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
    4. Canadian Sociology: Distinctive Touches
  5. Sociological Theory
    1. The Structural-Functional Paradigm
    2. The Social-Conflict Paradigm
      1. Feminism
    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. Critical Thinking Questions
  8. Sociology Applied
  9. Weblinks



Much of the behaviour that people exhibit and the positions they hold in society are not entirely a result of independent choice but are rather a result of social factors which have impinged upon their lives. The scenario outlined to begin this chapter illustrates how facts about parents' income, marital selection, one's own income, number of children, the likelihood of divorce, how long one will live and cause of death can be predicted if various social facts are known. Sociology is a tool which enables us to comprehend the influence of social factors on people's behaviour patterns.


Sociology is defined as the systematic study of human society. Sociology as a discipline is guided by a distinctive perspective. The qualities of this perspective are outlined, with illustrations for each being presented.

Seeing the General in the Particular  Sociologist Peter Berger refers to the fact that sociologists see general social patterns in the behaviour of particular individuals. In fact each chapter in the text will illustrate how social forces shape our lives. Age, gender and social class, for example, are seen to have a remarkable impact upon behaviour and life chances. While not erasing our uniqueness as individuals, social forces touch our lives in many unseen, yet significant ways such as the behaviour of Canadian "peacekeepers" in Somalia who responded to cultural imperatives in the commission of atrocities.

Seeing the Strange in the Familiar  This is the process of detaching oneself from "familiar" individualistic interpretations of human behaviour and the acceptance of the initially "strange" notion that behaviour is a product of social forces.

Students will typically respond to a question about their own attendance at a university in a personal way while, in social reality, factors such as family income, age, race and government funding influence the choice. As we step back from "particular" choices and focus on "general" patterns our understanding is enhanced as we see how our lives are linked to others and to the society.

Individuality in Social Context  In a society which emphasizes individuality we are often reluctant to admit that our lives are predictable and patterned. Even suicide, a seemingly very personal act, can be seen to be affected by social forces.

The research by Emile Durkheim on suicide clearly shows how impersonal social forces affect personal behaviour. Records of suicide in central Europe during the last part of the 19th century were found by Durkheim to show certain social categories as having higher suicide rates than others. It was found that the degree of social integration, or how strongly a person is bound to others by social ties, had a significant influence on the patterns of suicide rates. Figure 1-1 (p. 7) provides rates of suicide over time in Canada for males and females.


Although many academic disciplines have incorporated a global perspective such an inclusion is especially important to the sociological perspective since our basic understanding is that where we are placed within some social construct (including global constraints) affects our experiences as people. Comparative data indicate that Canada is a very wealthy nation where, most people enjoy material abundance. Although many of our citizens experience relative poverty it is not the abject poverty felt by most of the globe's peoples. The Global Sociology box "The Global Village: A Social Snapshot of Our World" (p. 8) indicates the nature of international distribution of income, food and education. As well the Window on the World Global Map titled Economic Development in Global Perspective (p. 9) clearly outlines the differences in international economic development and the consequent impacts on people's lives. Quite clearly globalization has led to increasing interconnectedness which has enabled us to see ourselves and examine ourselves and perhaps learn more about ourselves in the light of other nation's experiences.


Encountering people who are different from us reminds us of the power of social forces but two additional situations further stimulate a sociological outlook.

Sociology and Social Marginality   Social marginality or being an "outsider" enhances sociological thinking. Natives, women, gay people, those with disabilities and the aged are used to illustrate how certain socially significant characteristics can place people on the "outside" of social life, and make them more aware of social patterns others take for granted.

Sociology and Social Crisis  Secondly, social crisis can enhance sociological thinking. C. Wright Mills has suggested that historical periods characterized by massive change have resulted in increased sociological awareness. The massive unemployment of the depression years, for example, could be seen as a product of social forces and not individual ineptitude. Conversely, sociological thinking itself can foment social change rather than simply result from it.

