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The Range of Social Scientific Methods


Sociology is the ordered, logical study of human society and its origins, development, organizations, and institutions. It is a social science which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity, structures, and functions. A goal for many sociologists is to conduct research which may be applied directly to social policy and welfare, while others focus primarily on refining the theoretical understanding of social processes. Subject matter ranges from the micro level of individual agency and interaction to the macro level of systems and the social structure.

The traditional focuses of sociology include social stratification, social class, culture, race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, social mobility, religion, secularization, law, and deviance. As all spheres of human activity are affected by the interplay between social structure and individual agency, sociology has gradually expanded its focus to further subjects,such as health, medical, military and penal institutions, the Internet, environmental sociology, political economy and the role of social activity in the development of scientific knowledge.

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The range of social scientific methods has also expanded.

The qualitative and quantitative techniques

Social researchers draw upon a variety of qualitative and quantitative techniques. The linguistic and cultural turns of the mid-twentieth century led to increasingly interpretative, hermeneutic, and philosophic approaches to the analysis of society. Conversely, recent decades have seen the rise of new analytically, mathematically and computationally rigorous techniques, such as agent-based modelling and social network analysis. Sociology should not be confused with various general social studies courses which bear little relation to sociological theory or social science research methodology.

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Sociological reasoning predates the foundation of the discipline. Social analysis has origins in the common stock of Western knowledge andphilosophy, and has been carried out from as far back as the time of ancient Greek philosopher Plato if not before. The origin of the survey, i. e. , the collection of information from a sample of individuals, can be traced back at least early as the Domesday Book in 1086, while ancient philosophers such as Confucius wrote on the importance of social roles. There is evidence of early sociology in medieval Islam.

Some consider Ibn Khaldun, a 14th-century Arab Islamic scholar from North Africa, to have been the first sociologist; his Muqaddimah was perhaps the first work to advance social-scientific reasoning on social cohesion and social conflict. Most sociological concepts were used in English prior to their adoption as the technical language of sociology. The word sociology (or “sociologie”) is derived from both Latin and Greek origins. The Latin word: socius, “companion”; the suffix -logy.

The Course in Positive Philosophy and A General View of Positivism

It was first coined in 1780 by the French essayist Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes(1748–1836) in an unpublished manuscript. Sociology was later defined independently by the French philosopher of science, Auguste Comte(1798–1857), in 1838. Comte used this term to describe a new way of looking at society. [19] Comte had earlier used the term “social physics”, but that had subsequently been appropriated by others, most notably the Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet. Comte endeavored to unify history, psychology and economics through the scientific understanding of the social realm.

Writing shortly after the malaise of the French Revolution, he proposed that social ills could be remedied through sociological positivism, an epistemological approach outlined in The Course in Positive Philosophy [1830–1842] and A General View of Positivism (1848). Comte believed a positivist stage would mark the final era, after conjectural theological and metaphysical phases, in the progression of human understanding. In observing the circular dependence of theory and observation in science, and having classified the sciences, Comte may be regarded as the first philosopher of science in the modern sense of the term.

Both Auguste Comte and Karl Marx set out to develop scientifically justified systems in the wake of European industrialization and secularization, informed by various key movements in the philosophies of history and science. Marx rejected Comte an positivism but in attempting to develop a science of society nevertheless came to be recognized as a founder of sociology as the word gained wider meaning. For Isaiah Berlin, Marx may be regarded as the “true father” of modern sociology, “in so far as anyone can claim the title. ”

Herbert Spencer (27 April 1820 – 8 December 1903) was one of the most popular and influential 19th century sociologists. It is estimated that he sold one million books in his lifetime, far more than any other sociologist at the time. So strong was his influence that many other 19th century thinkers, including Emile Durkheim, defined their ideas in relation to his. Durkheim’s Division of Labour in Society is to a large extent an extended debate with Spencer from whose sociology, many commentators now agree, Durkheim borrowed extensively.

