SOC. 4th Edition. Benokraitis. Cengage Learning, 2014. ISBN: 9781133592129
Chapter 1 Thinking Like a Sociologist
Chapter 2 Examining Our Social World
Chapter 3 Culture
Welcome to week one of SOC 250, Introduction to Sociology. This week we will be learning about the basic role of sociology and sociologists in our society. We will learn to think like a sociologist and develop a sociological imagination. The study of sociology includes a review of sociological theory, including functionalism and conflict theory. We will come to understand the significance of sociological research as we learn about the scientific method and how it is used. We will distinguish between qualitative and quantitative approaches and review major data collection methods. We will learn all about the ethical and political dilemmas to sociological research. Understanding the ramifications of culture is an important part of sociology as we attempt to understand human behavior in various cultures. We will differentiate between material and non-material culture. We will examine both cultural similarities and variations. Lastly, we will identify cultural persistence and cultural dynamics and examine the differences between them.
Sociology – What is it and where did it come from?
Some students think sociology only involves the study of groups. Actually sociology is the systematic study of social interaction at a variety of levels, including groups but also including individuals. Social interaction is the process by which we act toward and react to people we come in contact with. When sociologists talk about the systematic study of social interaction, they mean that social behavior is regular and patterned, and that it takes place between individuals, in small groups such as families, large organizations such as Nike, and entire societies such as the United States and other countries. Sociology, in contrast with common sense, examines claims and beliefs critically, considers many points of view, and enables us to extend ourselves beyond established ways of thinking. These are some of the reasons why a sociological perspective, and especially a sociological imagination, is important.
- According to sociologist C. Wright Mills, our individual behavior is influenced by social factors…where and how all of us fit into the big picture. Mills called this ability to see the intersection between individual lives and larger social influences the sociological imagination. The sociological imagination emphasizes the connection between personal troubles (biography) and structural (public and historical) issues. Mills noted, for example, that if only some people are unemployed, that’s a personal trouble; but if unemployment is widespread, it’s a public issue, because economic opportunities have been significantly reduced and the problem requires solutions at the societal rather than at the individual level. A sociological imagination helps us understand the relationship between individual behavior and larger societal influences. Thus, according to a contemporary sociologist, the sociological imagination is a means for a number of eye-opening experiences because, among other things, it actually empowers us to think about ourselves, others, and what life is and could be in new and liberating ways. The sociological imagination relies on both micro and macro-level approaches in examining the social world.
- Microsociology concentrates on the relationships between individual characteristics, whereas macrosociology examines social dynamics across all of society. Microsociology is the study of small-scale patterns of individuals’ social interaction in specific settings. In most of our relationships, we interact with others on a micro, or small level such as members of a work group discussing who will perform which tasks. Macrosociology is the study of large-scale patterns and processes that characterize society as a whole. Macro, or large, approaches are especially useful in understanding some of the constraints such as economic forces, social movements, and social and public policies, which could limit many of our personal options on the micro level. Microsociology and macrosociology differ conceptually, but they are interrelated. Thus, examining micro, macro, and micro-macro forces is one of the reasons why sociology is a powerful tool in understanding and changing our behavior and society at large.
- When we review where sociology came from, we can start by looking at the importance of theories or theorizing. As people struggle to understand human behavior, they develop theories. A theory is a set of statements that explains why a phenomenon occurs. Theories produce knowledge, guide our research, help us analyze our findings, and, ideally, offer solutions for social problems. Auguste Comte coined the term sociology and is often thought of as the “father of sociology.” Comte maintained that the study of society must be empirical. That is, information should be based on observations, experiments, or experiences rather than on ideology, religion, or intuition. He saw sociology as the scientific study of two aspects of society: social statics and social dynamics. Social statics investigates how principles of social order explain a particular society as well as the interconnections between structures. Social dynamics explores how individuals and societies change over time. Comte’s emphasis on social order and change within and across societies is still useful today because many sociologists examine the relationships between education and politics (social statics), as well as how their interconnections change over time (social dynamics). In addition to Comte, Harriet Martineau, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Jane Addams, and W.E.B. Du Bois were very influential in the development of the origins of sociological theory.
