Introduction to Sociology - 1st Canadian Edition

Introduction to Sociology - 1st Canadian Edition

William Little

Sally Vyain, Gail Scaramuzzo, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Heather Griffiths, Eric Strayer, Nathan Keirns, Ron McGivern




OpenStax College

This Preface is from OpenStax College, the creator of the original textbook.

1About OpenStax College

OpenStax College is a non-profit organization committed to improving student access to quality learning materials. Our free textbooks are developed and peer-reviewed by educators to ensure they are readable, accurate, and meet the scope and sequence requirements of modern college courses. Unlike traditional textbooks, OpenStax College resources live online and are owned by the community of educators using them. Through our partnerships with companies and foundations committed to reducing costs for students, OpenStax College is working to improve access to higher education for all. OpenStax College is an initiative of Rice University and is made possible through the generous support of several philanthropic foundations.

2About This Book

Welcome to Introduction to Sociology, an OpenStax College resource created with several goals in mind: accessibility, affordability, customization, and student engagement—all while encouraging learners toward high levels of learning. Instructors and students alike will find that this textbook offers a strong foundation in sociology. It is available for free online and in low-cost print and e-book editions.

To broaden access and encourage community curation, Introduction to Sociology is “open source” licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license. Everyone is invited to submit examples, emerging research, and other feedback to enhance and strengthen the material and keep it current and relevant for today’s students. You can make suggestions by contacting us at You can find the status of the project, as well as alternate versions, corrections, etc., on the StaxDash at

3To the Student

This book is written for you and is based on the teaching and research experience of numerous sociologists. In today’s global socially networked world, the topic of Sociology is more relevant than ever before. We hope that through this book, you will learn how simple, everyday human actions and interactions can change the world. In this book, you will find applications of Sociology concepts that are relevant, current, and balanced.

4To the Instructor

This text is intended for a one-semester introductory course. Since current events influence our social perspectives and the field of Sociology in general, OpenStax College encourages instructors to keep this book fresh by sending in your up-to-date examples to so that students and instructors around the country can relate and engage in fruitful discussions.

5General Approach

Introduction to Sociology adheres to the scope and sequence of a typical introductory sociology course. In addition to comprehensive coverage of core concepts, foundational scholars, and emerging theories, we have incorporated section reviews with engaging questions, discussions that help students apply the sociological imagination, and features that draw learners into the discipline in meaningful ways. Although this text can be modified and reorganized to suit your needs, the standard version is organized so that topics are introduced conceptually, with relevant, everyday experiences.

6Features of OpenStax Introduction to Sociology

The following briefly describes the special features of this text.


This textbook is organized on Connexions ( as a collection of modules that can be rearranged and modified to suit the needs of a particular professor or class. That being said, modules often contain references to content in other modules, as most topics in sociology cannot be discussed in isolation.

Learning Objectives

Every module begins with a set of clear and concise learning objectives. These objectives are designed to help the instructor decide what content to include or assign, and to guide the student with respect to what he or she can expect to learn. After completing the module and end-of-module exercises, students should be able to demonstrate mastery of the learning objectives.

Key Features

The following features show students the dynamic nature of Sociology:

  • Sociological Research: Highlights specific current and relevant research studies. Examples include “Is Music a Cultural Universal?” and “Deceptive Divorce Rates.”
  • Sociology in the Real World: Ties chapter content to student life and discusses sociology in terms of the everyday. Topics include “Secrets of the McJob” and “Grade Inflation: When Is an A Really a C?”
  • Big Picture: Features present sociological concepts at a national or international level, including “Education in Afghanistan” and “American Indian Tribes and Environmental Racism.”
  • Case Study: Describes real-life people whose experiences relate to chapter content, such as “Catherine Middleton: The Commoner Who Would Be Queen.”
  • Social Policy and Debate: Discusses political issues that relate to chapter content, such as “The Legalese of Sex and Gender” and “Is the U.S. Bilingual?”

Section Summaries

Section summaries distill the information in each section for both students and instructors down to key, concise points addressed in the section.

Key Terms

Key terms are bold and are followed by a definition in context. Definitions of key terms are also listed in the Key Terms, which appears at the end of the module online and at the end of the chapter in print.

Section Quizzes

Section quizzes provide opportunities to apply and test the information students learn throughout each section. Both multiple-choice and short-response questions feature a variety of question types and range of difficulty.

Further Research

This feature helps students further explore the section topic and offers related research topics that could be explored.

7Faculty Reviewers

Carol Jenkins, Glendale Community College

Lillian Marie Wallace, Pima Community College

J. Brandon Wallace, Middle Tennessee State University

Gerry R. Cox, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

David Hunt, Augusta State University

Jennifer L. Newman-Shoemake, Angelo State University, and Cisco College

Matthew Morrison, University of Virginia

Sue Greer-Pitt, Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College

Faye Jones, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College

Athena Smith, Hillsborough Community College

Kim Winford, Blinn College

Kevin Keating, Broward College

Russell Davis, University of West Alabama

Kimberly Boyd, Piedmont Virginia Community College

Lynn Newhart, Rockford College

Russell C. Ward, Maysville Community and Technical College

Xuemei Hu, Union County College

Margaret A. Choka, Pellissippi State Community College

Cindy Minton, Clark State Community College

Nili Kirschner, Woodland Community College

Shonda Whetstone, Blinn College

Elizabeth Arreaga, instructor emerita at Long Beach City College

Florencio R. Riguera, Catholic University of America

John B. Gannon, College of Southern Nevada

Gerald Titchener, Des Moines Area Community College

Rahime-Malik Howard, El Centro College, and Collin College

Jeff Bry, Minnesota State Community and Technical College at Moorhead

Cynthia Tooley, Metropolitan Community College at Blue River

Carol Sebilia, Diablo Valley College

Marian Moore, Owens Community College

John Bartkowski, University of Texas at San Antonio

Shelly Dutchin, Western Technical College

8. Disclaimer

All photos and images were licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license at the time they were placed into this book. The CC-BY license does not cover any trademarks or logos in the photos. If you have questions about regarding photos or images, please contact us at


About the Book

Introduction to Sociology – 1st Canadian Edition was adapted by William Little from the OpenStax College textbook, Introduction to Sociology. For information about what was changed in this adaptation, refer to the Copyright statement at the bottom of the home page. This adaptation is a part of the B.C. Open Textbook project.

In October 2012, the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education announced its support for the creation of open textbooks for the 40 highest-enrolled first and second year subject areas in the province’s public post-secondary system.

Open textbooks are open educational resources (OER); they are instructional resources created and shared in ways so that more people have access to them. This is a different model than traditionally copyrighted materials. OER are defined as teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others (Hewlett Foundation).

Our open textbooks are openly licensed using a Creative Commons license, and are offered in various e-book formats free of charge, or as printed books that are available at cost.

For more information about this project, please contact

If you are an instructor who is using this book for a course, please let us know.



From the adapting author, William Little

I would like to thank the team at BCcampus including my project manager Lauri Aesoph, technical advisor Clint Lalonde, and the editors who worked on this book. I would also like to thank Ron McGivern at Thompson Rivers University who got me interested in the project in the first place. The work of replacing the American data in the original textbook with Canadian data would not have been possible without the excellent social analyses of Statistics Canada, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Pembina Institute, the Royal Society of Canada, and other organizations who have made their data freely available to researchers and other interested parties.

From OpenStax College, creator of the original textbook

Introduction to Sociology is based on the work of numerous professors, writers, editors, and reviewers who are able to bring topics to students in the most engaging way.

We would like to thank all those listed below as well as many others who have contributed their time and energy to review and provide feedback on the manuscript. Their input has been critical in maintaining the pedagogical integrity and accuracy of the text.


Chapter 1. An Introduction to Sociology

Celebration of Canada Day in Ottawa

Figure 1.1. Sociologists study how society affects people and how people affect society. How does being in a crowd affect people’s behaviour? (Photo courtesy of PDerek Hatfield/wikimedia commons)

Learning Objectives

1.1. What Is Sociology?

  • Explain concepts central to sociology
  • Describe the different levels of analysis in sociology: micro-sociology and macro-sociology
  • Understand how different sociological perspectives have developed

1.2. The History of Sociology

  • Explain why sociology emerged when it did
  • Describe the central ideas of the founders of sociology
  • Describe how sociology became a separate academic discipline

1.3. Theoretical Perspectives

  • Explain what sociological theories are and how they are used
  • Describe sociology as a multi-perspectival social science, which is divided into positivist, interpretive and critical paradigms
  • Understand the similarities and differences between structural functionalism, critical sociology, and symbolic interactionism

1.4. Why Study Sociology?

  • Explain why it is worthwhile to study sociology
  • Identify ways sociology is applied in the real world

Introduction to Sociology

Concerts, sports games, and political rallies can have very large crowds. When you attend one of these events, you may know only the people you came with. Yet you may experience a feeling of connection to the group. You are one of the crowd. You cheer and applaud when everyone else does. You boo and yell alongside them. You move out of the way when someone needs to get by, and you say “excuse me” when you need to leave. You know how to behave in this kind of crowd.

It can be a very different experience if you are travelling in a foreign country and find yourself in a crowd moving down the street. You may have trouble figuring out what is happening. Is the crowd just the usual morning rush, or is it a political protest of some kind? Perhaps there was some sort of accident or disaster. Is it safe in this crowd, or should you try to extract yourself? How can you find out what is going on? Although you are in it, you may not feel like you are part of this crowd. You may not know what to do or how to behave.

Even within one type of crowd, different groups exist and different behaviours are on display. At a rock concert, for example, some may enjoy singing along, others may prefer to sit and observe, while still others may join in a mosh pit or try crowd surfing. On February 28, 2010, Sydney Crosby scored the winning goal against the United States team in the gold medal hockey game at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Two hundred thousand jubilant people filled the streets of downtown Vancouver to celebrate and cap off two weeks of uncharacteristically vibrant, joyful street life in Vancouver. Just over a year later, on June 15, 2011, the Vancouver Canucks lost the seventh hockey game of the Stanley Cup finals against the Boston Bruins. One hundred thousand people had been watching the game on outdoor screens. Eventually 155,000 people filled the downtown streets. Rioting and looting led to hundreds of injuries, burnt cars, trashed storefronts and property damage totaling an estimated $4.2 million. Why was the crowd response to the two events so different?

Vancouver hockey riot

Figure 1.2. People’s experiences of the post-Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver were very different. (Photo courtesy of Pasquale Borriello/flickr)

A key insight of sociology is that the simple fact of being in a group changes your behaviour. The group is a phenomenon that is more than the sum of its parts. Why do we feel and act differently in different types of social situations? Why might people of a single group exhibit different behaviours in the same situation? Why might people acting similarly not feel connected to others exhibiting the same behaviour? These are some of the many questions sociologists ask as they study people and societies.

1.1. What Is Sociology?

Figure 1.3. Sociologists learn about society as a whole while studying one-to-one and group interactions. (Photo courtesy of Robert S. Donovan/flickr)

Figure 1.3. Sociologists learn about society as a whole while studying one-to-one and group interactions. (Photo courtesy of Robert S. Donovan/flickr)

A dictionary defines sociology as the systematic study of society and social interaction. The word “sociology” is derived from the Latin word socius (companion) and the Greek word logos (speech or reason), which together mean “reasoned speech about companionship”. How can the experience of companionship or togetherness be put into words or explained? While this is a starting point for the discipline, sociology is actually much more complex. It uses many different methods to study a wide range of subject matter and to apply these studies to the real world.

The sociologist Dorothy Smith (1926 – ) defines the social as the “ongoing concerting and coordinating of individuals’ activities” (Smith 1999). Sociology is the systematic study of all those aspects of life designated by the adjective “social.” These aspects of social life never simply occur; they are organized processes. They can be the briefest of everyday interactions—moving to the right to let someone pass on a busy sidewalk, for example—or the largest and most enduring interactions—such as the billions of daily exchanges that constitute the circuits of global capitalism. If there are at least two people involved, even in the seclusion of one’s mind, then there is a social interaction that entails the “ongoing concerting and coordinating of activities.” Why does the person move to the right on the sidewalk? What collective process lead to the decision that moving to the right rather than the left is normal? Think about the T-shirts in your drawer at home. What are the sequences of linkages and social relationships that link the T-shirts in your chest of drawers to the dangerous and hyper-exploitive garment factories in rural China or Bangladesh? These are the type of questions that point to the unique domain and puzzles of the social that sociology seeks to explore and understand.

What Are Society and Culture?

Sociologists study all aspects and levels of society. A society is a group of people whose members interact, reside in a definable area, and share a culture. A culture includes the group’s shared practices, values, beliefs, norms and artifacts. One sociologist might analyze video of people from different societies as they carry on everyday conversations to study the rules of polite conversation from different world cultures. Another sociologist might interview a representative sample of people to see how email and instant messaging have changed the way organizations are run. Yet another sociologist might study how migration determined the way in which language spread and changed over time. A fourth sociologist might study the history of international agencies like the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund to examine how the globe became divided into a First World and a Third World after the end of the colonial era.

These examples illustrate the ways society and culture can be studied at different levels of analysis, from the detailed study of face-to-face interactions to the examination of large-scale historical processes affecting entire civilizations. It is common to divide these levels of analysis into different gradations based on the scale of interaction involved. As discussed in later chapters, sociologists break the study of society down into four separate levels of analysis: micro, meso, macro, and global. The basic distinction, however, is between micro-sociology and macro-sociology.

The study of cultural rules of politeness in conversation is an example of micro-sociology. At the micro-level of analysis, the focus is on the social dynamics of intimate, face-to-face interactions. Research is conducted with a specific set of individuals such as conversational partners, family members, work associates, or friendship groups. In the conversation study example, sociologists might try to determine how people from different cultures interpret each other’s behaviour to see how different rules of politeness lead to misunderstandings. If the same misunderstandings occur consistently in a number of different interactions, the sociologists may be able to propose some generalizations about rules of politeness that would be helpful in reducing tensions in mixed-group dynamics (e.g., during staff meetings or international negotiations). Other examples of micro-level research include seeing how informal networks become a key source of support and advancement in formal bureaucracies or how loyalty to criminal gangs is established.

Macro-sociology focuses on the properties of large-scale, society-wide social interactions: the dynamics of institutions, classes, or whole societies. The example above of the influence of migration on changing patterns of language usage is a macro-level phenomenon because it refers to structures or processes of social interaction that occur outside or beyond the intimate circle of individual social acquaintances. These include the economic and other circumstances that lead to migration; the educational, media, and other communication structures that help or hinder the spread of speech patterns; the class, racial, or ethnic divisions that create different slangs or cultures of language use; the relative isolation or integration of different communities within a population; and so on. Other examples of macro-level research include  examining why women are far less likely than men to reach positions of power in society or why fundamentalist Christian religious movements play a more prominent role in American politics than they do in Canadian politics. In each case, the site of the analysis shifts away from the nuances and detail of micro-level interpersonal life to the broader, macro-level systematic patterns that structure social change and social cohesion in society.

The relationship between the micro and the macro remains one of the key problems confronting sociology. The German sociologist Georg Simmel pointed out that macro-level processes are in fact nothing more than the sum of all the unique interactions between specific individuals at any one time (1908), yet they have properties of their own which would be missed if sociologists only focused on the interactions of specific individuals. Émile Durkheim’s classic study of suicide (1897) is a case in point. While suicide is one of the most personal, individual, and intimate acts imaginable, Durkheim demonstrated that rates of suicide differed between religious communities—Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—in a way that could not be explained by the individual factors involved in each specific case. The different rates of suicide had to be explained by macro-level variables associated with the different religious beliefs and practices of the faith communities. We will return to this example in more detail later. On the other hand, macro-level phenomena like class structures, institutional organizations, legal systems, gender stereotypes, and urban ways of life provide the shared context for everyday life but do not explain its nuances and micro-variations very well. Macro-level structures constrain the daily interactions of the intimate circles in which we move, but they are also filtered through localized perceptions and “lived” in a myriad of inventive and unpredictable ways.

The Sociological Imagination

Although the scale of sociological studies and the methods of carrying them out are different, the sociologists involved in them all have something in common. Each of them looks at society using what pioneer sociologist C. Wright Mills called the sociological imagination, sometimes also referred to as the “sociological lens” or “sociological perspective.” In a sense, this was Mills’ way of addressing the dilemmas of the macro/micro divide in sociology. Mills defined sociological imagination as how individuals understand their own and others’ pasts in relation to history and social structure (1959). It is the capacity to see an individual’s private troubles in the context of the broader social processes that structure them. This enables the sociologist to examine what Mills called “personal troubles of milieu” as “public issues of social structure,” and vice versa.

Mills reasoned that private troubles like being overweight, being unemployed, having marital difficulties, or feeling purposeless or depressed can be purely personal in nature. It is possible for them to be addressed and understood in terms of personal, psychological, or moral attributes, either one’s own or those of the people in one’s immediate milieu. In an individualistic society like our own, this is in fact the most likely way that people will regard the issues they confront: “I have an addictive personality;” “I can’t get a break in the job market;” “My husband is unsupportive;” etc. However, if private troubles are widely shared with others, they indicate that there is a common social problem that has its source in the way social life is structured. At this level, the issues are not adequately understood as simply private troubles. They are best addressed as public issues that require a collective response to resolve.

Obesity, for example, has been increasingly recognized as a growing problem for both children and adults in North America. Michael Pollan cites statistics that three out of five Americans are overweight and one out of five is obese (2006). In Canada in 2012, just under one in five adults (18.4 percent) were obese, up from 16 percent of men and 14.5 percent of women in 2003 (Statistics Canada 2013). Obesity is therefore not simply a private trouble concerning the medical issues, dietary practices, or exercise habits of specific individuals. It is a widely shared social issue that puts people at risk for chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. It also creates significant social costs for the medical system.

Pollan argues that obesity is in part a product of the increasingly sedentary and stressful lifestyle of modern, capitalist society, but more importantly it is a product of the industrialization of the food chain, which since the 1970s has produced increasingly cheap and abundant food with significantly more calories due to processing. Additives like corn syrup, which are much cheaper to produce than natural sugars, led to the trend of super-sized fast foods and soft drinks in the 1980s. As Pollan argues, trying to find a processed food in the supermarket without a cheap, calorie-rich, corn-based additive is a challenge. The sociological imagination in this example is the capacity to see the private troubles and attitudes associated with being overweight as an issue of how the industrialization of the food chain has altered the human/environment relationship, in particular with respect to the types of food we eat and the way we eat them.

By looking at individuals and societies and how they interact through this lens, sociologists are able to examine what influences behaviour, attitudes, and culture. By applying systematic and scientific methods to this process, they try to do so without letting their own biases and pre-conceived ideas influence their conclusions.

Studying Patterns: How Sociologists View Society

All sociologists are interested in the experiences of individuals and how those experiences are shaped by interactions with social groups and society as a whole. To a sociologist, the personal decisions an individual makes do not exist in a vacuum. Cultural patterns and social forces put pressure on people to select one choice over another. Sociologists try to identify these general patterns by examining the behaviour of large groups of people living in the same society and experiencing the same societal pressures.

Understanding the relationship between the individual and society is one of the most difficult sociological problems, however. Partly this is because of the reified way these two terms are used in everyday speech. Reification refers to the way in which abstract concepts, complex processes, or mutable social relationships come to be thought of as “things.” A prime example of this is when people say that “society” caused an individual to do something or to turn out in a particular way. In writing essays, first-year sociology students sometimes refer to “society” as a cause of social behaviour or as an entity with independent agency. On the other hand, the “individual” is a being that seems solid, tangible, and independent of anything going on outside of the skin sack that contains its essence. This conventional distinction between society and the individual is a product of reification in so far as both society and the individual appear as independent objects. A concept of “the individual” and a concept of “society” have been given the status of real, substantial, independent objects. As we will see in the chapters to come, society and the individual are neither objects, nor are they independent of one another. An “individual” is inconceivable without the relationships to others that define his or her internal subjective life and his or her external socially defined roles.

The problem for sociologists is that these concepts of the individual and society and the relationship between them are thought of in terms established by a very common moral framework in modern democratic societies, namely that of individual responsibility and individual choice. Often in this framework, any suggestion that an individual’s behaviour needs to be understood in terms of that person’s social context is dismissed as “letting the individual off” of taking personal responsibility for their actions.

Talking about society is akin to being morally soft or lenient. Sociology, as a social science, remains neutral on these type of moral questions. The conceptualization of the individual and society is much more complex. The sociological problem is to be able to see the individual as a thoroughly social being and yet as a being who has agency and free choice. Individuals are beings who do take on individual responsibilities in their everyday social roles and risk social consequences when they fail to live up to them. The manner in which they take on responsibilities and sometimes the compulsion to do so are socially defined however. The sociological problem is to be able to see society as a dimension of experience characterized by regular and predictable patterns of behaviour that exist independently of any specific individual’s desires or self-understanding. Yet at the same time a society is nothing but the ongoing social relationships and activities of specific individuals.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

The Individual in Society: Choices of Aboriginal Gang Members

In 2010 the CBC program The Current aired a report about several young aboriginal men who were serving time in prison in Saskatchewan for gang-related activities (CBC 2010). They all expressed desires to be able to deal with their drug addiction issues, return to their families, and assume their responsibilities when their sentences were complete. They wanted to have their own places with nice things in them. However, according to the CBC report, 80 percent of the prison population in the Saskatchewan Correctional Centre were aboriginal and 20 percent of those were gang members. This is consistent with national statistics on aboriginal incarceration which showed that in 2010–2011, the aboriginal incarceration rate was 10 times higher than for the non-aboriginal population. While aboriginal people account for about 4 percent of the Canadian population, in 2013 they made up 23.2 percent of the federal penitentiary population. In 2001 they made up only 17 percent of the penitentiary population. Aboriginal overrepresentation in prisons has continued to grow substantially (Office of the Correctional Investigator 2013).The outcomes of aboriginal incarceration are also bleak. The federal Office of the Correctional Investigator summarized the situation as follows. Aboriginal inmates are:

  • Routinely classified as higher risk and higher need in categories such as employment, community reintegration, and family supports
  • Released later in their sentence (lower parole grant rates); most leave prison at Statutory Release or Warrant Expiry dates
  • Overrepresented in segregation and maximum security populations
  • Disproportionately involved in use-of-force interventions and incidents of prison self-injury
  • More likely to return to prison on revocation of parole, often for administrative reasons, not criminal violations (2013)

The federal report notes that “the high rate of incarceration for aboriginal peoples has been linked to systemic discrimination and attitudes based on racial or cultural prejudice, as well as economic and social disadvantage, substance abuse and intergenerational loss, violence and trauma” (2013).

This is clearly a case in which the situation of the incarcerated inmates interviewed on the CBC program has been structured by historical social patterns and power relationships that confront aboriginal people in Canada generally. How do we understand it at the individual level however, at the level of personal decision making and individual responsibilities? One young inmate described how, at the age of 13, he began to hang around with his cousins who were part of a gang. He had not grown up with “the best life” with family members suffering from addiction issues and traumas. The appeal of what appeared as a fast and exciting lifestyle—the sense of freedom and of being able to make one’s own life, instead of enduring poverty—was compelling. He began to earn money by “running dope” but also began to develop addictions. He was expelled from school for recruiting gang members. The only job he ever had was selling drugs. The circumstances in which he and the other inmates had entered the gang life and the difficulties getting out of it they knew awaited them when they left prison reflect a set of decision-making parameters fundamentally different than those facing most non-aboriginal people in Canada.

A key basis of the sociological perspective is the concept that the individual and society are inseparable. It is impossible to study one without the other. German sociologist Norbert Elias called the process of simultaneously analyzing the behaviour of individuals and the society that shapes that behaviour figuration. He described it through a metaphor of dancing. There can be no dance without the dancers, but there can be no dancers without the dance. Without the dancers, a dance is just an idea about motions in a choreographer’s head. Without a dance, there is just a group of people moving around a floor. Similarly, there is no society without the individuals that make it up, and there are also no individuals who are not affected by the society in which they live (Elias 1978).

1.2. The History of Sociology

Figure (a) shows two ancient Greeks; Figure (b) shows an ancient Chinese man; Figure (c) shows a portrait of Ibn Khaldun; Figure (d) shows a portrait of a Frenchman.