Formal academic sociology

Also a notable biologist, Spencer coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Whilst Marxian ideas defined one strand of sociology, Spencer was a critic of socialism as well as strong advocate for a laissez-faire style of government. His ideas were highly observed by conservative political circles, especially in the United States and England. Formal academic sociology was established by Emile Durkheim (1858–1917), who developed positivism as a foundation to practical social research.

While Durkheim rejected much of the detail of Comte’s philosophy, he retained and refined its method, maintaining that the social sciences are a logical continuation of the natural ones into the realm of human activity, and insisting that they may retain the same objectivity, rationalism, and approach to causality. Durkheim set up the first European department of sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 1895, publishing his Rules of the Sociological Method (1895). For Durkheim, sociology could be described as the “science of institutions, their genesis and their functioning”.

Durkheim’s seminal monograph, Suicide (1897), a case study of suicide rates amongst Catholic and Protestant populations, distinguished sociological analysis from psychology or philosophy. It also marked a major contribution to the theoretical concept of structural functionalism. By carefully examining suicide statistics in different police districts, he attempted to demonstrate that Catholic communities have a lower suicide rate than that of Protestants, something he attributed to social (as opposed to individual or psychological) causes.

He developed the notion of objective suis generis “social facts” to delineate a unique empirical object for the science of sociology to study. Through such studies he posited that sociology would be able to determine whether any given society is ‘healthy’ or ‘pathological’, and seek social reform to negate organic breakdown or “social anomie”. Sociology quickly evolved as an academic response to the perceivedchallengesof modernity,such as industrialization, urbanization,secularization, and the process of “rationalization”.

The field predominated in continental Europe, with British anthropology and statisticsgenerally following on a separate trajectory. By the turn of the 20th century, however, many theorists were active in the Anglo-Saxon world. Few early sociologists were confined strictly to the subject, interacting also with economics, jurisprudence, psychology and philosophy, with theories being appropriated in a variety of different fields. Since its inception, sociological epistemologies, methods, and frames of inquiry, have significantly expanded and diverged.

Durkheim, Marx, and the German theorist Max Weber are typically cited as the three principal architects of social science. Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, Lester F. Ward, Vilfredo Pareto, Alexis de Tocqueville, Werner Sombart, Thorstein Veblen, Ferdinand Tonnies, Georg Simmel and Karl Mannheim are occasionally included on academic curricula as founding theorists. Each key figure is associated with a particular theoretical perspective and orientation. The first college course entitled “Sociology” was taught in the United States at Yale in 1875 by William Graham Sumner.

Dynamic Sociology

In 1883 Lester F. Ward, the first president of the American Sociological Association, published Dynamic Sociology—Or Applied social science as based upon statical sociology and the less complex sciences and attacked the laissez-faire sociology of Herbert Spencer and Sumner. Ward’s 1200 page book was used as core material in many early American sociology courses. In 1890, the oldest continuing American course in the modern tradition began at the University of Kansas, lectured by Frank W. Blackmar.

The Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago was established in 1892 by Albion Small, who also published the first sociology textbook: An introduction to the study of society 1894. [35] George Herbert Mead and Charles Cooley, who had met at the University of Michigan in 1891 (along with John Dewey), would move to Chicago in 1894. Their influence gave rise to social psychology and the symbolic interactionism of the modern Chicago School. The American Journal of Sociology was founded in 1895, followed by the American Sociological Association (ASA) in 1905.

The first sociology department

The sociological “canon of classics” with Durkheim and Max Weber at the top owes in part to Talcott Parsons, who is largely credited with introducing both to American audiences. Parsons consolidated the sociological tradition and set the agenda for American sociology at the point of its fastest disciplinary growth. Sociology in the United States was less historically influenced by Marxism than its European counterpart, and to this day broadly remains more statistical in its approach.

