Chapter 1: The Sociological Perspective
Chapter Overview


  1. The Sociological Perspective
    1. Seeing the General in the Particular
    2. Seeing the Strange in the Familiar
    3. Individuality in Social Context
  2. The Importance of Global Perspective
  3. The Sociological Perspective in Everyday Life
    1. Sociology and Social Marginality
    2. Sociology and Social Crisis
    3. Benefits of the Sociological Perspective
    4. Applied Sociology
  4. The Origins of Sociology
    1. Science and Sociology
    2. Social Change and Sociology
      1. A New Industrial Economy
      2. The Growth of Cities
      3. Political Change
    3. Marginal Voices
  5. Sociological Theory
    1. The Structural-Functional Paradigm
    2. The Social-Conflict Paradigm
    3. The Symbolic-Interaction Paradigm
    4. Sports: Three Theoretical Paradigms in Action
      1. The Functions of Sports
      2. Sports and Conflict
      3. Sports as Interaction
  6. Summary
  7. Key Concepts
  8. Critical-Thinking Questions
  9. Applications and Exercises
  10. Sites to See


  • To be able to define sociology and understand the basic components of the sociological perspective
  • To be able to provide examples of the ways in which social forces affect our everyday lives
  • To recognize the importance of a global perspective and the interdependence of our world's nations and people
  • To begin to recognize factors in society that encourage people to perceive the world sociologically
  • To be able to recognize the benefits of using the sociological perspective
  • To be able to identify important historical factors in the development of the discipline of sociology as a science
  • To be able to identify and discuss the differences between the three major theoretical paradigms used by sociologists in the analysis of society


Our author begins the text with a review of some of the generalizations about society that are based on sociological research. Sociology, suggests our author, studies how the social world guides our actions and life choices as individuals.


Sociology is defined as the systematic study of human society. At the heart of sociology is a distinctive point of view called "the sociological perspective."

Seeing the General in the Particular Peter Berger has suggested sociologists look for general social patterns in the behavior of particular individuals. While not erasing our uniqueness as individuals, sociology studies the social forces that impinge on our lives in so many unseen, yet significant ways.

Seeing the Strange in the Familiar Sociologist Peter Berger suggests that "things are not always what they seem." Sociology pushes us to question the assumptions we are making about society, and reveals aspects of our social life that we typically would not claim to be "obvious" facts.

Individuality in Social Context Research by Emile Durkheim on suicide shows how impersonal forces affect personal behavior. Durkheim showed that certain social categories in western Europe during the latter part of the nineteenth century had higher suicide rates than others. The degree of social integration experienced by people was found to be a significant factor influencing patterns in suicide rates.


Global perspective is the study of the larger world and our society's place in it. Three categories of nations are identified based on their relative economic development. These include: The high-income countries, or industrial nations that are relatively rich, the middle-income countries, or nations characterized by limited industrialization and moderate-to-low personal income, and the low-income countries, or nations with little industrialization and severe poverty.

Reasons why global perspective is so important are introduced, including: (1) Societies all over the world are increasing interconnected, making traditional distinctions between "us" and "them" less and less valid; (2) Many human problems that we face in the United States are far more serious elsewhere; and (3) Studying other societies is an excellent way to learn more about ourselves.


Encountering people who are different from us reminds us of how social forces shape our lives. Besides social diversity, there are two other kinds of everyday situations that also prompt us to view the world sociologically. These include:

Sociology and Social Marginality The term social marginality refers to a state of being excluded from social activity as an "outsider." Different categories and groups of people in our sociey experience this phenomenon to varying degrees.

Sociology and Social Crisis C. Wright Mills has suggested that certain historical periods have been represented by social disruption that has increased sociological awareness. The Great Depression in our society is discussed to illustrate.

Benefits of the Sociological Perspective Four general benefits of using the sociological perspective are reviewed. These include: (1) Helping us assess the truth of commonly held assumptions, (2) prompting us to assess both the opportunities and the constraints that characterize our lives, (3) empowering us to participate activitely in our society, and (4) helping us recognize human variety and confront the challenges of living in a diverse world.

Applied Sociology The benefits of sociology for various careers, particularly those involving social programs and social policy creation and implementation, are briefly discussed.


The discipline of sociology emerged as a product of particular social forces in Europe during the nineteenth century. French sociologist Auguste Comte coined the term sociology in 1838.

