Sociology – is the systematic study of the relationship between individuals and the society.
The approach used in sociology can be described as a perspective. It has broadly been described
by the sociological perspective.
The sociological perspective.
– It is to see and understand the connections between individuals and the broader social
contexts in which they live.
– U. S sociologist, Wright Mills described it as sociological imagination. He said that the
sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations
between the two within the society. In this case, our individual condition (biography)
depends upon larger forces in the society (history).
– People in the society tend to think they are rugged and responsible for their own lives;
however, different characteristics and circumstances influence who they are and the
choices they have to make in life. For instance, whether you are male or female.
– Interactions exist between the social conditions that shape our lives and the action we
take as individuals. We do not get to choose the conditions under which we live or the
opportunities we enjoy, but we do have choices about how we respond to those
circumstances, both individually and collectively.
Sociology and common sense
The options of an individual in life are always shaped by social conditions that they have no
choice over. This is attributed to the saying “You’ve got to play the cards you are dealt in life.”
An understanding of the world based only on our individual experience may not help in
unfamiliar circumstance. With the world diversity now, one needs to understand how they make
sense to the world and how others perceive the world as well.
People need a more systematic way to comprehend the patterns of behavior and the processes
that make up social life, so as to make informed decisions on various issues.
Sociology as a Discipline
Sociology is one of the sociological sciences, which gathers and evaluates evidence to study
human society. Sociologists emphasize the relationship between individuals and larger social
forces, including interactions between various social institutions such as governments.
Other types of social sciences include;
The Sociology Major and the Job Market – there are plenty of jobs in various settings, including
business, education, social services, health care, government media and criminal justice.
Sociology’s Historical and Social Context
Sociology has developed through three phases: Cultural Revolution, political revolution and
1. Cultural Revolution 3. Economic Revolution
– The declining influence of religion – More industrialization, less agriculture
– The rise of scientific thought – Capitalism
– The age of enlighten – Urbanization, the growth of cities
2. Political Revolution
– Declining power of monarchies
– Uprisings of 1848
– Growth in democracy and individual rights
Foundations of Sociological Thought
Defining the terrain of sociology as per Comte and Spencer
August Comte (1798 – 1857): Stability and change.
This French intellectual majored on sociology using two fundamental questions: “How
and why do societies change” and “What is the basis of social stability at a specific
historical moment”. He held that human beings develop over several stages; religion,
philosophy and scientifically until they become stable.
Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903): Society as a Social Organism.
This British intellectual had a view that the society is made up of separate parts, each
having a unique function, that work together to sustain the entire organism; hence the
overall structure of the society. He believed that the society progresses as it evolves.
The Key Founders of Sociology: Marx, Durkheim, and Weber
Karl Marx (1818-1883): The Effects of Capitalism
– He sought to explain how and why so much wealth and productivity could coexist with
such widespread poverty and misery.
– Hence, he examined the relationship between capitalists who owned businesses and
workers who worked for the capitalists. He found that the capitalists accumulated wealth
by exploiting workers through low wages (Marx (1867) 1976).
– He highlighted that the conflict between owners and workers will increase until the
workers rise up and overthrow the capitalist system. This would be done by adopting
socialism – a system in which ownership of the major means of production is in public
rather than private control.
– He highlighted that economic power could be used to influence other aspects of social
– In addition, he said that people both create the societies they live in and are in turn
influenced by them (Marx (1852) 1978, 595)
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917): Social Solidarity
– He is responsible for establishing sociology as an academic discipline, wrote a book
laying out the discipline, The Rules of sociological Method (Durkheim (1895) 1982).
– He majored on social solidarity, the collective methods that connect individuals. He held
that a society is held together by shared cultural values.
– Also highlighted mechanical solidarity – social cohesion based on shared experience and
a common identity with limited individuality.
– As society grew, economy required an increasing division of labor
– In quest to find how social solidarity could be maintained, he came up with organic
solidarity, a form of social cohesion that is based on interdependence.
Max Weber (1864-1920): The Protestant Ethic and the Rationalization of Modern Life
– He wrote the book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
– Argued that culture in the form of Protestantism had helped promote the early
development of capitalism in Europe, as it encouraged hard work, investment and
accumulation of wealth.