Figure 1.4. People have been thinking like sociologists long before sociology became a separate academic discipline: (a) Plato and Aristotle, (b) Confucius, (c) Khaldun, and (d) Voltaire all set the stage for modern sociology. (Photos (a),(b),(c),(d) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Since ancient times, people have been fascinated by the relationship between individuals and the societies to which they belong. The ancient Greeks might be said to have provided the foundations of sociology through the distinction they drew between physis (nature) and nomos (law or custom). Whereas nature or physis for the Greeks was “what emerges from itself” without human intervention, nomos in the form of laws or customs, were human conventions designed to constrain human behaviour. Histories by Herodotus (484–425 BCE) was a proto-anthropological work that described the great variations in the nomos of different ancient societies around the Mediterranean, indicating that human social life was not a product of nature but a product of human creation. If human social life was the product of an invariable human or biological nature, all cultures would be the same. The concerns of the later Greek philosophers Socrates (469–399 BCE), Plato (428–347 BCE), and Aristotle (384–322 BCE) with the ideal form of human community (the polis or city-state) can be derived from the ethical dilemmas of this difference between human nature and human norms. The modern sociological term “norm” (i.e., a social rule that regulates human behaviour) comes from the Greek term nomos.

In the 13th century, Ma Tuan-Lin, a Chinese historian, first recognized social dynamics as an underlying component of historical development in his seminal encyclopedia, General Study of Literary Remains. The study charted the historical development of Chinese state administration from antiquity in a manner akin to contemporary institutional analyses. The next century saw the emergence of the historian some consider to be the world’s first sociologist, the Berber scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) of Tunisia. His Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History is known for going beyond descriptive history to an analysis of historical processes of change based on an understanding of “the nature of things which are born of civilization” (Khaldun quoted in Becker and Barnes 1961). Key to his analysis was the distinction between the sedentary life of cities and the nomadic life of pastoral peoples like the Bedouin and Berbers. The nomads, who exist independent of external authority, developed a social bond based on blood lineage and “esprit de corps” (‘Asabijja),” which enabled them to mobilize quickly and act in a unified and concerted manner in response to the rugged circumstances of desert life. The sedentaries of the city entered into a different cycle in which esprit de corp is subsumed to institutional power and political factions and the need to be focused on subsistence is replaced by a trend toward increasing luxury, ease and refinements of taste. The relationship between the two poles of existence, nomadism and sedentary life, was at the basis of the development and decay of civilizations” (Becker and Barnes 1961).

However, it was not until the 19th century that the basis of the modern discipline of sociology can be said to have been truly established. The impetus for the ideas that culminated in sociology can be found in the three major transformations that defined modern society and the culture of modernity: the development of modern science from the 16th century onward, the emergence of democratic forms of government with the American and French Revolutions (1775–1783 and 1789–1799 respectively), and the Industrial Revolution beginning in the 18th century. Not only was the framework for sociological knowledge established in these events, but also the initial motivation for creating a science of society. Early sociologists like Comte and Marx sought to formulate a rational, evidence-based response to the experience of massive social dislocation and unprecedented social problems brought about by the transition from the European feudal era to capitalism. Whether the intention was to restore order to the chaotic disintegration of society, as in Comte’s case, or to provide the basis for a revolutionary transformation in Marx’s, a rational and scientifically comprehensive knowledge of society and its processes was required. It was in this context that “society” itself, in the modern sense of the word, became visible as a phenomenon to early investigators of the social condition.

A portrait of William Blake

Figure 1.5. William Blake, Newton (1795). (Photo courtesy of William Blake/wikipedia)

The development of modern science provided the model of knowledge needed for sociology to move beyond earlier moral, philosophical, and religious types of reflection on the human condition. Key to the development of science was the technological mindset that Max Weber termed the disenchantment of the world: “principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather one can, in principle, master all things by calculation” (1919). Modern science abandoned the medieval view of the world in which God, “the unmoved mover,” defined the natural and social world as a changeless, cyclical creation ordered and given purpose by divine will. Instead modern science combined two philosophical traditions that had historically been at odds: Plato’s rationalism and Aristotle’s empiricism. Rationalism sought the laws that governed the truth of reason and ideas, and in the hands of early scientists like Galileo and Newton, found its highest form of expression in the logical formulations of mathematics. Empiricism sought to discover the laws of the operation of the world through the careful, methodical, and detailed observation of the world. The new scientific worldview therefore combined the clear and logically coherent conceptual formulation of propositions from rationalism with an empirical method of inquiry based on observation through the senses. Sociology adopted these core principles to emphasize that claims about society had to be clearly formulated and based on evidence-based procedures.

The emergence of democratic forms of government in the 18th century demonstrated that humans had the capacity to change the world. The rigid hierarchy of medieval society was not a God-given eternal order, but a human order that could be challenged and improved upon through human intervention. Society came to be seen as both historical and the product of human endeavours. Age of Enlightenment philosophers like Locke, Voltaire, Montaigne, and Rousseau developed general principles that could be used to explain social life. Their emphasis shifted from the histories and exploits of the aristocracy to the life of ordinary people. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) extended the critical analysis of her male Enlightenment contemporaries to the situation of women. Significantly for modern sociology they proposed that the use of reason could be applied to address social ills and to emancipate humanity from servitude. Wollstonecraft for example argued that simply allowing women to have a proper education would enable them to contribute to the improvement of society, especially through their influence on children. On the other hand, the bloody experience of the democratic revolutions, particularly the French Revolution, which resulted in the “Reign of Terror” and ultimately Napoleon’s attempt to subjugate Europe, also provided a cautionary tale for the early sociologists about the need for sober scientific assessment of society to address social problems.

The Industrial Revolution in a strict sense refers to the development of industrial methods of production, the introduction of industrial machinery, and the organization of labour in new manufacturing systems. These economic changes emblemize the massive transformation of human life brought about by the creation of wage labour, capitalist competition, increased mobility, urbanization, individualism, and all the social problems they wrought: poverty, exploitation, dangerous working conditions, crime, filth, disease, and the loss of family and other traditional support networks, etc. It was a time of great social and political upheaval with the rise of empires that exposed many people—for the first time—to societies and cultures other than their own. Millions of people were moving into cities and many people were turning away from their traditional religious beliefs. Wars, strikes, revolts, and revolutionary actions were reactions to underlying social tensions that had never existed before and called for critical examination. August Comte in particular envisioned the new science of sociology as the antidote to conditions that he described as “moral anarchy.”

Sociology therefore emerged as an extension of the new worldview of science; as a part of the Enlightenment project and its appreciation of historical change, social injustice, and the possibilities of social reform; and as a crucial response to the new and unprecedented types of social problems that appeared in the 19th century. It did not emerge as a unified science, however, as its founders brought distinctly different perspectives to its early formulations.

August Comte: The Father of Sociology

Figure 1.6. Auguste Comte is considered by many to be the father of sociology. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Figure 1.6. Auguste Comte is considered by many to be the father of sociology. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The term sociology was first coined in 1780 by the French essayist Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (1748–1836) in an unpublished manuscript (Fauré et al. 1999). In 1838, the term was reinvented by Auguste Comte (1798–1857). The contradictions of Comte’s life and the times he lived through can be in large part read into the concerns that led to his development of sociology. He was born in 1798, year 6 of the new French Republic, to staunch monarchist and Catholic parents, who lived comfortably off the father’s earnings as a minor bureaucrat in the tax office. Comte originally studied to be an engineer, but after rejecting his parents’ conservative views and declaring himself a republican and free spirit at the age of 13, he got kicked out of school at 18 for leading a school riot, which ended his chances of getting a formal education and a position as an academic or government official.

He became a secretary of the utopian socialist philosopher Claude Henri de Rouvroy Comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) until they had a falling out in 1824 (after St. Simon perhaps purloined some of Comte’s essays and signed his own name to them). Nevertheless, they both thought that society could be studied using the same scientific methods utilized in the natural sciences. Comte also believed in the potential of social scientists to work toward the betterment of society and coined the slogan “order and progress” to reconcile the opposing progressive and conservative factions that had divided the crisis-ridden, post-revolutionary French society. Comte proposed a renewed, organic spiritual order in which the authority of science would be the means to reconcile the people in each social strata with their place in the order. It is a testament to his influence that the phrase “order and progress” adorns the Brazilian coat of arms (Collins and Makowsky 1989).

Comte named the scientific study of social patterns positivism. He described his philosophy in a well-attended and popular series of lectures, which he published as The Course in Positive Philosophy (1830–1842) and A General View of Positivism (1848). He believed that using scientific methods to reveal the laws by which societies and individuals interact would usher in a new “positivist” age of history. His main sociological theory was the law of three stages, which held that all human societies and all forms of human knowledge evolve through three distinct stages from primitive to advanced: the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive.The key variable in defining these stages was the way a people understand the concept of causation or think about their place in the world.

In the theological stage, humans explain causes in terms of the will of anthropocentric gods (the gods cause things to happen). In the metaphysical stage, humans explain causes in terms of abstract, “speculative” ideas like nature, natural rights, or “self-evident” truths. This was the basis of his critique of the Enlightenment philosophers whose ideas about natural rights and freedoms had led to the French Revolution but also to the chaos of its aftermath. In his view, the “negative” or metaphysical knowledge of the philosophers was based on dogmatic ideas that could not be reconciled when they were in contraction. This lead to irreconcilable conflict and moral anarchy. Finally, in the positive stage, humans explain causes in terms of scientific procedures and laws (i.e., “positive” knowledge based on propositions limited to what can be empirically observed). Comte believed that this would be the final stage of human social evolution because science would reconcile the division between political factions of order and progress by eliminating the basis for moral and intellectual anarchy. The application of positive philosophy would lead to the unification of society and of the sciences (Comte 1830).

Although Comte’s positivism is a little odd by today’s standards, it inaugurated the development of the positivist tradition within sociology. In principle, positivism is the sociological perspective that attempts to approach the study of society in the same way that the natural sciences approach the natural world. In fact, Comte’s preferred term for this approach was “social physics”—the “sciences of observation” applied to social phenomena, which he saw as the culmination of the historical development of the sciences. More specifically, for Comte, positivism:

  1. “Regards all phenomena as subjected to invariable natural laws”
  2. Pursues “an accurate discovery of these laws, with a view of reducing them to the smallest possible number”
  3. Limits itself to analyzing the observable circumstances of phenomena and to connecting them by the “natural relations of succession and resemblance” instead of making metaphysical claims about their essential or divine nature (Comte 1830)

While Comte never in fact conducted any social research and took, as the object of analysis, the laws that governed what he called the general human “mind” of a society (difficult to observe empirically), his notion of sociology as a positivist science that might effectively socially engineer a better society was deeply influential. Where his influence waned was a result of the way in which he became increasingly obsessive and hostile to all criticism as his ideas progressed beyond positivism as the “science of society” to positivism as the basis of a new cult-like, technocratic “religion of humanity.” The new social order he imagined was deeply conservative and hierarchical, a kind of a caste system with every level of society obliged to reconcile itself with its “scientifically” allotted place. Comte imagined himself at the pinnacle of society, taking the title of “Great Priest of Humanity.” The moral and intellectual anarchy he decried would be resolved, but only because the rule of sociologists would eliminate the need for unnecessary and divisive democratic dialogue. Social order “must ever be incompatible with a perpetual discussion of the foundations of society” (Comte 1830).

Karl Marx: The Ruthless Critique of Everything Existing

Figure 1.7. Karl Marx was one of the founders of sociology. His ideas about social conflict are still relevant today. (Photo courtesy of John Mayall/Wikimedia Commons)

Figure 1.7. Karl Marx was one of the founders of sociology. His ideas about social conflict are still relevant today. (Photo courtesy of John Mayall/Wikimedia Commons)

Karl Marx (1818–1883) was a German philosopher and economist. In 1848 he and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) co-authored the Communist Manifesto. This book is one of the most influential political manuscripts in history. It also presents in a highly condensed form Marx’s theory of society, which differed from what Comte proposed. Whereas Comte viewed the goal of sociology as recreating a unified, post-feudal spiritual order that would help to institutionalize a new era of political and social stability, Marx developed a critical analysis of capitalism that saw the material or economic basis of inequality and power relations as the cause of social instability and conflict. The focus of sociology, or what Marx called historical materialism (the “materialist conception of history”), should be the “ruthless critique of everything existing,” as he said in a letter to his friend Arnold Ruge. In this way the goal of sociology would not simply be to scientifically analyze or objectively describe society, but to use a rigorous scientific analysis as a basis to change it. This framework became the foundation of contemporary critical sociology.

Marx rejected Comte’s positivism with its emphasis on describing the logical laws of the general “mind.” For Marx, Comte’s sociology was a form of idealism, a way of explaining the nature of society based on the ideas that people hold. In an idealist perspective, people invent ideas of “freedom,” “morality,” or “causality,” etc. and then change their lives and society’s institutions to conform to these ideas. This type of understanding could only ever lead to a partial analysis of social life according to Marx. Instead he believed that societies grew and changed as a result of the struggles of different social classes over control of the means of production. Historical materialism is an approach to understanding society that explains social change and human ideas in terms of underlying changes in the “mode of production” or economy; i.e., the historical transformations in the way human societies act upon their material world (the environment and its resources) in order to use it to meet their needs. Marx argues therefore that the consciousness or ideas people have about the world develop from changes in this material, economic basis. As such, the ideas of people in hunter-gatherer societies will be different than the ideas of people in feudal societies, which in turn will be different from the ideas of people in capitalist societies.

The source of historical change and transition between different historical types of society was class struggle. At the time Marx was developing his theories, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism had led to a massive increase in the wealth of society but also massive disparities in wealth and power between the owners of the factories (the bourgeoisie) and workers (the proletariat). Capitalism was still a relatively new economic system, an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of goods and the means to produce them. It was also a system that was inherently unstable and prone to crisis, yet increasingly global in its reach.

As Marx demonstrated in his masterpiece Capital (1867), capitalism’s instability is based on the processes by which capitalists accumulate their capital or assets, namely by engaging in cold-blooded competition with each other through the sale of commodities in the competitive market. There is a continuous need to expand markets for goods and to reduce the costs of production in order to create ever cheaper and more competitive products. This leads to a downward pressure on wages, the introduction of labour-saving technologies that increase unemployment, the failure of non-competitive businesses, periodic economic crises and recessions, and the global expansion of capitalism as businesses seek markets to exploit and cheaper sources of labour. Yet as he pointed out, it was the workers’ labour that actually produces wealth. The capitalists who owned the factories and means of production were in a sense parasitic on workers’ labour. The injustice of the system was palpable. Marx predicted that inequalities of capitalism would become so extreme that workers would eventually recognize their common class interests, develop a common “class consciousness” or understanding of their situation, and revolt. Class struggle would lead to the destruction of the institution of private capital and to the final stage in human history, which he called “communism.”

Although Marx did not call his analysis sociology, his sociological innovation was to provide a social analysis of the economic system. Whereas Adam Smith (1723–1790) and the political economists of the 19th century tried to explain the economic laws of supply and demand solely as a market mechanism (similar to the abstract discussions of stock market indices and investment returns in business pages of newspapers today), Marx’s analysis showed the social relationships that had created the market system and the social repercussions of their operation. As such, his analysis of modern society was not static or simply descriptive. He was able to put his finger on the underlying dynamism and continuous change that characterized capitalist society. In a famous passage from The Communist Manifesto, he and Engels described the restless and destructive penchant for change inherent in the capitalist mode of production:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all which is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind (Marx and Engels 1848).

Marx was also able to create an effective basis for critical sociology in that what he aimed for in his analysis was, as he put it in another letter to Arnold Ruge, “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age.” While he took a clear and principled value position in his critique, he did not do so dogmatically, based on an arbitrary moral position of what he personally thought was good and bad. He felt rather that a critical social theory must engage in clarifying and supporting the issues of social justice that were inherent within the existing struggles and wishes of the age. In his own work, he endeavoured to show how the variety of specific work actions, strikes, and revolts by workers in different occupations for better pay, safer working conditions, shorter hours, the right to unionize, etc. contained the seeds for a vision of universal equality, collective justice, and ultimately the ideal of a classless society.

Harriet Martineau: The First Woman Sociologist?

Figure 1.8. Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) Wikimedia Commons. (photo courtesy of wikimedia commons)

Figure 1.8. Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) Wikimedia Commons. (photo courtesy of wikimedia commons)

Harriet Martineau (1802–1876) was one of the first women sociologists in the 19th century. There are a number of other women who might compete with her for the title of the first woman sociologist, such as Catherine Macauley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Flora Tristan, and Beatrice Webb, but Martineau’s specifically sociological credentials are strong. She was for a long time known principally for her English translation of Comte’s Course in Positive Philosophy. Through this popular translation she introduced the concept of sociology as a methodologically rigorous discipline to an English-speaking audience. But she also created a body of her own work in the tradition of the great social reform movements of the 19th century and introduced a sorely missing woman’s perspective into the discourse on society.

It was a testament to her abilities that after she became impoverished at the age of 24 with the death of her father, brother, and fiancé, she was able to earn her own income as the first woman journalist in Britain to write under her own name. From the age of 12, she suffered from severe hearing loss and was obliged to use a large ear trumpet to converse. She impressed a wide audience with a series of articles on political economy in 1832. In 1834 she left England to engage in two years of study of the new republic of the United States and its emerging institutions: prisons, insane asylums, factories, farms, Southern plantations, universities, hospitals, and churches. On the basis of extensive research, interviews and observations, she published Society in America and worked with abolitionists on the social reform of slavery (Zeitlin 1997). She also worked for social reform in the situation of women: the right to vote, have an education, pursue an occupation, and enjoy the same legal rights as men. Together with Florence Nightingale, she worked on the development of public health care, which led to early formulations of the welfare system in Britain (McDonald 1998).

Particularly innovative was her early work on sociological methodology, How to Observe Manners and Morals (1838). In this volume she developed the ground work for a systematic social-scientific approach to studying human behaviour. She recognized that the issues of the researcher/subject relationship would have to be addressed differently in a social, as opposed to a natural, science. The observer, or “traveller,” as she put it, needed to respect three criteria to obtain valid research: impartiality, critique, and sympathy. The impartial observer could not allow herself to be “perplexed or disgusted” by foreign practices that she could not personally reconcile herself with. Yet at the same time she saw the goal of sociology to be the fair but critical assessment of the moral status of a culture. In particular, the goal of sociology was to challenge forms of racial, sexual, or class domination in the name of autonomy: the right of every person to be a “self-directing moral being.” Finally, what distinguished the science of social observation from the natural sciences was that the researcher had to have unqualified sympathy for the subjects being studied (Lengermann and Niebrugge 2007). This later became a central principle of Max Weber’s interpretive sociology, although it is not clear that Weber read Martineau’s work.

A large part of her research in the United States analyzed the situations of contradiction between stated public morality and actual moral practices. For example, she was fascinated with the way that the formal democratic right to free speech enabled slavery abolitionists to hold public meetings, but when the meetings were violently attacked by mobs, the abolitionists and not the mobs were accused of inciting the violence (Zeitlin 1997). This emphasis on studying contradictions followed from the distinction she drew between morals—society’s collective ideas of permitted and forbidden behaviour—and manners—the actual patterns of social action and association in society. As she realized the difficulty in getting an accurate representation of an entire society based on a limited number of interviews, she developed the idea that one could identify key “Things” experienced by all people—age, gender, illness, death, etc.—and examine how they were experienced differently by a sample of people from different walks of life (Lengermann and Niebrugge 2007). Martineau’s sociology therefore focused on surveying different attitudes toward “Things” and studying the anomalies that emerged when manners toward them contradicted a society’s formal morals.

Émile Durkheim: The Pathologies of the Social Order

Figure 1.9. Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) Wikimedia Commons. (photo courtesy of wikimedia commons)

Figure 1.9. Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) Wikimedia Commons. (photo courtesy of wikimedia commons)

Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) helped establish sociology as a formal academic discipline by establishing the first European department of sociology at the University of Bordeaux in 1895 and by publishing his Rules of the Sociological Method in 1895. He was born to a Jewish family in the Lorraine province of France (one of the two provinces along with Alsace that were lost to the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871). With the German occupation of Lorraine, the Jewish community suddenly became subject to sporadic anti-Semitic violence, with the Jews often being blamed for the French defeat and the economic/political instability that followed. Durkheim attributed this strange experience of anti-Semitism and scapegoating to the lack of moral purpose in modern society.

As in Comte’s time, France in the late 19th century was the site of major upheavals and sharp political divisions: the loss of the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune (1871) in which 20,000 workers died, the fall and capture of Emperor Napoleon III (Napoleon I’s nephew), the creation of the Third Republic, and the Dreyfus Affair. This undoubtedly led to the focus in Durkheim’s sociology on themes of moral anarchy, decadence, disunity, and disorganization. For Durkheim, sociology was a scientific but also a “moral calling” and one of the central tasks of the sociologist was to determine “the causes of the general temporary malajustment being undergone by European societies and remedies which may relieve it” (1897). In this respect, Durkheim represented the sociologist as a kind of medical doctor, studying social pathologies of the moral order and proposing social remedies and cures. He saw healthy societies as stable, while pathological societies experienced a breakdown in social norms between individuals and society. The state of normlessness or anomie—the lack of norms that give clear direction and purpose to individual actions—was the result of “society’s insufficient presence in individuals” (1897).

His father was the eighth in a line of father-son rabbis. Although Émile was the second son, he was chosen to pursue his father’s vocation and was given a good religious and secular education. He abandoned the idea of a religious or rabbinical career, however, and became very secular in his outlook. His sociological analysis of religion in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) was an example of this. In this work he was not interested in the theological questions of God’s existence or purpose, but in developing a very secular, sociological question: Whether God exists or not, how does religion function socially in a society? He argued that beneath the irrationalism and the “barbarous and fantastic rites” of both the most primitive and the most modern religions is their ability to satisfy real social and human needs. “There are no religions which are false” (Durkheim 1912) he said. Religion performs the key function of providing social solidarity in a society. The rituals, the worship of icons, and the belief in supernatural beings “excite, maintain or recreate certain mental states” (Durkheim 1912) that bring people together, provide a ritual and symbolic focus, and unify them. This type of analysis became the basis of the functionalist perspective in sociology. He explained the existence and persistence of religion on the basis of the necessary function it performed in unifying society.

Durkheim was also a key figure in the development of positivist sociology. He did not adopt the term positivism, because of the connection it had with Comte’s quasi-religious sociological cult. However, in Rules of the Sociological Method he defined sociology as the study of objective social facts. Social facts are those things like law, custom, morality, religious beliefs and practices, language, systems of money, credit and debt, business or professional practices, etc. that are defined externally to the individual. Social facts:

For Durkheim, social facts were like the facts of the natural sciences. They could be studied without reference to the subjective experience of individuals. He argued that “social facts must be studied as things, that is, as realities external to the individual” (Durkheim 1895). Individuals experience them as obligations, duties, and restraints on their behaviour, operating independently of their will. They are hardly noticeable when individuals consent to them but provoke reaction when individuals resist.

In this way, Durkheim was very influential in defining the subject matter of the new discipline of sociology. For Durkheim, sociology was not about just any phenomena to do with the life of human beings but only those phenomena which pertained exclusively to a social level of analysis. It was not about the biological or psychological dynamics of human life, for example, but about the social facts through which the lives of individuals were constrained. Moreover, the dimension of human experience described by social facts had to be explained in its own terms. It could not be explained by biological drives or psychological characteristics of individuals. It was a dimension of reality sui generis (of its own kind, unique in its characteristics). It could not be explained by, or reduced to, its individual components without missing its most important features. As Durkheim put it, “a social fact can only be explained by another social fact” (Durkheim 1895).

This is the framework of Durkheim’s famous study of suicide. In Suicide: A Study in Sociology (1897), Durkheim attempted to demonstrate the effectiveness of his rules of social research by examining suicide statistics in different police districts. Suicide is perhaps the most personal and most individual of all acts. Its motives would seem to be absolutely unique to the individual and to individual psychopathology. However, what Durkheim observed was that statistical rates of suicide remained fairly constant year by year and region by region. There was no correlation between rates of suicide and rates of psychopathology. Suicide rates did vary, however, according to the social context of the suicides: namely the religious affiliation of suicides. Protestants had higher rates of suicide than Catholics, whereas Catholics had higher rates of suicide than Jews. Durkheim argued that the key factor that explained the difference in suicide rates (i.e., the statistical rates, not the purely individual motives for the suicides) were the different degrees of social integration of the different religious communities, measured by the amount of ritual and degree of mutual involvement in religious practice. The religious groups had differing levels of anomie, or normlessness, which Durkheim associated with high rates of suicide. Durkheim’s study was unique and insightful because he did not try to explain suicide rates in terms of individual psychopathology. Instead, he regarded the regularity of the suicide rates as a factual order, implying “the existence of collective tendencies exterior to the individual” (Durkheim 1897), and explained their variation with respect to another social fact: “Suicide varies inversely with the degree of integration of the social groups of which the individual forms a part” (Durkheim 1897).

Max Weber: Verstehende Soziologie

Figure 1.10. Max Weber (1864-1920) Wikimedia Commons. (Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons)

Figure 1.10. Max Weber (1864-1920) Wikimedia Commons. (Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons)

Prominent sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) established a sociology department in Germany at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich in 1919. Weber wrote on many topics related to sociology including political change in Russia, the condition of German farm workers, and the history of world religions. He was also a prominent public figure, playing an important role in the German peace delegation in Versailles and in drafting the ill-fated German (Weimar) constitution following the defeat of Germany in World War I.

