sociology was later defined independently by French philosopher of science Auguste Comte (1798–1857) in 1838 as a new way of looking at society.: 10 Comte had earlier used the term social physics, but it had been subsequently appropriated by others, most notably the Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet. Comte endeavored to unify history, psychology, and economics through the scientific understanding of social life. Writing shortly after the malaise of the French Revolution, he proposed that social ills could be remedied through sociological positivism, an epistemological approach outlined in the Course in Positive Philosophy (1830–1842), later included in A General View of Positivism (1848). Comte believed a positivist stage would mark the final era in the progression of human understanding, after conjectural theological and metaphysical phases. In observing the circular dependence of theory and observation in science, and having classified the sciences, Comte may be regarded as the first philosopher of science in the modern sense of the term.
Comte gave a powerful impetus to the development of sociology, an impetus that bore fruit in the later decades of the nineteenth century. To say this is certainly not to claim that French sociologists such as Durkheim were devoted disciples of the high priest of positivism. But by insisting on the irreducibility of each of his basic sciences to the particular science of sciences which it presupposed in the hierarchy and by emphasizing the nature of sociology as the scientific study of social phenomena Comte put sociology on the map. To be sure, [its] beginnings can be traced back well beyond Montesquieu, for example, and to Condorcet, not to speak of Saint-Simon, Comte's immediate predecessor. But Comte's clear recognition of sociology as a particular science, with a character of its own, justified Durkheim in regarding him as the father or founder of this science, even though Durkheim did not accept the idea of the three states and criticized Comte's approach to sociology.— Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy: IX Modern Philosophy (1974), p. 118
Both Comte and Karl Marx set out to develop scientifically justified systems in the wake of European industrialization and secularization, informed by various key movements in the philosophies of history and science. Marx rejected Comtean positivism but in attempting to develop a "science of society" nevertheless came to be recognized as a founder of sociology as the word gained wider meaning. For Isaiah Berlin, even though Marx did not consider himself to be a sociologist, he may be regarded as the "true father" of modern sociology, "in so far as anyone can claim the title.": 130
To have given clear and unified answers in familiar empirical terms to those theoretical questions which most occupied men's minds at the time, and to have deduced from them clear practical directives without creating obviously artificial links between the two, was the principal achievement of Marx's theory. The sociological treatment of historical and moral problems, which Comte and after him, Spencer and Taine, had discussed and mapped, became a precise and concrete study only when the attack of militant Marxism made its conclusions a burning issue, and so made the search for evidence more zealous and the attention to method more intense.: 13–14
Herbert Spencer was one of the most popular and influential 19th-century sociologists. It is estimated that he sold one million books in his lifetime, far more than any other sociologist at the time. So strong was his influence that many other 19th-century thinkers, including Émile Durkheim, defined their ideas in relation to his. Durkheim's Division of Labour in Society is to a large extent an extended debate with Spencer from whose sociology Durkheim borrowed extensively.
Also a notable biologist, Spencer coined the term survival of the fittest. While Marxian ideas defined one strand of sociology, Spencer was a critic of socialism, as well as a strong advocate for a laissez-faire style of government. His ideas were closely observed by conservative political circles, especially in the United States and England.
Foundations of the academic discipline
The first formal Department of Sociology in the world was established in 1892 by Albion Small—from the invitation of William Rainey Harper—at the University of Chicago. The American Journal of Sociology was founded shortly thereafter in 1895 by Small as well.
The institutionalization of sociology as an academic discipline, however, was chiefly led by Émile Durkheim, who developed positivism as a foundation for practical social research. While Durkheim rejected much of the detail of Comte's philosophy, he retained and refined its method, maintaining that the social sciences are a logical continuation of the natural ones into the realm of human activity, and insisting that they may retain the same objectivity, rationalism, and approach to causality. Durkheim set up the first European department of sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 1895, publishing his Rules of the Sociological Method (1895). For Durkheim, sociology could be described as the "science of institutions, their genesis and their functioning."
