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Understanding Modern Society

Asked by Bluebell608 | Nov 1, 2007 | AS Level > Sociology > Coursework
Bluebell608 asks:

I am a new AS Sociology student with my first assisgnment and am struggling to grasp the concept of the question and to be honest lack confidence in this subject. I am just unsure where a good place to start would be, and a running format that would be enable this piece to be clear and concise.

The assignment is:
Some sociological perspectives are better than others for understanding modern society. Critically evaluate this statement.

Any tips on how to even begin this and a point in the right direction would help me immensely.

etutor answers:

Some sociological perspectives are better than others for understanding modern society. Critically evaluate this statement.

Certainly not an easy question to be given for a first assignment! You will of course come across the various schools of thought as you work through your sociology course. Perhaps the best approach now is to identify some of the major ones.

A sociological perspective is a way of focusing upon particular issues or types of question. The key distinction is made normally between the positivist (macro) and the interpretivist (micro) approaches. The former looks at systems, structures and institutions, viewing behaviour as largely the product of forces outside our control. It values precision in measurement, and specialises in questionnaires, statistical analysis, standardised tests and structured interviews. The latter focuses upon the interpretation of the world by individuals, and argues that sociologists must be able to identify with this view in order to understand an individual’s actions. Hence the stress is upon the influence of interaction with others (and thus with different subjective realities), and on how people manage social institutions, There is recognition of subjectivity in analysis, which often specialises in participant observation and open-ended interviews and discussions.

Within the macro framework there are ‘consensus’ (functionalist and some Marxist) approaches, and conflict (some Marxist, Weberian and feminist theories) approaches. Within the micro framework there are interactionist and ethnomethodological approaches.

The functionalist approach starts from the view that society is a living organism, and so institutions must be studied not in isolation but in terms to their contribution to the wider society and to functions within that society. Sociologists such as Durkheim, Parsons and Merton argue that consensus and order are central to a stable society, and tend therefore to focus on economic, political and kinship sub-systems, as well as on the integrating community and cultural organisations which reinforce values and traditions, and which act as agents of socialisation. The benefit of this approach is that it enables societies to be compared and contrasted. The drawback is that in practice it is not really value-free and objective, since functionalists tend to have a conservative bias, and assume that individuals have little free will.

Marxist theory is, in the main, based upon the idea that institutions (especially the family, school and the workplace) socialise individuals to conform to society’s norms; it has this is common with functionalism. The key difference comes in the critique made of these agents of socialisation, which are seen as reinforcing elite rule, and thus unequal power and subordination. Often the emphasis is upon the conflict between the ruling class and ordinary people, and on the means through which such conflicts are resolved, or are perceived not to exist, or are even justified. This provides a useful contrast to the functionalist approach, in that it demonstrates that the same social phenomena can be interpreted in radically different ways, with Marxists placing great stress on inequalities in society as the principal way in which order is in practice maintained.

Feminism (of which there are several varieties) looks at the particular disadvantages (seen as oppression and exploitation) faced by women as a result of the patriarchal nature of society, and can therefore be seen as a strand of conflict theory. The benefit of feminism is that it has heightened awareness of gender roles in society, and especially within the family, and in education and in the workplace. The different versions of feminism all have in common a bias towards the need for social change.

Interactionism (or phenomenonogy) reflects a liberal philosophy, and focuses upon individual actors, seeing them as conscious beings, capable of shaping their environment. So we act out various roles, selecting words, gestures, behaviour and strategies that are appropriate for each social situation with which we are confronted. The social world is this a pattern of identity networks, which explains the differing ways in which an individual behaves in different social situations. It is wrong to label people as ‘deviants’, since this presupposes a value consensus – and ‘deviant’ behaviour may be quite normal within certain groups; it could thus be misinterpreted by an observer who is unaware of the group’s own norms. Becker argues that the sociologists must identify with one of the parties in any interaction being studied. The benefit of this approach is that it questions the assumption about the existence of objectivity in sociology, and reveals the danger of falling back too heavily on the received wisdom of the ‘giants’ such as Durkheim, Weber and Marx to explain all aspects of modern behaviour. It has contributed a great deal of value to debates about the deprived, powerless, and poor in society, as well as about criminal behaviour and the status of ethnic minorities.

Ethnomethodology, most obviously associated with Schutz and Cicourel, challenges the view that social groupings are based on sharing of ‘common sense’ knowledge of assumptions taken for granted, and argues that this basis is in practice far more fragile than is usually recognised. Sociologists have their own background experiences and expectations which will lead them to choose those areas of research that particularly interest them; this has a large impact on the focus of their research and on the methods used. The benefit of this approach is that it forces us to recognise that highly detailed statistical research does not necessarily produce the whole picture, and especially idf it starts from contentious assumptions about decision-makers (such as parents, teachers or the police).

I hope this is helpful.

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