The first sociology department to be established in the United Kingdom was at the London School of Economics and Political Science (home of the British Journal of Sociology) in 1904. Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse and Edvard Westermarck became the lecturers in the discipline at the University of London in 1907. Harriet Martineau, an English translator of Comte, has been cited as the first female sociologist. In 1909 the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Soziologie (German Sociological Association) was founded by Ferdinand Tonnies and Max Weber, among others.

Weber established the first department in Germany at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munichin 1919, having presented an influential new antipositivist sociology. In 1920, Florian Znaniecki set up the first department in Poland. The Institute for Social Research at theUniversity of Frankfurt (later to become the Frankfurt School of critical theory) was founded in 1923. International co-operation in sociology began in 1893, when Rene Wormsfounded the Institut International de Sociologie, an institution later eclipsed by the much larger International Sociological Association (ISA), founded in 1949.

Perspective – General specific

Sociologists analyze social phenomena at different levels and from different perspectives. From concrete interpretations to sweeping generalizations of society and social behavior, sociologists study everything from specific events (the microlevel of analysis of small social patterns) to the “big picture” (the macro level of analysis of large social patterns). The pioneering European sociologists, however, also offered a broad conceptualization of the fundamentals of society and its workings.

Their views form the basis for today’s theoretical perspectives, or paradigms, which provide sociologists with an orienting framework—a philosophical position—for asking certain kinds of questions about society and its people. Sociologists today employ three primary theoretical perspectives: the symbolic interactionist perspective, the functionalist perspective, and the conflict perspective. These perspectives offer sociologists theoretical paradigms for explaining how society influences people, and vice versa. Each perspective uniquely conceptualizes society, social forces, and human behavior.

The symbolic interactionist perspective

The symbolic interactionist perspective, also known as symbolic interactionism, directs sociologists to consider the symbols and details of everyday life, what these symbols mean, and how people interact with each other. Although symbolic interactionism traces its origins to Max Weber’s assertion that individuals act according to their interpretation of the meaning of their world, the American philosopher George H. Mead (1863–1931) introduced this perspective to American sociology in the 1920s.

According to the symbolic interactionist perspective, people attach meanings to symbols, and then they act according to their subjective interpretation of these symbols. Verbal conversations, in which spoken words serve as the predominant symbols, make this subjective interpretation especially evident. The words have a certain meaning for the “sender,” and, during effective communication, they hopefully have the same meaning for the “receiver. ” In other terms, words are not static “things”; they require intention and interpretation.

Conversation is an interaction of symbols between individuals who constantly interpret the world around them. Of course, anything can serve as a symbol as long as it refers to something beyond itself. Written music serves as an example. The black dots and lines become more than mere marks on the page; they refer to notes organized in such a way as to make musical sense. Thus, symbolic interactionists give serious thought to how people act, and then seek to determine what meanings individuals assign to their own actions and symbols, as well as to those of others.

Consider applying symbolic interactionism to the American institution of marriage. Symbols may include wedding bands, vows of life?long commitment, a white bridal dress, a wedding cake, a Church ceremony, and flowers and music. American society attaches general meanings to these symbols, but individuals also maintain their own perceptions of what these and other symbols mean. For example, one of the spouses may see their circular wedding rings as symbolizing “never ending love,” while the other may see them as a mere financial expense.

Much faulty communication can result from differences in the perception of the same events and symbols. Critics claim that symbolic interactionism neglects the macro level of social interpretation—the “big picture. ” In other words, symbolic interactionists may miss the larger issues of society by focusing too closely on the “trees” (for example, the size of the diamond in the wedding ring) rather than the “forest” (for example, the quality of the marriage). The perspective also receives criticism for slighting the influence of social forces and institutions on individual interactions.