Durkheim's monograph Suicide (1897) is considered a seminal work in statistical analysis by contemporary sociologists. Suicide is a case study of variations in suicide rates among Catholic and Protestant populations, and served to distinguish sociological analysis from psychology or philosophy. It also marked a major contribution to the theoretical concept of structural functionalism. By carefully examining suicide statistics in different police districts, he attempted to demonstrate that Catholic communities have a lower suicide rate than that of Protestants, something he attributed to social (as opposed to individual or psychological) causes. He developed the notion of objective social facts to delineate a unique empirical object for the science of sociology to study. Through such studies he posited that sociology would be able to determine whether any given society is healthy or pathological, and seek social reform to negate organic breakdown, or "social anomie".
Sociology quickly evolved as an academic response to the perceived challenges of modernity, such as industrialization, urbanization, secularization, and the process of rationalization. The field predominated in continental Europe, with British anthropology and statistics generally following on a separate trajectory. By the turn of the 20th century, however, many theorists were active in the English-speaking world. Few early sociologists were confined strictly to the subject, interacting also with economics, jurisprudence, psychology and philosophy, with theories being appropriated in a variety of different fields. Since its inception, sociological epistemology, methods, and frames of inquiry, have significantly expanded and diverged.
Durkheim, Marx, and the German theorist Max Weber are typically cited as the three principal architects of sociology. Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, Lester F. Ward, W.E.B. Du Bois, Vilfredo Pareto, Alexis de Tocqueville, Werner Sombart, Thorstein Veblen, Ferdinand Tönnies, Georg Simmel, Jane Addams and Karl Mannheim are often included on academic curricula as founding theorists. Curricula also may include Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Marianne Weber, Harriet Martineau, and Friedrich Engels as founders of the feminist tradition in sociology. Each key figure is associated with a particular theoretical perspective and orientation.
Marx and Engels associated the emergence of modern society above all with the development of capitalism; for Durkheim it was connected in particular with industrialization and the new social division of labor which this brought about; for Weber it had to do with the emergence of a distinctive way of thinking, the rational calculation which he associated with the Protestant Ethic (more or less what Marx and Engels speak of in terms of those 'icy waves of egotistical calculation'). Together the works of these great classical sociologists suggest what Giddens has recently described as 'a multidimensional view of institutions of modernity' and which emphasises not only capitalism and industrialism as key institutions of modernity, but also 'surveillance' (meaning 'control of information and social supervision') and 'military power' (control of the means of violence in the context of the industrialisation of war).— John Harriss, The Second Great Transformation? Capitalism at the End of the Twentieth Century (1992)
The first college course entitled "Sociology" was taught in the United States at Yale in 1875 by William Graham Sumner. In 1883, Lester F. Ward, who later became the first president of the American Sociological Association (ASA), published Dynamic Sociology—Or Applied social science as based upon statical sociology and the less complex sciences, attacking the laissez-faire sociology of Herbert Spencer and Sumner. Ward's 1,200-page book was used as core material in many early American sociology courses. In 1890, the oldest continuing American course in the modern tradition began at the University of Kansas, lectured by Frank W. Blackmar. The Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago was established in 1892 by Albion Small, who also published the first sociology textbook: An introduction to the study of society. George Herbert Mead and Charles Cooley, who had met at the University of Michigan in 1891 (along with John Dewey), moved to Chicago in 1894. Their influence gave rise to social psychology and the symbolic interactionism of the modern Chicago School. The American Journal of Sociology was founded in 1895, followed by the ASA in 1905.
The sociological canon of classics with Durkheim and Max Weber at the top owes its existence in part to Talcott Parsons, who is largely credited with introducing both to American audiences. Parsons consolidated the sociological tradition and set the agenda for American sociology at the point of its fastest disciplinary growth. Sociology in the United States was less historically influenced by Marxism than its European counterpart, and to this day broadly remains more statistical in its approach.