Benefits of the Sociological Perspective   Four general benefits of using the sociological perspective are reviewed. These include: (1) It challenges familiar understandings about ourselves and others, so that we can critically assess the truth of commonly held assumptions, (2) It allows us to recognize both opportunities we have and the constraints that circumscribe our lives, (3) It empowers us as active members of our world through the grasp of our "sociological imagination", the capacity to comprehend the interplay between personal life and societal forces, (4) It helps us to recognize human diversity and to begin to understand the challenges of living in a diverse world.

Applied Sociology   Sociological training provides not only a useful perspective for hundreds of jobs in the public and private sectors of the workforce, but also the particulars of sociological research can be applied to program evaluation, public information gathering and analysis and the provision of research analysis for public and private agencies. Such analysis, for example, has influenced the policy decisions taken on medical care, bilingualism and bi-culturalism and Aboriginal affairs, among many others.


While "society" has been a topic of thought and discussion since the beginning of human history, sociological thinking is a recent historical phenomenon. The discipline of sociology is relatively young, and itself emerged as a product of particular social forces. Auguste Comte coined the term sociology in 1838 during a period of rapid social transformation.

Science and Sociology   Emile Durkheim pointed out in the latter part of the 19th century that the great philosophers from antiquity through the first half of the 19th century, using only philosophical and theological perspectives in their studies, concentrated on the qualities of imaginary "ideal" societies rather than on the analysis of what society was really like. Sociology was born when focus was given to understanding how society actually operates.

Auguste Comte argued that the key to achieving this was to use the scientific approach in studying society. He divided the history of the study of society into three distinct eras, which he labelled the theological, the metaphysical, and the scientific. The latter he called positivism, or the path to understanding the world based on science.

Even today, most sociologists in North America accept the importance of the scientific perspective but there is a recognition that human behaviour may never conform to rigid "laws of society."

Social Change and Sociology   Three key factors are identified as reshaping society during the 17th and 18th centuries. These included:

A New Industrial Economy: Rapid technological changes of the 18th century brought people in great numbers to work in factories, thus breaking down established patterns of social life.
The Growth of Cities: As factories spread across Europe, drawing people out of the countryside seeking employment due to the changing nature of the economy, this massive influx of people into cities created many social problems. The crises which emerged stimulated the development of the sociological perspective.
Political Change: The rapid economic and urban growth created a context for change in political thinking. Traditional notions of Divine Law were being replaced by ideas of individual liberty and freedom. Such rights are now enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Sociological thinking prospered in those societies where change was greatest and led Comte, Marx and many others to examine the social forces which impacted so greatly on individual lives.

Marginal Voices   While Comte, Durkheim and Marx are accepted as giants of sociology, other voices have been muted. Because women were regarded as inferior in a male-dominated society their sociological works were essentially ignored. For example, Harriet Martineau was an accomplished sociologist and journalist in the 1800s but did not receive the attention she deserved. Sociology itself is a response to the set of social conditions which exist at any time in a society.

Canadian Sociology: Distinctive Touches   Sociology began in Canada and the United States in the early part of the twentieth century but the traditions differ because of Canada's two major cultures and linguistic communities and perhaps, as well, because of her economic dependence on the United States. A European influence was historically obvious in both French Canadian sociology and the University of Toronto where the focus was on political and economic issues while at McGill the American approach to social problems and community studies was in evidence. The works of Harold Innis on Canadian economic development, Marshall McLuhan on the impact of electronic communications, and John Porter on inequality are noted for their influence on Canadian sociology.


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. There are a number of research methods available to researchers which are used to evaluate whether a theory is supported by facts. The basis upon which sociologists choose to study particular issues is a "road map" or theoretical paradigm, "a basic image of society that guides thinking and research.

There are three principal theoretical paradigms used by sociologists. Each theory focuses the researcher's attention on particular types of questions about how society is organized, and each provides a different explanation about why certain patterns are found in society.