Weber is known best for his 1904 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He noted that in modern industrial societies, business leaders and owners of capital, the higher grades of skilled labour, and the most technically and commercially trained personnel were overwhelmingly Protestant. He also noted the uneven development of capitalism in Europe, and in particular how capitalism developed first in those areas dominated by Protestant sects. He asked, “Why were the districts of highest economic development at the same time particularly favourable to a revolution in the Church?” (i.e., the Protestant Reformation (1517–1648)) (Weber 1904). His answer focused on the development of the Protestant ethic—the duty to “work hard in one’s calling”—in particular Protestant sects such as Calvinism, Pietism, and Baptism.

As opposed to the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church in which poverty was a virtue and labour simply a means for maintaining the individual and community, the Protestant sects began to see hard, continuous labour as a spiritual end in itself. Hard labour was firstly an ascetic technique of worldly renunciation and a defence against temptations and distractions: the unclean life, sexual temptations, and religious doubts. Secondly, the Protestant sects believed that God’s disposition toward the individual was predetermined and could never be known or influenced by traditional Christian practices like confession, penance, and buying indulgences. However, one’s chosen occupation was a “calling” given by God, and the only sign of God’s favour or recognition in this world was to receive good fortune in one’s calling. Thus material success and the steady accumulation of wealth through personal effort and prudence was seen as a sign of an individual’s state of grace. Weber argued that the ethic, or way of life, that developed around these beliefs was a key factor in creating the conditions for both the accumulation of capital, as the goal of economic activity, and for the creation of an industrious and disciplined labour force.

In this regard, Weber has often been seen as presenting an idealist explanation of the development of capital, as opposed to Marx’s historical materialist explanation. It is an element of cultural belief that leads to social change rather than the concrete organization and class struggles of the economic structure. It might be more accurate, however, to see Weber’s work building on Marx’s and to see his Protestant ethic thesis as part of a broader set of themes concerning the process of rationalization. Why did the Western world modernize and develop modern science, industry, and democracy when, for centuries, the Orient, the Indian subcontinent, and the Middle East were technically, scientifically, and culturally more advanced than the West? Weber argued that the modern forms of society developed in the West because of the process of rationalization: the general tendency of modern institutions and most areas of life to be transformed by the application of instrumental reason—rational bureaucratic organization, calculation, and technical reason—and the overcoming of “magical” thinking (which we earlier referred to as the “disenchantment of the world”). As the impediments toward rationalization were removed, organizations and institutions were restructured on the principle of maximum efficiency and specialization, while older, traditional (inefficient) types of organization were gradually eliminated.

The irony of the Protestant ethic as one stage in this process was that the rationalization of capitalist business practices and organization of labour eventually dispensed with the religious goals of the ethic. At the end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber pessimistically describes the fate of modern humanity as an “iron cage.” The iron cage is Weber’s metaphor for the condition of modern humanity in a technical, rationally defined, and “efficiently” organized society. Having forgotten its spiritual or other purposes of life, humanity succumbs to an order “now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production” (Weber 1904). The modern subject in the iron cage is “only a single cog in an ever-moving mechanism which prescribes to him an essentially fixed route of march” (Weber 1922).

Weber also made a major contribution to the methodology of sociological research. Along with the philosophers Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) and Heinrich Rickert (1863–1936), Weber believed that it was difficult if not impossible to apply natural science methods to accurately predict the behaviour of groups as positivist sociology hoped to do. They argued that the influence of culture on human behaviour had to be taken into account. What was distinct about human behaviour was that it is essentially meaningful. Human behaviour could not be understood independently of the meanings that individuals attributed to it. A Martian’s analysis of the activities in a skateboard park would be hopelessly confused unless it understood that the skateboarders were motivated by the excitement of risk taking and the pleasure in developing skills. This insight into the meaningful nature of human behaviour even applied to the sociologists themselves, who, they believed, should be aware of how their own cultural biases could influence their research. To deal with this problem, Weber and Dilthey introduced the concept of Verstehen, a German word that means to understand in a deep way. In seeking Verstehen, outside observers of a social world—an entire culture or a small setting—attempt to understand it empathetically from an insider’s point of view.

In his essay “The Methodological Foundations of Sociology,” Weber described sociology as “a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects” (Weber 1922). In this way he delimited the field that sociology studies in a manner almost opposite to that of Émile Durkheim. Rather than defining sociology as the study of the unique dimension of external social facts, sociology was concerned with social action: actions to which individuals attach subjective meanings. “Action is social in so far as, by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual (or individuals), it takes account of the behaviour of others and is thereby oriented in its course” (Weber 1922). The actions of the young skateboarders can be explained because they hold the experienced boarders in esteem and attempt to emulate their skills even if it means scraping their bodies on hard concrete from time to time. Weber and other like-minded sociologists founded interpretive sociology whereby social researchers strive to find systematic means to interpret and describe the subjective meanings behind social processes, cultural norms, and societal values. This approach led to research methods like ethnography, participant observation, and phenomenological analysis whose aim was not to generalize or predict (as in positivistic social science), but to systematically gain an in-depth understanding of social worlds. The natural sciences may be precise, but from the interpretive sociology point of view their methods confine them to study only the external characteristics of things.

Georg Simmel: A Sociology of Forms

Figure 1.11. Georg Simmel (1858-1918) Wikimedia Commons. (Photo courtesy of Julius Cornelius Schaarwächter/wikimedia commons)

Figure 1.11. Georg Simmel (1858-1918) Wikimedia Commons. (Photo courtesy of Julius Cornelius Schaarwächter/wikimedia commons)

Georg Simmel (1858–1918) was one of the founding fathers of sociology, although his place in the discipline is not always recognized. In part, this oversight may be explained by the fact that Simmel was a Jewish scholar in Germany at the turn of 20th century, and until 1914 was unable to attain a proper position as a professor due to anti-Semitism. Despite the brilliance of his sociological insights, the quantity of his publications, and the popularity of his public lectures as Privatdozent at the University of Berlin, his lack of a regular academic position prevented him from having the kind of student following that would create a legacy around his ideas. It might also be explained by some of the unconventional and varied topics that he wrote on: the structure of flirting, the sociology of adventure, the importance of secrecy, the patterns of fashion, the social significance of money, etc. He was generally seen at the time as not having a systematic or integrated theory of society. However, his insights into how social forms emerge at the micro-level of interaction and how they relate to macro-level phenomena remain valuable in contemporary sociology.

Simmel’s sociology focused on the key question, “How is society possible?” His answer led him to develop what he called formal sociology, or the sociology of social forms. In his essay “The Problem of Sociology,” Simmel reaches a strange conclusion for a sociologist: “There is no such thing as society ‘as such.’” “Society” is just the name we give to the “extraordinary multitude and variety of interactions [that] operate at any one moment” (Simmel 1908). This is a basic insight of micro-sociology. However useful it is to talk about macro-level phenomena like capitalism, the moral order, or rationalization, in the end what these phenomena refer to is a multitude of ongoing, unfinished processes of interaction between specific individuals. Nevertheless, the phenomena of social life do have recognizable forms, and the forms do guide the behaviour of individuals in a regularized way. A bureaucracy is a form of social interaction that persists from day to day. One does not come into work one morning to discover that the rules, job descriptions, paperwork, and hierarchical order of the bureaucracy have disappeared. Simmel’s questions were: How do the forms of social life persist? How did they emerge in the first place? What happens when they get fixed and permanent?

Simmel notes that “society exists where a number of individuals enter into interaction” (1908). What he means is that whenever people gather, something happens that would not have happened if the individuals had remained alone. People attune themselves to one another in a way that is very similar to musicians tuning their instruments to one another. A pattern or form of interaction emerges that begins to guide or coordinate the behaviour of the individuals. An example Simmel uses is of a cocktail party where a subtle set of instructions begins to emerge which defines what can and cannot be said. In a cocktail party where the conversation is light and witty, the effect would be jarring of someone suddenly trying to sell you an insurance policy or talking about the spousal abuse they had suffered. The person would be thought of as being crass or inappropriate. Similarly in the pleasant pastime of flirtation, if one of the parties began to press the other to consummate the flirtation by having sex, the flirtation would be over. Flirtation is a form of interaction in which the answer to the question of having sex—yes or no—is perpetually suspended.

In both examples, Simmel argued that the social interaction had taken on a specific form. Both were examples of what he called the play form of social interaction, or pure “sociability”: the pleasure people experience from the mere fact of being together, regardless of the content of the interaction (Simmel 1910). If the cocktail party conversation suddenly turns to a business proposition or an overly personal confession, it is no longer playful. The underlying form of the interaction has been violated, even if the participants were not consciously aware that they had adopted a particular form of interaction. Simmel proposed that sociology would be the study of the social forms that recur in different contexts and with different social contents. The same play form governs the interaction in two different contexts with two different contents of interaction: one is the free-ranging content of polite conversation; the other is sexual desire. Among other common forms that Simmel studied were superiority and subordination, cooperation, competition, division of labour, and money transactions. These forms can be applied in a variety of different contexts to give social form to a variety of different contents or specific drives: erotic, spiritual, acquisitive, defensive, playful, etc. The emphasis on forms is why Simmel called his approach to the study of society “formal sociology.”

Simmel’s focus on how social forms emerge became very important for micro-sociology, symbolic interactionism, and the studies of hotel lobbies, cigarette girls, and street-corner societies, etc. popularized by the Chicago School in the mid-20th century. His analysis of the creation of new social forms was particularly tuned in to capturing the fragmentary everyday experience of modern social life that was bound up with the unprecedented nature and scale of the modern city. In his lifetime, the city of Berlin where he lived and taught for most of his career had become a major European metropolis of 4 million people by 1900, after the unification of Germany in the 1870s. However, his work was not confined to micro-level interactions. He developed an analysis of the tragedy of culture in which he argued that the cultural creations of “subjective culture”—like the emergent social forms created by people in their face-to-face interactions, as well as art, literature, political analyses, etc.—tended to detach themselves from lived experience and become fixed and elaborated in the form of “objective culture”—the accumulated products of human cultural creation. There are intrinsic limits to an individual’s ability to organize, appreciate, and assimilate these forms. As the quantity of objective culture increases and becomes more complex, it becomes progressively more alienating, incomprehensible, and overwhelming. It takes on a life of its own and the individual can no longer see him- or herself reflected in it. Music, for example, can be enriching, but going to an orchestral performance of contemporary music can often be baffling, as if you need an advanced music degree just to be able to understand that what you are hearing is music.

In his famous study “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” Simmel described how the built environment and the sheer size and anonymity of the city had become a social form, which he called the “metropolitan way of life.” Although the metropolis, its architecture, and the variety of ways of life it contained were products of human creation and expression, as an entity it confronted the individual as a kind of overwhelming monstrosity that threatened to swallow him or her up in its “social-technological mechanism” (Simmel 1903). As a means of self-protection against the city’s overpowering sensory input, people cut themselves off from potentially enriching contact with others and become cold, callous, indifferent, impatient, and blasé.

Making Connections: Social Policy & Debate

How Do Working Moms Impact Society?

What constitutes a “typical family” in Canada has changed tremendously over the past decades. One of the most notable changes has been the increasing number of mothers who work outside the home. Earlier in Canadian society, most family households consisted of one parent working outside the home and the other being the primary child care provider. Because of traditional gender roles and family structures, this was typically a working father and a stay-at-home mom. Research shows that in 1951 only 24 percent of all women worked outside the home (Li 1996). In 2009, 58.3 percent of all women did, and 64.4 percent of women with children younger than three years of age were employed (Statistics Canada 2011).

Sociologists interested in this topic might approach its study from a variety of angles. One might be interested in its impact on a child’s development, another may explore its effect on family income, while a third might examine how other social institutions have responded to this shift in society. A sociologist studying the impact of working mothers on a child’s development might ask questions about children raised in child care settings. How is a child socialized differently when raised largely by a child care provider rather than a parent? Do early experiences in a school-like child care setting lead to improved academic performance later in life? How does a child with two working parents perceive gender roles compared to a child raised with a stay-at-home parent? Another sociologist might be interested in the increase in working mothers from an economic perspective. Why do so many households today have dual incomes? Has this changed the income of families substantially? How do women’s dual roles in the household and in the wider economy affect their occupational achievements and ability to participate on an equal basis with men in the workforce? What impact does the larger economy play in the economic conditions of an individual household? Do people view money—savings, spending, debt—differently than they have in the past?

Curiosity about this trend’s influence on social institutions might lead a researcher to explore its effect on the nation’s educational and child care systems. Has the increase in working mothers shifted traditional family responsibilities onto schools, such as providing lunch and even breakfast for students? How does the creation of after-school care programs shift resources away from traditional school programs? What would the effect be of providing a universal, subsidized child care program on the ability of women to pursue uninterrupted careers?

As these examples show, sociologists study many real-world topics. Their research often influences social policies and political issues. Results from sociological studies on this topic might play a role in developing federal policies like the Employment Insurance maternity and parental benefits program, or they might bolster the efforts of an advocacy group striving to reduce social stigmas placed on stay-at-home dads, or they might help governments determine how to best allocate funding for education. Many European countries like Sweden have substantial family support policies, such as a full year of parental leave at 80 percent of wages when a child is born and heavily subsidized, high-quality daycare and preschool programs. In Canada, a national subsidized daycare program existed briefly in 2005 but was scrapped in 2006 by the Conservative government and replaced with a $100-a-month direct payment to parents for each child. Sociologists might be interested in studying whether the benefits of the Swedish system—in terms of children’s well-being, lower family poverty, and gender equality—outweigh the drawbacks of higher Swedish tax rates.


1.3. Theoretical Perspectives

Figure 1.12. People holding posters and waving flags at a protest rally. (photo courtesy of Steve Herman/wikimedia commons)

Figure 1.12. People holding posters and waving flags at a protest rally (photo courtesy of Steve Herman/wikimedia commons)

Sociologists study social events, interactions, and patterns. They then develop theories to explain why these occur and what can result from them. In sociology, a theory is a way to explain different aspects of social interactions and create testable propositions about society (Allan 2006). For example, Durkheim’s proposition that differences in suicide rate can be explained by differences in the degree of social integration in different communities is a theory.

As this brief survey of the history of sociology suggests, however, there is considerable diversity in the theoretical approaches sociology takes to studying society. Sociology is a multi-perspectival science: a number of distinct perspectives or paradigms offer competing explanations of social phenomena. Paradigms are philosophical and theoretical frameworks used within a discipline to formulate theories, generalizations, and the research performed in support of them. They refer to the underlying organizing principles that tie different constellations of concepts, theories, and ways of formulating problems together (Drengson 1983). Talcott Parsons’ reformulation of Durkheim’s and others work as structural functionalism in the 1950s is an example of a paradigm because it provided a general model of analysis suited to an unlimited number of research topics. Parsons proposed that any identifiable structure (e.g., roles, families, religions, or states) could be explained by the particular function it performed in maintaining the operation of society as a whole. Critical sociology and symbolic interactionism would formulate the explanatory framework and research problem differently.

The multi-perspectival approach of sociology can be confusing to the newcomer, especially given most people’s familiarity with the more “unified perspective” of the natural sciences where divisions in perspective are less visible. The natural sciences are largely able to dispense with issues of multiple perspective and build cumulative explanations based on the “facts” because the objects they study are indifferent to their observation. The chemical composition and behaviour of a protein can be assumed to be the same wherever it is observed and by whomever it is observed. The same cannot be said of social phenomena, which are mediated by meanings and interpretations, divided by politics and value orientations, subject to historical change and human agency, characterized by contradictions and reconciliations, and transfigured if they are observed at a micro or macro-level. Social reality is different, depending on the historical moment, the perspective, and the criteria from which it is viewed.

Nevertheless, the different sociological paradigms do rest on a form of knowledge that is scientific, if science is taken in the broad sense to mean the use of reasoned argument, the ability to see the general in the particular, and the reliance on evidence from systematic observation of social reality. Within this general scientific framework, however, sociology is broken into the same divisions that separate the forms of modern knowledge more generally. By the time of the Enlightenment the unified perspective of Christendom had broken into three distinct spheres of knowledge: the natural sciences, hermeneutics (or interpretive sciences), and critique (Habermas 1972). Sociology is similarly divided into three types of sociological knowledge, each with its own strengths, limitations, and practical uses: positivist sociology, interpretive sociology, and critical sociology. Within these three types of sociological knowledge, four paradigms have come to dominate sociological thinking: structural functionalism, critical sociology, feminism, and symbolic interactionism.


The positivist perspective in sociology—introduced above with regard to the pioneers of the discipline August Comte and Émile Durkheim—is most closely aligned with the forms of knowledge associated with the natural sciences. The emphasis is on empirical observation and measurement (i.e., observation through the senses), value neutrality or objectivity, and the search for law-like statements about the social world (analogous to Newton’s laws of gravity for the natural world). Since mathematics and statistical operations are the main forms of logical demonstration in the natural scientific explanation, positivism relies on translating human phenomena into quantifiable units of measurement. It regards the social world as an objective or “positive” reality, in no essential respects different from the natural world. Positivism is oriented to developing a knowledge useful for controlling or administering social life, which explains its ties to the projects of social engineering going back to Comte’s original vision for sociology. Two forms of positivism have been dominant in sociology since the 1940s: quantitative sociology and structural functionalism.

Quantitative Sociology

In contemporary sociology, positivism is based on four main “rules” that define what constitutes valid knowledge and what types of questions may be reasonably asked (Bryant 1985):

  1. The rule of empiricism: We can only know about things that are actually given in experience. We cannot validly make claims about things that are invisible, unobservable, or supersensible like metaphysical, spiritual, or moral truths.
  2. The rule of value neutrality: Scientists should remain value-neutral in their research because it follows from the rule of empiricism that “values” have no empirical content that would allow their validity to be scientifically tested.
  3. The unity of the scientific method: All sciences have the same basic principles and practices whether their object is natural or human.
  4. Law-like statements: The type of explanation sought by scientific inquiry is the formulation of general laws (like the law of gravity) to explain specific phenomena (like the falling of a stone).

Much of what is referred to today as quantitative sociology fits within this paradigm of positivism. Quantitative sociology uses statistical methods such as surveys with large numbers of participants. Researchers analyze data using statistical techniques to see if they can uncover patterns of human behaviour. Law-like relationships between variables are often posed in the form of statistical relationships or multiple linear regression formulas that quantify the degree of influence different causal or independent variables have on a particular outcome (or dependent variable). For example, the degree of religiosity of an individual in Canada, measured by the frequency of church attendance or religious practice, can be predicted by a combination of different independent variables such as age, gender, income, immigrant status, and region (Bibby 2012).

Structural Functionalism

Structural Functionalism also falls within the positivist tradition in sociology due to Durkheim’s early efforts to describe the subject matter of sociology in terms of objective social facts—“social facts must be studied as things, that is, as realities external to the individual” (Durkheim 1895)—and to explain them in terms of their social functions. Durkheim argued that in order to study society, sociologists have to look beyond individuals to social facts: the laws, morals, values, religious beliefs, customs, fashions, rituals, and all of the cultural rules that govern social life (Durkheim 1895). Each of these social facts serves one or more functions within a society. For example, one function of a society’s laws may be to protect society from violence, while another is to punish criminal behaviour, while another is to preserve public health.

Following Durkheim’s insight, structural functionalism sees society as a structure with interrelated parts designed to meet the biological and social needs of individuals who make up that society. In this respect, society is like a body that relies on different organs to perform crucial functions. In fact the English philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) likened society to a human body. He argued that just as the various organs in the body work together to keep the entire system functioning and regulated, the various parts of society work together to keep the entire society functioning and regulated (Spencer 1898). By parts of society, Spencer was referring to such social institutions as the economy, political systems, health care, education, media, and religion. Spencer continued the analogy by pointing out that societies evolve just as the bodies of humans and other animals do (Maryanski and Turner 1992).

As we have seen, Émile Durkheim developed a similar analogy to explain the structure of societies and how they change and survive over time. Durkheim believed that earlier, more primitive societies were held together because most people performed similar tasks and shared values, language, and symbols. There was a low division of labour, a common religious system of social beliefs, and a low degree of individual autonomy. Society was held together on the basis of mechanical solidarity: a shared collective consciousness with harsh punishment for deviation from the norms. Modern societies, according to Durkheim, were more complex. People served many different functions in society and their ability to carry out their function depended upon others being able to carry out theirs. Modern society was held together on the basis of a division of labour or organic solidarity: a complex system of interrelated parts, working together to maintain stability, i.e., an organism (Durkheim 1893). According to this sociological paradigm, the parts of society are interdependent. The academic relies on the mechanic for the specialized skills required to fix his or her car, the mechanic sends his or her children to university to learn from the academic, and both rely on the baker to provide them with bread for their morning toast. Each part influences and relies on the others.

According to American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1881–1955), in a healthy society, all of these parts work together to produce a stable state called dynamic equilibrium (Parsons 1961). Parsons was a key figure in systematizing Durkheim’s views in the 1940s and 1950s. He argued that a sociological approach to social phenomena must emphasize the systematic nature of society at all levels of social existence: the relation of definable “structures” to their “functions” in relation to the needs or “maintenance” of the system. His AGIL schema provided a useful analytical grid for sociological theory in which an individual, an institution, or an entire society could be seen as a system composed of structures that satisfied four primary functions:

So for example, the social system as a whole relied on the economy to distribute goods and services as its means of adaptation to the natural environment; on the political system to make decisions as it means of goal attainment; on roles and norms to regulate social behaviour as its means of social integration; and on culture to institutionalize and reproduce common values as its means of latent pattern maintenance. Following Durkheim, he argued that these explanations of social functions had to be made at the level of systems and not involve the specific wants and needs of individuals. In a system, there is an interrelation of component parts where a change in one component affects the others regardless of the perspectives of individuals.

Another noted structural functionalist, Robert Merton (1910–2003), pointed out that social processes often have many functions. Manifest functions are the consequences of a social process that are sought or anticipated, while latent functions are the unsought consequences of a social process. A manifest function of college education, for example, includes gaining knowledge, preparing for a career, and finding a good job that utilizes that education. Latent functions of your college years include meeting new people, participating in extracurricular activities, or even finding a spouse or partner. Another latent function of education is creating a hierarchy of employment based on the level of education attained. Latent functions can be beneficial, neutral, or harmful. Social processes that have undesirable consequences for the operation of society are called dysfunctions. In education, examples of dysfunction include getting bad grades, truancy, dropping out, not graduating, and not finding suitable employment.


The main criticisms of both quantitative positivism and structural functionalism have to do with the way in which social phenomena are turned into objective social facts. On one hand, interpretive sociology suggests that the quantification of variables in quantitative sociology reduces the rich complexity and ambiguity of social life to an abstract set of numbers and statistical relationships that cannot capture the meaning it holds for individuals. Measuring someone’s depth of religious belief or “religiosity” by the number of times they attend church in a week explains very little about the religious experience. Similarly, interpretive sociology argues that structural functionalism, with its emphasis on systems of structures and functions tends to reduce the individual to the status of a sociological dupe, assuming pre-assigned roles and functions without any individual agency or capacity for self-creation.

On the other hand, critical sociology challenges the conservative tendencies of quantitative sociology and structural functionalism. Both types of positivist analysis represent themselves as being objective, or value-neutral, which is a problem in the context of critical sociology’s advocacy for social justice. However, both types of positivism also have conservative assumptions built into their basic approach to social facts. The focus in quantitative sociology on observable facts and law-like statements presents a historical and deterministic picture of the world that cannot account for the underlying historical dynamics of power relationships and class or other contradictions. One can empirically observe the trees but not the forest so to speak. Similarly, the focus on the needs and the smooth functioning of social systems in structural functionalism supports a conservative viewpoint because it tends to see the functioning and dynamic equilibrium of society as good or normal, whereas change is pathological. In Davis and Moore’s famous essay “Some Principles of Stratification” (1944) for example, the authos argued that social inequality was essentially “good” because it functioned to preserve the motivation of individuals to work hard to get ahead. Critical sociology challenges both the justice and practical consequences of social inequality.

Table 1.1. Sociological Theories or Perspectives. Different sociological perspectives enable sociologists to view social issues through a variety of useful lenses.

Sociological Paradigm Level of Analysis Focus
Structural Functionalism Macro How each part of society functions together to contribute to the whole
Symbolic Interactionism Micro One-to-one interactions and communications
Critical Sociology Macro How inequalities contribute to social differences and perpetuate differences in power

Interpretive Sociology

The interpretive perspective in sociology is aligned with the hermeneutic traditions of the humanities like literature, philosophy, and history. The focus is on understanding or interpreting human activity in terms of the meanings that humans attribute to it. Max Weber’s Verstehende (understanding) sociology is often cited as the origin of this perspective in sociology because of his emphasis on the centrality of meaning and intention in social action:

Sociology… is a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects. In “action” is included all human behaviour when and in so far as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to it…. [Social action is] action mutually oriented to that of each other (Weber 1922).