The first sociology department established in the United Kingdom was at the London School of Economics and Political Science (home of the British Journal of Sociology) in 1904. Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse and Edvard Westermarck became the lecturers in the discipline at the University of London in 1907. Harriet Martineau, an English translator of Comte, has been cited as the first female sociologist. In 1909, the German Sociological Association was founded by Ferdinand Tönnies and Max Weber, among others. Weber established the first department in Germany at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in 1919, having presented an influential new antipositivist sociology. In 1920, Florian Znaniecki set up the first department in Poland. The Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt (later to become the Frankfurt School of critical theory) was founded in 1923. International co-operation in sociology began in 1893, when René Worms founded the Institut International de Sociologie, an institution later eclipsed by the much larger International Sociological Association (ISA), founded in 1949.
Positivism and anti-positivism
The overarching methodological principle of positivism is to conduct sociology in broadly the same manner as natural science. An emphasis on empiricism and the scientific method is sought to provide a tested foundation for sociological research based on the assumption that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only arrive by positive affirmation through scientific methodology.
— Émile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method (1895)
The term has long since ceased to carry this meaning; there are no fewer than twelve distinct epistemologies that are referred to as positivism. Many of these approaches do not self-identify as "positivist", some because they themselves arose in opposition to older forms of positivism, and some because the label has over time become a pejorative term by being mistakenly linked with a theoretical empiricism. The extent of antipositivist criticism has also diverged, with many rejecting the scientific method and others only seeking to amend it to reflect 20th-century developments in the philosophy of science. However, positivism (broadly understood as a scientific approach to the study of society) remains dominant in contemporary sociology, especially in the United States.
Loïc Wacquant distinguishes three major strains of positivism: Durkheimian, Logical, and Instrumental. None of these are the same as that set forth by Comte, who was unique in advocating such a rigid (and perhaps optimistic) version.: 94–8, 100–4 While Émile Durkheim rejected much of the detail of Comte's philosophy, he retained and refined its method. Durkheim maintained that the social sciences are a logical continuation of the natural ones into the realm of human activity, and insisted that they should retain the same objectivity, rationalism, and approach to causality. He developed the notion of objective sui generis "social facts" to serve as unique empirical objects for the science of sociology to study.
The variety of positivism that remains dominant today is termed instrumental positivism. This approach eschews epistemological and metaphysical concerns (such as the nature of social facts) in favour of methodological clarity, replicability, reliability and validity. This positivism is more or less synonymous with quantitative research, and so only resembles older positivism in practice. Since it carries no explicit philosophical commitment, its practitioners may not belong to any particular school of thought. Modern sociology of this type is often credited to Paul Lazarsfeld, who pioneered large-scale survey studies and developed statistical techniques for analysing them. This approach lends itself to what Robert K. Merton called middle-range theory: abstract statements that generalize from segregated hypotheses and empirical regularities rather than starting with an abstract idea of a social whole.
The German philosopher Hegel criticised traditional empiricist epistemology, which he rejected as uncritical, and determinism, which he viewed as overly mechanistic.: 169 Karl Marx's methodology borrowed from Hegelian dialecticism but also a rejection of positivism in favour of critical analysis, seeking to supplement the empirical acquisition of "facts" with the elimination of illusions.: 202–3 He maintained that appearances need to be critiqued rather than simply documented. Early hermeneuticians such as Wilhelm Dilthey pioneered the distinction between natural and social science ('Geisteswissenschaft'). Various neo-Kantian philosophers, phenomenologists and human scientists further theorized how the analysis of the social world differs to that of the natural world due to the irreducibly complex aspects of human society, culture, and being.
In the Italian context of development of social sciences and of sociology in particular, there are oppositions to the first foundation of the discipline, sustained by speculative philosophy in accordance with the antiscientific tendencies matured by critique of positivism and evolutionism, so a tradition Progressist struggles to establish itself.
At the turn of the 20th century, the first generation of German sociologists formally introduced methodological anti-positivism, proposing that research should concentrate on human cultural norms, values, symbols, and social processes viewed from a resolutely subjective perspective. Max Weber argued that sociology may be loosely described as a science as it is able to identify causal relationships of human "social action"—especially among "ideal types", or hypothetical simplifications of complex social phenomena.: 239–40 As a non-positivist, however, Weber sought relationships that are not as "historical, invariant, or generalisable": 241 as those pursued by natural scientists. Fellow German sociologist, Ferdinand Tönnies, theorised on two crucial abstract concepts with his work on "gemeinschaft and gesellschaft" (lit. 'community' and 'society'). Tönnies marked a sharp line between the realm of concepts and the reality of social action: the first must be treated axiomatically and in a deductive way ("pure sociology"), whereas the second empirically and inductively ("applied sociology").