The functionalist perspective

According to the functionalist perspective, also called functionalism, each aspect of society is interdependent and contributes to society’s functioning as a whole. The government, or state, provides education for the children of the family, which in turn pays taxes on which the state depends to keep itself running. That is, the family is dependent upon the school to help children grow up to have good jobs so that they can raise and support their own families. In the process, the children become law?abiding, taxpaying citizens, who in turn support the state.

If all goes well, the parts of society produce order, stability, and productivity. If all does not go well, the parts of society then must adapt to recapture a new order, stability, and productivity. For example, during a financial recession with its high rates of unemployment and inflation, social programs are trimmed or cut. Schools offer fewer programs. Families tighten their budgets. And a new social order, stability, and productivity occur. Functionalists believe that society is held together by social consensus, or cohesion, in which members of the society agree upon, and work together to achieve, what is best for society as a whole.

Emile Durkheim suggested that social consensus takes one of two forms: * Mechanical solidarity is a form of social cohesion that arises when people in a society maintain similar values and beliefs and engage in similar types of work. Mechanical solidarity most commonly occurs in traditional, simple societies such as those in which everyone herds cattle or farms. Amish society exemplifies mechanical solidarity. * In contrast, organic solidarity is a form of social cohesion that arises when the people in a society are interdependent, but hold to varying values and beliefs and engage in varying types of work.

Organic solidarity most commonly occurs in industrialized, complex societies such those in large American cities like New York in the 2000s. The functionalist perspective achieved its greatest popularity among American sociologists in the 1940s and 1950s. While European functionalists originally focused on explaining the inner workings of social order, American functionalists focused on discovering the functions of human behavior. Among these American functionalist sociologists is Robert Merton (b. 910), who divides human functions into two types: manifest functions are intentional and obvious, while latent functions are unintentional and not obvious. The manifest function of attending a church or synagogue, for instance, is to worship as part of a religious community, but its latent function may be to help members learn to discern personal from institutional values. With common sense, manifest functions become easily apparent. Yet this is not necessarily the case for latent functions, which often demand a sociological approach to be revealed.

A sociological approach in functionalism is the consideration of the relationship between the functions of smaller parts and the functions of the whole. Functionalism has received criticism for neglecting the negative functions of an event such as divorce. Critics also claim that the perspective justifies the status quo and complacency on the part of society’s members. Functionalism does not encourage people to take an active role in changing their social environment, even when such change may benefit them.

Instead, functionalism sees active social change as undesirable because the various parts of society will compensate naturally for any problems that may arise.

The conflict perspective

The conflict perspective, which originated primarily out of Karl Marx’s writings on class struggles, presents society in a different light than do the functionalist and symbolic interactionist perspectives. While these latter perspectives focus on the positive aspects of society that contribute to its stability, the conflict perspectivefocuses on the negative, conflicted, and ever?changing nature of society.

Unlike functionalists who defend the status quo, avoid social change, and believe people cooperate to effect social order, conflict theorists challenge the status quo, encourage social change (even when this means social revolution), and believe rich and powerful people force social order on the poor and the weak. Conflict theorists, for example, may interpret an “elite” board of regents raising tuition to pay for esoteric new programs that raise the prestige of a local college as self?serving rather than as beneficial for students.

Whereas American sociologists in the 1940s and 1950s generally ignored the conflict perspective in favor of the functionalist, the tumultuous 1960s saw American sociologists gain considerable interest in conflict theory. They also expanded Marx’s idea that the key conflict in society was strictly economic. Today, conflict theorists find social conflict between any groups in which the potential for inequality exists: racial, gender, religious, political, economic, and so on.

Conflict theorists note that unequal groups usually have conflicting values and agendas, causing them to compete against one another. This constant competition between groups forms the basis for the ever?changing nature of society. Critics of the conflict perspective point to its overly negative view of society. The theory ultimately attributes humanitarian efforts, altruism, democracy, civil rights, and other positive aspects of society to capitalistic designs to control the masses, not to inherent interests in preserving society and social order.

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The Range of Social Scientific Methods. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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