Sociology, Basic characteristics, Theoretical Perspectives of Sociology

What is Sociology? What are its basic characteristics? Explain major theoretical perspectives of Sociology?

Definition of Sociology

The subject has been looked from various points of view and now it is an opportune time to define the subject properly. According to P.A. Sorokin “sociology is a generalizing science of socio-cuitural phenomena viewed in their generic forms, types, and manifold interconnections. ” (Bierstedt, 1970. 3-28) Sociology is the scientific study of human society and social behaviour. The subject matter of sociology is huge and complex, and the knowledge produced by sociological research is still imperfect in many ways. However, it has taught us a great deal about ourselves. (RotarTson, 1977 :3)

No formal definition of sociology is very satisfactory. Short definitions don’t really define; long definitions are clumsy. Yet a definition of some sort is needed, and sociology is often defined as the scientific study of human social life.. Human beings behave differently from other animals. They have unique forms of group life; they pursue customs, develop institutions, and create values. Sociology applies scientific methods to the study of these phenomena in the research for scientific knowledge.

Sociology concentrates its study upon the group life of human beings and the product of their group living. (HurTon and Chester 1984: 25-27) The sociologist is especially interested in the customs, traditions, and values which emerge from group living, and in the way group living is, in turn, affected by these customs, traditions, and values. Sociology is interested in the way groups interact with one another and in the processes and institutions which they have developed.

Characteristics of Sociology

Sociology is first of all a social science and not a natural science because it deals with the social universe not with the physical universe. In the second place, sociology is a categorical, not a normative, discipline because it confines itself to statements about what is, not what should be or ought to be. Sociology is a pure science, not an applied science because the immediate goal of sociology is the acquisition of knowledge about human society, not the utilization of that knowledge. The relations between pure and applied sciences can be seen more clearly, if they are described in the following fashion:

Pure sciences            Applied sciences        Pure sciences             Applied sciences

Physics                       Engineering                Mathematics               Accounting

Chemistry                   Pharmacy                    Botany                         Agriculture

History                        Journalism                  Economics                   Business

Sociology                    Administration                                                Social work

A fourth characteristic of sociology is that it is a relatively abstract science and not a concrete one. It means that sociology is not interested in the concrete manifestations of human events but rather in the form that they take and the patterns they assume. For example, in distinguishing sociology from history, that sociology was concerned, not with particular wars and revolutions but with war and revolution in general as social phenomena.

A fifth characteristic of sociology is that it is a generalizing and not a particularizing or individualizing science. It seeks general laws or principles about human interaction and association, about the nature, form, content, and structure of human groups and societies, and not as in the case of history, or particular events. For example, sociology is not interested in the wars between Pakistan and India, but in the sociological principle that external aggression is one way to intensify the internal solidarity of a group.

A sixth characteristic of sociology is that it is both a rational and empirical sciences.

Finally, a seventh characteristic of sociology is that it is a general and not a special science. In other words, sociology studies those phenomena that are common to all human interaction. This point may be clarified by the following formula:

Economic      a, b,  c, d, e, f

Political         a, b,  c, g, h, i

Religious       a, b,  c, j, k, I

Legal               a, b,c, in, n, o

In all these phenomena, whether economic or political or religious, the same a, h, c occur. For quick reference, these categories or canons are arranged in a series of opposing pairs and italicize and underline those logical characteristics that pertain to sociology:

Social                             Natural

Categorical                   Normative

Pure                             Applied

Abstract                         Concrete

Generalizing                 Particularizing

Rational                        Empirical

General                         Special

Major Theoretical Perspectives:

A crucial element in sociology is theory. A theory is a statement that organizes a set of concepts in a meaningful way by explaining the relationship between them. A working set of assumptions is called a “perspective,” an “approach,” or sometimes a “paradigm.” If the theory is valid, it will correctly predict that identical relationships will occur in the future if the conditions are identical. In order to study anything, one must begin by making some assumptions about the nature of what is studied. For example, the ancient Greeks believed that the universe was run according to the whims of the gods. By contrast, all scientists assume that the universe is orderly, and operates in certain regular ways which we may be able to discover. Thus. Newton developed the laws of gravity after observing that apples always fall down, never up. Following are some of the theoretical perspectives used in sociology.

–                   The Evolutionary Perspective

It is the earliest theoretical perspective in sociology. It is based on the work of August Comte (1798-1857) and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), and offers a satisfying explanation of how human societies originate and grow.

Sociologists using the evolutionary perspective look for patterns of change and development appearing in different societies, to see whether any general sequences can be found. They might wonder, for example, whether industrialization will have the same effects upon the family in developing countries that it seems to have had in Western nations.