[Sociology is] ... the science whose object is to interpret the meaning of social action and thereby give a causal explanation of the way in which the action proceeds and the effects which it produces. By 'action' in this definition is meant the human behaviour when and to the extent that the agent or agents see it as subjectively meaningful ... the meaning to which we refer may be either (a) the meaning actually intended either by an individual agent on a particular historical occasion or by a number of agents on an approximate average in a given set of cases, or (b) the meaning attributed to the agent or agents, as types, in a pure type constructed in the abstract. In neither case is the 'meaning' to be thought of as somehow objectively 'correct' or 'true' by some metaphysical criterion. This is the difference between the empirical sciences of action, such as sociology and history, and any kind of prior discipline, such as jurisprudence, logic, ethics, or aesthetics whose aim is to extract from their subject-matter 'correct' or 'valid' meaning.— Max Weber, The Nature of Social Action (1922), p. 7
Both Weber and Georg Simmel pioneered the "Verstehen" (or 'interpretative') method in social science; a systematic process by which an outside observer attempts to relate to a particular cultural group, or indigenous people, on their own terms and from their own point of view. Through the work of Simmel, in particular, sociology acquired a possible character beyond positivist data-collection or grand, deterministic systems of structural law. Relatively isolated from the sociological academy throughout his lifetime, Simmel presented idiosyncratic analyses of modernity more reminiscent of the phenomenological and existential writers than of Comte or Durkheim, paying particular concern to the forms of, and possibilities for, social individuality. His sociology engaged in a neo-Kantian inquiry into the limits of perception, asking 'What is society?' in a direct allusion to Kant's question 'What is nature?'
The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life. The antagonism represents the most modern form of the conflict which primitive man must carry on with nature for his bodily existence. The eighteenth century may have called for liberation from all the ties which grew up historically in politics, in religion, in morality, and in economics to permit the original natural virtue of man, which is equal in everyone, to develop without inhibition; the nineteenth century may have sought to promote, in addition to man's freedom, his individuality (which is connected with the division of labor) and his achievements which make him unique and indispensable but which at the same time make him so much the more dependent on the complementary activity of others; Nietzsche may have seen the relentless struggle of the individual as the prerequisite for his full development, while socialism found the same thing in the suppression of all competition – but in each of these the same fundamental motive was at work, namely the resistance of the individual to being leveled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism.
The contemporary discipline of sociology is theoretically multi-paradigmatic in line with the contentions of classical social theory. Randall Collins' well-cited survey of sociological theory retroactively labels various theorists as belonging to four theoretical traditions: Functionalism, Conflict, Symbolic Interactionism, and Utilitarianism.
Accordingly, modern sociological theory predominantly descends from functionalist (Durkheim) and conflict (Marx and Weber) approaches to social structure, as well as from symbolic-interactionist approaches to social interaction, such as micro-level structural (Simmel) and pragmatist (Mead, Cooley) perspectives. Utilitarianism (also known as rational choice or social exchange), although often associated with economics, is an established tradition within sociological theory.
Lastly, as argued by Raewyn Connell, a tradition that is often forgotten is that of Social Darwinism, which applies the logic of Darwinian biological evolution to people and societies. This tradition often aligns with classical functionalism, and was once the dominant theoretical stance in American sociology, from c. 1881 – c. 1915, associated with several founders of sociology, primarily Herbert Spencer, Lester F. Ward, and William Graham Sumner.
Contemporary sociological theory retains traces of each of these traditions and they are by no means mutually exclusive.
A broad historical paradigm in both sociology and anthropology, functionalism addresses the social structure—referred to as "social organization" by the classical theorists—with respect to the whole as well as the necessary function of the whole's constituent elements. A common analogy (popularized by Herbert Spencer) is to regard norms and institutions as 'organs' that work towards the proper functioning of the entire 'body' of society. The perspective was implicit in the original sociological positivism of Comte but was theorized in full by Durkheim, again with respect to observable, structural laws.
