“Society is an integrated system of social structures and functions”
– Talcott Parsons
From the 18th century onwards, historical, political, technological and economic breakthroughs transformed the western world in various ways. Scientific and philosophical contributions shaped the intellectual field, but perhaps more importantly, through the changes in hierarchal structures, social life experienced multiple renovations. To this end, many consider sociology to be a direct reaction to these changes and to intensive inquiry into the micro and macro mechanisms of the social reality. Throughout the decades, sociology maintained its original dichotomy in relation to the main actor in the social domain, thus categorising its theoretical baggage into structuralism and social action theory. Major changes at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries contributed further to this field of knowledge and the establishment of the field as a social science paradigm. Working in and developing an interrelated field of knowledge, sociology spans multiple skills and disciplines that are applied to a variety of questions and academic themes. Moreover, a diversification of methodological tools, such as that of data triangulation, equip sociology with the perfect instruments to study social phenomena at an in-depth and widespread level of analysis.
Sociology today extends its interest towards non-conventional areas of study. Consequently, contemporary research delves into the realms of digital social networks and institutional working establishments such as the prison system and other correctional facilities, the public health system and sports. Together with the vast, vibrant and always-evolving theoretical baggage, sociology provides an innovative analytical tool in the social sciences field.
What is Sociology?
As the word suggests, sociology is the study of the intangible social fabric that exists in every group. Through the application of philosophical thought, theoretical paradigms and applied scientific methods, sociology studies society both at its core and broadly. The foundational elements at study are the structures, functions and activities of every society. These core elements are studied through two different approaches, namely the structural and social action approach. While structural theories focus on the undisputable power of control exerted by society and social rules over the individual, social action theory views society and its role in a completely different way. Social action theory believes in an active and participative role of the individual. Therefore, social norms and rules are the product of conscious individual decision-making. These two lenses through which theorists classify the surrounding environment influence greatly the perceived effects on how and when society develops.
The overview of the subject has been divided into the following six areas:
Similarly to anthropology, ethnology, ethnography, economics and history, sociology uses a variety of data sources and methodological structures for its analysis. Dividing its sources into primary and secondary sources, sociology makes a distinction between ethnographically-collected data and data retrieved from other sources. Although sociology studies the social fabric in its unity and sometimes also in a broad and wide sense, both quantitative and qualitative research method tools are used. The combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods provide the sociology researcher with an extensive representation of the phenomenon, thereby making triangulation of data a preferred practice. To this end, sociologists use a multiplicity of methods, including questionnaires, interviews, participant observation, official statistics and communications, etc. The technological advancements of the past decade have also brought greater assets to the sociological field and the idea of studying complex behaviours has become possible through computational sociology and simulation methods that have become available. The simulation of social processes provides the possibility of building and forecasting possible outcomes beyond the virtual space.
Political, economic and scientific discoveries of the late 18th and early 19th century are widely acknowledged by historians to be the key ingredients for the build-up of the modern day world. On the one hand, religious, mythical and mystical explanations have been steadily losing ground to scientific and statistics-based hypotheses and theories. On the other hand, economic and industrial developments in major European states brought about significant social, demographic and geographical changes. Population in cities doubled in a few years, the family structure experienced dramatic changes and new types of labour and working arrangements were introduced. Traditional social life, structures and functions made way for a revolutionised way of existence.
As a matter of fact, the effects of social restructuring and change in the 19th and 20th centuries were a great source of influence for pioneering sociologists like Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) and Karl Marx (1818 – 1883). Despite viewing society in a completely different way, both sociologists delve into a classification and theoretical framework of the social reality, while providing an ideological future scenario. Another influential stream of social theory in the early 20th century is Max Weber’s social action theory. Weber (1864 – 1920) studied the contemporary occurrence of the effects of materialism and bureaucracies on the social fora. In his studies, the sociologist assigned a pivotal and active role to the individual and brought to the forefront subjective behaviour and interpretation. Today’s sociologist is no longer the inquisitive master of the event or social phenomenon, but has tried to moved to a deeper level of understanding and analysis.