– He tried understanding social action by using German term verstehen, which means
“Understanding”. Understanding why someone behaves the way he or she does also
provides a bigger of picture of the society in question.
– Held that rationalization of society propelled societal social change. It involves the long-
term historical process by which rationality replaced tradition as the basis of organizing
social and economic life.
Sociology’s Diverse Theories
– a set of principles and propositions that explains the relationship s among social
– May start as a personal opinion, but to be useful, they have to be put to test and give a
– Evolve and are sometimes rejected, leaving the most useful to survive
– Multiple theories often give a more complete picture than any single one
Key Dimensions of Sociological theories
a) Consensus and Conflict
– Conflict is tensions and disputes in the society, often resulting from unequal distribution
of scarce resources
– Whereas consensus refers to solidarity and cooperative interaction, often due to shared
values and interests which can contribute to social stability
o Cooperation – tension, disputes,
o Solidarity inequality
b) Objective and Subjective Reality
– Objective conditions are the material aspects of social life such as physical environment,
social networks and social institutions.
– Subjective dimension involve ideas ranging from self, social norms, values, and belief
systems that influence the social aspect of life.
c) Micro-Level and Macro-Level Analyses
– Micro level of analysis focuses on small scale, face to face, social interactions
– Macro level of analysis focuses large scale social systems and processes such as the
economy, politics and population trends
– Meso level of analysis focus somewhere between very large and very small social
Categories of sociological theories
– Focus on consensus and cooperative interaction in social life, emphasizing how the
different parts of a society contribute to its overall operation
– To endure, a social institution must meet a need of the system as a whole. If they do not
do this, they will have to adapt or they will disappear.
– Manifest functions are the recognized and intended consequences of social phenomena,
whereas latent functions are largely unrecognized and unintended consequences of social
phenomena, Robert K. Merton (1910-2003).
– For instance, a school
– Manifest function- to help prepare people
for future employment
– Latent function- to serve as a dating pool
where people get partners
– Focus on issues of contention, power, and inequality, due to the competition for scarce
– Emphasizes that to meet common needs, people attempt to acquire scarce and valuable
resources. In the process, conflict arises as the resources are limited and people compete
Symbolic interactionist Theories
– Focus on how society emerges from people’s use of shared symbols in the course of their
daily interactions, as shown in Weber’s analogy of “Understanding”
– Are associated with the subjective and micro-level dimensions of social life. They
analyze social life by stating that the social world is based on people using cultural
– For instance, in a family, there are micro-level interactions between family members.
Feminist Theories and Theoretical Diversity
– Focus on inequality between women and men and could be considered as part of conflict
– Provide insight into how those inequalities are created and reinforced in daily
interactions. This shows a link with symbolic interactionism.
– Emphasize the importance of women experience, analyze gender inequality and advocate
gender quality. (Anderson 2015, Taylor, Rupp, and Whittier 2012).
Sociology’s Common Ground: Culture, Structure and Power
Culture – is the collection of values, beliefs, knowledge, norms, language behaviors, and material
objects shared by people and socially transmitted from generation to generation. How culture is
captured in the three key theories.
– In functionalist theories, culture represents the consensus values and norms of a society
into which individuals are socialized
– In conflict theories, conflicting parties use culture to advance their interests. Those in
power perpetuate their influence by socializing people into dominant values and norms.
Those oppressed will develop counterculture that challenge the dominant view.
– Symbolic Interactionist theories, through the use of symbols, people create culture based
on their interpretation of social reality.
Structure – refers to the recurring patterns of behavior in social life. The patterns occur at all
levels of society, in daily interactions with each other and society as a whole.
– Functionalist theories states that people act within structural constraints in their
interactions, and change is gradual and temporary.
– In conflict theories, structure is the social order maintained by dominant groups primarily
through coercion. Structural change is usually by collective action challenging the force.
– Symbolic Interactionist theories view structure as inherently unstable and changeable
since it must be reproduced continually through individual action.
Power- is the ability to bring about an intended outcome, even when opposed by others. It
operates within all levels in the society.
– Functionalist theories view power as the ability of a social system to achieve its collective
goals. Inequalities between groups serve as a positive function in society by motivating
the most qualified to fill the most important positions.
– Conflict theories assert that power is often in the hands of a dominant group that uses it to
exploit or oppress others.