Functionalism also has an anthropological basis in the work of theorists such as Marcel Mauss, Bronisław Malinowski, and Radcliffe-Brown. It is in the latter's specific usage that the prefix "structural" emerged. Classical functionalist theory is generally united by its tendency towards biological analogy and notions of social evolutionism, in that the basic form of society would increase in complexity and those forms of social organization that promoted solidarity would eventually overcome social disorganization. As Giddens states:
Functionalist thought, from Comte onwards, has looked particularly towards biology as the science providing the closest and most compatible model for social science. Biology has been taken to provide a guide to conceptualizing the structure and the function of social systems and to analyzing processes of evolution via mechanisms of adaptation. Functionalism strongly emphasizes the pre-eminence of the social world over its individual parts (i.e. its constituent actors, human subjects).
Functionalist theories emphasize "cohesive systems" and are often contrasted with "conflict theories", which critique the overarching socio-political system or emphasize the inequality between particular groups. The following quotes from Durkheim and Marx epitomize the political, as well as theoretical, disparities, between functionalist and conflict thought respectively:
To aim for a civilization beyond that made possible by the nexus of the surrounding environment will result in unloosing sickness into the very society we live in. Collective activity cannot be encouraged beyond the point set by the condition of the social organism without undermining health.— Émile Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society (1893)
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
Symbolic interaction—often associated with interactionism, phenomenology, dramaturgy, interpretivism—is a sociological approach that places emphasis on subjective meanings and the empirical unfolding of social processes, generally accessed through micro-analysis. This tradition emerged in the Chicago School of the 1920s and 1930s, which, prior to World War II, "had been the center of sociological research and graduate study."[page needed] The approach focuses on creating a framework for building a theory that sees society as the product of the everyday interactions of individuals. Society is nothing more than the shared reality that people construct as they interact with one another. This approach sees people interacting in countless settings using symbolic communications to accomplish the tasks at hand. Therefore, society is a complex, ever-changing mosaic of subjective meanings.: 19 Some critics of this approach argue that it only looks at what is happening in a particular social situation, and disregards the effects that culture, race or gender (i.e. social-historical structures) may have in that situation. Some important sociologists associated with this approach include Max Weber, George Herbert Mead, Erving Goffman, George Homans, and Peter Blau. It is also in this tradition that the radical-empirical approach of ethnomethodology emerges from the work of Harold Garfinkel.
Utilitarianism is often referred to as exchange theory or rational choice theory in the context of sociology. This tradition tends to privilege the agency of individual rational actors and assumes that within interactions individuals always seek to maximize their own self-interest. As argued by Josh Whitford, rational actors are assumed to have four basic elements:
- "a knowledge of alternatives;"
- "a knowledge of, or beliefs about the consequences of the various alternatives;"
- "an ordering of preferences over outcomes;" and
- "a decision rule, to select among the possible alternatives"
Exchange theory is specifically attributed to the work of George C. Homans, Peter Blau and Richard Emerson. Organizational sociologists James G. March and Herbert A. Simon noted that an individual's rationality is bounded by the context or organizational setting. The utilitarian perspective in sociology was, most notably, revitalized in the late 20th century by the work of former ASA president James Coleman.
20th-century social theory
Following the decline of theories of sociocultural evolution in the United States, the interactionist thought of the Chicago School dominated American sociology. As Anselm Strauss describes, "we didn't think symbolic interaction was a perspective in sociology; we thought it was sociology." Moreover, philosophical and psychological pragmatism grounded this tradition. After World War II, mainstream sociology shifted to the survey-research of Paul Lazarsfeld at Columbia University and the general theorizing of Pitirim Sorokin, followed by Talcott Parsons at Harvard University. Ultimately, "the failure of the Chicago, Columbia, and Wisconsin [sociology] departments to produce a significant number of graduate students interested in and committed to general theory in the years 1936–45 was to the advantage of the Harvard department." As Parsons began to dominate general theory, his work primarily referenced European sociology—almost entirely omitting citations of both the American tradition of sociocultural-evolution as well as pragmatism. In addition to Parsons' revision of the sociological canon (which included Marshall, Pareto, Weber and Durkheim), the lack of theoretical challenges from other departments nurtured the rise of the Parsonian structural-functionalist movement, which reached its crescendo in the 1950s, but by the 1960s was in rapid decline.