- Contemporary sociological theories began to mature in the late 1950s. Sociologists typically use more than one theory in explaining human behavior. The theories view our social world somewhat differently, but all of them try to explain why society is organized the way it is and why we behave as we do. Four of the most influential theoretical perspectives are functionalism, conflict theory, feminist theories, and symbolic interactionism. Functionalism maintains that society is a complex system of interdependent parts that work together to ensure a society’s survival. In other words human behavior is a result of social structures that promote order and integration in society. Whereas functionalists emphasize order, stability, cohesion, and consensus, conflict theory examines the ways in which groups disagree, struggle over power, and compete for scarce resources, such as property, wealth, and prestige. In contrast with functionalists, conflict theorists see disagreement and the resulting changes in society as natural, inevitable, and even desirable. Feminist theories try to explain the social, economic, and political position of women in society with a view to freeing women from traditionally oppressive expectations, constraints, roles, and behavior. Thus, feminist perspectives maintain that women suffer injustice because of their sex, and that people should be treated fairly and equally regardless of their race, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, class, sexual orientation, disability, and other characteristics. Symbolic interactionism is a micro-level perspective that looks at individuals’ everyday behavior through the communication of knowledge, ideas, beliefs, and attitudes. Whereas functionalists and conflict theorists focus on structures and large systems, symbolic interactionists focus on process and keep the person at the center of their analysis.
Sociological research examines human behavior. The process requires curiosity and imagination, but also knowing the rules and procedures that guide research aimed at describing and explaining why people behave as they do. Because knowledge is cumulative, social researchers continuously challenge the quality of existing studies and modify their research designs. Sociological research is important in our everyday lives because it creates new knowledge that helps us understand social life. It exposes myths and affects social policies. Social research sharpens our critical thinking skills and helps us make informed decisions about our everyday lives.
The Scientific Method: To discover patterns that explain behavior, sociologists rely on the scientific method, the steps in the research process that include careful data collection, exact measurement, accurate recording and analysis of the findings, thoughtful interpretation of results, and, when appropriate, a generalization of the findings to a larger group. Throughout this process, sociologists are interested in the relationships between variables. A variable is a characteristic that can change in value or magnitude under various conditions. Variables can be attitudes, behaviors, or traits such as ethnicity, age, and social class. Scientists can simply ask a research question, but they usually begin with a hypothesis, which is a statement of a relationship between two or more variables that they want to test. In testing a hypothesis, sociologists predict a relationship between an independent variable, a characteristic that determines or has an effect, and the dependent variable, the outcome. The scientific method is important in both qualitative and quantitative approaches. In qualitative research, sociologists examine non-numerical material that they then interpret. In quantitative research, sociologists focus on a numerical analysis of people’s responses or specific characteristics, studying a wide range of attitudes, behaviors, and traits.
Data Collection Methods: During the research process, sociologists typically use one or more of the following data collection methods: surveys, secondary analysis of existing data, field research, content analysis, experiments, and evaluation research. Because each technique has benefits and limitations, a sociologist must consider which will provide the most accurate information given time and budget constraints. In field research, sociologists collect data by systematically observing people in their natural surroundings. Content analysis is a method of studying social behavior that systematically examines some form of communication. Evaluation research which uses all of the standard data collection techniques assesses the effectiveness of social programs in both the public and the private sectors. In summary, researchers have to weigh the benefits and limitations of each research approach in designing their studies. Often, they use a combination of methods because many sociologists view the social world as a multi-faceted and multi-layered reality that reveals itself only in part with any single method.
Ethics, Politics, and Sociological Research: Because so much research relies on human subjects, the federal government and many professional organizations have devised codes of ethics to protect the participants. Regardless of the discipline or the research methods used, all ethical standards have at least three golden rules, but their implementation is sometimes more complicated than it seems. First, do no harm by causing subjects physical, psychological, or emotional pain. Second, the researcher must get the subject’s informed consent to be in the study. Third, researchers must protect a subject’s confidentiality, even if the participant has broken a law. In the social sciences, some data collection methods are more susceptible to ethical violations that others. Surveys secondary analysis, and content analysis are less vulnerable than field research and experiments because the researchers typically don’t interact directly with subjects, affect them, or become personally involved with the respondents. In contrast, experiments and field research can raise ethical questions due to deception or influencing the subjects’ attitudes or behavior.
Culture and Society
Sociologists use the term culture to refer to the learned and shared behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, values, and material objects that characterize a particular group or society. Thus, culture determines a people’s total way of life. Among other things, culture influences what you eat; how you were raised and will raise your own children; if, when, and whom you’ll marry; how you make and spend money; and what your reading preferences are. Even people who pride themselves on their individualism conform to most cultural rules. A society is a group of people who have lived and worked together long enough to become an organized population and to think of themselves as a social unit. Every society has a culture that guides people’s interactions and behaviors. Society and culture are mutually dependent; neither can exist without the other. Because of this interdependence, social scientists sometimes use the terms culture and society interchangeably. Culture shapes our attitudes and behaviors. All human societies, despite their diversity, share some of the following characteristics and functions.
- Culture is learned and it shapes how we think, feel, and behave. If a child is born in one region of the world but raised in another, he or she will learn the customs, attitudes, and beliefs of the adopted culture.
- Culture is transmitted from one generation to the next. We learn many customs, habits, and attitudes informally through interactions with parents, relatives, friends, and from the media. We also learn culture formally in settings such as schools, workplaces, and community organizations. Because each generation transmits cultural information to the next one, culture is cumulative.
