For sociologists, a society is a large group that shares the same geographical territory and is subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations. To survive, societies must be self-sufficient; they have social structures; Social forces that both provide for society and shape social interaction. These are the organized patterns of behavior that govern people’s relationship, they guide our actions, give us the feeling life is orderly and predictable. Within those social structures are social institutions; Stable and predictable arrangements that have emerged over time – that provide for society and shape social interaction for example: family, military, economy, education, etc. all tasked with maintaining that self-sufficiency.
Sociology is the specific study of social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human behavior.
Sociology has been labeled “the painful elaboration of the obvious” by C. Wright Mills. I share this with my students because during the semester there will be times when you might think, “well duh!” Until we look at things, we often take them for granted. Sociology invites us to think about our assumptions and step away from them and see “what is” versus “what ought to be.” C. Wright Mills also introduced us to the idea of a”sociological imagination” which is also known as the “sociological perspective.”
The sociological imagination
The sociological imagination is the relationship between the individual and society. C. Wright Mills posits that to understand the experience of an individual, one must understand the social context of the individual’s life. In short, the “intersection” of the individual’s biography and history. One way Mills helps us to understand is to separate “public issues” – problems and difficulties that can be explained in terms of inidividual shortcomings and “personal troubles” – a matter that can only be explained and undertood by considering factors larger than an individual’s immediate environment.
Sociologists have three major theoretical paradigms that look at society is very specific ways. They are: Structural Functionalism, Conflict, and Symbolic Interactionism. Each paradigm has specific assumptions and characteristics inherent to them.
- The Structural-Functionalist perspective assumes that society is a stable, orderly system with interrelated parts that serve specific functions. This perspective is fairly conservative and slow to change. A key concept with this (macro) perspective is “consensus.” The functionalist perspective explains gender as being derived from the biological differences between the sexes. This notion is also known as biological determinism.
- The Conflict perspective assumes that there are two groups in society in a continuous struggle over scarce but desired resources (power, money, and control). This perspective, when compared to the Structural-Functionalist theory is far more liberal. Change is a good thing, and in fact desired for the betterment of society. A key concept with this (macro) perspective is “competition.” This perspective suggests gender differences as the ability of one group to dominate the other.
- Feminist Theory is a subset of the Conflict Theory. The emphasis here is equality between women and men along with equal representation of women’s experiences and contributions to society. And aims to understand the nature of gender inequality and holds the belief that all men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.
- The Symbolic Interactionist perspective is a much more micro (smaller focus) theory, and views society as the sum of all people’s interactions. Those interactions are negotiated through shared symbols, gestures and nonverbal communication. This perspective looks at group interactions. From this perspective gender is a performance; people act according to the situation.
Read more on the Gender is dead, long live gender: just what is performativity?