By the 1980s, most functionalist perspectives in Europe had broadly been replaced by conflict-oriented approaches, and to many in the discipline, functionalism was considered "as dead as a dodo:" According to Giddens:
The orthodox consensus terminated in the late 1960s and 1970s as the middle ground shared by otherwise competing perspectives gave way and was replaced by a baffling variety of competing perspectives. This third 'generation' of social theory includes phenomenologically inspired approaches, critical theory, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and theories written in the tradition of hermeneutics and ordinary language philosophy.
While some conflict approaches also gained popularity in the United States, the mainstream of the discipline instead shifted to a variety of empirically oriented middle-range theories with no single overarching, or "grand", theoretical orientation. John Levi Martin refers to this "golden age of methodological unity and theoretical calm" as the Pax Wisconsana, as it reflected the composition of the sociology department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison: numerous scholars working on separate projects with little contention. Omar Lizardo describes the pax wisconsana as "a Midwestern flavored, Mertonian resolution of the theory/method wars in which [sociologists] all agreed on at least two working hypotheses: (1) grand theory is a waste of time; [and] (2) good theory has to be good to think with or goes in the trash bin." Despite the aversion to grand theory in the latter half of the 20th century, several new traditions have emerged that propose various syntheses: structuralism, post-structuralism, cultural sociology and systems theory. Some sociologists have called for a return to 'grand theory' to combat the rise of scientific and pragmatist influences within the tradition of sociological thought (see Duane Rousselle).
The structuralist movement originated primarily from the work of Durkheim as interpreted by two European scholars: Anthony Giddens, a sociologist, whose theory of structuration draws on the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure; and Claude Lévi-Strauss, an anthropologist. In this context, 'structure' does not refer to 'social structure', but to the semiotic understanding of human culture as a system of signs. One may delineate four central tenets of structuralism:
- Structure is what determines the structure of a whole.
- Structuralists believe that every system has a structure.
- Structuralists are interested in 'structural' laws that deal with coexistence rather than changes.
- Structures are the 'real things' beneath the surface or the appearance of meaning.
The second tradition of structuralist thought, contemporaneous with Giddens, emerges from the American School of social network analysis in the 1970s and 1980s, spearheaded by the Harvard Department of Social Relations led by Harrison White and his students. This tradition of structuralist thought argues that, rather than semiotics, social structure is networks of patterned social relations. And, rather than Levi-Strauss, this school of thought draws on the notions of structure as theorized by Levi-Strauss' contemporary anthropologist, Radcliffe-Brown. Some refer to this as "network structuralism", and equate it to "British structuralism" as opposed to the "French structuralism" of Levi-Strauss.
Post-structuralist thought has tended to reject 'humanist' assumptions in the construction of social theory. Michel Foucault provides an important critique in his Archaeology of the Human Sciences, though Habermas (1986) and Rorty (1986) have both argued that Foucault merely replaces one such system of thought with another. The dialogue between these intellectuals highlights a trend in recent years for certain schools of sociology and philosophy to intersect. The anti-humanist position has been associated with "postmodernism", a term used in specific contexts to describe an era or phenomena, but occasionally construed as a method.
Central theoretical problems
Overall, there is a strong consensus regarding the central problems of sociological theory, which are largely inherited from the classical theoretical traditions. This consensus is: how to link, transcend or cope with the following "big three" dichotomies:
- subjectivity and objectivity, which deal with knowledge;
- structure and agency, which deal with action;
- and synchrony and diachrony, which deal with time.
Lastly, sociological theory often grapples with the problem of integrating or transcending the divide between micro, meso, and macro-scale social phenomena, which is a subset of all three central problems.