Considered by many as a social psychologist, George Herbert Mead (1863 – 1931) widely contributed to the sociological domain having become an influential figure in the development of the field at a later stage. Mead viewed the individual as the result of constant human interaction based on stimulus and response. For him, therefore, the object of analysis was no longer the object but the different shades of interaction. Classified under the term of symbolic interaction, following Mead, the communicational and interactional patterns of verbal and non-verbal communication became the pivotal elements through which society was scrutinised. Including elements of a psychological nature, Mead developed a distinction between the ‘I’ and ‘Me’, revolutionising not only the role and development of the individual but also the levels of control society and the individual exert on the ‘self’.
Throughout the 20th century, sociology has continued to develop into a multidisciplinary field with different subcategories and schools of thought stemming from or helping to join the existing paradigm. The field has greatly benefited from an interwoven network of sociologists that have worked and developed further early 20th century theories. Moreover, it is now more difficult to categorise researchers strictly into one specific theoretical paradigm. The functional, conflict and social action models governing the early years are now firmly integrated and ingrained in mainstream sociological theory while enjoying an established theoretical framework.
When looking at the functionalist approach, the most influential work has been produced by the American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902 – 1979). Parsons’ work tries to link the functional aspect of society to its structures and envisages a mutually influential relationship. Every society possesses functional prerequisites which include measures of socialisation and control. Through the perfect symbiosis of structure and function, every society has the capability of maintaining order and equilibrium. Thus, legal institutions could be viewed as one of the balancing forces that counteract deviant or undesirable behaviour.
Robert Merton’s work on deviance and decision-making processes also fall under the functionalist paradigm. Developing Durkheim’s theory, Merton (1910 – 2003) cultivated an approach to the social sciences field that endeavoured to move into a profound understanding of the functional aspect of every society. Drawing a distinction between latent and manifest functions, Merton introduced the element of conscious and predictable behaviour as opposed to unintended functions. Viewing society through a functionalist lens, Merton tried to understand how and why a society experiences different levels of unrest and conflict. Through the use of the word “anomie”, a term coined earlier by Durkheim and given a fuller meaning by Merton, deviance theory explores the negative effects which result from a discontinuity between culture and structure.
A contemporary of Merton’s, Ervin Goffman (1922 – 1982) distanced himself from the functionalist approach and moved into the deeper levels of cognitive functions, thus adding the psychological dimension to the field of sociology. Goffman introduced the notion of self and social interaction as being the foundational elements for analysis. Highly influenced by the works of Durkheim, Freud and Mead, Goffman developed an approach that put at the forefront the individual’s ability to transform and mutate according to the social situation. Contrasting social life to a dramaturgical play, Goffman’s theory views individuals as impeccable actors of disguise, with role play being a constant present phenomenon. Goffman delved also into the role of advertisement and its power to shape our perceptions of gender differences and roles.
Developments in the political and international sphere that dominated the scene between the 1960’s and the early 2000’s shifted the field towards new areas of inquiry and analytical tools. The functionalist approach that flourished in the pre- and immediately post- WWII environment was slowly replaced by a conflict-centred line of inquiry. With the fall of Communism and the Soviet bloc, and the resulting birth of new independent states along cultural, religious and political affiliations, Western sociology needed to reinvent its methods and approach. Traditional, novel and young theoretical frameworks worked together with no or a relatively low level of strict identification with an overarching paradigm. To this end, linguistic studies by Ferdinand de Saussure and the introduction, later, of the linguistic component into the social sciences field by Claude Levi-Strauss, hugely shaped the way social enquiry is viewed. Developing a structural approach to language, Levi- Strauss applied this method to small-scale societies and studied the power exerted through myths and beliefs.
Language and its different cultural connotations are embedded in and coupled with the vast theoretical framework of the preceding frameworks, while influences from other disciplines in various social sciences, such as psychology and anthropology eventually moulded sociology into a diversified school of theoretical and methodologically-sound practices. The cultural movement of the 1960’s and the philosophical contributions on the role and freedom of identity formation developed by Foucault find fertile ground in the sociological tradition of human inquiry.