This emphasis on the meaningfulness of social action is taken up later by phenomenology, ethnomethodology, and symbolic interactionism. The interpretive perspective is concerned with developing a knowledge of social interaction as a meaning-oriented practice. It promotes the goal of greater mutual understanding and the possibility of consensus among members of society.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism provides a theoretical perspective that helps scholars examine the relationship of individuals within their society. This perspective is centred on the notion that communication—or the exchange of meaning through language and symbols—is how people make sense of their social worlds. As pointed out by Herman and Reynolds (1994), this viewpoint sees people as active in shaping their world, rather than as entities who are acted upon by society (Herman and Reynolds 1994). This approach looks at society and people from a micro-level perspective.

George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) is considered one of the founders of symbolic interactionism. His work in Mind, Self and Society (1934) on the “self” as a social structure and on the stages of child development as a sequence of role-playing capacities provides the classic analyses of the perspective.

His student Herbert Blumer (1900–1987) synthesized Mead’s work and popularized the theory. Blumer coined the term “symbolic interactionism” and identified its three basic premises:

In other words, human interaction is not determined in the same manner as natural events. Nor do people directly react to each other as forces acting upon forces or as stimuli provoking automatic responses. Rather people interact indirectly, by interpreting the meaning of each other’s actions, gestures, or words. Interaction is symbolic in the sense that it occurs through the mediation, exchange, and interpretation of symbols. One person’s action refers beyond itself to a meaning that calls out for the response of the other: it indicates what the receiver is supposed to do; it indicates what the actor intends to do; and together they form a mutual definition of the situation, which enables joint action to take place. Social life can be seen as the stringing together or aligning of multiple joint actions.

Social scientists who apply symbolic-interactionist thinking look for patterns of interaction between individuals. Their studies often involve observation of one-on-one interactions. For example, while a structural functionalist studying a political protest might focus on the function protest plays in realigning the priorities of the political system, a symbolic interactionist would be more interested in seeing the ways in which individuals in the protesting group interact, or how the signs and symbols protesters use enable a common definition of the situation—e.g., an environmental or social justice “issue”—to get established.

The focus on the importance of symbols in building a society led sociologists like Erving Goffman (1922–1982) to develop a framework called dramaturgical analysis. Goffman used theatre as an analogy for social interaction and recognized that people’s interactions showed patterns of cultural “scripts.” In social encounters, individuals make a claim for a positive social status within the group—they present a “face”—but it is never certain that their audience will accept their claim. There is always the possibility that individuals will make a gaff that prevents them from successfully maintaining face. They have to manage the impression they are making in the same way and often using the same type of “props” as an actor. Moreover, because it can be unclear what part a person may play in a given situation, he or she has to improvise his or her role as the situation unfolds. This led to Goffman’s focus on the ritual nature of social interaction—the way in which the “scripts” of social encounters become routine, repetitive, and unconscious. Nevertheless, the emphasis in Goffman’s analysis, as in symbolic interactionism as a whole, is that the social encounter, and social reality itself, is open and unpredictable. Social reality is not predetermined by structures, functions, roles, or history (Goffman 1958).

Symbolic interactionism has also been important in bringing to light the experiences and worlds of individuals who are typically excluded from official accounts of the world. Howard Becker’s Outsiders (1963) for example described the process of labelling in which individuals come to be characterized or labelled as deviants by authorities. The sequence of events in which a young person is picked up by police for an offence, defined as a “young offender,” processed by the criminal justice system, and then introduced to the criminal subculture through contact with experienced convicts is told from the subjective point of view of the young person. The significance of labelling theory is to show that individuals are not born deviant or criminal, but become criminal through an institutionalized symbolic interaction with authorities. As Becker says:

social groups create deviance by making rules whose infraction creates deviance, and by applying those roles to particular people and labelling them as outsiders. From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by other of rules and sanctions to an “offender.” The deviant is one to whom that label has been successfully applied; deviant behavior is behaviour that people so label (1963).

Studies that use the symbolic interactionist perspective are more likely to use qualitative research methods, such as in-depth interviews or participant observation, because they seek to understand the symbolic worlds in which research subjects live.


Research done from this perspective is often scrutinized because of the difficulty of remaining objective. Others criticize the extremely narrow focus on symbolic interaction. Proponents, of course, consider this one of its greatest strengths.

One of the problems of sociology that focuses on micro-level interactions is that it is difficult to generalize from very specific situations, involving very few individuals, to make social scientific claims about the nature of society as a whole. The danger is that, while the rich texture of face-to-face social life can be examined in detail, the results will remain purely descriptive without any explanatory or analytical strength. In a similar fashion, it is very difficult to get at the historical context or relations of power that structure or condition face-to-face symbolic interactions. The perspective on social life as an unstructured and unconstrained domain of agency and subjective meanings has difficulty accounting for the ways that social life does become structured and constrained.

Making Connections: The Big Picture

A Global Culture?

Figure 1.13. Some sociologists see the online world contributing to the creation of an emerging global culture. Are you a part of any global communities? (Photo courtesy of quasireversible/flickr)

Figure 1.13. Some sociologists see the online world contributing to the creation of an emerging global culture. Are you a part of any global communities? (Photo courtesy of quasireversible/flickr)

Sociologists around the world are looking closely for signs of what would be an unprecedented event: the emergence of a global culture. In the past, empires such as those that existed in China, Europe, Africa, and Central and South America linked people from many different countries, but those people rarely became part of a common culture. They lived too far from each other, spoke different languages, practised different religions, and traded few goods. Today, increases in communication, travel, and trade have made the world a much smaller place. More and more people are able to communicate with each other instantly—wherever they are located—by telephone, video, and text. They share movies, television shows, music, games, and information over the internet. Students can study with teachers and pupils from the other side of the globe. Governments find it harder to hide conditions inside their countries from the rest of the world.

Sociologists are researching many different aspects of this potential global culture. Some are exploring the dynamics involved in the social interactions of global online communities, such as when members feel a closer kinship to other group members than to people residing in their own country. Other sociologists are studying the impact this growing international culture has on smaller, less-powerful local cultures. Yet other researchers are exploring how international markets and the outsourcing of labour impact social inequalities. Sociology can play a key role in people’s ability to understand the nature of this emerging global culture and how to respond to it.


Critical Sociology

The critical perspective in sociology has its origins in social activism, social justice movements, revolutionary struggles, and radical critique. As Karl Marx put it, its focus was the “ruthless critique of everything existing” (Marx 1843). The key elements of this analysis are the emphases on power relations and the understanding of society as historical—subject to change, struggle, contradiction, instability, social movement and radical transformation. Rather than objectivity and value neutrality, the tradition of critical sociology promotes practices of liberation and social change in order to achieve universal social justice. As Marx stated, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it” (1845). This is why it is misleading to call critical sociology “conflict theory” as some introductory textbooks do. While conflict is certainly central to the critical analyses of power and domination, the focus of critical sociology is on developing types of knowledge and political action that enable emancipation from power relations (i.e., from the conditions of conflict in society). Historical materialism, feminism, environmentalism, anti-racism, queer studies, and poststructuralism are all examples of the critical perspective in sociology.

One of the outcomes of a systematic analysis such as these is that it generates questions about the relationship between our everyday life and issues concerning social justice and environmental sustainability. In line with the philosophical traditions of the Enlightenment, critical sociology is sociology with an “emancipatory interest” (Habermas 1972); that is, a sociology that seeks not simply to understand or describe the world, but to use sociological knowledge to change and improve the world, to emancipate people from conditions of servitude. What does the word critical mean in this context? Critical sociologists argue that it is important to understand that the critical tradition in sociology is not about complaining or being “negative.” Nor is it about adopting a moral position from which to judge people or society. It is not about being “subjective” or “biased” as opposed to “objective.” As Herbert Marcuse put it in One Dimensional Man (1964), critical sociology involves two value judgments:

  1. The judgment that human life is worth living, or rather that it can be and ought to be made worth living
  2. The judgment that, in a given society, specific possibilities exist for the amelioration of human life and specific ways and means of realizing these possibilities

Critical sociology therefore rejects the notion of a value-free social science, but does not thereby become a moral exercise or an individual “subjective” value preference as a result. Being critical in the context of sociology is about using objective, empirical knowledge to assess the possibilities and barriers to improving or “ameliorating” human life.

Historical Materialism

The tradition of historical materialism that developed from Karl Marx’s work is one of the central frameworks of critical sociology. As we noted in the discussion of Marx above, historical materialism concentrates on the study of how our everyday lives are structured by the connection between relations of power and economic processes. The basis of this approach begins with the macro-level question of how specific relations of power and specific economic formations have developed historically. These form the context in which the institutions, practices, beliefs, and social rules (norms) of everyday life are situated. The elements that make up a culture—a society’s shared practices, values, beliefs, and artifacts—are structured by the society’s economic mode of production: the way human societies act upon their environment and its resources in order to use them to meet their needs. Hunter-gatherer, agrarian, feudal, and capitalist modes of production have been the economic basis for very different types of society throughout world history.

Figure 1.14.Thomas Faed, The Last of the Clan (1865) Wikimedia Commons. (Photo courtesy of Thomas Faed/wikimedia commons)

Figure 1.14.Thomas Faed, The Last of the Clan (1865) Wikimedia Commons. (Photo courtesy of Thomas Faed/wikimedia commons)

It is not as if this relationship is always clear to the people living in these different periods of history, however. Often the mechanisms and structures of social life are obscure. For example, it might not have been clear to the Scots who were expelled from their ancestral lands in Scotland during the Highland clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries and who emigrated to the Red River settlements in Rupert’s Land (now Manitoba) that they were living through the epochal transformation from feudalism to capitalism. This transition was nevertheless the context for the decisions individuals and families made to emigrate from Scotland and attempt to found the Red River Colony. It might also not have been clear to them that they were participating in the development of colonial power relationships between the indigenous people of North America and the Europeans that persist up until today. Through contact with the Scots and the French fur traders, the Cree and Anishinabe were gradually drawn out of their own indigenous modes of production and into the developing global capitalist economy as fur trappers and provisioners for the early European settlements. It was a process that eventually led to the loss of control over their lands, the destruction of their way of life, the devastating spread of European diseases, the imposition of the Indian Act, the establishment of the residential school system, institutional and everyday racism, and an enduring legacy of intractable social problems.

In a similar way, historical materialism analyzes the constraints that define the way individuals review their options and make their decisions in present-day society. From the types of career to pursue to the number of children to have, the decisions and practices of everyday life must be understood in terms of the 20th century shift to corporate ownership and the 21st century context of globalization in which corporate decisions about investments are made.

The historical materialist approach emphasizes three components (Naiman 2012). The first is that everything in society is related—it is not possible to study social processes in isolation. The second is that everything in society is dynamic (i.e., in a process of continuous social change). It is not possible to study social processes as if they existed outside of history. The third is that the tensions that form around relationships of power and inequality in society are the key drivers of social change. In the language of Marx, these tensions are based on “contradictions” built into the organization of the economic or material relationships that structure our livelihoods, our relationships to each other, our relationship to the environment, and our place within the global community. It is not possible to study social processes as if they were independent of the historical formations of power that both structure them and destabilize them.


Another major school of critical sociology is feminism. From the early work of women sociologists like Harriet Martineau, feminist sociology has focused on the power relationships and inequalities between women and men. How can the conditions of inequality faced by women be addressed? As Harriet Martineau put it in Society in America (1837):

All women should inform themselves of the condition of their sex, and of their own position. It must necessarily follow that the noblest of them will, sooner or later, put forth a moral power which shall prostrate cant [hypocracy], and burst asunder the bonds (silken to some but cold iron to others) of feudal prejudice and usages. In the meantime is it to be understood that the principles of the Declaration of Independence bear no relation to half of the human race? If so, what is the ground of this limitation?

Feminist sociology focuses on analyzing the grounds of the limitations faced by women when they claim the right to equality with men.

Inequality between the genders is a phenomenon that goes back at least 4,000 years (Lerner 1986). Although the forms and ways in which it has been practised differ between cultures and change significantly through history, its persistence has led to the formulation of the concept of patriarchy. Patriarchy refers to a set of institutional structures (like property rights, access to positions of power, relationship to sources of income) that are based on the belief that men and women are dichotomous and unequal categories. Key to patriarchy is what might be called the dominant gender ideology toward sexual differences: the assumption that physiological sex differences between males and females are related to differences in their character, behaviour, and ability (i.e., their gender). These differences are used to justify a gendered division of social roles and inequality in access to rewards, positions of power, and privilege. The question that feminists ask therefore is: How does this distinction between male and female, and the attribution of different qualities to each, serve to organize our institutions (e.g., the family, law, the occupational structure, religious institutions, the division between public and private) and to perpetuate inequality between the sexes?

Feminism is a distinct type of critical sociology. There are considerable differences between types of feminism, however; for example, the differences often attributed to the first wave of feminism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the second wave of feminism from the 1950s to the 1970s, and the third wave of feminism from the 1980s onward. Despite the variations between different types of feminist approach, there are four characteristics that are common to the feminist perspective:

  1. Gender is a central focus or subject matter of the perspective.
  2. Gender relations are viewed as a problem: the site of social inequities, strains, and contradictions.
  3. Gender relations are not immutable: they are sociological and historical in nature, subject to change and progress.
  4. Feminism is about an emancipatory commitment to change: the conditions of life that are oppressive for women need to be transformed.

One of the keen sociological insights that emerged with the feminist perspective in sociology is that “the personal is political.” Many of the most immediate and fundamental experiences of social life—from childbirth to who washes the dishes to the experience of sexual violence—had simply been invisible or regarded as unimportant politically or socially. Dorothy Smith’s development of standpoint theory was a key innovation in sociology that enabled these issues to be seen and addressed in a systematic way (Smith 1977). She recognized from the consciousness-raising exercises and encounter groups initiated by feminists in the 1960s and1970s that many of the immediate concerns expressed by women about their personal lives had a commonality of themes. These themes were nevertheless difficult to articulate in sociological terms let alone in the language of politics or law.

Part of the issue was sociology itself. Smith argued that instead of beginning sociological analysis from the abstract point of view of institutions or systems, women’s lives could be more effectively examined if one began from the “actualities” of their lived experience in the immediate local settings of “everyday/everynight” life. She asked, What are the common features of women’s everyday lives? From this standpoint, Smith observed that women’s position in modern society is acutely divided by the experience of dual consciousness. Every day women crossed a tangible dividing line when they went from the “particularizing work in relation to children, spouse, and household” to the institutional world of text-mediated, abstract concerns at work, or in their dealings with schools, medical systems, or government bureaucracies. In the abstract world of institutional life, the actualities of local consciousness and lived life are “obliterated” (Smith 1977). While the standpoint of women is grounded in bodily, localized, “here and now” relationships between people, due to their obligations in the domestic sphere, society is organized through “relations of ruling,” which translate the substance of actual lived experiences into abstract bureaucratic categories. Power and rule in society, especially the power and rule that constrain and coordinate the lives of women, operate through a problematic “move into transcendence” that provides accounts of social life as if it were possible to stand outside of it. Smith argued that the abstract concepts of sociology, at least in the way that it was taught at the time, only contributed to the problem.


Whereas critical sociologists often criticize positivist and interpretive sociology for their conservative biases, the reverse is also true. In part the issue is about whether sociology can be “objective,” or value-neutral, or not. However, at a deeper level the criticism is often aimed at the radical nature of critical analyses. Marx’s critique of capitalism and the feminist critique of patriarchy for example led to very interesting insights into how structures of power and inequality work, but from a point of view that sees only the most revolutionary transformation of society as a solution.

Critical sociology is also criticized from the point of view of interpretive sociology for overstating the power of dominant groups to manipulate subordinate groups. For example, media representations of women are said to promote unobtainable standards of beauty or to reduce women to objects of male desire. This type of critique suggests that individuals are controlled by media images rather than recognizing their independent ability to reject media influences or to interpret media images for themselves. In a similar way, critical sociology is criticized for implying that people are purely the products of macro-level historical forces rather than individuals with a capacity for individual and collective agency. To be fair, Marx did argue that “Men make their own history;” it is just that they “do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances encountered, given, and transmitted from the past” (Marx 1851).

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

Farming and Locavores: How Sociological Perspectives Might View Food Consumption

The consumption of food is a commonplace, daily occurrence, yet it can also be associated with important moments in our lives. Eating can be an individual or a group action, and eating habits and customs are influenced by our cultures. In the context of society, our nation’s food system is at the core of numerous social movements, political issues, and economic debates. Any of these factors might become a topic of sociological study.

A structural-functional approach to the topic of food consumption might be interested in the role of the agriculture industry within the nation’s economy and how this has changed from the early days of manual-labour farming to modern mechanized production. Food production is a primary example of how human systems adapt to environmental systems. In many respects the concerns of environmentalists and others with respect to the destructive relationship between industrial agriculture and the ecosystem are the results of a dysfunctional system of adaptation. The concept of sustainable agriculture points to the changes needed to return the interface between humans and the natural environment to a state of dynamic equilibrium.

A sociologist viewing food consumption through a symbolic interactionist lens would be more interested in micro-level topics, such as the symbolic use of food in religious rituals, or the role it plays in the social interaction of a family dinner. This perspective might also study the interactions among group members who identify themselves based on their sharing a particular diet, such as vegetarians (people who don’t eat meat) or locavores (people who strive to eat locally produced food). The increasing concern that people have with their diets speaks to the way that the life of the biological body is as much a symbolic reality, interpreted within contemporary discourses on health risks and beauty, as it is a biological reality.


A critical sociologist might be interested in the power differentials present in the regulation of food, exploring where people’s right to information intersects with corporations’ drive for profit and how the government mediates those interests. Or a critical sociologist might be interested in the power and powerlessness experienced by local farmers versus large farming conglomerates. In the documentary Food Inc., the plight of farmers resulting from Monsanto’s patenting of seed technology is depicted as a product of the corporatization of the food industry. Another topic of study might be how nutrition varies between different social classes.

1.4. Why Study Sociology?

A black and white photo of Tommy Douglas, a middle aged man with glasses. Four military men are standing in the background.

Figure 1.15. Tommy Douglas (1904-1986). As premier of Saskatchewan Tommy Douglas introduced legislation for the first publicly funded health care plan in Canada in 1961. Sociologist Bernard Blishen (1919 – ) was the research director for the Royal Commission on Health Services which drew up the plan for Canada’s national medicare program in 1964. (Photo National Archives of Canada, C-036222)

When Bernard Blishen picked up the phone one day in 1961, he was surprised to hear Chief Justice Emmett Hall on the other end of the line asking him to be the research director for the newly established Royal Commission on Health Services. Publically funded health care had been introduced for the first time in Canada that year by a socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) government in Saskatchewan amid bitter controversy. Doctors in Saskatchewan went on strike and private health care insurers mounted an expensive anti-public health care campaign. Because it was a Conservative government commission, appointed by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, Blishen’s colleagues advised him that it was going to be a whitewash document to defend the interests of private medical care. However, Blishen took on the project as a challenge, and when the commission’s report was published it advocated that the Saskatchewan plan be adopted nationally (Vaughan 2004).

Blishen went on to work in the field of medical sociology and also created a widely used index to measure socioeconomic status known as the Blishen scale. He received the Order of Canada in 2011 in recognition of his contributions to the creation of public health care in Canada.

Since it was first founded, many people interested in sociology have been driven by the scholarly desire to contribute knowledge to this field, while others have seen it as way not only to study society, but also to improve it. Besides the creation of public health care in Canada, sociology has played a crucial role in many important social reforms such as equal opportunity for women in the workplace, improved treatment for individuals with mental and learning disabilities, increased recognition and accommodation for people from different ethnic backgrounds, the creation of hate crime legislation, the right of aboriginal populations to preserve their land and culture, and prison system reforms.

The prominent sociologist Peter L. Berger (1929– ), in his 1963 book Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective, describes a sociologist as “someone concerned with understanding society in a disciplined way.” He asserts that sociologists have a natural interest in the monumental moments of people’s lives, as well as a fascination with banal, everyday occurrences. Berger also describes the “aha” moment when a sociological theory becomes applicable and understood:

[T]here is a deceptive simplicity and obviousness about some sociological investigations. One reads them, nods at the familiar scene, remarks that one has heard all this before and don’t people have better things to do than to waste their time on truisms—until one is suddenly brought up against an insight that radically questions everything one had previously assumed about this familiar scene. This is the point at which one begins to sense the excitement of sociology (Berger 1963).

Sociology can be exciting because it teaches people ways to recognize how they fit into the world and how others perceive them. Looking at themselves and society from a sociological perspective helps people see where they connect to different groups based on the many different ways they classify themselves and how society classifies them in turn. It raises awareness of how those classifications—such as economic and status levels, education, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—affect perceptions.

Sociology teaches people not to accept easy explanations. It teaches them a way to organize their thinking so that they can ask better questions and formulate better answers. It makes people more aware that there are many different kinds of people in the world who do not necessarily think the way they do. It increases their willingness and ability to try to see the world from other people’s perspectives. This prepares them to live and work in an increasingly diverse and integrated world.

Sociology in the Workplace

Employers continue to seek people with what are called “transferable skills.” This means that they want to hire people whose knowledge and education can be applied in a variety of settings and whose skills will contribute to various tasks. Studying sociology can provide people with this wide knowledge and a skill set that can contribute to many workplaces, including:

Sociology prepares people for a wide variety of careers. Besides actually conducting social research or training others in the field, people who graduate from college with a degree in sociology are hired by government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations in fields such as social services, counselling (e.g., family planning, career, substance abuse), designing and evaluating social policies and programs, health services, polling and independent research, market research, and human resources management. Even a small amount of training in sociology can be an asset in careers like sales, public relations, journalism, teaching, law, and criminal justice.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

Please “Friend” Me: Students and Social Networking

The phenomenon known as Facebook was designed specifically for students. Whereas earlier generations wrote notes in each other’s printed yearbooks at the end of the academic year, modern technology and the internet ushered in dynamic new ways for people to interact socially. Instead of having to meet up on campus, students can call, text, and Skype from their dorm rooms. Instead of a study group gathering weekly in the library, online forums and chat rooms help learners connect. The availability and immediacy of computer technology has forever changed the ways students engage with each other.

Now, after several social networks have vied for primacy, a few have established their place in the market and some have attracted niche audience. While Facebook launched the social networking trend geared toward teens and young adults, now people of all ages are actively “friending” each other. LinkedIn distinguished itself by focusing on professional connections, serving as a virtual world for workplace networking. Newer offshoots like Foursquare help people connect based on the real-world places they frequent, while Twitter has cornered the market on brevity.

These newer modes of social interaction have also spawned questionable consequences, such as cyberbullying and what some call FAD, or Facebook addiction disorder. In an international study of smartphone users aged 18 to 30, 60 percent say they are “compulsive” about checking their smartphones and 42 percent admit to feeling “anxious” when disconnected; 75 percent check their smartphones in bed; more than 33 percent check them in the bathroom and 46 percent email and check social media while eating (Cisco 2012). An International Data Corporation (IDC) study of 7,446 smartphone users aged 18 to 44 in the United States in 2012 found that:

  • Half of the U.S. population have smartphones and of those 70 percent use Facebook. Using Facebook is the third most common smartphone activity, behind email (78 percent) and web browsing (73 percent).
  • 61 percent of smartphone users check Facebook every day.
  • 62 percent of smartphone users check their device first thing on waking up in the morning and 79 percent check within 15 minutes. Among 18-to-24-year-olds the figures are 74 percent and 89 percent, respectively.
  • Smartphone users check Facebook approximately 14 times a day.
  • 84 percent of the time using smartphones is spent on texting, emailing and using social media like Facebook, whereas only 16 percent of the time is spent on phone calls. People spend an average of 132 minutes a day on their smartphones including 33 minutes on Facebook.
  • People use Facebook throughout the day, even in places where they are not supposed to: 46 percent use Facebook while doing errands and shopping; 47 percent when they are eating out; 48 percent while working out; 46 percent in meetings or class; and 50 percent while at the movies.

The study noted that the dominant feeling the survey group reported was “a sense of feeling connected” (IDC 2012). Yet, in the international study cited above, two-thirds of 18- to 30-year-old smartphone users said they spend more time with friends online than they do in person.