Subjectivity and objectivity
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The problem of subjectivity and objectivity can be divided into two parts: a concern over the general possibilities of social actions, and the specific problem of social scientific knowledge. In the former, the subjective is often equated (though not necessarily) with the individual, and the individual's intentions and interpretations of the objective. The objective is often considered any public or external action or outcome, on up to society writ large. A primary question for social theorists, then, is how knowledge reproduces along the chain of subjective-objective-subjective, that is to say: how is intersubjectivity achieved? While, historically, qualitative methods have attempted to tease out subjective interpretations, quantitative survey methods also attempt to capture individual subjectivities. Qualitative methods take an approach to objective description known as in situ, meaning that descriptions must have appropriate contextual information to understand the information.
The latter concern with scientific knowledge results from the fact that a sociologist is part of the very object they seek to explain, as Bourdieu explains:
How can the sociologist effect in practice this radical doubting which is indispensable for bracketing all the presuppositions inherent in the fact that she is a social being, that she is therefore socialised and led to feel "like a fish in water" within that social world whose structures she has internalised? How can she prevent the social world itself from carrying out the construction of the object, in a sense, through her, through these unself-conscious operations or operations unaware of themselves of which she is the apparent subject— Pierre Bourdieu, "The Problem of Reflexive Sociology", An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (1992), p. 235
Structure and agency
Structure and agency, sometimes referred to as determinism versus voluntarism, form an enduring ontological debate in social theory: "Do social structures determine an individual's behaviour or does human agency?" In this context, agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and make free choices, whereas structure relates to factors that limit or affect the choices and actions of individuals (e.g. social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, etc.). Discussions over the primacy of either structure or agency relate to the core of sociological epistemology (i.e. "what is the social world made of?", "what is a cause in the social world, and what is an effect?"). A perennial question within this debate is that of "social reproduction": how are structures (specifically, structures producing inequality) reproduced through the choices of individuals?
Synchrony and diachrony
This section relies largely or entirely on a single source. (March 2023)
Synchrony and diachrony (or statics and dynamics) within social theory are terms that refer to a distinction that emerged through the work of Levi-Strauss who inherited it from the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure. Synchrony slices moments of time for analysis, thus it is an analysis of static social reality. Diachrony, on the other hand, attempts to analyse dynamic sequences. Following Saussure, synchrony would refer to social phenomena as a static concept like a language, while diachrony would refer to unfolding processes like actual speech. In Anthony Giddens' introduction to Central Problems in Social Theory, he states that, "in order to show the interdependence of action and structure…we must grasp the time space relations inherent in the constitution of all social interaction." And like structure and agency, time is integral to discussion of social reproduction.
In terms of sociology, historical sociology is often better positioned to analyse social life as diachronic, while survey research takes a snapshot of social life and is thus better equipped to understand social life as synchronized. Some argue that the synchrony of social structure is a methodological perspective rather than an ontological claim. Nonetheless, the problem for theory is how to integrate the two manners of recording and thinking about social data.
- Qualitative designs emphasize understanding of social phenomena through direct observation, communication with participants, or analysis of texts, and may stress contextual and subjective accuracy over generality.
- Quantitative designs approach social phenomena through quantifiable evidence, and often rely on statistical analysis of many cases (or across intentionally designed treatments in an experiment) to establish valid and reliable general claims.
Sociologists are often divided into camps of support for particular research techniques. These disputes relate to the epistemological debates at the historical core of social theory. While very different in many aspects, both qualitative and quantitative approaches involve a systematic interaction between theory and data. Quantitative methodologies hold the dominant position in sociology, especially in the United States. In the discipline's two most cited journals, quantitative articles have historically outnumbered qualitative ones by a factor of two. (Most articles published in the largest British journal, on the other hand, are qualitative.) Most textbooks on the methodology of social research are written from the quantitative perspective, and the very term "methodology" is often used synonymously with "statistics". Practically all sociology PhD programmes in the United States require training in statistical methods. The work produced by quantitative researchers is also deemed more 'trustworthy' and 'unbiased' by the general public, though this judgment continues to be challenged by antipositivists.
