Introduction to sociology

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Part of the Strategic Studies curriculum

See Introduction to Sociology for a wikibook on this subject.


Sociology is the scientific study of the individual and group behavior within society. A standard textbook approach emphasizes several theoretical approaches to understanding human behavior; however, there are four main approaches: Structural-Functionalism, Social-Conflict, Symbolic-Interactionalism and Feminism. Post- Modernism is also a theoretical perspective characteristic of Sociology, though not often deemed a major perspective is nonetheless a field of study of concentration, with extensive roots in the sociological tradition of research and understanding human behavior.

Approaches to Sociology[edit]

Sociologists emphasize the dynamic interplay between social structures that influence our experience and the intentional actions of actors that reproduce and sometimes transform those social structures.


Structural-Functionalism is often referred to as Functionalism and is considered an objective means to understanding macro aspects of human behavior in the context of society. This theory adopts the notion that society is made up of parts that contributes to stability in society. Society is thus considered to be a whole unit, which includes many parts interrelated and works together to function.

Emile Durkheim is credited with having adopted the notion of using "social facts" to uncover objective social conditions that influence patterns of behavior.

Theoretical questions asked from this perspective include:

1. How is society integrated? 2. What are the major parts of society? 3. How does society influence behavior?

Key people include:

Emile Durkheim   See w:Emile Durkheim 
Talcott Parsons  See w:Talcott Parsons
Robert Merton    See w:Robert K. Merton

Topics examined may include:

 institutions and how they function
 the study of suicide (See Durkheim)

Social Conflict[edit]

Social Conflict often referred to as "Conflict Theory" or "Dialectical" perspective is deemed as the leading theoretical perspective addressing macro aspects of sociology, namely inequality. The theory adopts the notion that there is a "class" struggle that exists between those who own the "means of production" (capitalists) and the workers. The capitalists are often referred to as the "Bourgeoisie," while the workers are named the "Proletarians." The key idea of this theory is rooted in the notion of "materialism." Though far more complex, in simple terms, the notion of materialism implies that society can be understood through understanding the material aspect of social life.

Theoretical questions asked from this perspective include:

1. How is society divided? 2. What are the major patterns of social inequality? 3. How do some categories of people protect their privilege?

Key people include:

Karl Marx      See w:Karl Marx
Hegel          See w:Georg Wilhelm Frederich Hegel

Topics examined may include:

labor inequality

Symbolic Interactionism[edit]

Symbolic Interactionism is often referred to as " social behaviorism," or "Pragmatism." As a predominantly micro theoretical perspective the concentration is on subjective experiences because it enables us to understand individual behaviors in the context of society. This perspective concentrates on the "symbols" (gestures, words, things, and people to name a few) to which we attach meaning as the basic of social life.

This perspective is typically divided into two distinctive areas: "Social Behaviorism" or "Dramaturgy." The father of the social behaviorism is George Herbert Mead. The father of dramaturgy is Erving Goffman.

Theoretical questions asked from this perspective include:

1. How is society experienced? 2. How do human beings interact to sustain and create change? 3. How does individual behavior change from situation to situation?

Key people include:

George Herbert Mead
Erving Goffman           See w:Erving Goffman
Herbert Blumer           See w:Herbert Blumer
Charles Horton Cooley    See w:Charles Cooley
Howard Becker            See w:Howard P. Becker
Howard Garfinkel         See w:Howard G. Garfinkel

Topics examined may include:

mental illness See w:Thomas Szasz
labeling people
public behavior


Feminism can adopt either a macro or micro perspective to understanding human behavior, namely how gender impacts behavior giving rise to inequality. Thus, this perspective is impart rooted in the "Social Conflict" theory.

There are varying degrees and categories of feminism which are examined from a particular perspective within the feminist arena such as: Liberal Feminism, Marxist Feminism, Radical Feminism, and Non-Marxist Radical Feminism. Though distinct in their own right commonalities includes examining: gender, sex roles and patriarchy.

Theoretical questions asked from this perspective include: 1. Why is there a gender heirachy? 2. How does gender inequality affect women? 3. What can we do to overcome inequality?

Key people include:

Karl Marx        See w:Karl Marx
Dorothy Smith    See w:Dorothy E. Smith

Topics examined may include:

 inequality in the work place
 women's roles
 unpaid labor


Post-Modernism can be examined from both a macro and micro perspective. Sometimes, this perspective is referred to as "Post Structuralism," and adopts a "Discourse Analysis" characteristic of cultural studies. This theory looks at the role of "governmentality" and "risk analysis" characteristic of the modern era or post modern era as some see it.

Theoretical questions asked from this perspective include: 1. What is the role of government in defining roles? 2. How are we considered to be in a risk society? 3. What is the impact of modernity on human behavior?

Key people include:

Michel Foucault  See w:Michel Foucault
Jacques Derrida  See w:Jacques Derrida

Topics examined may include:

the rise of institutions
the doctor-patient relationship
the employer-employee relationship
people at risk


To conclude, sociological perspectives are used to understand human behavior while seeing the broader social context. Each theoretical perspective serves to explain human behavior within its own category.

Which perspective to use to explain behavior is typically based on the guiding question(s) used. For example, How does a teacher behave in class? One might best adopt the Symbolic Interactionism perspective because Erving Goffman addressed how we present ourselves to others within the context of public behavior. However, if one wanted to study the social institution of a business or how a school functions once would be best to adopt the Structural functionalist perspective.

One can use sociology as a basis for understanding human behavior in every day life whether it be on an individual basis or group. As John Donne is quoted as saying "No man is an island unto himself," individual behaviors can not be separated from group behavior because we carry society within us. But, one can concentrate on one aspect more than the other.