–                  The Interactionist Perspective

Symbolic interactionists such as G.H. Mead (1863-1931) and C.H. Cooley (1846- 1929) concentrate upon the interaction between individuals and groups. They note that people interact mainly through symbols, which include signs, gestures, and most importantly, through written and spoken words. A word has no inherent meaning. It is simply a noise, but it becomes a Word when people reach agreement that this noise carries a special meaning. Thus, “yes, ” “no,” “go,” “come,” and thousands of other sounds became symbols as a meaning is attached to each.

Modern interactionists such as Erving Goffman (1959) and Herbert Blumer (1962)

emphasize that people do not respond to other people directly; instead, they respond to – clever they imagine other people to he. In human behavior “reality is constructed in people’s minds as they size one another up and guess at the feelings and impulses of one •her. Whether a person is a friend, our enemy, or a stranger is not a characteristic of . Person; that person is, to me. whatever I perceive him as being, at least until I change perception. Whether he is good or bad is measured by my perception of him. Thus, I create reality about him in my own mind, and then 1 react to this reality that I have constructed. This does not mean that all reality is subjective – that it exists only in the – -J. There are objective facts in the universe. The sun, moon, and stars are real, and 11 would be there even if there were no humans to see them. Meanings are given to facts and to human actions by human beings. The symbolic interactionist perspective concentrates upon what meanings people find in other people’s actions, how these meanings are derived, and how others respond to them.

    The Functionalist Perspective

According to functionalist perspective, the society is working in an organized way, and all the groups living in the society observe values and norms existing in the society. – Society is seen as a stable system and there is a tendency to establish and maintain a “.danced and harmoniously operating system. In this perspective each group or institution fulfills certain functions and persists because it is functional. For example, Jiool educates children and provides training in sports. Family as an institution, provides food and financial support to its members. Marriage, organizes sexual behaviour and assures legitimate children.

Social change disrupts the stable equilibrium of the society, but before long a new equilibrium is regained. For example, large families were desired when death rates were high, and large families helped to ensure some survivors. Today, with a lower death rate, large families have become dysfunctional and threaten the welfare of the society. So a new equilibrium i.e. nuclear family is approaching. Thus, a value or practice which is functional at one time or place may become dysfunctional at another time or place. If a -“articular social change promotes a harmonious equilibrium, it is seem as functional; if it disrupts the equilibrium, it is dysfunctional; if it has no effects, it’ is nonfunctional.

 The Conflict Perspective

Although it stems from the work of many scholars, the conflict perspective is most directly based upon the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883), who saw class conflict and class exploitation as the prime moving forces in history. Largely ignored by sociologists for many years, the conflict perspective has recently been revived by C. Wright Mills 1959), Collins 1975) and many others. Where functionalist see the normal state of society as one of stable equilibrium, conflict theorists see society in a continuous state of conflict between groups and classes. Although Marx concentrated upon conflict between classes for ownership of productive wealth, modern conflict theorists take a less narrow view. They see the struggle for power and income as a continuous process but one in’ which many categories of people appear as opponents ~ classes, races, nationalities, and even the sexes. They claim that the “shared values” which functionalist see as the glue holding society together do to really form a true consensus; instead this is an artificial consensus in which the dominant groups or classes impose their values and rules upon the rest of the people. According to them functionalist fail to ask the question, “functionally useful to whom? They accuse functionalist of a conservative bias, in that functionalist assume that this “harmonious equilibrium” is beneficial to everyone, whereas it benefits some and penalizes others. Conflict theorists ask such questions as, “how have the present patterns emerged from the contest between conflicting groups, each seeking its own advantage?” How do the dominant groups and classes achieve and maintain their position of privilege?” “How do they manipulate the institutions of society schools, churches, mass media, to protect their privileges” “Who benefits and who suffers from the present social arrangements?” “How can society be made more just and humane?”

Comparison of the Perspectives:

Keeping in view the above discussion about different theoretical perspectives of sociology, it looks very difficult to answer the question, “which is the best perspective?” Each is a different way of looking at society. Each perspective views society from a different vantage point, asks different questions, and reaches different conclusions. Evolutionists focus upon the similarities in changing societies; interactionists focus upon the similarities in changing societies; interactionists focus upon the actual social behaviour of persons and groups; functionalist focus more heavily upon value consensus, order, and stability; conflict theorists focus more heavily upon inequality, tension and change. For most topics of study, there are some aspects for which each of the perspectives can be useful. For example, consider the development of the modern university. The evolutionary perspective might focus upon the procession of scholarly needs and arrangements, extending over several thousand years, which eventually led to the development of the modern university. The interactionist perspective would not the ways in which scholarly needs have been defined at different times and the ways in which persons and groups dealt with one another in creating the university. The functionalist perspective would concentrate upon what changes made universities seem to be necessary, what purposes they fulfilled for the society, and what effects universities have upon their students and upon societies. The conflict perspective would concentrate upon as to which groups and classes benefit from the university and how access to higher education operates to preserve the position of the privileged groups. For some problems, one perspective may be more useful than other.

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