All of these social networks demonstrate emerging ways that people interact, whether positive or negative. Sociologists ask whether there might be long-term effects of replacing face-to-face interaction with social media. In an interview on the Conan O’Brian Show that ironically circulated widely through social media, the comedian Louis CK described the use of smartphones as “toxic.” They do not allow for children who use them to build skills of empathy because the children do not interact face to face, or see the effects their comments have on others. Moreover, he argues, they do not allow people to be alone with their feelings. “The thing is, you need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away” (NewsComAu 2013). What do you think? How do social media like Facebook and communication technologies like smartphones change the way we communicate? How could this question be studied?


Key Terms

AGIL schema Talcott Parsons’ division of society into four functional requisites: Adaptation, Goal attainment, Integration, and Latent pattern maintenance

anomie a social condition or normlessness in which a lack of clear norms fails to give direction and purpose to individual actions

capitalism an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership and production of goods and their sale in a competitive market

content the specific reasons or drives that motivate individuals to interact

critical sociology a theoretical perspective that focuses on inequality and power relations in society in order to achieve social justice and emancipation through their transformation

culture includes the group’s shared practices, values, beliefs, norms and artifacts

disenchantment of the world the replacement of magical thinking by technological rationality and calculation

dominant gender ideology the belief that physiological sex differences between males and females are related to differences in their character, behaviour, and ability

dramaturgical analysis a technique sociologists use in which they view society through the metaphor of theatrical performance

dual consciousness the experience of a fissure or dividing point in everyday life where one crosses a line between irreconcilable forms of consciousness or perspective

dynamic equilibrium a stable state in which all parts of a healthy society are working together properly

dysfunctions social patterns that have undesirable consequences for the operation of society

feminism the critical analysis of the way gender differences in society structure social inequality

figuration the process of simultaneously analyzing the behaviour of an individual and the society that shapes that behaviour

formal sociology a sociology that analytically separates the contents from the forms of social interaction to study the common forms that guide human behaviour

function the part a recurrent activity plays in the social life as a whole and the contribution it makes to structural continuity

functionalism (functionalist perspective) a theoretical approach that sees society as a structure with interrelated parts designed to meet the biological and social needs of individuals that make up that society

historical materialism an approach to understanding society that explains social change, human ideas, and social organization in terms of underlying changes in the economic (or material) structure of society

idealism an approach to understanding society that emphasizes that the nature of society and social change is determined by a society’s ideas, knowledge, and beliefs

idealist one who believes in idealism

interpretive sociology a perspective that explains human behaviour in terms of the meanings individuals attribute to it

labelling a social process in which an individual’s social identity is established through the imposition of a definition by authorities

latent functions the unrecognized or unintended consequences of a social process

law of three stages the three stages of evolution that societies develop through: theological, metaphysical, and positive

macro-sociology a wide-scale view of the role of social structures within a society

manifest functions sought consequences of a social process

mechanical solidarity social solidarity or cohesion through a shared collective consciousness with harsh punishment for deviation from the norms

metaphysical stage a stage of social evolution in which people explain events in terms of abstract or speculative ideas

micro-sociology the study of specific relationships between individuals or small groups

mode of production the way human societies act upon their environment and its resources in order to use them to meet their needs

multi-perspectival science a science that is divided into competing or diverse paradigms

organic solidarity social solidarity or cohesion through a complex division of labour and restitutive law

paradigms philosophical and theoretical frameworks used within a discipline to formulate theories, generalizations, and the experiments performed in support of them

patriarchy institutions of male power in society

positive stage a stage of social evolution in which people explain events in terms of scientific principles and laws

positivism (positivist perspective or positivist sociology) the scientific study of social patterns based on methodological principles of the natural sciences

Protestant ethic the duty to work hard in one’s calling

quantitative sociology statistical methods such as surveys with large numbers of participants

rationalization the general tendency of modern institutions and most areas of life to be transformed by the application of instrumental reason

reification referring to abstract concepts, complex processes or mutable social relationships as “things”

social action actions to which individuals attach subjective meanings

social facts the external laws, morals, values, religious beliefs, customs, fashions, rituals, and cultural rules that govern social life

social reform an approach to social change that advocates slow, incremental improvements in social institutions rather than rapid, revolutionary change of society as a whole

social solidarity the social ties that bind a group of people together such as kinship, shared location, and religion

society is a group of people whose members interact, reside in a definable area, and share a culture

sociological imagination the ability to understand how your own unique circumstances relate to that of other people, as well as to history in general and societal structures in particular

sociology the systematic study of society and social interaction

standpoint theory the examination of how society is organized and coordinated from the perspective of a particular social location or perspective in society

structural functionalism see functionalism

symbolic interactionism a theoretical perspective through which scholars examine the relationship of individuals within their society by studying their communication (language and symbols)

theological stage a stage of social evolution in which people explain events with respect to the will of God or gods

theory a proposed explanation about social interactions or society

tragedy of culture the tendency for the products of human cultural creation to accumulate and become increasingly complex, specialized, alienating, or oppressive

Verstehen German for “understanding”; in sociology it refers to the use of empathy, or putting oneself in another’s place, to understand the motives and logic of another’s action

Section Summary

1.1. What Is Sociology?
Sociology is the systematic study of society and social interaction. In order to carry out their studies, sociologists identify cultural patterns and social forces and determine how they affect individuals and groups. They also develop ways to apply their findings to the real world.

1.2. The History of Sociology
Sociology was developed as a way to study and try to understand the changes to society brought on by the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the earliest sociologists thought that societies and individuals’ roles in society could be studied using the same scientific methodologies that were used in the natural sciences, while others believed that is was impossible to predict human behaviour scientifically, and still others debated the value of such predictions. Those perspectives continue to be represented within sociology today.

1.3. Theoretical Perspectives
Sociologists develop theories to explain social events, interactions, and patterns. A theory is a proposed explanation of those patterns. Theories have different scales. Macro-level theories, such as structural functionalism and conflict theory, attempt to explain how societies operate as a whole. Micro-level theories, such as symbolic interactionism, focus on interactions between individuals.

1.4. Why Study Sociology?
Studying sociology is beneficial both for the individual and for society. By studying sociology people learn how to think critically about social issues and problems that confront our society. The study of sociology enriches students’ lives and prepares them for careers in an increasingly diverse world. Society benefits because people with sociological training are better prepared to make informed decisions about social issues and take effective action to deal with them.

Section Quiz

1.1. What Is Sociology?
1. Which of the following best describes sociology as a subject?

  1. the study of individual behaviour
  2. the study of cultures
  3. the study of society and social interaction
  4. the study of economics

2. Wright Mills once said that sociologists need to develop a sociological __________ to study how society affects individuals.

  1. culture
  2. imagination
  3. method
  4. tool

3. A sociologist defines society as a group of people who reside in a defined area, share a culture, and who:

  1. interact
  2. work in the same industry
  3. speak different languages
  4. practise a recognized religion

4. Seeing patterns means that a sociologist needs to be able to:

  1. compare the behaviour of individuals from different societies
  2. compare one society to another
  3. identify similarities in how social groups respond to social pressure
  4. compare individuals to groups

1.2. The History of Sociology
5. Which of the following was a topic of study in early sociology?

  1. astrology
  2. economics
  3. physics
  4. history

6. Which founder of sociology believed societies changed due to class struggle?

  1. Émile Comte
  2. Karl Marx
  3. Plato
  4. Herbert Spencer

7. The difference between positivism and interpretive sociology relates to:

  1. whether individuals like or dislike their society
  2. whether research methods use statistical data or person-to-person research
  3. whether sociological studies can predict or improve society
  4. all of the above

8. Which would a quantitative sociologists use to gather data?

  1. a large survey
  2. a literature search
  3. an in-depth interview
  4. a review of television programs

9. Weber believed humans could not be studied purely objectively because they were influenced by:

  1. drugs
  2. their culture
  3. their genetic makeup
  4. the researcher

1.3. Theoretical Perspectives
10. Which of these theories is most likely to look at the social world on a micro-level?

  1. structural functionalism
  2. conflict theory
  3. positivism
  4. symbolic interactionism

11. Who believed that the history of society was one of class struggle?

  1. Émile Durkheim
  2. Karl Marx
  3. Erving Goffmann
  4. George Herbert Mead

12. Who coined the phrase symbolic interactionism?

  1. Herbert Blumer
  2. Max Weber
  3. Lester F. Ward
  4. W. I. Thomas

13. A symbolic interactionist may compare social interactions to:

  1. behaviours
  2. conflicts
  3. human organs
  4. theatrical roles

14. Which research technique would most likely be used by a symbolic interactionist?

  1. surveys
  2. participant observation
  3. quantitative data analysis
  4. none of the above

15. Which sociologist described sociology as the study of social forms?

  1. Martineau
  2. Simmel
  3. Weber
  4. Becker

1.4. Why Study Sociology?
16. Studying Sociology helps people analyze data because they learn:

  1. interview techniques
  2. to apply statistics
  3. to generate theories
  4. all of the above

17. Berger describes sociologists as concerned with:

  1. monumental moments in people’s lives
  2. common everyday life events
  3. both a and b
  4. none of the above

Short Answer

1.1. What Is Sociology?

  1. What do you think C. Wright Mills meant when he said that to be a sociologist, one had to develop a sociological imagination?
  2. Describe a situation in which a choice you made was influenced by societal pressures.

1.2. The History of Sociology

  1. What do you make of Karl Marx’s contributions to sociology? What perceptions of Marx have you been exposed to in your society, and how do those perceptions influence your views?
  2. Do you tend to place more value on qualitative or quantitative research? Why? Does it matter what topic is being studied?

1.3. Theoretical Perspectives

  1. Which theory do you think better explains how societies operate—structural functionalism or conflict theory? Why?
  2. Do you think the way people behave in social interactions is more due to the cause and effect of external social constraints or more like actors playing a role in a theatrical production? Why?

1.4. Why Study Sociology?

  1. How do you think taking a sociology course might affect your social interactions?
  2. What sort of career are you interested in? How could studying sociology help you in this career?

Further Research

1.1. What Is Sociology?
Sociology is a broad discipline. Different kinds of sociologists employ various methods for exploring the relationship between individuals and society. Check out more about sociology at

1.2. The History of Sociology
Many sociologists helped shape the discipline. To learn more about prominent sociologists and how they changed sociology check out

1.3. Theoretical Perspectives
People often think of all conflict as violent, but many conflicts can be resolved nonviolently. To learn more about nonviolent methods of conflict resolution check out the Albert Einstein Institution

1.4. Why Study Sociology?
Social communication is rapidly evolving due to ever improving technologies. To learn more about how sociologists study the impact of these changes check out


1.1. What Is Sociology?
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1.2. The History of Sociology

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Durkheim, Émile 1997 [1912]. “Religion and Society.” Pp. 232–247 in Classical Sociological Theory: A Reader, edited by  Ian McIntosh. New York:  New York University Press.

Fauré, Christine, Jacques Guilhaumou, Jacques Vallier, and Françoise Weil. 2007 [1999]. Des Manuscrits de Sieyès, 1773–1799, Volumes I and II. Paris: Champion.

Lengermann, Patricia and Jill Niebrugge. 2007. The Women Founders: Sociology and Social Theory, 1830–1930. Longrove, Ill: Waveland Press.

Li, Peter. 1996. The Making of Post-War Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1867. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Hamburg: Otto Meissner Verlag.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1977  [1848]. The Communist Manifesto. Pp. 221–247 in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, edited by  David McLellan. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

McDonald, Lynn. 1998. Women Theorists on Society and Politics. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Simmel, Georg. 1971 [1908]. “The problem of sociology.” Pp. 23–27  in Georg Simmel: On individuality and social forms, edited by D. Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Simmel, Georg. 1971 [1910]. “Sociability.” Pp. 127–140  in Georg Simmel: On individuality and social forms, edited by D. Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Simmel, Georg. (1971[1903]). “Metropolis and Mental Life.” Pp. 324–339  in Georg Simmel: On individuality and social forms, edited by D. Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Statistics Canada. 2011 Women in Canada: A Gender Based Statistical Report. (Catalogue no. 89-503-X). Retrieved January 31, 2014  from

Weber, Max. 1958 [1904]. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Weber, Max. 1969 [1919]. “Science as a Vocation.” Pp. 129-158 in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by  H.H. Gerth and C.W. Mills. NY: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. 1997 [1922]. “Definitions of Sociology and Social Action.” Pp 157–164 Classical Sociological Theory: A Reader, edited by Ian McIntosh. NY: New York University Press.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. 1792. A Vindication of the Rights of Women with Strictures on Moral and Political Subjects. London: Joseph Johnson.

Zeitlin, Irving. 1997. Ideology and the Development of Sociological Theory. Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

1.3. Theoretical Perspectives

Allan, Kenneth. 2006. Contemporary Social and Sociological Theory: Visualizing Social Worlds. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Becker, Howard. 1963. Outsiders : Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Macmillan.

Bibby, Reginald. 2012. A New Day: The Resilience & Restructuring of Religion in Canada. Lethbridge: Project Canada Books

Blumer, H. 1969. Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bryant, Christopher. 1985. Positivism in Social Theory and Research. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Davis, Kingsley and Wilbert Moore. 1944. “Some Principles of Stratification.” Americam Sociological Review. 10(2):242–249.

Drengson, Alan. 1983. Shifting Paradigms: From Technocrat to Planetary Person. Victoria, BC: Light Star Press.

Durkheim, Émile. 1984 [1893]. The Division of Labor in Society. New York: Free Press.

Durkheim, Émile. 1964 [1895]. The Rules of Sociological Method, edited by J. Mueller, E. George and E. Caitlin. 8th ed. Translated by S. Solovay. New York: Free Press.

Goffman, Erving. 1958. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Social Sciences Research Centre.

Habermas, 1972. Knowledge and Human Interests. Boston: Beacon Press.

Herman, Nancy J. and Larry T. Reynolds. 1994. Symbolic Interaction: An Introduction to Social Psychology. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.

LaRossa, R. and D.C. Reitzes. 1993. “Symbolic Interactionism and Family Studies.” Pp. 135–163 in Sourcebook of Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual Approach, edited by P. G. Boss, W. J. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. R. Schumm, and S. K. Steinmetz. New York: Springer.

Lerner, Gerda. 1986. The Creation of Patriarchy. NY: Oxford University Press.

Marcuse, Herbert. 1964. One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon Press.

Martineau, Harriet. 1837. Society in America. New York: Saunders and Otley. Retrieved February 24, 2014 from

Maryanski, Alexandra and Jonathan Turner. 1992. The Social Cage: Human Nature and the Evolution of Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1977 [1845]. “Theses on Feuerbach.” Pp. 156–158 in  Karl Marx: Selected Writings, edited by David McLellan. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1977 [1851]. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Pp. 300–325 in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, edited by David McLellan. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1978 [1843]. “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing.” Pp. 12–15 in The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by  R. C. Tucker. New York: W. W. Norton.

Mead, G.H. 1934. Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Naiman, Joanne. 2012. How Societies Work, (5th ed.). Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing.

Parsons, T. 1961. Theories of Society: Foundations of Modern Sociological Theory. New York: Free Press.

Smith, Dorothy. 1977. Feminism and Marxism: A Place to Begin, a Way to Go. Vancouver: New Star Books.

Spencer, Herbert. 1898. The Principles of Biology. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Weber, Max. 1997 [1922]. “Definitions of Sociology and Social Action.” Pp 157–164 in Classical Sociological Theory: A Reader, edited by  Ian McIntosh. NY: New York University Press.

1.4. Why Study Sociology?

Berger, Peter L. 1963. Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective. New York: Anchor Books.

Cisco. 2102. Gen Y: New Dawn for Work, Play, Identity Cisco Connected World Technology Report. Retrieved February 4, 2012 from

Department of Sociology, University of Alabama. N.d. Is Sociology Right for You?. Huntsville: University of Alabama. Retrieved January 19, 2012 from

IDC. 2012. Always Connected: How Smartphones and Social Media Keep Us Connected IDC Research Report. Retrieved February 4, 2014 from

NewsComAu. 2013. “Comedian Louis CK’s compelling philosophy: ‘Smartphones are toxic’.” NewsComAu September 21. Retrieved February 4, 2014 from

Vaughan, Frederick. 2004. Aggressive in Pursuit: The Life of Justice Emmett Hall. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Solutions to Section Quiz

1. C | 2. B | 3. A | 4. C | 5. B | 6. B | 7. C | 8. A | 9. B | 10. D | 11. B | 12. A | 13. D | 14. B | 15. B | 16. D | 17. C

Image Attributions

Figure 1.1 Canada Day National Capital by Derek Hatfield ( used under CC BY 2.0 (

Figure 1.2. Il (secondo?) bacio più famoso della storia: Vancouver Riot Kiss by Pasquale Borriello ( used under CC BY 2.0 (

Figure 1.4 c Ibn Khaldun by Waqas Ahmed ( used under CC BY-SA 3.0 (;

Figure 1.5.  Newton-WilliamBlake by William Blake ( is in the public domain (

Figure 1.6 Hon. T.C. Douglas by Lieut. G. Barry Gilroy ( is in public domain

Figure 1.8. Harriet Martineau portrait ( is in the public domain (

Figure 1.9. Emile Durkheim ( is in the public domain (

Figure 1.10. Max Weber ( is in the public domain (

Figure 1.11. Georg Simmel by Julius Cornelius Schaarwächter ( is in the public domain (

Figure 1.14. Hon. T.C. Douglas, Premier of Saskatchewan by Lieut. G. Barry Gilroy ( is in public domain.

Figure 1.15. The Last of the Clan by Thomas Faed (  is in the public domain (


Chapter 2. Sociological Research


Figure 2.1. Concertgoers enjoy a show. What makes listening to live music among a crowd of people appealing? How are the motivations and behaviours of groups of people at concerts different from those of groups in other settings, such as theme parks? These are questions that sociological research can aim to answer. (Photo courtesy of Benjamin Cook/flickr)

Learning Objectives

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research

  • Define and describe the scientific method
  • Explain how the scientific method is used in sociological research
  • Understand the difference between positivist and interpretive approaches to the scientific method in sociology
  • Define what reliability and validity mean in a research study

2.2. Research Methods

  • Differentiate between four kinds of research methods: surveys, experiments, field research, and secondary data and textual analysis
  • Understand why different topics are better suited to different research approaches

2.3. Ethical Concerns

  • Understand why ethical standards exist
  • Demonstrate awareness of the Canadian Sociological Association’s Code of Ethics
  • Define value neutrality
  • Outline some of the issues of value neutrality in sociology

Introduction to Sociological Research

In the university cafeteria, you set your lunch tray down at a table, grab a chair, join a group of your classmates, and hear the start of two discussions. One person says, “It’s weird how Justin Bieber has 48 million followers on Twitter.” Another says, “Disney World is packed year round.” Those two seemingly benign statements are claims, or opinions, based on everyday observation of human behaviour. Perhaps the speakers had firsthand experience, talked to experts, conducted online research, or saw news segments on TV. In response, two conversations erupt. “I don’t see why anyone would want to go to Disney World and stand in those long lines.” “Are you kidding?! Going to Disney World is one of my favourite childhood memories.” “It’s the opposite for me with Justin Bieber. Seeing people camp out outside his hotel just to get a glimpse of him; it doesn’t make sense.” “Well, you’re not a teenage girl.” “Going to a theme park is way different than trying to see a teenage heart throb.” “But both are things people do for the same reason: they’re looking for a good time.” “If you call getting crushed by a crowd of strangers fun.”

As your classmates at the lunch table discuss what they know or believe, the two topics converge. The conversation becomes a debate. Someone compares Beliebers to Beatles fans. Someone else compares Disney World to a cruise. Students take sides, agreeing or disagreeing, as the conversation veers to topics such as crowd control, mob mentality, political protests, and group dynamics. If you contributed your expanding knowledge of sociological research to this conversation, you might make statements like these: “Justin Bieber’s fans long for an escape from the boredom of real teenage life. Beliebers join together claiming they want romance, except what they really want is a safe place to explore the confusion of teenage sexual feelings.” And this: “Mickey Mouse is a larger-than-life cartoon celebrity. Disney World is a place where families go to see what it would be like to live inside a cartoon.” You finish lunch, clear away your tray, and hurry to your next class. But you are thinking of Justin Bieber and Disney World. You have a new perspective on human behaviour and a list of questions that you want answered. That is the purpose of sociological research—to investigate and provide insights into how human societies function.

Although claims and opinions are part of sociology, sociologists use empirical evidence (that is, evidence corroborated by direct experience and/or observation) combined with the scientific method or an interpretive framework to deliver sound sociological research. They also rely on a theoretical foundation that provides an interpretive perspective through which they can make sense of scientific results. A truly scientific sociological study of the social situations up for discussion in the cafeteria would involve these prescribed steps: defining a specific question, gathering information and resources through observation, forming a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis in a reproducible manner, analyzing and drawing conclusions from the data, publishing the results, and anticipating further development when future researchers respond to and retest findings.

An appropriate starting point in this case might be the question “What do fans of Justin Bieber seek that drives them to follow his Twitter comments so faithfully?” As you begin to think like a sociologist, you may notice that you have tapped into your observation skills. You might assume that your observations and insights are valuable and accurate. But the results of casual observation are limited by the fact that there is no standardization—who is to say one person’s observation of an event is any more accurate than another’s? To mediate these concerns, sociologists rely on systematic research processes.

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research

When sociologists apply the sociological perspective and begin to ask questions, no topic is off limits. Every aspect of human behaviour is a source of possible investigation. Sociologists question the world that humans have created and live in. They notice patterns of behaviour as people move through that world. Using sociological methods and systematic research within the framework of the scientific method and a scholarly interpretive perspective, sociologists have discovered workplace patterns that have transformed industries, family patterns that have enlightened parents, and education patterns that have aided structural changes in classrooms. The students at that university cafeteria discussion put forth a few loosely stated opinions.

If the human behaviours around those claims were tested systematically, a student could write a report and offer the findings to fellow sociologists and the world in general. The new perspective could help people understand themselves and their neighbours and help people make better decisions about their lives. It might seem strange to use scientific practices to study social trends, but, as we shall see, it’s extremely helpful to rely on systematic approaches that research methods provide. Sociologists often begin the research process by asking a question about how or why things happen in this world. It might be a unique question about a new trend or an old question about a common aspect of life. Once a question is formed, a sociologist proceeds through an in-depth process to answer it. In deciding how to design that process, the researcher may adopt a positivist approach or an interpretive approach. The following sections describe these approaches to knowledge.

The Scientific Method

Sociologists make use of tried-and-true methods of research, such as experiments, surveys, field research, and textual analysis. But humans and their social interactions are so diverse that they can seem impossible to chart or explain. It might seem that science is about discoveries and chemical reactions or about proving ideas right or wrong rather than about exploring the nuances of human behaviour. However, this is exactly why scientific models work for studying human behaviour. A scientific process of research establishes parameters that help make sure results are objective and accurate. Scientific methods provide limitations and boundaries that focus a study and organize its results. This is the case for both positivist or quantitative methodologies and interpretive or qualitative methodologies. The scientific method involves developing and testing theories about the world based on empirical evidence. It is defined by its commitment to systematic observation of the empirical world and strives to be objective, critical, skeptical, and logical. It involves a series of prescribed steps that have been established over centuries of scholarship.


Figure 2.2. The scientific method is an essential tool in research.

But just because sociological studies use scientific methods does not make the results less human. Sociological topics are not reduced to right or wrong facts. In this field, results of studies tend to provide people with access to knowledge they did not have before—knowledge of other cultures, knowledge of rituals and beliefs, knowledge of trends and attitudes. No matter what research approach is used, researchers want to maximize the study’s reliability (how likely research results are to be replicated if the study is reproduced). Reliability increases the likelihood that what is true of one person will be true of all people in a group. Researchers also strive for validity (how well the study measures what it was designed to measure).

Returning to the Disney World topic, reliability of a study would reflect how well the resulting experience represents the average experience of theme park-goers. Validity would ensure that the study’s design accurately examined what it was designed to study, so an exploration of adults’ interactions with costumed mascots should address that issue and not veer into other age groups’ interactions with them or into adult interactions with staff or other guests.

In general, sociologists tackle questions about the role of social characteristics in outcomes. For example, how do different communities fare in terms of psychological well-being, community cohesiveness, range of vocation, wealth, crime rates, and so on? Are communities functioning smoothly? Sociologists look between the cracks to discover obstacles to meeting basic human needs. They might study environmental influences and patterns of behaviour that lead to crime, substance abuse, divorce, poverty, unplanned pregnancies, or illness. And, because sociological studies are not all focused on problematic behaviours or challenging situations, researchers might study vacation trends, healthy eating habits, neighbourhood organizations, higher education patterns, games, parks, and exercise habits.