The choice of method often depends largely on what the researcher intends to investigate. For example, a researcher concerned with drawing a statistical generalization across an entire population may administer a survey questionnaire to a representative sample population. By contrast, a researcher who seeks full contextual understanding of an individual's social actions may choose ethnographic participant observation or open-ended interviews. Studies will commonly combine, or 'triangulate', quantitative and qualitative methods as part of a 'multi-strategy' design. For instance, a quantitative study may be performed to obtain statistical patterns on a target sample, and then combined with a qualitative interview to determine the play of agency.
Quantitative methods are often used to ask questions about a population that is very large, making a census or a complete enumeration of all the members in that population infeasible. A 'sample' then forms a manageable subset of a population. In quantitative research, statistics are used to draw inferences from this sample regarding the population as a whole. The process of selecting a sample is referred to as 'sampling'. While it is usually best to sample randomly, concern with differences between specific subpopulations sometimes calls for stratified sampling. Conversely, the impossibility of random sampling sometimes necessitates nonprobability sampling, such as convenience sampling or snowball sampling.
The following list of research methods is neither exclusive nor exhaustive:
- Archival research (or the Historical method): Draws upon the secondary data located in historical archives and records, such as biographies, memoirs, journals, and so on.
- Content analysis: The content of interviews and other texts is systematically analysed. Often data is 'coded' as a part of the 'grounded theory' approach using qualitative data analysis (QDA) software, such as Atlas.ti, MAXQDA, NVivo, or QDA Miner.
- Experimental research: The researcher isolates a single social process and reproduces it in a laboratory (for example, by creating a situation where unconscious sexist judgements are possible), seeking to determine whether or not certain social variables can cause, or depend upon, other variables (for instance, seeing if people's feelings about traditional gender roles can be manipulated by the activation of contrasting gender stereotypes). Participants are randomly assigned to different groups that either serve as controls—acting as reference points because they are tested with regard to the dependent variable, albeit without having been exposed to any independent variables of interest—or receive one or more treatments. Randomization allows the researcher to be sure that any resulting differences between groups are the result of the treatment.
- Longitudinal study: An extensive examination of a specific person or group over a long period of time.
- Observation: Using data from the senses, the researcher records information about social phenomenon or behaviour. Observation techniques may or may not feature participation. In participant observation, the researcher goes into the field (e.g. a community or a place of work), and participates in the activities of the field for a prolonged period of time in order to acquire a deep understanding of it.: 42 Data acquired through these techniques may be analysed either quantitatively or qualitatively. In the observation research, a sociologist might study global warming in some part of the world that is less populated.
- Program Evaluation is a systematic method for collecting, analyzing, and using information to answer questions about projects, policies and programs, particularly about their effectiveness and efficiency. In both the public and private sectors, stakeholders often want to know whether the programs they are funding, implementing, voting for, or objecting to are producing the intended effect. While program evaluation first focuses on this definition, important considerations often include how much the program costs per participant, how the program could be improved, whether the program is worthwhile, whether there are better alternatives, if there are unintended outcomes, and whether the program goals are appropriate and useful.
- Survey research: The researcher gathers data using interviews, questionnaires, or similar feedback from a set of people sampled from a particular population of interest. Survey items from an interview or questionnaire may be open-ended or closed-ended.: 40 Data from surveys is usually analysed statistically on a computer.
Sociologists increasingly draw upon computationally intensive methods to analyse and model social phenomena. Using computer simulations, artificial intelligence, text mining, complex statistical methods, and new analytic approaches like social network analysis and social sequence analysis, computational sociology develops and tests theories of complex social processes through bottom-up modelling of social interactions.
Although the subject matter and methodologies in social science differ from those in natural science or computer science, several of the approaches used in contemporary social simulation originated from fields such as physics and artificial intelligence. By the same token, some of the approaches that originated in computational sociology have been imported into the natural sciences, such as measures of network centrality from the fields of social network analysis and network science. In relevant literature, computational sociology is often related to the study of social complexity. Social complexity concepts such as complex systems, non-linear interconnection among macro and micro process, and emergence, have entered the vocabulary of computational sociology. A practical and well-known example is the construction of a computational model in the form of an "artificial society", by which researchers can analyse the structure of a social system.