Science and Sociology Prior to the nineteenth century philosophers used only philosophical and theological perspectives in their studies, concentrating on the imaginary "ideal" rather than on the analysis of what society was really like. Sociology emerged as focus was given to understanding how society actually operates.

Auguste Comte argued for a scientific approach in studying society. He divided history into three distinct eras, which he labeled the theological stage, the metaphysical stage, and the scientific stage. Comte thus favored positivism, or an approach to understanding the world based on science.

Sociology emerged in the United States as an academic discipline during the early twentieth century.

Social Change and Sociology Sociology emerged after the great transformations in European societies which took place during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Three basic interrelated changes fostered the emergence of the sociological perspective. These included:

A New Industrial Economy: Rapid technological changes of the eighteenth century brought people in great numbers to work in factories. This change in the system of production weakened cultural traditions.
The Growth of Cities: Factories drew people in from the countryside. Both "pushes" and "pulls" were involved in this process of urbanization.
Political Change: Traditional notions of Divine Law were being replaced by ideas of individual liberty and individual rights. The views of Auguste Comte and Karl Marx are discussed in terms of how each understood this change.

Marginal Voices Historically, the important contributions made by women in the social sciences have been pushed to the margins or even ignored. The sociological work of Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) and Jane Addams (1860-1935) are discussed.


While the sociological perspective provides us with a unique vantage point from which to observe our social world, theory helps us to meaningfully organize and explain the linkages between specific observations we make. A theory is a statement of how and why specific facts are related.

Sociologists are guided by one or more general frameworks, or theoretical paradigms. A theoretical paradigm provides a basic image of society that guides thinking and research. There are three principal theoretical paradigms used by sociologists. Each one focuses the researcher's attention on particular types of questions about how society is organized, and on different explanations about why certain patterns are found in society.

The Structural-Functional Paradigm The structural-functional paradigm is a framework for building theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability. The two basic components of this paradigm are social structure, or a relatively stable pattern of social behavior, and social function, which refers to consequences of a social pattern for the operation of society. Early sociologists using this perspective included Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and Emile Durkheim.

As sociology developed in the United States during the twentieth century, Robert Merton further applied and developed the thinking of these early social scientists. Merton differentiated between manifest functions, or consequences of social structure both recognized and intended, and latent functions, which are unrecognized and unintended consequences of social structure. There may be undesirable effects on the operation of society, or social dysfunctions.

In critically evaluating this paradigm, it is pointed out that it is a conservative approach to the study of society which tends to ignore tension and conflict in social systems.

The Social-Conflict Paradigm The social-conflict paradigm is a framework for building theory that sees society as an arena of inequality that generates conflict and social change. Social differences, rather than social integration, are the focus using this paradigm. Educational achievement is discussed to illustrate the unequal distribution of power and privilege.

Critical evaluation of this paradigm raises concern that social unity is ignored, and that in focusing on change, objectivity may be lost.

The Symbolic-Interaction Paradigm The structural-functional and social-conflict paradigms focus on a macro-level orientation, meaning focus on broad social structures that shape society as a whole. An alternative approach is to take a micro-level orientation, meaning a focus on social interaction in specific situations. The symbolic-interaction paradigm is a framework for building theory that sees society as the product of the everyday interactions of individuals. People are seen as interacting in terms of shared symbols and meanings. This paradigm was greatly influenced by the work of Max Weber, a German sociologist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the United States, during the twentieth century, the work of George Herbert Mead, Erving Goffman (dramaturgical analysis), and George Homans and Peter Blau (social-exchange analysis) was instrumental in the development of this paradigm.

In critically analyzing this view it must be stressed that the focus is on how individuals personally experience society. This approach does not allow us to generalize findings to establish broad general patterns.

Each of the three paradigms provides a unique perspective for helping to develop our understanding of society.

Sports: Three Theoretical Paradigms in Action
The Functions of Sports
The structural-functional paradigm reveals many functional consequences that sports provide for society. For example, sports provide recreation and jobs. They encourage competition and the pursuit of success.

Sports and Conflict The social-conflict paradigm provides an analysis of sports focusing on the social inequalities within sports at all levels of competition. Gender, racial, and social class inequalities are addressed and illustrated.

Sports as Interaction The symbolic-interaction paradigm views sports as an ongoing process and not merely as some "system." The individual perceptions of specific participants concerning the reality as each experiences it becomes the focus.

The sociological perspective is enriched by the controversy and debate brought about through the application in research of these different paradigms.


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