Sociologists can use the scientific method not only to collect but to interpret and analyze the data. They deliberately apply scientific logic and objectivity. They are interested in but not attached to the results. Their research work is independent of their own political or social beliefs. This does not mean researchers are not critical. Nor does it mean they do not have their own personalities, complete with preferences and opinions. But sociologists deliberately use the scientific method to maintain as much objectivity, focus, and consistency as possible in a particular study. With its systematic approach, the scientific method has proven useful in shaping sociological studies. The scientific method provides a systematic, organized series of steps that help ensure objectivity and consistency in exploring a social problem. They provide the means for accuracy, reliability, and validity. In the end, the scientific method provides a shared basis for discussion and analysis (Merton 1963). Typically, the scientific method starts with these steps—1) ask a question, 2) research existing sources, 3) formulate a hypothesis—described below.

Ask a Question

The first step of the scientific method is to ask a question, describe a problem, and identify the specific area of interest. The topic should be narrow enough to study within a geography and timeframe. “Are societies capable of sustained happiness?” would be too vague. The question should also be broad enough to have universal merit. “What do personal hygiene habits reveal about the values of students at XYZ High School?” would be too narrow. That said, happiness and hygiene are worthy topics to study.

Sociologists do not rule out any topic, but would strive to frame these questions in better research terms. That is why sociologists are careful to define their terms. In a hygiene study, for instance, hygiene could be defined as “personal habits to maintain physical appearance (as opposed to health),” and a researcher might ask, “How do differing personal hygiene habits reflect the cultural value placed on appearance?” When forming these basic research questions, sociologists develop an operational definition; that is, they define the concept in terms of the physical or concrete steps it takes to objectively measure it. The concept is translated into an observable variable, a measure that has different values. The operational definition identifies an observable condition of the concept.

By operationalizing a variable of the concept, all researchers can collect data in a systematic or replicable manner. The operational definition must be valid in the sense that it is an appropriate and meaningful measure of the concept being studied. It must also be reliable, meaning that results will be close to uniform when tested on more than one person. For example, “good drivers” might be defined in many ways: those who use their turn signals, those who don’t speed, or those who courteously allow others to merge. But these driving behaviours could be interpreted differently by different researchers and could be difficult to measure. Alternatively, “a driver who has never received a traffic violation” is a specific description that will lead researchers to obtain the same information, so it is an effective operational definition.

Research Existing Sources

The next step researchers undertake is to conduct background research through a literature review, which is a review of any existing similar or related studies. A visit to the library and a thorough online search will uncover existing research about the topic of study. This step helps researchers gain a broad understanding of work previously conducted on the topic at hand and enables them to position their own research to build on prior knowledge. It allows them to sharpen the focus of their research question and avoid duplicating previous research. Researchers—including student researchers—are responsible for correctly citing existing sources they use in a study or that inform their work. While it is fine to build on previously published material (as long as it enhances a unique viewpoint), it must be referenced properly and never plagiarized. To study hygiene and its value in a particular society, a researcher might sort through existing research and unearth studies about childrearing, vanity, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, and cultural attitudes toward beauty. It’s important to sift through this information and determine what is relevant. Using existing sources educates a researcher and helps refine and improve a study’s design.

Formulate a Hypothesis

A hypothesis is an assumption about how two or more variables are related; it makes a conjectural statement about the relationship between those variables. It is an “educated guess” because it is not random but based on theory, observations, patterns of experience, or the existing literature. The hypothesis formulates this guess in the form of a testable proposition. However, how the hypothesis is handled differs between the positivist and interpretive approaches. Positivist methodologies are often referred to as hypothetico-deductive methodologies. A hypothesis is derived from a theoretical proposition. On the basis of the hypothesis a prediction or generalization is logically deduced. In positivist sociology, the hypothesis predicts how one form of human behaviour influences another.

Successful prediction will determine the adequacy of the hypothesis and thereby test the theoretical proposition. Typically positivist approaches operationalize variables as quantitative data; that is, by translating a social phenomenon like “health” into a quantifiable or numerically measurable variable like “number of visits to the hospital.” This permits sociologists to formulate their predictions using mathematical language like regression formulas, to present research findings in graphs and tables, and to perform mathematical or statistical techniques to demonstrate the validity of relationships.

Variables are examined to see if there is a correlation between them. When a change in one variable coincides with a change in another variable there is a correlation. This does not necessarily indicate that changes in one variable causes a change in another variable, however, just that they are associated. A key distinction here is between independent and dependent variables. In research, independent variables are the cause of the change. The dependent variable is the effect, or thing that is changed. For example, in a basic study, the researcher would establish one form of human behaviour as the independent variable and observe the influence it has on a dependent variable. How does gender (the independent variable) affect rate of income (the dependent variable)? How does one’s religion (the independent variable) affect family size (the dependent variable)? How is social class (the dependent variable) affected by level of education (the independent variable)? For it to become possible to speak about causation, three criteria must be satisfied:

 Table 2.1. Examples of Dependent and Independent Variables Typically, the independent variable causes the dependent variable to change in some way.

Hypothesis Independent Variable Dependent Variable
The greater the availability of affordable housing, the lower the homeless rate Affordable Housing Homeless Rate
The greater the availability of math tutoring, the higher the math grades Math Tutoring Math Grades
The greater the police patrol presence, the safer the neighbourhood Police Patrol Presence Safer Neighbourhood
The greater the factory lighting, the higher the productivity Factory Lighting Productivity
The greater the amount of public auditing, the lower the amount of political dishonesty Auditing Political dishonesty

At this point, a researcher’s operational definitions help measure the variables. In a study asking how tutoring improves grades, for instance, one researcher might define “good” grades as a C or better, while another uses a B+ as a starting point for “good.” Another operational definition might describe “tutoring” as “one-on-one assistance by an expert in the field, hired by an educational institution.” Those definitions set limits and establish cut-off points, ensuring consistency and replicability in a study. As the chart shows, an independent variable is the one that causes a dependent variable to change. For example, a researcher might hypothesize that teaching children proper hygiene (the independent variable) will boost their sense of self-esteem (the dependent variable). Or rephrased, a child’s sense of self-esteem depends, in part, on the quality and availability of hygienic resources.

Of course, this hypothesis can also work the other way around. Perhaps a sociologist believes that increasing a child’s sense of self-esteem (the independent variable) will automatically increase or improve habits of hygiene (now the dependent variable). Identifying the independent and dependent variables is very important. As the hygiene example shows, simply identifying two topics, or variables, is not enough: Their prospective relationship must be part of the hypothesis. Just because a sociologist forms an educated prediction of a study’s outcome doesn’t mean data contradicting the hypothesis are not welcome. Sociologists analyze general patterns in response to a study, but they are equally interested in exceptions to patterns.

In a study of education, a researcher might predict that high school dropouts have a hard time finding a rewarding career. While it has become at least a cultural assumption that the higher the education, the higher the salary and degree of career happiness, there are certainly exceptions. People with little education have had stunning careers, and people with advanced degrees have had trouble finding work. A sociologist prepares a hypothesis knowing that results will vary.

While many sociologists rely on the positivist hypothetico-deductive method in their research, others operate from an interpretive approach. While systematic, this approach does not follow the hypothesis-testing model that seeks to make generalizable predictions from quantitative variables. Instead, an interpretive framework seeks to understand social worlds from the point of view of participants, leading to in-depth knowledge. It focuses on qualitative data, or the meanings that guide people’s behaviour. Rather than relying on quantitative instruments like questionnaires or experiments, which can be artificial, the interpretive approach attempts to find ways to get closer to the informants’ lived experience and perceptions. Interpretive research is generally more descriptive or narrative in its findings. It can begin from a deductive approach, by deriving a hypothesis from theory and then seeking to confirm it through methodologies like in-depth interviews.

However, it is ideally suited to an inductive approach in which the hypothesis emerges only after a substantial period of direct observation or interaction with subjects. This type of approach is exploratory in that the researcher also learns as he or she proceeds, sometimes adjusting the research methods or processes midway to respond to new insights and findings as they evolve. Once the preliminary work is done, it’s time for the next research steps: designing and conducting a study, and drawing conclusions. These research methods are discussed below.

2.2. Research Methods

Sociologists examine the world, see a problem or interesting pattern, and set out to study it. They use research methods to design a study—perhaps a positivist, quantitative method for conducting research and obtaining data, or perhaps an ethnographic study utilizing an interpretive framework. Planning the research design is a key step in any sociological study. When entering a particular social environment, a researcher must be careful. There are times to remain anonymous and times to be overt. There are times to conduct interviews and times to simply observe. Some participants need to be thoroughly informed; others should not know they are being observed. A researcher would not stroll into a crime-ridden neighbourhood at midnight, calling out, “Any gang members around?” And if a researcher walked into a coffee shop and told the employees they would be observed as part of a study on work efficiency, the self-conscious, intimidated baristas might not behave naturally.

In the 1920s, leaders of a Chicago factory called Hawthorne Works commissioned a study to determine whether or not changing certain aspects of working conditions could increase or decrease worker productivity. Sociologists were surprised when the productivity of a test group increased when the lighting of their workspace was improved. They were even more surprised when productivity improved when the lighting of the workspace was dimmed. In fact almost every change of independent variable—lighting, breaks, work hours—resulted in an improvement of productivity. But when the study was over, productivity dropped again.

Why did this happen? In 1953, Henry A. Landsberger analyzed the study results to answer this question. He realized that employees’ productivity increased because sociologists were paying attention to them. The sociologists’ presence influenced the study results. Worker behaviours were altered not by the lighting but by the study itself. From this, sociologists learned the importance of carefully planning their roles as part of their research design (Franke and Kaul 1978). Landsberger called the workers’ response the Hawthorne effect—people changing their behaviour because they know they are being watched as part of a study.

The Hawthorne effect is unavoidable in some research. In many cases, sociologists have to make the purpose of the study known for ethical reasons. Subjects must be aware that they are being observed, and a certain amount of artificiality may result (Sonnenfeld 1985). Making sociologists’ presence invisible is not always realistic for other reasons. That option is not available to a researcher studying prison behaviours, early education, or the Ku Klux Klan. Researchers cannot just stroll into prisons, kindergarten classrooms, or Ku Klux Klan meetings and unobtrusively observe behaviours. In situations like these, other methods are needed. All studies shape the research design, while research design simultaneously shapes the study. Researchers choose methods that best suit their study topic and that fit with their overall goal for the research.

In planning a study’s design, sociologists generally choose from four widely used methods of social investigation: survey, experiment, field research, and textual or secondary data analysis (or use of existing sources). Every research method comes with plusses and minuses, and the topic of study strongly influences which method or methods are put to use.


As a research method, a survey collects data from subjects who respond to a series of questions about behaviours and opinions, often in the form of a questionnaire. The survey is one of the most widely used positivist research methods. The standard survey format allows individuals a level of anonymity in which they can express personal ideas.

Questionnaires for Statistics Canada Census

Figure 2.3. Questionnaires are a common research method; the Statistics Canada Census is a well-known example. (Photo courtesy of Khosrow Ebrahimpour/Flickr)

At some point or another, everyone responds to some type of survey. The Statistics Canada census is an excellent example of a large-scale survey intended to gather sociological data. Customers also fill out questionnaires at stores or promotional events, responding to questions such as “How did you hear about the event?” and “Were the staff helpful?” You’ve probably picked up the phone and heard a caller ask you to participate in a political poll or similar type of survey: “Do you eat hot dogs? If yes, how many per month?” Not all surveys would be considered sociological research. Marketing polls help companies refine marketing goals and strategies; they are generally not conducted as part of a scientific study, meaning they are not designed to test a hypothesis or to contribute knowledge to the field of sociology. The results are not published in a refereed scholarly journal, where design, methodology, results, and analyses are vetted.

Often, polls on TV do not reflect a general population, but are merely answers from a specific show’s audience. Polls conducted by programs such as American Idol or Canadian Idol represent the opinions of fans but are not particularly scientific. A good contrast to these are the BBM Ratings, which determine the popularity of radio and television programming in Canada through scientific market research. Sociologists conduct surveys under controlled conditions for specific purposes. Surveys gather different types of information from people. While surveys are not great at capturing the ways people really behave in social situations, they are a great method for discovering how people feel and think—or at least how they say they feel and think. Surveys can track attitudes and opinions, political preferences, reported individual behaviours (such as sleeping, driving, or texting habits), or factual information such as employment status, income, and education levels. A survey targets a specific population, people who are the focus of a study, such as university athletes, international students, or teenagers living with type 1 (juvenile-onset) diabetes.

Most researchers choose to survey a small sector of the population, or a sample: that is, a manageable number of subjects who represent a larger population. The success of a study depends on how well a population is represented by the sample. In a random sample, every person in a population has the same chance of being chosen for the study. According to the laws of probability, random samples represent the population as a whole. For instance, an Ipsos Reid poll, if conducted as a nationwide random sampling, should be able to provide an accurate estimate of public opinion whether it contacts 2,000 or 10,000 people. However the validity of surveys can be threatened when part of the population is inadvertently excluded from the sample (e.g., telephone surveys that rely on land lines exclude people that use only cell phones) or when there is a low response rate. After selecting subjects, the researcher develops a specific plan to ask questions and record responses.

It is important to inform subjects of the nature and purpose of the study upfront. If they agree to participate, researchers thank subjects and offer them a chance to see the results of the study if they are interested. The researcher presents the subjects with an instrument (a means of gathering the information). A common instrument is a structured questionnaire, in which subjects answer a series of set questions. For some topics, the researcher might ask yes-or-no or multiple-choice questions, allowing subjects to choose possible responses to each question.

This kind of quantitative data—research collected in numerical form that can be counted—is easy to tabulate. Just count up the number of “yes” and “no” answers or tabulate the scales of “strongly agree,” “agree,” disagree,” etc. responses and chart them into percentages. This is also their chief drawback however: their artificiality. In real life, there are rarely any unambiguously yes-or-no answers. Questionnaires can also ask more complex questions with more complex answers—beyond “yes,” “no,” “agree,” “strongly agree,” or an option next to a checkbox. In those cases, the answers are subjective, varying from person to person. How do you plan to use your university education? Why do you follow Justin Bieber around the country and attend every concert? Those types of questions require short essay responses, and participants willing to take the time to write those answers will convey personal information about religious beliefs, political views, and morals.

Some topics that reflect internal thought are impossible to observe directly and are difficult to discuss honestly in a public forum. People are more likely to share honest answers if they can respond to questions anonymously. This type of information is qualitative data—results that are subjective and often based on what is seen in a natural setting. Qualitative information is harder to organize and tabulate. The researcher will end up with a wide range of responses, some of which may be surprising. The benefit of written opinions, though, is the wealth of material that they provide.

An interview is a one-on-one conversation between the researcher and the subject, and is a way of conducting surveys on a topic. Interviews are similar to the short answer questions on surveys in that the researcher asks subjects a series of questions. However, participants are free to respond as they wish, without being limited by predetermined choices. In the back-and-forth conversation of an interview, a researcher can ask for clarification, spend more time on a subtopic, or ask additional questions. In an interview, a subject will ideally feel free to open up and answer questions that are often complex. There are no right or wrong answers. The subject might not even know how to answer the questions honestly. Questions such as “How did society’s view of alcohol consumption influence your decision whether or not to take your first sip of alcohol?” or “Did you feel that the divorce of your parents would put a social stigma on your family?” involve so many factors that the answers are difficult to categorize. A researcher needs to avoid steering or prompting the subject to respond in a specific way; otherwise, the results will prove to be unreliable. And, obviously, a sociological interview is not an interrogation. The researcher will benefit from gaining a subject’s trust, from empathizing or commiserating with a subject, and from listening without judgment.


You’ve probably tested personal social theories. “If I study at night and review in the morning, I’ll improve my retention skills.” Or, “If I stop drinking soda, I’ll feel better.” Cause and effect. If this, then that. When you test the theory, your results either prove or disprove your hypothesis. One way researchers test social theories is by conducting an experiment, meaning they investigate relationships to test a hypothesis—a scientific approach. There are two main types of experiments: lab-based experiments and natural or field experiments.

In a lab setting, the research can be controlled so that perhaps more data can be recorded in a certain amount of time. In a natural or field-based experiment, the generation of data cannot be controlled but the information might be considered more accurate since it was collected without interference or intervention by the researcher. As a research method, either type of sociological experiment is useful for testing if-then statements: if a particular thing happens, then another particular thing will result.

To set up a lab-based experiment, sociologists create artificial situations that allow them to manipulate variables. Classically, the sociologist selects a set of people with similar characteristics, such as age, class, race, or education. Those people are divided into two groups. One is the experimental group and the other is the control group. The experimental group is exposed to the independent variable(s) and the control group is not. This is similar to pharmaceutical drug trials in which the experimental group is given the test drug and the control group is given a placebo or sugar pill. To test the benefits of tutoring, for example, the sociologist might expose the experimental group of students to tutoring while the control group does not receive tutoring. Then both groups would be tested for differences in performance to see if tutoring had an effect on the experimental group of students. As you can imagine, in a case like this, the researcher would not want to jeopardize the accomplishments of either group of students, so the setting would be somewhat artificial. The test would not be for a grade reflected on their permanent record, for example.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is perhaps one of the most famous sociological experiments ever conducted. In 1971, 24 healthy, middle-class male university students were selected to take part in a simulated jail environment to examine the effects of social setting and social roles on individual psychology and behaviour. They were randomly divided into 12 guards and 12 prisoners. The prisoner subjects were arrested at home and transported blindfolded to the simulated prison in the basement of the psychology building on the campus of Stanford University. Within a day of arriving the prisoners and the guards began to display signs of trauma and sadism respectively. After some prisoners revolted by blockading themselves in their cells, the guards resorted to using increasingly humiliating and degrading tactics to control the prisoners through psychological manipulation. The experiment had to be abandoned after only six days because the abuse had grown out of hand (Haney, Banks, and Zimbardo 1973). While the insights into the social dynamics of authoritarianism it generated were fascinating, the Stanford Prison Experiment also serves as an example of the ethical issues that emerge when experimenting on human subjects.

Making Connections: Sociological Research

An Experiment in Action: Mincome

The historic Dauphin Canadian Northern Railway Station, in Dauphin, Manitoba

Figure 2.4. “Mincome” was a large-scale experiment conducted in Dauphin, Manitoba, between 1974 and 1979 to explore the effect of having a universal guaranteed annual income on the incentive to work and other social indicators. (Photo courtesy of Bobak Ha’Eri/Wikimedia commons)

A real-life example will help illustrate the experimental process in sociology. Between 1974 and 1979 an experiment was conducted in the small town of Dauphin, Manitoba (the “garden capital of Manitoba”). Each family received a modest monthly guaranteed income—a “mincome”—equivalent to a maximum of 60 percent of the “low-income cut-off figure” (a Statistics Canada measure of poverty, which varies with family size). The income was 50 cents per dollar less for families who had incomes from other sources. Families earning over a certain income level did not receive mincome. Families that were already collecting welfare or unemployment insurance were also excluded. The test families in Dauphin were compared with control groups in other rural Manitoba communities on a range of indicators such as number of hours worked per week, school performance, high school dropout rates, and hospital visits (Forget 2011). A guaranteed annual income was seen at the time as a less costly, less bureaucratic public alternative for addressing poverty than the existing employment insurance and welfare programs. Today it is an active proposal being considered in Switzerland (Lowrey 2013).

Intuitively, it seems logical that lack of income is the cause of poverty and poverty-related issues. One of the main concerns, however, was whether a guaranteed income would create a disincentive to work. The concept appears to challenge the principles of the Protestant work ethic (see the discussion of Max Weber in Chapter 1). The study did find very small decreases in hours worked per week: about 1 percent for men, 3 percent for wives, and 5 percent for unmarried women. Forget (2011) argues this was because the income provided an opportunity for people to spend more time with family and school, especially for young mothers and teenage girls. There were also significant social benefits from the experiment, including better test scores in school, lower high school dropout rates, fewer visits to hospital, fewer accidents and injuries, and fewer mental health issues.

Ironically, due to lack of guaranteed funding (and lack of political interest by the late 1970s), the data and results of the study were not analyzed or published until 2011. The data were archived and sat gathering dust in boxes. The mincome experiment demonstrated the benefits that even a modest guaranteed annual income supplement could have on health and social outcomes in communities. People seem to live healthier lives and get a better education when they do not need to worry about poverty. In her summary of the research, Forget notes that the impact of the income supplement was surprisingly large given that at any one time only about a third of the families were receiving the income and, for some families, the income amount would have been very small. The income benefit was largest for low-income working families but the research showed that the entire community profited. The improvement in overall health outcomes for the community suggest that a guaranteed income would also result in savings for the public health system.


Field Research

The work of sociology rarely happens in limited, confined spaces. Sociologists seldom study subjects in their own offices or laboratories. Rather, sociologists go out into the world. They meet subjects where they live, work, and play. Field research refers to gathering primary data from a natural environment without doing a lab experiment or a survey. It is a research method suited to an interpretive approach rather than to positivist approaches. To conduct field research, the sociologist must be willing to step into new environments and observe, participate, or experience those worlds. In fieldwork, the sociologists, rather than the subjects, are the ones out of their element. The researcher interacts with or observes a person or people, gathering data along the way. The key point in field research is that it takes place in the subject’s natural environment, whether it’s a coffee shop or tribal village, a homeless shelter or a care home, a hospital, airport, mall, or beach resort.


Figure 2.5. Sociological researchers travel across countries and cultures to interact with and observe subjects in their natural environments. (Photo courtesy of Patrick/flickr)

While field research often begins in a specific setting, the study’s purpose is to observe specific behaviours in that setting. Fieldwork is optimal for observing how people behave. It is less useful, however, for developing causal explanations of why they behave that way. From the small size of the groups studied in fieldwork, it is difficult to make predictions or generalizations to a larger population. Similarly, there are difficulties in gaining an objective distance from research subjects. It is difficult to know whether another researcher would see the same things or record the same data. We will look at three types of field research: participant observation, ethnography, and the case study.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

When Is Sharing Not Such a Good Idea?

Three drug addicts seen smoking a huge amount of crack cocaine, in a downtown eastside alley, in Vancouver BC Canada

Figure 2.6. Crack cocaine users in downtown Vancouver. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons)

Choosing a research methodology depends on a number of factors, including the purpose of the research and the audience for whom the research is intended. If we consider the type of research that might go into producing a government policy document on the effectiveness of safe injection sites for reducing the public health risks of intravenous drug use, we would expect public administrators to want “hard” (i.e., quantitative) evidence of high reliability to help them make a policy decision. The most reliable data would come from an experimental or quasi-experimental research model in which a control group can be compared with an experimental group using quantitative measures.

This approach has been used by researchers studying InSite in Vancouver (Marshall et al. 2011; Wood et al. 2006). InSite is a supervised safe-injection site where heroin addicts and other intravenous drug users can go to inject drugs in a safe, clean environment. Clean needles are provided and health care professionals are on hand to intervene in the case of overdose or other medical emergency. It is a controversial program both because heroin use is against the law (the facility operates through a federal ministerial exemption) and because the heroin users are not obliged to quit using or seek therapy. To assess the effectiveness of the program, researchers compared the risky usage of drugs in populations before and after the opening of the facility and geographically near and distant to the facility. The results from the studies have shown that InSite has reduced both deaths from overdose and risky behaviours, such as the sharing of needles, without increasing the levels of crime associated with drug use and addiction.

On the other hand, if the research question is more exploratory (for example, trying to discern the reasons why individuals in the crack smoking subculture engage in the risky activity of sharing pipes), the more nuanced approach of fieldwork is more appropriate. The research would need to focus on the subcultural context, rituals, and meaning of sharing pipes, and why these phenomena override known health concerns. Graduate student Andrew Ivsins at the University of Victoria studied the practice of sharing pipes among 13 habitual users of crack cocaine in Victoria, B.C. (Ivsins 2010). He met crack smokers in their typical setting downtown and used an unstructured interview method to try to draw out the informal norms that lead to sharing pipes. One factor he discovered was the bond that formed between friends or intimate partners when they shared a pipe. He also discovered that there was an elaborate subcultural etiquette of pipe use that revolved around the benefit of getting the crack resin smokers left behind. Both of these motives tended to outweigh the recognized health risks of sharing pipes (such as hepatitis) in the decision making of the users. This type of research was valuable in illuminating the unknown subcultural norms of crack use that could still come into play in a harm reduction strategy such as distributing safe crack kits to addicts.


Participant Observation

In 2000, a comic writer named Rodney Rothman wanted an insider’s view of white-collar work. He slipped into the sterile, high-rise offices of a New York “dot com” agency. Every day for two weeks, he pretended to work there. His main purpose was simply to see if anyone would notice him or challenge his presence. No one did. The receptionist greeted him. The employees smiled and said good morning. Rothman was accepted as part of the team. He even went so far as to claim a desk, inform the receptionist of his whereabouts, and attend a meeting. He published an article about his experience in The New Yorker called “My Fake Job” (2000). Later, he was discredited for allegedly fabricating some details of the story and The New Yorker issued an apology. However, Rothman’s entertaining article still offered fascinating descriptions of the inside workings of a “dot com” company and exemplified the lengths to which a sociologist will go to uncover material.