- Culture is shared. Culture brings members of a society together. We have a sense of belonging because we share similar beliefs, values, and attitudes about what is right and wrong. Imagine the chaos if we did what we wanted, like physically assaulting an annoying neighbor.
- Culture is adaptive and always changing. Culture changes over a period of time. New generations discard technological aspects of culture that are no longer practical, such as replacing typewriters with personal computers. Attitudes can also change over time. Culture reflects who we are, but remember that it’s people who create culture. As a result, culture changes as people adapt to their surroundings. Since the 9/11 attacks, for example, many people worldwide, including Americans, have become accustomed to greater surveillance by the government.
- Cultures that people construct are both material and non-material. Material culture consists of the tangible objects that members of a society make, use, and share. These creations include diverse products such as buildings, tools, music, weapons, jewelry, religious objects, and cell phones. Nonmaterial culture includes the shared set of meanings that people in a society use to interpret and understand the world. Symbols, values, beliefs, sanctions, customs, and rules of behavior are elements of non-material culture.
Building Blocks of Culture
Sociologists study the building blocks of culture to determine the influence they have on individuals and the society as a whole. To answer questions about society we must understand the building blocks of culture, especially symbols, language, values, and norms.
Symbols: A symbol is anything that stands for something else and has a particular meaning for people who share a culture. In most societies, for example, a handshake communicates friendship or courtesy, a wedding ring signals that a person isn’t a potential dating partner, and a siren denotes an emergency. People influence each other through the use of symbols. A smile and a frown communicate different information and elicit different responses. Through symbols, we engage in symbolic interaction. In Islamic societies may women wear a head scarf that covers their hair and neck, a veil that hides part of the face from just below the eyes, or a garment that covers the entire body. The variety of veils is just a piece of cloth, but means different things to people across and within cultures. For non-Muslims, especially Westerners, veils are often symbols of women’s repression by men and religious zealotry; they conjure up images of terrorism and connote hiding something. For many Muslims, on the other hand, veiling, symbolizes religious commitment, modesty, women’s dress codes, and an Islamic identity. Symbols can unify or divide a society.
Language: Perhaps the most powerful of all human symbols is language, a system of shared symbols that enables people to communicate with one another. In every society, children begin to grasp the essential structure of their language at a very early age and without any instruction. Language makes us human and helps us understand our everyday experiences, conveys our ideas, communicates information, and influences other people’s attitudes and behavior. Language directs our thinking, controls our actions, shapes our expression of emotions, and gives us a sense of belonging to a group. Language can also spark anger and conflict. Language has a profound influence on how we think about and act toward women and men. Words, both written and spoken, create and reinforce both positive and negative images about race and ethnicity.
Values: Values are standards by which members of a particular culture define what is good or bad, moral or immoral, proper or improper, desirable or undesirable, beautiful or ugly. They are widely shared within a society and provide general guidelines for everyday behavior rather than specific rules that apply to concrete situations. Sociologist Robin Williams has identified a number of core U.S. values. All are central to the American way of life because they are widespread, have endured over time, and reflect many people’s intense feelings. They include achievement and success, activity and work, humanitarianism, efficiency and practicality, progress, material comfort, freedom and equality, conformity, democracy and individualism.
Norms: Values express general goals and broad guidelines for daily living, but norms are a society’s specific rules of right and wrong behavior. Norms tell us what we should, ought and must do, as well as what we should not, ought not, and must not do, like don’t talk in church, stand in line, and so on. Norms are not universally applied to all groups, however. Norms reflect values and, thus, are expectations shared by the members of the society at large or by the members of particular groups within a society. In the United States, where individualism is a basic value, young adults are expected to move out of their parents; home and to become independent and self-sufficient. In China, in contrast, where communal responsibility is a basic value, several generations live under the same roof, and children are expected to care for their aging parents. Folkways are also norms that members of a society, or a group within a society, see as not being critical and that may be broken without severe punishment. Etiquette rules are a good example of folkways. Mores are norms that members of a society consider very important because they maintain moral and ethical behavior. Folkways emphasize ought to behavior, mores define must behavior. The Ten Commandments are a good example of religious mores. The most rigid norms are laws, formal rules about behavior that are defined by a political authority that has the power to punish violators. Most people conform to norms because of sanctions, rewards for good or appropriate behavior. Children learn norms through both positive sanctions (praise, hugs, smiles, new toys) and negative sanctions (frowning, scolding, spanking, withdrawing love).
There is a considerable diversity across societies in symbols, language, values, and norms. There are also some important similarities across and within cultures because of cultural universals, real and ideal culture, ethnocentrism, and cultural relativism.