In a postmodern environment cultivated at the end of the 20th century, sociology has moved towards a broader and somewhat different understanding of social realities. The power of political and leading institutions of a globalised world are back on the agenda. To this end, Fredric Jameson rediscovered the Marxist focus on the role of capitalism and applied this theory to a global perspective. Jameson’s view is that the postmodern world is heavily shaped by the capitalist agenda and modes of production. In this context, the individual is caught in a fast-evolving and complex reality of alienated existence. Jameson proposed the creation of cognitive maps to help individuals navigate and make sense of a postmodern world.
Similarly to Jameson, Jean Baudrillard focused more on the role of technology and media communication influences in everyday life. The sociologist looks into the functions and power these media have to create an explosion of referential signs of meaning. Reality is no longer ingrained into physical objects but is a constant formation of self-referential signs. The individual nature is viewed as a passive entity that is now fully entrenched in this constructed reality of signs. Although postmodernism has been greatly criticised for its pessimistic view and lack of positive future endeavour, it nonetheless contributed greatly to sociology and other social sciences fields.
Since its early beginnings in the 18th century and the strong philosophical baggage which trailed behind most theoretical frameworks of the 20th century, sociology expanded and developed its academic and scientific tools into a holistic approach capable of explaining and analysing different social phenomena. When looking at the major political and social changes of the past century, the pivotal and sometimes catalytic role of sociology is easily observable. The cultural and feminist movements of the 60’s, the political and ethnic arguments of the following years, and ultimately new technological tools, have provided sociology with various theoretical and ideological challenges. Although the theoretical basis premised on the 2 pillars of structural and social action maintained their strong position, the holistic and flexible approach to transformative social realities ensured the survival and strengthening of the encompassing sociological paradigm.
The sociological field today is best viewed as a mosaic, where individual parts make a unique colourful picture of actions, structures and functions. Subfields and categories should not be viewed in isolation, since in most cases they interact and intersect with one other according to the social situation being studied. Furthermore, different theories and their ongoing development contribute to the current and still-emerging subfields, thus allowing for a more vivid explanation. The spread of digital communication and the always-evolving virtual realms of relationship-formation or communication are pushing sociology towards new directional paths of inquiry.
Subfields in the Sociological Domain
Economic sociology: Economic transactions and activity do not exist in a vacuum but rather belong to an already existing social relations reality.
Education sociology: An inquiry into how the educational system is a pivotal component in determination of social structures and outcomes. A focus on the sociocultural and socioeconomic background of the student is at the centre of analysis.
Political sociology: The study of power distribution and contestation in a particular society. The role of the state as a main actor is contested with regards to the effects of globalisation and mobility.
Health, poverty and welfare sociology: An analysis of the political and social attributes possessed by every society that translate into specific action in relation to health, poverty and welfare.
Mass media sociology: The inquiry into the mass media’s conscious power of influence, mass manipulation and coercion. Mass media sociology is essentially divided into a structural and pluralist approach. Whereas the former looks at the power and control of these media on the individual, the latter highlights the advantages and disadvantages of a liberal market and freedom of expression.
Internet sociology: The Internet has become a staple presence in most societies, and with the introduction of new, faster and accessible technologies, it is now considered by many as being a vibrant social medium. Sociologists use the Internet as both a methodological tool and a source of inquiry into online or digital social phenomenon.
The IRISS strongly believes in the importance of diversifying data gathering and in undertaking academic analyses from all points of view in order to be able to shed light on social phenomena by going into deeper levels of understanding. Sociology, though closely related to other disciplines, makes for a subject of inquiry that is quite unique: one that has moved ahead with the times and one that has been both transformed and has acted as a transformation agent throughout the years. Strong opposing theoretical schools of thought have kept the dialogical interaction as vivid as it is healthy. This pluralistic approach has helped shape sociology’s evolving approach to the social realities of the 21st century. The IRISS affirms its commitment to explore and make use of the best available tools in the field in its inquiry of local and international social issues.