Rothman had conducted a form of study called participant observation, in which researchers join people and participate in a group’s routine activities for the purpose of observing them within that context. This method lets researchers study a naturally occurring social activity without imposing artificial or intrusive research devices, like fixed questionnaire questions, onto the situation. A researcher might go to great lengths to get a firsthand look into a trend, institution, or behaviour. Researchers temporarily put themselves into “native” roles and record their observations. A researcher might work as a waitress in a diner, or live as a homeless person for several weeks, or ride along with police officers as they patrol their regular beat. Often, these researchers try to blend in seamlessly with the population they study, and they may not disclose their true identity or purpose if they feel it would compromise the results of their research.


Figure 2.7. Is she a working waitress or a sociologist conducting a study using participant observation? (Photo courtesy of Zoetnet/flickr)

At the beginning of a field study, researchers might have a question: “What really goes on in the kitchen of the most popular diner on campus?” or “What is it like to be homeless?” Participant observation is a useful method if the researcher wants to explore a certain environment from the inside. Field researchers simply want to observe and learn. In such a setting, the researcher will be alert and open minded to whatever happens, recording all observations accurately. Soon, as patterns emerge, questions will become more specific, observations will lead to hypotheses, and hypotheses will guide the researcher in shaping data into results. In a study of small-town America conducted by sociological researchers John S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, the team altered their purpose as they gathered data. They initially planned to focus their study on the role of religion in American towns. As they gathered observations, they realized that the effect of industrialization and urbanization was the more relevant topic of this social group. The Lynds did not change their methods, but they revised their purpose. This shaped the structure of Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, their published results (Lynd and Lynd 1959).


Figure 2.8. A classroom in Muncie, Indiana, in 1917, five years before John and Helen Lynd began researching this “typical” American community. (Photo courtesy of Don O’Brien/flickr)

The Lynds were upfront about their mission. The townspeople of Muncie, Indiana, knew why the researchers were in their midst. But some sociologists prefer not to alert people to their presence. The main advantage of covert participant observation is that it allows the researcher access to authentic, natural behaviours of a group’s members. The challenge, however, is gaining access to a setting without disrupting the pattern of others’ behaviour. Becoming an inside member of a group, organization, or subculture takes time and effort. Researchers must pretend to be something they are not. The process could involve role playing, making contacts, networking, or applying for a job. Once inside a group, some researchers spend months or even years pretending to be one of the people they are observing. However, as observers, they cannot get too involved. They must keep their purpose in mind and apply the sociological perspective. That way, they illuminate social patterns that are often unrecognized. Because information gathered during participant observation is mostly qualitative, rather than quantitative, the end results are often descriptive or interpretive. The researcher might present findings in an article or book, describing what he or she witnessed and experienced.

This type of research is what journalist Barbara Ehrenreich conducted for her book Nickel and Dimed. One day over lunch with her editor, as the story goes, Ehrenreich mentioned an idea. How can people exist on minimum-wage work? How do low-income workers get by? she wondered. Someone should do a study. To her surprise, her editor responded, Why don’t you do it? That is how Ehrenreich found herself joining the ranks of the low-wage service sector. For several months, she left her comfortable home and lived and worked among people who lacked, for the most part, higher education and marketable job skills. Undercover, she applied for and worked minimum wage jobs as a waitress, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a retail chain employee. During her participant observation, she used only her income from those jobs to pay for food, clothing, transportation, and shelter. She discovered the obvious: that it’s almost impossible to get by on minimum wage work. She also experienced and observed attitudes many middle- and upper-class people never think about. She witnessed firsthand the treatment of service work employees. She saw the extreme measures people take to make ends meet and to survive. She described fellow employees who held two or three jobs, worked seven days a week, lived in cars, could not pay to treat chronic health conditions, got randomly fired, submitted to drug tests, and moved in and out of homeless shelters. She brought aspects of that life to light, describing difficult working conditions and the poor treatment that low-wage workers suffer.


Figure 2.9. Field research happens in real locations. What type of environment do work spaces foster? What would a sociologist discover after blending in? (Photo courtesy of drewzhrodague/flickr)


Ethnography is the extended observation of the social perspective and cultural values of an entire social setting. Researchers seek to immerse themselves in the life of a bounded group, by living and working among them. Often ethnography involves participant observation, but the focus is the systematic observation of an entire community.

The heart of an ethnographic study focuses on how subjects view their own social standing and how they understand themselves in relation to a community. An ethnographic study might observe, for example, a small Newfoundland fishing town, an Inuit community, a village in Thailand, a Buddhist monastery, a private boarding school, or Disney World. These places all have borders. People live, work, study, or vacation within those borders. People are there for a certain reason and therefore behave in certain ways and respect certain cultural norms. An ethnographer would commit to spending a determined amount of time studying every aspect of the chosen place, taking in as much as possible, and keeping careful notes on his or her observations.

A sociologist studying a tribe in the Amazon might learn the language, watch the way villagers go about their daily lives, ask individuals about the meaning of different aspects of activity, study the group’s cosmology and then write a paper about it. To observe a spiritual retreat centre, an ethnographer might sign up for a retreat and attend as a guest for an extended stay, observe and record how people experience spirituality in this setting, and collate the material into results.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

The Feminist Perspective: Institutional Ethnography

Dorothy Smith elaborated on traditional ethnography to develop what she calls institutional ethnography (2005). In modern society the practices of everyday life in any particular local setting are often organized at a level that goes beyond what an ethnographer might observe directly. Everyday life is structured by “extralocal,” institutional forms; that is, by the practices of institutions that act upon people from a distance. It might be possible to conduct ethnographic research on the experience of domestic abuse by living in a women’s shelter and directly observing and interviewing victims to see how they form an understanding of their situation. However, to the degree that the women are seeking redress through the criminal justice system a crucial element of the situation would be missing. In order to activate a response from the police or the courts, a set of standard legal procedures must be followed, a “case file” must be opened, legally actionable evidence must be established, forms filled out, etc. All of this allows criminal justice agencies to organize and coordinate the response.

The urgent and immediate experience of the domestic abuse victims needs to be translated into a format that enables distant authorities to take action. Often this is a frustrating and mysterious process in which the immediate needs of individuals are neglected so that needs of institutional processes are met. Therefore to research the situation of domestic abuse victims, an ethnography needs to somehow operate at two levels: the close examination of the local experience of particular women and the simultaneous examination of the extralocal, institutional world through which their world is organized. In order to accomplish this, institutional ethnography focuses on the study of the way everyday life is coordinated through “textually mediated” practices: the use of written documents, standardized bureaucratic categories, and formalized relationships (Smith 1990).

Institutional paperwork translates the specific details of locally lived experience into a standardized format that enables institutions to apply the institution’s understandings, regulations, and operations in different local contexts. The study of these textual practices reveal otherwise inaccessible processes that formal organizations depend on: their formality, their organized character, and their ongoing methods of coordination, etc. An institutional ethnography often begins by following the paper trail that emerges when people interact with institutions: how does a person formulate a narrative about what has happened to him or her in a way that the institution will recognize? How is it translated into the abstract categories on a form or screen that enable an institutional response to be initiated? What is preserved in the translation to paperwork and what is lost? Where do the forms go next? What series of “processing interchanges” take place between different departments or agencies through the circulation of paperwork? How is the paperwork modified and made actionable through this process (e.g., an incident report, warrant request, motion for continuance)?

Smith’s insight is that the shift from the locally lived experience of individuals to the extralocal world of institutions is nothing short of a radical metaphysical shift in worldview. In institutional worlds, meanings are detached from directly lived processes and reconstituted in an organizational time, space, and consciousness that is fundamentally different from their original reference point. For example, the crisis that has led to a loss of employment becomes a set of anonymous criteria that determines one’s eligibility for Employment Insurance.

The unique life of a disabled child becomes a checklist that determines the content of an “individual education program” in the school system, which in turn determines whether funding will be provided for special aid assistants or therapeutic programs. Institutions put together a picture of what has occurred that is not at all the same as what was lived. The ubiquitous but obscure mechanism by which this is accomplished is textually mediated communication. The goal of institutional ethnography therefore is to making “documents or texts visible as constituents of social relations” (Smith 1990). Institutional ethnography is very useful as a critical research strategy. It is an analysis that gives grassroots organizations, or those excluded from the circles of institutional power, a detailed knowledge of how the administrative apparatuses actually work. This type of research enables more effective actions and strategies for change to be pursued.


The Case Study

Sometimes a researcher wants to study one specific person or event. A case study is an in-depth analysis of a single event, situation, or individual. To conduct a case study, a researcher examines existing sources like documents and archival records, conducts interviews, engages in direct observation, and even participant observation, if possible. Researchers might use this method to study a single case of, for example, a foster child, drug lord, cancer patient, criminal, or rape victim. However, a major criticism of the case study as a method is that a developed study of a single case, while offering depth on a topic, does not provide enough evidence to form a generalized conclusion. In other words, it is difficult to make universal claims based on just one person, since one person does not verify a pattern. This is why most sociologists do not use case studies as a primary research method.

However, case studies are useful when the single case is unique. In these instances, a single case study can add tremendous knowledge to a certain discipline. For example, a feral child, also called “wild child,” is one who grows up isolated from human beings. Feral children grow up without social contact and language, elements crucial to a “civilized” child’s development. These children mimic the behaviours and movements of animals, and often invent their own language. There are only about 100 cases of “feral children” in the world. As you may imagine, a feral child is a subject of great interest to researchers. Feral children provide unique information about child development because they have grown up outside of the parameters of “normal” child development. And since there are very few feral children, the case study is the most appropriate method for researchers to use in studying the subject. At age three, a Ukrainian girl named Oxana Malaya suffered severe parental neglect. She lived in a shed with dogs, eating raw meat and scraps. Five years later, a neighbour called authorities and reported seeing a girl who ran on all fours, barking. Officials brought Oxana into society, where she was cared for and taught some human behaviours, but she never became fully socialized. She has been designated as unable to support herself and now lives in a mental institution (Grice 2006). Case studies like this offer a way for sociologists to collect data that may not be collectable by any other method.

Secondary Data or Textual Analysis

While sociologists often engage in original research studies, they also contribute knowledge to the discipline through secondary data or textual analysis. Secondary data do not result from firsthand research collected from primary sources, but are drawn from the already-completed work of other researchers. Sociologists might study texts written by historians, economists, teachers, or early sociologists. They might search through periodicals, newspapers, or magazines from any period in history. Using available information not only saves time and money, but it can add depth to a study. Sociologists often interpret findings in a new way, a way that was not part of an author’s original purpose or intention. To study how women were encouraged to act and behave in the 1960s, for example, a researcher might watch movies, televisions shows, and situation comedies from that period. Or to research changes in behaviour and attitudes due to the emergence of television in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a sociologist would rely on new interpretations of secondary data. Decades from now, researchers will most likely conduct similar studies on the advent of mobile phones, the Internet, or Facebook.

One methodology that sociologists employ with secondary data is content analysis. Content analysis is a quantitative approach to textual research that selects an item of textual content (i.e., a variable) that can be reliably and consistently observed and coded, and surveys the prevalence of that item in a sample of textual output. For example, Gilens (1996) wanted to find out why survey research shows that the American public substantially exaggerates the percentage of African Americans among the poor. He examined whether media representations influence public perceptions and did a content analysis of photographs of poor people in American news magazines. He coded and then systematically recorded incidences of three variables: (1) Race: white, black, indeterminate; (2) Employed: working, not working; and (3) Age. Gilens discovered that not only were African Americans markedly overrepresented in news magazine photographs of poverty, but that the photos also tended to underrepresent “sympathetic” subgroups of the poor—the elderly and working poor—while overrepresenting less sympathetic groups—unemployed, working age adults. Gilens concluded that by providing a distorted representation of poverty, U.S. news magazines “reinforce negative stereotypes of blacks as mired in poverty and contribute to the belief that poverty is primarily a ‘black problem’” (1996).

Social scientists also learn by analyzing the research of a variety of agencies. Governmental departments and global groups, like Statistics Canada or the World Health Organization, publish studies with findings that are useful to sociologists. A public statistic that measures inequality of incomes might be useful for studying who benefited and who lost as a result of the 2008 recession; a demographic profile of different immigrant groups might be compared with data on unemployment to examine the reasons why immigration settlement programs are more effective for some communities than for others. One of the advantages of secondary data is that it is nonreactive (or unobtrusive) research, meaning that it does not include direct contact with subjects and will not alter or influence people’s behaviours. Unlike studies requiring direct contact with people, using previously published data does not require entering a population and the investment and risks inherent in that research process. Using available data does have its challenges. Public records are not always easy to access. A researcher needs to do some legwork to track them down and gain access to records. In some cases there is no way to verify the accuracy of existing data. It is easy, for example, to count how many drunk drivers are pulled over by the police. But how many are not? While it’s possible to discover the percentage of teenage students who drop out of high school, it might be more challenging to determine the number who return to school or get their GED later.

Another problem arises when data are unavailable in the exact form needed or do not include the precise angle the researcher seeks. For example, the salaries paid to professors at universities is often published. But the separate figures do not necessarily reveal how long it took each professor to reach the salary range, what their educational backgrounds are, or how long they have been teaching. In his research, sociologist Richard Sennett uses secondary data to shed light on current trends. In The Craftsman (2008), he studied the human desire to perform quality work, from carpentry to computer programming. He studied the line between craftsmanship and skilled manual labour. He also studied changes in attitudes toward craftsmanship that occurred not only during and after the Industrial Revolution, but also in ancient times. Obviously, he could not have firsthand knowledge of periods of ancient history; he had to rely on secondary data for part of his study. When conducting secondary data or textual analysis, it is important to consider the date of publication of an existing source and to take into account attitudes and common cultural ideals that may have influenced the research. For example, Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd gathered research for their book Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture in the 1920s. Attitudes and cultural norms were vastly different then than they are now. Beliefs about gender roles, race, education, and work have changed significantly since then. At the time, the study’s purpose was to reveal the truth about small American communities. Today, it is an illustration of 1920s attitudes and values.

2.3. Ethical Concerns

Sociologists conduct studies to shed light on human behaviours. Knowledge is a powerful tool that can be used toward positive change. And while a sociologist’s goal is often simply to uncover knowledge rather than to spur action, many people use sociological studies to help improve people’s lives. In that sense, conducting a sociological study comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility. Like any researchers, sociologists must consider their ethical obligation to avoid harming subjects or groups while conducting their research. The Canadian Sociological Association, or CSA, is the major professional organization of sociologists in Canada. The CSA is a great resource for students of sociology as well.

The CSA maintains a code of ethics—formal guidelines for conducting sociological research—consisting of principles and ethical standards to be used in the discipline. It also describes procedures for filing, investigating, and resolving complaints of unethical conduct. These are in line with the Tri-Council Policy Statement on Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (2010), which applies to any research with human subjects funded by one of the three federal research agencies – the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Practising sociologists and sociology students have a lot to consider. Some of the guidelines state that researchers must try to be skillful and fair-minded in their work, especially as it relates to their human subjects. Researchers must obtain participants’ informed consent, and inform subjects of the responsibilities and risks of research before they agree to participate. During a study, sociologists must ensure the safety of participants and immediately stop work if a subject becomes potentially endangered on any level. Researchers are required to protect the privacy of research participants whenever possible. Even if pressured by authorities, such as police or courts, researchers are not ethically allowed to release confidential information. Researchers must make results available to other sociologists, must make public all sources of financial support, and must not accept funding from any organization that might cause a conflict of interest or seek to influence the research results for its own purposes. The CSA’s ethical considerations shape not only the study but also the publication of results.

Pioneer German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) identified another crucial ethical concern. Weber understood that personal values could distort the framework for disclosing study results. While he accepted that some aspects of research design might be influenced by personal values, he declared it was entirely inappropriate to allow personal values to shape the interpretation of the responses. Sociologists, he stated, must establish value neutrality, a practice of remaining impartial, without bias or judgment, during the course of a study and in publishing results (1949). Sociologists are obligated to disclose research findings without omitting or distorting significant data. Value neutrality does not mean having no opinions. It means striving to overcome personal biases, particularly subconscious biases, when analyzing data. It means avoiding skewing data in order to match a predetermined outcome that aligns with a particular agenda, such as a political or moral point of view. Investigators are ethically obligated to report results, even when they contradict personal views, predicted outcomes, or widely accepted beliefs. Is value neutrality possible?

Many sociologists believe it is impossible to set aside personal values and retain complete objectivity. Individuals inevitably see the world from a partial perspective. Their interests are central to the types of topics they choose, the types of questions they ask, the way they frame their research and the research methodologies they select to pursue it. Moreover, facts, however objective, do not exist in a void. As we noted in Chapter 1, Jürgen Habermas (1972) argues that sociological research has built-in interests quite apart from the personal biases of individual researchers. Positivist sociology has an interest in pursuing types of knowledge that are useful for controlling and administering social life. Interpretive sociology has an interest in pursuing types of knowledge that promote greater mutual understanding and the possibility of consensus among members of society. Critical sociology has an interest in types of knowledge that enable emancipation from power relations and forms of domination in society. In Habermas’ view, sociological knowledge is not disinterested knowledge. This does not discredit the results of sociological research but allows readers to take into account the perspective of the research when judging the validity and applicability of its outcomes.

Key Terms

case study in-depth analysis of a single event, situation, or individual

code of ethics a set of guidelines that the Canadian Sociological Association has established to foster ethical research and professionally responsible scholarship in sociology

content analysis a quantitative approach to textual research that selects an item of textual content that can be reliably and consistently observed and coded, and surveys the prevalence of that item in a sample of textual output

control group an experimental group that is not exposed to the independent variable

correlation when a change in one variable coincides with a change in another variable, but does not necessarily indicate causation

dependent variable variable changed by another variable

empirical evidence evidence corroborated by direct experience and/or observation

ethnography observing a complete social setting and all that it entails

experiment the testing of a hypothesis under controlled conditions

field research gathering data from a natural environment without doing a lab experiment or a survey

Hawthorne effect when study subjects behave in a certain manner due to their awareness of being observed by a researcher

hypothesis an educated guess with predicted outcomes about the relationship between two or more variables hypothetico-deductive methodologies methodologies based on deducing a prediction from a hypothesis and testing the  validity of the hypothesis by whether it correctly predicts observations

independent variable variable that causes change in a dependent variable

inductive approach methodologies that derive a general statement from a series of empirical observations

institutional ethnography the study of the way everyday life is coordinated through institutional, textually mediated practices

interpretive approach a sociological research approach that seeks in-depth understanding of a topic or subject through observation or interaction

interview a one-on-one conversation between a researcher and a subject

literature review a scholarly research step that entails identifying and studying all existing studies on a topic to create a basis for new research

nonreactive unobtrusive research that does not include direct contact with subjects and will not alter or influence people’s behaviours

operational definitions specific explanations of abstract concepts that a researcher plans to study

participant observation immersion by a researcher in a group or social setting in order to make observations from an “insider” perspective

population a defined group serving as the subject of a study

positivist approach a research approach based on the natural science model of knowledge utilizing a hypothetico-deductive formulation of the research question and quantitative data

primary data data collected directly from firsthand experience

qualitative data information based on interpretations of meaning

quantitative data information from research collected in numerical form that can be counted

random sample a study’s participants being randomly selected to serve as a representation of a larger population reliability a measure of a study’s consistency that considers how likely results are to be replicated if a study is reproduced research design a detailed, systematic method for conducting research and obtaining data

sample small, manageable number of subjects that represent the population

scientific method a systematic research method that involves asking a question, researching existing sources, forming a hypothesis, designing and conducting a study, and drawing conclusions

secondary data analysis using data collected by others but applying new interpretations

surveys data collections from subjects who respond to a series of questions about behaviours and opinions, often in the form of a questionnaire

textually mediated communication institutional forms of communication that rely on written documents, texts, and paperwork

validity the degree to which a sociological measure accurately reflects the topic of study

value neutrality a practice of remaining impartial, without bias or judgment during the course of a study and in publishing results

variable a characteristic or measure of a social phenomenon that can take different values

Section Summary

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research
Using the scientific method, a researcher conducts a study in five phases: asking a question, researching existing sources, formulating a hypothesis, conducting a study, and drawing conclusions. The scientific method is useful in that it provides a clear method of organizing a study. Some sociologists conduct scientific research through a positivist framework utilizing a hypothetico-deductive formulation of the research question. Other sociologists conduct scientific research by employing an interpretive framework that is often inductive in nature. Scientific sociological studies often observe relationships between variables. Researchers study how one variable changes another. Prior to conducting a study, researchers are careful to apply operational definitions to their terms and to establish dependent and independent variables.

2.2. Research Methods
Sociological research is a fairly complex process. As you can see, a lot goes into even a simple research design. There are many steps and much to consider when collecting data on human behaviour, as well as in interpreting and analyzing data in order to form conclusive results. Sociologists use scientific methods for good reason. The scientific method provides a system of organization that helps researchers plan and conduct the study while ensuring that data and results are reliable, valid, and objective. The many methods available to researchers—including experiments, surveys, field studies, and secondary data analysis—all come with advantages and disadvantages. The strength of a study can depend on the choice and implementation of the appropriate method of gathering research. Depending on the topic, a study might use a single method or a combination of methods. It is important to plan a research design before undertaking a study. The information gathered may in itself be surprising, and the study design should provide a solid framework in which to analyze predicted and unpredicted data.

Table 2.2. Main Sociological Research Methods. Sociological research methods have advantages and disadvantages.

Method Implementation Advantages Challenges
  • Questionnaires
  • Interviews
  • Yields many responses
  • Can survey a large sample
  • Data generalizable
  • Quantitative data are easy to chart
  • Can be time consuming
  • Can be difficult to encourage participant response (low response rates)
  • Captures what people say they think and believe but not necessarily how they behave in real life
  • Observation
  • Participant observation
  • Ethnography
  • Case study
  • Yields detailed, accurate real-life information
  • Time consuming
  • Data are often descriptive and not conducive to generalization
  • Researcher “bias” is difficult to control for
  • Qualitative data are difficult to organize
Experiment Deliberate manipulation of social setting to compare experimental and control groups. Tests cause and effect relationships
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Artificial conditions of research
  • Ethical concerns about people’s well-being
Secondary Data Analysis
  • Analysis of government data (census, health, crime statistics)
  • Research of historic documents
  • Content analysis

Makes good use of previous sociological information

  • Data could be focused on a purpose other than yours
  • Data can be hard to find
  • Taking into account the historical or cultural context of texts

2.3. Ethical Concerns
Sociologists and sociology students must take ethical responsibility for any study they conduct. They must first and foremost guarantee the safety of their participants. Whenever possible, they must ensure that participants have been fully informed before consenting to be part of a study. The CSA (Canadian Sociological Association) maintains ethical guidelines that sociologists must take into account as they conduct research. The guidelines address conducting studies, properly using existing sources, accepting funding, and publishing results. Sociologists must try to maintain value neutrality. They must gather and analyze data objectively, setting aside their personal preferences, beliefs, and opinions. They must report findings accurately, even if they contradict personal convictions.

Section Quiz

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research
1. A measurement is considered ______­ if it actually measures what it is intended to measure, according to the topic of the study.

  1. reliable
  2. sociological
  3. valid
  4. quantitative

2. Sociological studies test relationships in which change in one ______ causes change in another.

  1. test subject
  2. behaviour
  3. variable
  4. operational definition

3. In a study, a group of 10-year-old boys are fed doughnuts every morning for a week and then weighed to see how much weight they gained. Which factor is the dependent variable?

  1. the doughnuts
  2. the boys
  3. the duration of a week
  4. the weight gained

4. Which statement provides the best operational definition of “childhood obesity”?

  1. children who eat unhealthy foods and spend too much time watching television and playing video games
  2. a distressing trend that can lead to health issues including type 2 diabetes and heart disease
  3. body weight at least 20 percent higher than a healthy weight for a child of that height
  4. the tendency of children today to weigh more than children of earlier generations

2.2. Research Methods
5. Which materials are considered secondary data?

  1. photos and letters given to you by another person
  2. books and articles written by other authors about their studies
  3. information that you have gathered and now have included in your results
  4. responses from participants whom you both surveyed and interviewed

6. What method did Andrew Ivsins use to study crack users in Victoria?

  1. survey
  2. experiment
  3. field research
  4. content analysis

7. Why is choosing a random sample an effective way to select participants?

  1. Participants do not know they are part of a study
  2. The researcher has no control over who is in the study
  3. It is larger than an ordinary sample
  4. Everyone has the same chance of being part of the study

8. What research method did John S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd mainly use in their Middletown study?

