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Conflict Theory
Symbolic Interactionism
Social Constructionism
Deviant Behaviour
Auguste Comte
Karl Marx
Emile Durkheim
Max Weber

Sociology is a branch of the Social Sciences concerned with the study of human behavior and society, specifically in social relations, using the scientific method of observation. Sociology, with psychology, is at the crux of the long standing Nature vs. Nurture debate. Sociology, for the most part represents nurture and psychology partially represents nature. There are exceptions to this however. Trait theory and biochemistry theory in criminology represent nature, while behaviorism represents nurture



The term sociology was coined by Auguste Comte in 1839. Comte is also the father of positivism. [1] Comte's theory of positivism limits knowledge to the observable, and is crucial in approaching sociology as a science. The study of society dates back to Greek philosophers, however it was not distinguished as its own field of study until Comte.

Key Theories

There are a number of formative theorists who laid the groundwork for sociology, who have had a great deal of influence in Sociology through the following key theories:

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory strives to explain social facts in terms of different groups competing for control of resources, or advantages. This process occurs on macro levels, such as class groups, and tries to explain stability and change in terms of the conflict between these macro level structures. Two central premises to this theory are that privileged groups are working to maintain their privileges, while the disadvantaged are constantly trying to attain more. Karl Marx is regarded as the father of conflict theory, and the idea of human society. Communism is the modern day incarnation of Marx ideal human society. Central to the ideas of conflict theory are that by eliminating privilege, the overall welfare of the society can be increased. That is, a true equality amongst members of a society. Through class consciousness, Marx believed that the workers would eventually recognize they were being exploited, and put an end to privilege. [2]

Key Figures: Karl Marx, Frederich Engels

Notable works include
Das Kapital by Karl Marx
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber


Functionalism is a theory which examines society through interdependent elements, using a somewhat biological approach. In essence, social institutions have a specific function for the welfare of the entire society, in much the same way that the body's organs have specific functions that contribute to the overall welfare of the body. Functionalists believe that it is stable social relations or structures that influence human behavior; these structures arise from shared values, and can either contribute to, or detract from the social stability. Functionalists believe that restoring equilibrium and increasing social cohesion can solve most social problems. In the late 40s, Robert Merton made a significant contribution to functionalist thought with his theories of manifest and latent functions. That is, a social structure can have both intentional functions, and unintentional functions respectively. Merton also believed that social structures can have a varying impact on different groups.[3][4][5]

Example: The functionalist approach to deviant behavior takes the position that a certain amount of deviance or crime is necessary in society. At the correct balance, deviance has latent functions that contribute to the health of society. When the balance is disrupted, social cohesion deteriorates. More specifically, latent functions of deviance include providing an example of unacceptable conduct to other members of society. Criminals and others demonstrate unacceptable conduct by incurring sanctions from other formal structures, such as the courts, or mental health institutions.

Key Figures: Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, Robert Merton

Notable works include
Cours de philosophie positive by Auguste Compte
Suicide: A study in sociology by Emile Durkheim
Social Theory and Social Structure by Robert Merton

Symbolic Interactionism

As one of the key theories in Sociology, symbolic interactionism concerns itself with social interaction in microlevel settings, unlike conflict theory and functionalism. Symbolic interactionism assumes that person's social behavior occurs only in the context of the subjective meanings he or she attach to his or her social position. It is important to note however, that the social position of the individual is influenced by his or her own actions; one does not simply react to one's position in society. [6][7]

Example: Weber's work The Protestant Ethic is a prime example of symbolic interactionism. Weber looked at the roots of modern capitalism in Protestant asceticism. Weber argues that the first capitalists were Calvinists, though not all Calvinists became capitalists. These Calvinists believed in working hard, and not wasting any money on unnecessary material possessions was the way to gain eternal salvation in the Kingdom of Heaven. The actions taken by the Calvinists who became capitalists cannot be separated from the definition they applied to their actions, otherwise meaning is lost. The idea is, that even a good thing done for the wrong reasons can be wrong. Consider the difference between an ascetic Calvinist, and Ebeneezer Scrooge; both have essentially the same idea, however one is more likely to reach eternal salvation.

Key Figures: George Herbert Mead

Notable works include
Mind, Self, and Society by George Herbert Mead
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

Feminist Theory

The science of sociology would not be complete without the feminist perspective. While feminism continues today to be a point of contention, it nevertheless has an important contribution to the science. At the time when sociology was born, and throughout its early years, women were not regarded as full citizens in the same way as men. The best evidence to support that position, is the role women played in the home and their limited participation outside the home. Feminist theory focuses on "the system of male domination in society" (Brym, 2001:15). This theory maintains that the relative positions of men and women in society is a social construct, which can and should be changed for the benefit of all members of society. Feminist theory examines structures on both a macrolevel and microlevel setting. The theory holds that the inequalities are institutionalized, even in the field of sociology. The most notable figure is Harriet Martineau, regarded as the first woman sociologist.

Example: Early theories on social inequality examined the paid work done by men, but ignored completely the unpaid work done by women in the home. To answer the question of why unpaid labour in the home would be of sociological consequence, one must consider the remuneration earned by professional house cleaning services. It is undeniable in light of this evidence, that a spouse's (or parent's) work in the home, is of economic consequence, regardless of the sex of the partner.[8][9]

Key Figures: Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Notable works include
Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Illustrations of Political Economy by Harriet Martineau

Top Ten Most Influential Books

  1. Max Weber, Economy and Society
  2. C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination
  3. Robert Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure
  4. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
  5. P.L. Berger and T. Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality
  6. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste
  7. Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process
  8. Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action
  9. Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action
  10. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Source: Books of the Century

External Links

Professional Organizations



  1. Pickering, M. (2007). Auguste Comte. In J. Scott (Ed.), Fifty key sociologists: the formative theorists (pp. 21-26). New York: Routledge.
  2. Brym, R.J. (2001). Introducing sociology. In R.J. Brym (Ed.), New society: sociology for the 21st century (pp. 2-25). Toronto: Harcourt.
  3. Brym, R.J. (2001). Introducing sociology. In R.J. Brym (Ed.), New society:sociology for the 21st century (pp. 2-25). Toronto: Harcourt.
  4. Abercrombie, N., Hill, S. & Turner, B.S. (2000). The penguin dictionary of sociology (4th ed.). Toronto:Penguin.
  5. Gomme, I.M. (2002). The shadow line: deviance and crime in Canada (3rd ed.). Toronto:Nelson.
  6. Brym, R.J. (2001). Introducing sociology. In R.J. Brym (Ed.), New society:sociology for the 21st century (pp. 2-25). Toronto: Harcourt.
  7. Abercrombie, N., Hill, S. & Turner, B.S. (2000). The penguin dictionary of sociology (4th ed.). Toronto:Penguin.
  8. Brym, R.J. (2001). Introducing sociology. In R.J. Brym (Ed.), New society:sociology for the 21st century (pp. 2-25). Toronto: Harcourt.
  9. Abercrombie, N., Hill, S. & Turner, B.S. (2000). The penguin dictionary of sociology (4th ed.). Toronto:Penguin.
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