– In Symbolic Interactionist Theories, power is rooted in the social relationships between
people. Inequalities results from the actions of individuals and therefore can be changed.
A changing World: From modern to Postmodern Society
Pre-modern – period associated with intense agriculture, religion dominated culture and
rural-based social life
Modernity – period associated with the rise in industrialization, democracy and science.
Postmodernity – a historical period beginning in the mid-twentieth century featured by
the rise of information-based economies and the fragmentation of political beliefs and
ways of knowing
Features of Postmodern Society
1. The expansion of media and commercial culture – media technologies have expanded at a
high rate. There is internet, television, and smartphones that have expanded aspects of
2. The threat to the natural environment – the ever increasing production and consumption
of consumer goods has resulted into adverse effects such as resource depletion and
3. The decline of U.S cities and the rise of suburbs – corporations have moved many
industrialized manufacturing firms to developing nations with lower-wage workers. This
led to some urban areas crumbling resulting into high unemployment and poverty.
4. The global economy – the global economy is transforming societies around the world
through flow of information and products.
5. The aging population – aging population is on the rise due to advancement in healthcare.
6. The changing family – family is being viewed in many dimensions such as single parents,
divorce, effective contraception and same-sex marriages.
7. Troubled political institutions – the inception of democracy has held great promise for
repressive political regimes. However, long-established democracies often lose faith in
government accompanied with growing public cynicisms.
8. Increased diversity and multiculturalism – an influx of immigrants into the US has caused
conflict in the nation. Furthermore, the global economy and the relative ease of modern
travel have begun to erode the significance of national boundaries.
9. The changing nature of violence and warfare – powerful and wealthy countries such as
US and Russia have invested in deadly weapon machinery. This has created heightened
tensions and threats globally.
10. The changing role of religion – religion has been deemed to be of less significance
especially to wealthy nations. Although, in other parts of the world it is still viewed as a
key necessity in driving many aspects of social life.
Understanding the research process
Social science as a way of knowing
In an aim to understanding sociology, social scientists partake research in two dimensions:
– Basic research- the primary goal being to describe some aspect of society and advance
our understanding of it.
– Applied research – the primary goal being to directly address some social problem or
There is also the concept of public sociology – refers to the efforts to reach beyond an academic
audience to make the results of sociological research, both basic and applied, known to the
The limits of everyday thinking
It has been described by the story of children believing the existence of Santa Claus. It entails
errors that people make that ultimately inhibit effective thinking. They include:
Unquestioned trust in authorities – blindly believing in persons or people in authority is
never a good idea. We have to be skeptical about knowledge claims by authorities.
Unquestioned acceptance of “common sense” – for an individual to believe an issue, it
should not be based by basic perception of his peers, common knowledge should be
Unquestioned acceptance of traditional beliefs – ideas that have had the test of cultures
needs our attention. We need to have a skeptical view backed by evidence.
Generalizations based on personal experience – we should not base all decisions on
previous experiences as we may misunderstand or misinterpret the experience. There
should be some relevance for an experience to be withheld.
Reliance on selective observation – a more clear picture of the world needs us to be open-
minded but willing to take any evidence tabled in regard to an issue.
Biased observation and interpretation – in assessing what someone believes, it’s vital to
keep in mind the possibility of conflict of interest.
The elements of Social Science Research
They are four key elements that distinguish social science research:
i. Identifying and understanding patterns of social life – social scientists seek to identify
recurrent patterns in human thought and action. For instance, social patterns can tell the
probability that certain categories of people will or will not vote.
ii. Gathering empirical evidence – in the course of identifying recurrent patterns of human
behavior, evidence that can be observed or documented using human senses are used.
– Data gathered are of two types: qualitative data which is non-numerical in nature, and
quantitative data which is evidence that can be summarized numerically.
Quantitative data are presented in the form of a variable, measures that can change
Variable independent, is associated with and/or causes change in the value of the
dependent, changes in response to the independent variable
correlation – a relationship in which change in one variable is connected to change in
hypothesis – a statement about the relationship between variables that is to be investigated
iii. Using transparent methods – researchers need to disclose how they collect and analyze
their evidence until they come up their conclusions. This enables the society know how
the research was done, and be able to critically examine it.
iv. Provisional knowledge – social science is based on truth claims that are tentative and
open to revision in the face of new evidence.