The Structural-Functional Paradigm   This paradigm is a framework for building theory guided by the assumption that society is a complex system whose parts work together to promote stability. The two basic components of this paradigm are social structure, or relatively stable patterns of behaviour, and social functions, which refer to consequences for the operation of society as a whole. Structural functionalists often liken society to the human body, with different parts of society being interdependent, much like the various organs of the body. Early structural-functionalists included Spencer, Durkheim and Comte. As sociology developed in the United States during the 20th century, researchers Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton further applied and developed the thinking of these early social scientists. Merton differentiated between what he called manifest functions, or consequences of social structure recognized by people within a society, and latent functions, which are unrecognized or unintended consequences of social structure. Merton further points out that elements of social structure may be functional for one aspect of society and not for others. 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, often brought about by inequalities based upon social class, race, ethnicity and gender.

The Social-Conflict Paradigm   This paradigm is a framework for building theory based on the assumption that society is a complex system characterized by inequality and conflict which generate social change. Power and privilege are distributed unequally by social class, race, gender and age and often these inequalities are reinforced in various societal institutions such as education. "Streaming (the placement of students in academic and non-academic programs) for example, often has less to do with talent than social background. A past government effort to reduce streaming in Ontario schools has been overturned by the present government.

Karl Marx, the major proponent of this paradigm, sought not only to understand society but to change it for the better. Perhaps this activism is what attracts many feminist sociologists to this approach as they critically assess the constraints on women's lives in Canada. Critics, however, suggest that this paradigm ignores evidence of social unity and compromises objectivity in the pursuit of political goals.

The Symbolic-Interaction Paradigm   The first two paradigms discussed focus on a macro- level orientation, meaning a concern with large-scale patterns that characterize society as a whole. An alternative approach is to take a micro-level orientation, meaning a concern with small- scale patterns of social interaction in specific settings. This third paradigm, symbolic interactionism, is a theoretical framework based on the assumption that society is continuously recreated as human beings construct reality through interaction. The symbolic-interactionist paradigm was greatly influenced by the work of Max Weber, a German sociologist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the United states, during the 20th century, the work of George Herbert Mead, Erving Goffman, George Homans and Peter Blau were instrumental in the development of this paradigm. Mead's work on socialization, Goffman's work on dramaturgical analysis, Garfinkel's creation of ethnomethodology and Homans' and Blau's development of social-exchange analysis are discussed in later chapters.

In critically analysing this view it must be stressed that the focus is on how individuals personally experience society. This approach does not allow us to examine the impact of larger social structures on people's lives.

Each of the paradigms provides a unique perspective for the development of greater understanding of society. Table 1-2 (p. 22) reviews the orientation, image of society, and illustrative questions representative of each of the three major theoretical paradigms and those emerging.

Sports: Three Theoretical Paradigms in Action

Sports in North America are discussed as an indispensable part of social life. The question becomes, What insights can the sociological perspective provide us concerning sports?

The Functions of Sports   The structural-functional paradigm reveals many functional and dysfunctional consequences which sports have for society. For example sports promote the pursuit of success but university student athletes are often primarily athletes and secondarily students.

Sports and Conflict   The social-conflict paradigm provides an analysis of sports focussing upon the social inequalities within sports at all levels of competition. Male and female inequalities are addressed, as well as racial inequalities in professional sports.

Sports as Interaction   The symbolic-interactionists view sports as ongoing processes and not merely as a "system." The individual perceptions of specific participants concerning the reality, as each experiences it, becomes the focus.

No one paradigm is better than another in analysing sports, or any other aspect of society. The sociological perspective is enriched by the controversy and debate brought about through the application in research of these different paradigms.

Sociology: Nothing More Than Stereotypes?

The Controversy and Debate Box (pp. 22-23) indicates that while sociology employs generalizations, these are more than simple stereotypes applied unfairly to whole categories of people. Sociological statements are not applied indiscriminately to all individuals in a category, they are supported by facts, and they are stated within a framework of fair-minded pursuit of the truth.

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