Cultural Universals: Cultural universals are customs and practices that are common to all societies. Anthropologist George Murdock and his associates studied hundreds of societies and compiled a list of 88 categories that they found among all cultures. Many cultural universals exist, but specific behaviors vary across cultures, from one group to another in the same society, and across time. For example, all societies have food taboos, but specifics about what people ought and ought not to eat differ across societies.
Ideal Versus Real Culture: The ideal culture of a society comprises the beliefs, values, and norms that people say they hold or follow. In every culture, however, these standards differ from the society’s real culture, or people’s actual everyday behavior. For example, Americans say that they love their children, and continuously proclaim that children are their most precious resources. Every year, however, hundreds of thousands of children experience abuse and neglect on a daily basis.
Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism: Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s culture and way of life are superior to those of other groups. This attitude leads people to view other cultures as inferior, wrong, backward, immoral, or barbaric. Because people internalize their culture and take it for granted, they may be hostile toward other cultures. Ethnocentrism can also be functional. Pride in one’s country promotes loyalty and cultural unity. When children learn their country’s national anthem and customs, they have a sense of belonging. Ethnocentrism also reinforces conformity and maintains stability. Members of a society become committed to their particular values and customs, and transmit them to the next generation. As a result life is orderly and predictable. The opposite of ethnocentrism is cultural relativism, a belief that no culture is better than another and that a culture should be judged by its own standards.
There is considerable cultural variation across societies and sometimes within the same society. Subcultures and countercultures account for some of the complexity within a society.
Subcultures: A subculture is a group of people whose distinctive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting differ somewhat from those of the larger society. A subculture is part of the larger, dominant culture but has particular values, beliefs, perspectives, lifestyle, or language. Members of subcultures often live in the same neighborhoods, associate with each other, have close personal relationships, and marry others who are similar to themselves. One example of a subculture is college students. At residential campuses, most college students wear similar clothing, eat similar food, participate in similar recreational activities, and often hook up with each other. Whether we realize it or not, most of us are members of numerous subcultures. Subcultures reflect a variety of characteristics, interests, or activities. Some examples of subcultures are Irish, Mormons, Southern Democrats, lesbians, kindergartners, teachers, art lovers, middle class, mountain bikers, to name just a few.
Countercultures: Unlike a subculture, a counterculture deliberately opposes and consciously rejects some of the basic beliefs, values, and norms of the dominant culture. Countercultures usually emerge when people believe they can’t achieve their goals within the existing society. As a result, such groups develop values and practices that run counter to those of the dominant society. Some countercultures are small and informal, but others have millions of members and are highly organized, like religious militants. Most countercultures do not engage in illegal activities. During the 1960s, for example, social movements such as feminism, civil rights, and gay rights organized protests against mainstream views but usually stayed within the law.
Multiculturalism: Multiculturalism refers to the coexistence of several cultures in the same geographic area, without one culture dominating another. Many applaud multiculturalism because it encourages intracultural dialogue. Supporters hope that emphasizing multiculturalism, especially in academic institutions and the workplace, will decrease ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.
Cultural Change and Technology
In many ways, culture is a conservative force. As reviewed above, values, norms, and language are transmitted from generation to generation. Such cultural integration, or the consistency of various aspects of society, promotes order and stability. Even when new behaviors and beliefs emerge, they commonly adapt to existing ones. Recent immigrants, for example, may speak their native language at home and celebrate their own holy days, but they are expected to gradually absorb the new country’s values, obey its civil and criminal codes, and adopt its national language. Life would be chaotic and unpredictable without such cultural integration. Cultural stability is important, but all societies change over time. Some of the major reasons for cultural change include diffusion, invention and innovation, discovery, and external pressures.
View the following video to review a simple explanation of the three basic sociological theories. Then view a very short video on the sociological imagination.
What is the sociological imagination?
It is an interesting perspective to think like a sociologist. Sociology is the systematic study of human behavior in society which means the behavior is not only interesting but it is regular and patterned and it takes place between individuals, small groups (such as families), large organizations, and entire societies (such as the United States and other countries). When we examine our social world we find that much of our knowledge is based on tradition, a handing down of statements, beliefs, and customs from generation to generation. Another common source of knowledge is authority, a socially accepted source of information that includes experts, parents, government officials, police, judges, and religious leaders. It is important to note that sociologists use the term culture in a broad sense to refer to the learned and shared behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, values, and material objects that characterize a particular group or society. Thus, culture shapes a people's total way of life.
Benokraitis, Nijole V. (2014). SOC. (4th ed.), Mason, OH: South-Western, Cengage Learning.
Schaefer, Richard T. (2013). Sociology: A Brief Introduction (10thed.), New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Gentle, Anne (2012). Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation (2nd ed.), Laguna Hills, CA: SML Press.
Van Dijck, Jose (2013). The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media, Oxford: Oxford University Press.