The special challenges of social of social science
Social researchers are unlikely to be able to control conditions – human beings cannot be
manipulated at will by a sociological researcher.
Social life cannot be predicted with the certainty of natural laws – we can never be
certain how different people will perceive, interpret or react to a given situation.
Human beings are conscious of being studied, which may change their behavior –
humans have the tendency to react differently than they otherwise would when they know
they are in a study, described as the Hawthorne effect.
Social science research is based on two key components:
– Theory – helps us identify key research questions and interpret data that are collected.
– Data – provide the evidence that can support existing theory.
The Theory – Research Dynamic
Roles of theory in social research:
Highlighting key research questions – a researcher will develop questions out of the
Explaining data collected – data collected are explained based on theory aforementioned.
Revealing connections among social phenomena that are not otherwise apparent.
These are procedures for collecting and analyzing data. Sociological research methods fall into
four general categories:
1. Survey research – It’s a data collection technique that involves asking someone a series of
questions based on two criteria:
– It may involve closed-ended questions/fixed response format on which the respondent is
– They may also involve open ended questions that do not provide predetermined response
– The main strength of using surveys is that it is cost-effective to get information on a wide
range of issues; results can be generalized to give a clear picture.
– The main weakness is that closed-response options can be limiting
There are problems that arise when researchers write survey questions. Among them are:
Lack of clarity – an unclear question can produce an incorrect result.
Validity – the ability of the question to successfully measure what researchers
intend it to measure, may not be achieved at times.
Lack of reliability – reliability is a measure’s ability to yield consistent results
Loaded language – some emotionally charged words and expressions have
positive or negative connotations that can influence a survey’s results.
Double-barreled questions – each question should be about one topic only,
questions that cover more than topic may cause misunderstanding.
2. Intensive Interviews and Focus Groups
– Also called qualitative interview or in-depth interview, it is a data collection
technique that uses open-ended questions during somewhat lengthy face-to-face
– It allows subjects the freedom to develop detailed responses in their own words
and researchers can immediately ask follow-up questions.
– The main detriments are that it is time and labor intensive.
3. Field research
– It is a data collection technique in which the researcher systematically observes
some aspect of social life in natural setting.
– It could also entail participation observation, a type of field research in which the
researcher both observes and actively takes part in the setting or community being
– The main advantage is that it is less intrusive than direct questioning, resulting in
more natural data.
– It is very time and labor intensive.
4. Existing sources
– It entails researcher relying on existing sources, making use of available data and
documents rather than collecting new data and evidence.
– The data collected is secondary data.
– It is convenient and cost-effective as the existing content is not affected by
– The main weakness is that it is data specific to the researcher’s question may not
Regardless of which data collection technique is used, sociologists are expected to adhere to
ethical standards in their research activities.
The most important ethical standard is the principle of informed consent, which means that
subjects in any study must know about the nature of the research project, any potential benefits
or risks that they may face, and that they have the right to stop participating at any time, for any
The research process
It entails six phases as listed below:
i. Choosing and exploring a general topic.
ii. Identification of a specific research question.
iii. Designing the research study.
iv. Consideration of the ethical dimensions of the research study.
v. Collection and analysis of data.
vi. Reporting the results.
Types of research
Research in sociology has been based on three approaches. The three approaches are based on
the search for patterns in social life, require empirical evidence to support claims, demand
transparency and consider knowledge produced by research to be provisional. The approaches
A. Positivist approach
– It is composed of discrete elements that interact in recurring patterns, producing
usually stable social systems.
– The goal of the research using this approach is to identify laws in social life to
enable prediction and control.
– The scientific research in this approach should be value-free. The researchers
should pursue objectivity by maintaining a detached distance from those being
B. Interpretive approach
– It is composed of evolving definitions of reality formed in the context of human
– The goal of the research is to better understand the meaning that the social world
holds for others.
– It holds that the scientific research should present an accurate portrait of the
people being studied, including their values. Researchers can also gain insight by
building relationships with those being studied.
C. Critical approach
– It is structured by power imbalances that produce conflict and result in social
– The goal of the research is to promote social change by better understanding of
how the society works.
– The scientific research in this approach inevitably involves a value position that
researchers should make explicit. Researchers should also help promote positive