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The Sociology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained


Author: Sarah Tomley

Publisher: DK


Publish Date: November 12, 2019

ISBN-10: 146547854X

Pages: 352

File Type: PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

Humans are social creatures. Throughout our evolution, from our days of foraging and hunting animals, we have tended to live and work in social groups, which have become progressively larger and more complex. These groups have ranged from simple family units, through clans and tribes, villages and towns, to cities and nation states. Our natural inclination to live and work together has led to the formation of civil societies, which have been shaped by the increasing breadth of our knowledge and sophistication of our technology. In turn, the nature of the society we live in influences our social behavior, affecting virtually every aspect of our lives.

Sociology is the study of how individuals behave in groups and how their behavior is shaped by these groups. This includes: how groups are formed; the dynamics that animate them; and how these dynamics maintain and alter the group or bring about social change. Today, sociology’s scope ranges from the theoretical study of social processes, structures, and systems, to the application of these theories as part of social policy. And, because societies consist of a collection of individual people, there is an inevitable connection between the structures of society as a whole and the behavior of its individual members. Sociologists may therefore focus on the institutions and organization of society, the various social groupings and stratifications within it, or the interactions and experiences of individuals. Perhaps surprisingly, sociology is a comparatively modern discipline. Although philosophers in ancient China and ancient Greece recognized the existence of civil society and the benefits of social order, their concern was more political than sociological— how society should be organized and governed, rather than a study of society itself. But, just as political philosophy emerged from these civilizations, sociology appeared as a result of profound changes in Western society during the Age of Enlightenment. There were several aspects to these changes. Most noticeably, technological advances had provided the machinery that brought about the Industrial Revolution, radically changing methods of production and creating prosperous industrial cities. The traditional certainties based on religious belief were called into question by the philosophy of the Enlightenment. It was not only the authority of the Church that was undermined by this so-called Age of Reason: the old order of monarchies and aristocracies was under threat, with demands for more representative government leading to revolutions in America and France.

Society and modernity A new, modern society was created from the Age of Enlightenment. Sociology began to emerge at the end of the 18th century as a response to this transformation, as philosophers and thinkers attempted to understand the nature of modernity and its effects on society. Inevitably, some simply

Sociology was born of the modern ardor to improve society. Albion W. Small US scholar (1854–1926) bemoaned the erosion of traditional forms of social cohesion, such as the family ties and community spirit found within small, rural societies, and the shared values and beliefs offered by a common religion. But others recognized that there were new social forces at work, bringing about social change with a potential for both social order and disorder. In keeping with the spirit of the Enlightenment, these early social thinkers sought to make their study of society objective, and create a scientific discipline that was distinct from philosophy, history, and politics. The natural sciences (physics, chemistry, astronomy, and biology) were well established, and the time was ripe for the study of humans and their behavior. Because of the nature of the Industrial Revolution and the capitalism that it fostered, the first of the new “social sciences” to emerge was economics, pioneered by Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, better known as The Wealth of Nations, in 1776. However, at the same time, the foundations of sociology were also being laid, by philosophers and theorists such as Adam Ferguson and Henri de Saint-Simon, and in the early part of the following century by Auguste Comte, whose scientific approach to the study of society firmly established sociology as a distinct discipline. Following in Comte’s footsteps came three ground-breaking sociologists, whose different approaches to the analysis and interpretation of social behavior set the agenda for the subject of sociology in the 20th century and beyond: Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber. Each identified a different aspect of modernity as the major factor in creating social order, disorder, and change. Marx, a materialist philosopher and economist, focused on the growth of capitalism and the subsequent class struggle; Durkheim on the division of labor brought about by industrialization; and Weber on the secularization and rationalization of modern society. All three have had an enthusiastic following, influencing sociology’s major schools of thought to the present day.

A social science Sociology was a product of the Age of Reason, when science and rational thinking began to reign supreme. Early sociologists were therefore anxious that, for their discipline to be taken seriously, their methods should be seen to be rigorously scientific—no mean feat, given the nature of their subject: human social behavior. Comte laid the ground rules for the new “science” of sociology, based on empirical evidence in the same way as the natural sciences. Marx, too, insisted on approaching the subject scientifically, and Durkheim was perhaps the first to gain acceptance for sociology as a social science in the academic world. To be scientific, any research method must be quantitative—that is to say, have measurable results. Marx and Durkheim could point to facts, figures, and statistics to back up their theories, but others ❯❯ maintained that social research should be more qualitative. Weber especially advocated an interpretive approach, examining what it is like to live in modern society, and the social interactions and relationships that are necessary for social cohesion. Although this viewpoint was initially dismissed by many as unscientific, sociology has become increasingly interpretive in the latter half of the 20th century, with a methodology that includes a combination of quantitative and qualitative research techniques.

Social reform For many sociologists, sociology is more than simply the objective study of society, and the quest to analyze and describe social structures and systems. Sociological theories, like theories in the natural sciences, have practical applications, and can be used to improve the society in which we live. In the 19th century, Comte and Marx saw sociology as a way of understanding the workings of society in order to bring about social change. Marx famously said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it,” and his many followers (sociologists as well as political activists) have taken this to heart. Durkheim, who was nowhere near as politically radical as Marx, made great efforts to have sociology accepted as an academic discipline. To gain the approval of the authorities, he had to demonstrate not only the subject’s scientific credentials, but also its objectivity, especially in light of the political unrest that had existed in Europe for more than a century following the French Revolution. This somewhat “ivory tower” approach, divorced from the real world, dominated sociology for the first part of the 20th century, but as sociologists gradually adopted a more interpretive stance, they also advocated sociology as a tool of social reform. This was particularly noticeable among sociologists with a Marxian perspective and others with a leftwing political agenda. After World War II, sociologists, including Charles Wright Mills and Michel Foucault, examined the nature of power in society and its effects on the individual—the ways in which society shapes our lives, rather than the way we shape society, and how we can resist these forces. Even in more mainstream sociology, the mood was changing, and the scope of the subject broadened from the academic study of society as it is, to include practical applications informing public policy and driving social change. In 1972, Howard Becker, a respected US sociological theorist, wrote: “Good sociology… produces meaningful descriptions of organizations and events, valid explanations of how they come about and persist, and realistic proposals for their improvement or removal.”

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