  1. secondary data
  2. survey
  3. participant observation
  4. experiment

9. Which research approach is best suited to the positivist approach?

  1. questionnaire
  2. case study
  3. ethnography
  4. secondary data analysis

10. The main difference between ethnography and other types of participant observation is:

  1. ethnography isn’t based on hypothesis testing
  2. ethnography subjects are unaware they’re being studied
  3. ethnographic studies always involve minority ethnic groups
  4. there is no difference

11. Which best describes the results of a case study?

  1. it produces more reliable results than other methods because of its depth
  2. its results are not generally applicable
  3. it relies solely on secondary data analysis
  4. all of the above

12. Using secondary data is considered an unobtrusive or ________ research method.

  1. nonreactive
  2. nonparticipatory
  3. nonrestrictive
  4. nonconfrontive

2.3. Ethical Concerns
13. Which statement illustrates value neutrality?

  1. Obesity in children is obviously a result of parental neglect and, therefore, schools should take a greater role to prevent it.
  2. In 2003, states like Arkansas adopted laws requiring elementary schools to remove soft drink vending machines from schools.
  3. Merely restricting children’s access to junk food at school is not enough to prevent obesity.
  4. Physical activity and healthy eating are a fundamental part of a child’s education.

14. Which person or organization defined the concept of value neutrality?

  1. Institutional Review Board (IRB)
  2. Peter Rossi
  3. Canadian Sociological Association (CSA)
  4. Max Weber

15. To study the effects of fast food on lifestyle, health, and culture, from which group would a researcher ethically be unable to accept funding?

  1. a fast-food restaurant
  2. a nonprofit health organization
  3. a private hospital
  4. a governmental agency like Health and Social Services

Short Answer

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research

  1. Write down the first three steps of the scientific method. Think of a broad topic that you are interested in and which would make a good sociological study—for example, ethnic diversity in a college, homecoming rituals, athletic scholarships, or teen driving. Now, take that topic through the first steps of the process. For each step, write a few sentences or a paragraph: 1) Ask a question about the topic. 2) Do some research and write down the titles of some articles or books you’d want to read about the topic. 3) Formulate a hypothesis.

2.2.Research Methods

  1. What type of data do surveys gather? For what topics would surveys be the best research method? What drawbacks might you expect to encounter when using a survey? To explore further, ask a research question and write a hypothesis. Then create a survey of about six questions relevant to the topic. Provide a rationale for each question. Now define your population and create a plan for recruiting a random sample and administering the survey.
  2. Imagine you are about to do field research in a specific place for a set time. Instead of thinking about the topic of study itself, consider how you, as the researcher, will have to prepare for the study. What personal, social, and physical sacrifices will you have to make? How will you manage your personal effects? What organizational equipment and systems will you need to collect the data?
  3. Create a brief research design about a topic in which you are passionately interested. Now write a letter to a philanthropic or grant organization requesting funding for your study. How can you describe the project in a convincing yet realistic and objective way? Explain how the results of your study will be a relevant contribution to the body of sociological work already in existence.

2.3. Ethical Concerns

  1. Why do you think the CSA crafted such a detailed set of ethical principles? What type of study could put human participants at risk? Think of some examples of studies that might be harmful. Do you think that, in the name of sociology, some researchers might be tempted to cross boundaries that threaten human rights? Why?
  2. Would you willingly participate in a sociological study that could potentially put your health and safety at risk, but had the potential to help thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people? For example, would you participate in a study of a new drug that could cure diabetes or cancer, even if it meant great inconvenience and physical discomfort for you or possible permanent damage?

Further Research

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research
For a historical perspective on the scientific method in sociology, read “The Elements of Scientific Method in Sociology” by F. Stuart Chapin (1914) in the American Journal of Sociology:

2.2. Research Methods
For information on current real-world sociology experiments, visit:

2.3. Ethical Concerns Founded in 1966, the CSA is a nonprofit organization located in Montreal, Quebec, with a membership of 900 researchers, faculty members, students, and practitioners of sociology. Its mission is to promote “research, publication and teaching in Sociology in Canada.” Learn more about this organization at


2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research
Merton, Robert. 1968 [1949]. Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.

2.2. Research Methods
Forget, Evelyn. 2011. “The Town with no Poverty: Using Health Administration Data to Revisit Outcomes of a Canadian Guaranteed Annual Income Field Experiement.” Canadian Public Policy. 37(3): 282-305.

Franke, Richard and James Kaul. 1978. “The Hawthorne Experiments: First Statistical Interpretation.” American Sociological Review 43(5):632–643.

Gilens, Martin. 1996. “Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the American News Media.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 60(4):515–541. Grice, Elizabeth. 2006. “Cry of an Enfant Sauvage.” The Telegraph. Retrieved July 20, 2011 (

Haney, C., Banks, W. C., and Zimbardo, P. G. 1973. “Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison.” International Journal of Criminology and Penology 1:69–97.

Ivsins, A.K. 2010. “’Got a pipe?’ The social dimensions and functions of crack pipe sharing among crack users in Victoria, BC.” MA thesis, Department of Sociology, University of Victoria. Retrieved February 14, 2014 (

Lowrey, Annie. 2013. “Switzerland’s Proposal to Pay People for Being Alive.” The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved February 17, 2014 (

Lynd, Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd. 1959. Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Javanovich.

Lynd, Staughton. 2005. “Making Middleton.” Indiana Magazine of History 101(3):226–238.

Marshall, B.D.L., M.J. Milloy,  E. Wood, J.S.G.  Montaner,  and T. Kerr. 2011. “Reduction in overdose mortality after the opening of North America’s first medically supervised safer injecting facility: A retrospective population-based study.” Lancet 377(9775):1429–1437.

Rothman, Rodney. 2000. “My Fake Job.” The New Yorker, November 27, 120.

Sennett, Richard. 2008. The Craftsman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Retrieved July 18, 2011 (

Smith, Dorothy. 1990. “Textually Mediated Social Organization” Pp. 209–234 in Texts, Facts and Femininity: Exploring the Relations of Ruling. London: Routledge.

Smith, Dorothy. 2005. Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People. Toronto: Altamira Press.

Sonnenfeld, Jeffery A. 1985. “Shedding Light on the Hawthorne Studies.” Journal of Occupational Behavior 6:125.

Wood, E., M.W. Tyndall, J.S. Montaner, and T. Kerr. 2006. “Summary of findings from the evaluation of a pilot medically supervised safer injecting facility.” Canadian Medical Association Journal 175(11):1399–1404.

2.3. Ethical Concerns
Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 2010. Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. Retrieved February 15, 2014 (

Canadian Sociological Association. 2012. Statement of Professional Ethics. Retrieved February 15, 2014 (

Habermas, Jürgen. 1972. Knowledge and Human Interests. Boston: Beacon Press

Weber, Max. 1949. Methodology of the Social Sciences. Translated by H. Shils and E. Finch. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Solutions to Section Quiz

1. C | 2. C | 3. D | 4. C | 5. B | 6. C | 7. D | 8. C | 9. A | 10. A | 11. B | 12. A | 13. B | 14. D | 15. A

Image Attributions

Figure 2.3. Didn’t they abolish the mandatory census? Then what’s this? by  Khosrow Ebrahimpour ( used under CC BY 2.0 (

Figure 2.4. Dauphin Canadian Northern Railway Station by Bobak Ha’Eri ( used under CC BY 3.0 license (

Figure 2.5. Punk Band by Patrick ( used under CC BY 2.0 (

Figure 2.6. Crack Cocaine Smokers in Vancouver Alleyway ( is in the public domain (

Figure 2.8. Muncie, Indiana High School: 1917 by Don O’Brien ( used under CC BY 2.0 license (


Chapter 3. Culture


Figure 3.1. Graffiti’s mix of colourful drawings, words, and symbols is a vibrant expression of culture—or, depending on one’s viewpoint, a disturbing expression of the creator’s lack of respect for a community’s shared space. (Photo courtesy of aikijuanma/flickr)

Learning Objectives

3.1. What Is Culture?

  • Differentiate between culture and society
  • Explain material versus nonmaterial culture
  • Discuss the concept of cultural universalism as it relates to society
  • Compare and contrast ethnocentrism and xenocentrism

3.2. Elements of Culture

  • Understand how values and beliefs differ from norms
  • Explain the significance of symbols and language to a culture
  • Explain the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
  • Discuss the role of social control within culture

3.3. Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change

  • Discuss the roles of both high culture and pop culture within society
  • Differentiate between subculture and counterculture
  • Explain the role of innovation, invention, and discovery in culture
  • Understand the role of cultural lag and globalization in cultural change

3.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Culture

  • Discuss the major theoretical approaches to cultural interpretation

Introduction to Culture

Are there rules for eating at McDonald’s? Generally, we do not think about rules in a fast food restaurant, but if you look around one on a typical weekday, you will see people acting as if they were trained for the role of fast food customer. They stand in line, pick items from the colourful menus, swipe debit cards to pay, and wait to collect trays of food. After a quick meal, customers wad up their paper wrappers and toss them into garbage cans. Customers’ movement through this fast food routine is orderly and predictable, even if no rules are posted and no officials direct the process.

If you want more insight into these unwritten rules, think about what would happen if you behaved according to some other standards. (You would be doing what sociologists call ethnomethodology: deliberately disrupting social norms in order to learn about them.) For example, call ahead for reservations, ask the cashier detailed questions about the food’s ingredients or how it is prepared. Ask to have your meal served to you at your table. Or throw your trash on the ground as you leave. Chances are, you will elicit hostile responses from the restaurant employees and your fellow customers.

People have written entire books analyzing the significance of fast food customs. They examine the extensive, detailed physicality of fast food: the food itself, wrappers, bags, trays, those tiny ketchup packets, the tables and chairs, and even the restaurant building. Everything about a chain restaurant reflects culture, the beliefs and behaviours that a social group shares. Sociological analysis can be applied to every expression of culture, from sporting events to holidays, from education to transportation, from fashion to etiquette.

In everyday conversation, people rarely distinguish between the terms “culture” and “society,” but the terms have slightly different meanings, and the distinction is important to a sociologist. A society describes a group of people who share a common territory and a culture. By “territory,” sociologists refer to a definable region—as small as a neighbourhood (e.g., East Vancouver or “the west side of town”), as large as a country (e.g., Ethiopia, Canada, or Nepal), or somewhere in between (in Canada, this might include someone who identifies with the West Coast, the Prairies, or Atlantic Canada). To clarify, a culture represents the beliefs, practices and artifacts of a group, while society represents the social structures and organization of the people who share those beliefs and practices. Neither society nor culture could exist without the other. In this chapter, we examine the relationship between culture and society in greater detail, paying special attention to the elements and forces that shape culture, including diversity and cultural changes. A final discussion touches on the different theoretical perspectives from which sociologists research culture.

3.1. What Is Culture?

Humans are social creatures. Since the dawn of Homo sapiens nearly 250,000 years ago, people have grouped together into communities in order to survive. Living together, people form common habits and behaviours—from specific methods of childrearing to preferred techniques for obtaining food. In modern-day Paris, many people shop daily at outdoor markets to pick up what they need for their evening meal, buying cheese, meat, and vegetables from different specialty stalls. In the Canada, the majority of people shop once a week at supermarkets, filling large carts to the brim. The Parisian Roland Barthes disdainfully referred to this as “the hasty stocking up” of a “more mechanical civilization” (Barthes 1977).

Almost every human behaviour, from shopping to marriage to expressions of feelings, is learned. In Canada, people tend to view marriage as a choice between two people, based on mutual feelings of love. In other nations and in other times, marriages have been arranged through an intricate process of interviews and negotiations between entire families, or in other cases, through a direct system such as a “mail order bride.” To someone raised in Winnipeg, the marriage customs of a family from Nigeria may seem strange, or even wrong. Conversely, someone from a traditional Kolkata family might be perplexed with the idea of romantic love as the foundation for the lifelong commitment of marriage. In other words, the way in which people view marriage depends largely on what they have been taught.

Behaviour based on learned customs is not a bad thing. Being familiar with unwritten rules helps people feel secure and “normal.” Most people want to live their daily lives confident that their behaviours will not be challenged or disrupted. But even an action as seemingly simple as commuting to work evidences a great deal of cultural propriety.

Figure 3.2. How would a visitor from a rural Canadian town act and feel on this crowded Tokyo train? (Photo courtesy of simonglucas/flickr)

Figure 3.2. How would a visitor from a rural Canadian town act and feel on this crowded Tokyo train? (Photo courtesy of simonglucas/flickr)

Take the case of going to work on public transportation. Whether commuting in Dublin, Cairo, Mumbai, or Vancouver, many behaviours will be the same in all locations, but significant differences also arise between cultures. Typically, a passenger would find a marked bus stop or station, wait for the bus or train, pay an agent before or after boarding, and quietly take a seat if one is available. But when boarding a bus in Cairo, passengers might have to run, because buses there often do not come to a full stop to take on patrons. Dublin bus riders would be expected to extend an arm to indicate that they want the bus to stop for them. And when boarding a commuter train in Mumbai, passengers must squeeze into overstuffed cars amid a lot of pushing and shoving on the crowded platforms. That kind of behaviour would be considered the height of rudeness in Canada, but in Mumbai it reflects the daily challenges of getting around on a train system that is taxed to capacity.

In this example of commuting, culture consists of thoughts (expectations about personal space, for example) and tangible things (bus stops, trains, and seating capacity). Material culture refers to the objects or belongings of a group of people. Metro passes and bus tokens are part of material culture, as are automobiles, stores, and the physical structures where people worship. Nonmaterial culture, in contrast, consists of the ideas, attitudes, and beliefs of a society. Material and nonmaterial aspects of culture are linked, and physical objects often symbolize cultural ideas. A metro pass is a material object, but it represents a form of nonmaterial culture, namely, capitalism, and the acceptance of paying for transportation. Clothing, hairstyles, and jewellery are part of material culture, but the appropriateness of wearing certain clothing for specific events reflects nonmaterial culture. A school building belongs to material culture, but the teaching methods and educational standards are part of education’s nonmaterial culture. These material and nonmaterial aspects of culture can vary subtly from region to region. As people travel farther afield, moving from different regions to entirely different parts of the world, certain material and nonmaterial aspects of culture become dramatically unfamiliar. What happens when we encounter different cultures? As we interact with cultures other than our own, we become more aware of the differences and commonalities between others’ worlds and our own.

Cultural Universals

Often, a comparison of one culture to another will reveal obvious differences. But all cultures share common elements. Cultural universals are patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies. One example of a cultural universal is the family unit: every human society recognizes a family structure that regulates sexual reproduction and the care of children. Even so, how that family unit is defined and how it functions vary. In many Asian cultures, for example, family members from all generations commonly live together in one household. In these cultures, young adults will continue to live in the extended household family structure until they marry and join their spouse’s household, or they may remain and raise their nuclear family within the extended family’s homestead. In Canada, by contrast, individuals are expected to leave home and live independently for a period before forming a family unit consisting of parents and their offspring.

Anthropologist George Murdock first recognized the existence of cultural universals while studying systems of kinship around the world. Murdock found that cultural universals often revolve around basic human survival, such as finding food, clothing, and shelter, or around shared human experiences, such as birth and death, or illness and healing. Through his research, Murdock identified other universals including language, the concept of personal names, and, interestingly, jokes. Humor seems to be a universal way to release tensions and create a sense of unity among people (Murdock 1949). Sociologists consider humour necessary to human interaction because it helps individuals navigate otherwise tense situations.

Making Connections: Sociological Research

Is Music a Cultural Universal?

Imagine that you are sitting in a theatre, watching a film. The movie opens with the heroine sitting on a park bench, a grim expression on her face. Cue the music. The first slow and mournful notes are played in a minor key. As the melody continues, the heroine turns her head and sees a man walking toward her. The music slowly gets louder, and the dissonance of the chords sends a prickle of fear running down your spine. You sense that the heroine is in danger.

Now imagine that you are watching the same movie, but with a different soundtrack. As the scene opens, the music is soft and soothing, with a hint of sadness. You see the heroine sitting on the park bench and sense her loneliness. Suddenly, the music swells. The woman looks up and sees a man walking toward her. The music grows fuller, and the pace picks up. You feel your heart rise in your chest. This is a happy moment.

Music has the ability to evoke emotional responses. In television shows, movies, even commercials, music elicits laughter, sadness, or fear. Are these types of musical cues cultural universals?

In 2009, a team of psychologists, led by Thomas Fritz of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, studied people’s reactions to music they’d never heard (Fritz et al. 2009). The research team travelled to Cameroon, Africa, and asked Mafa tribal members to listen to Western music. The tribe, isolated from Western culture, had never been exposed to Western culture and had no context or experience within which to interpret its music. Even so, as the tribal members listened to a Western piano piece, they were able to recognize three basic emotions: happiness, sadness, and fear. Music, it turns out, is a sort of universal language.

Researchers also found that music can foster a sense of wholeness within a group. In fact, scientists who study the evolution of language have concluded that originally language (an established component of group identity) and music were one (Darwin 1871). Additionally, since music is largely nonverbal, the sounds of music can cross societal boundaries more easily than words. Music allows people to make connections where language might be a more difficult barricade. As Fritz and his team found, music and the emotions it conveys can be cultural universals.


Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

Despite how much humans have in common, cultural differences are far more prevalent than cultural universals. For example, while all cultures have language, analysis of particular language structures and conversational etiquette reveal tremendous differences. In some Middle Eastern cultures, it is common to stand close to others in conversation. North Americans keep more distance, maintaining a large “personal space.” Even something as simple as eating and drinking varies greatly from culture to culture. If your professor comes into an early morning class holding a mug of liquid, what do you assume she is drinking? In the United States, it’s most likely filled with coffee, not Earl Grey tea, a favourite in England, or Yak Butter tea, a staple in Tibet.

The way cuisines vary across cultures fascinates many people. Some travellers, like celebrated food writer Anthony Bourdain, pride themselves on their willingness to try unfamiliar foods, while others return home expressing gratitude for their native culture’s fare. Canadians often express disgust at other cultures’ cuisine, thinking it is gross to eat meat from a dog or guinea pig, for example, while they do not question their own habit of eating cows or pigs. Such attitudes are an example of ethnocentrism, or evaluating and judging another culture based on how it compares to one’s own cultural norms. Ethnocentrism, as sociologist William Graham Sumner (1906) described the term, involves a belief or attitude that one’s own culture is better than all others. Almost everyone is a little bit ethnocentric. For example, Canadians tend to say that people from England drive on the “wrong” side of the road, rather than the “other” side. Someone from a country where dogs are considered dirty and unhygienic might find it off-putting to see a dog in a French restaurant.

A high level of appreciation for one’s own culture can be healthy; a shared sense of community pride, for example, connects people in a society. But ethnocentrism can lead to disdain or dislike for other cultures, causing misunderstanding and conflict. People with the best intentions sometimes travel to a society to “help” its people, seeing them as uneducated or backward, essentially inferior. In reality, these travellers are guilty of cultural imperialism—the deliberate imposition of one’s own cultural values on another culture. Europe’s colonial expansion, begun in the 16th century, was often accompanied by a severe cultural imperialism. European colonizers often viewed the people in the lands they colonized as uncultured savages who were in need of European governance, dress, religion, and other cultural practices. On the West Coast of Canada, the aboriginal “potlatch” (gift-giving) ceremony was made illegal in 1885 because it was thought to prevent natives from acquiring the proper industriousness and respect for material goods required by civilization. A more modern example of cultural imperialism may include the work of international aid agencies who introduce modern technological agricultural methods and plant species from developed countries while overlooking indigenous varieties and agricultural approaches that are better suited to the particular region.

Ethnocentrism can be so strong that when confronted with all the differences of a new culture, one may experience disorientation and frustration. In sociology, we call this “culture shock.” A traveller from Chicago might find the nightly silence of rural Montana unsettling, not peaceful. An exchange student from China might be annoyed by the constant interruptions in class as other students ask questions—a practice that is considered rude in China. Perhaps the Chicago traveller was initially captivated with Montana’s quiet beauty and the Chinese student was originally excited to see an American-style classroom firsthand. But as they experience unanticipated differences from their own culture, their excitement gives way to discomfort and doubts about how to behave appropriately in the new situation. Eventually, as people learn more about a culture, they recover from culture shock.

Culture shock may appear because people aren’t always expecting cultural differences. Anthropologist Ken Barger (1971) discovered this when conducting participatory observation in an Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic. Originally from Indiana, Barger hesitated when invited to join a local snowshoe race. He knew he’d never hold his own against these experts. Sure enough, he finished last, to his mortification. But the tribal members congratulated him, saying, “You really tried!” In Barger’s own culture, he had learned to value victory. To the Inuit people, winning was enjoyable, but their culture valued survival skills essential to their environment: how hard someone tried could mean the difference between life and death. Over the course of his stay, Barger participated in caribou hunts, learned how to take shelter in winter storms, and sometimes went days with little or no food to share among tribal members. Trying hard and working together, two nonmaterial values, were indeed much more important than winning.


Figure 3.3. American anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887–1948): “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” (Photo courtesy of Ruth Benedict/wikipedia)

During his time with the Inuit, Barger learned to engage in cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the practice of assessing a culture by its own standards rather than viewing it through the lens of one’s own culture. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887–1948) argued that each culture has an internally consistent pattern of thought and action, which alone could be the basis for judging the merits and morality of the culture’s practices. Cultural relativism requires an open mind and a willingness to consider, and even adapt to, new values and norms. However, indiscriminately embracing everything about a new culture is not always possible. Even the most culturally relativist people from egalitarian societies—ones in which women have political rights and control over their own bodies—would question whether the widespread practice of female genital mutilation in countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan should be accepted as a part of cultural tradition.

Sociologists attempting to engage in cultural relativism may struggle to reconcile aspects of their own culture with aspects of a culture they are studying. Pride in one’s own culture doesn’t have to lead to imposing its values on others. And an appreciation for another culture shouldn’t preclude individuals from studying it with a critical eye.

Feminist sociology is particularly attuned to the way that most cultures present a male-dominated view of the world as if it were simply the view of the world. Androcentricism is a perspective in which male concerns, male attitudes, and male practices are presented as “normal” or define what is significant and valued in a culture. Women’s experiences, activities, and contributions to society and history are ignored, devalued, or marginalized.

As a result the perspectives, concerns, and interests of only one sex and class are represented as general. Only one sex and class are directly and actively involved in producing, debating, and developing its ideas, in creating its art, in forming its medical and psychological conceptions, in framing its laws, its political principles, its educational values and objectives. Thus a one-sided standpoint comes to be seen as natural, obvious, and general, and a one-sided set of interests preoccupy intellectual and creative work (Smith 1987).

In part this is simply a question of the bias of those who have the power to define cultural values, and in part, it is the result of a process in which women have been actively excluded from the culture-creating process. It is still common, for example, to use the personal pronoun “he” or the word “man” to represent people in general or humanity. Despite the good intentions of many who use these terms, and the grammatical awkwardness of trying to find gender neutral terms to replace “he” or “man,” the overall effect is to establish masculine values and imagery as normal. A “policeman” brings to mind a man who is doing a man’s job, when in fact women have been involved in policing for several decades now. Replacing “he” with “she” in a sentence can often have a jarring effect because it undermines the “naturalness” of the male perspective.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

Overcoming Culture Shock

During her summer vacation, Caitlin flew to Madrid to visit Maria, the exchange student she’d befriended the previous semester. In the airport, she heard rapid, musical Spanish being spoken all around her. Exciting as it was, she felt isolated and disconnected. Maria’s mother kissed Caitlin on both cheeks when she greeted her. Her imposing father kept his distance. Caitlin was half asleep by the time supper was served—at 10 pm! Maria’s family sat at the table for hours, speaking loudly, gesturing, and arguing about politics, a taboo dinner subject in Caitlin’s house. They served wine and toasted their honoured guest. Caitlin had trouble interpreting her hosts’ facial expressions, and didn’t realize she should make the next toast. That night, Caitlin crawled into a strange bed, wishing she hadn’t come. She missed her home and felt overwhelmed by the new customs, language, and surroundings. She’d studied Spanish in school for years—why hadn’t it prepared her for this?

What Caitlin hadn’t realized was that people depend not only on spoken words, but on subtle cues like gestures and facial expressions, to communicate. Cultural norms accompany even the smallest nonverbal signals (DuBois 1951). They help people know when to shake hands, where to sit, how to converse, and even when to laugh. We relate to others through a shared set of cultural norms, and ordinarily, we take them for granted.

For this reason, culture shock is often associated with traveling abroad, although it can happen in one’s own country, state, or even hometown. Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg (1960) is credited with first coining the term “culture shock.” In his studies, Oberg found that most people found encountering a new culture to be exciting at first. But bit by bit, they became stressed by interacting with people from a different culture who spoke another language and used different regional expressions. There was new food to digest, new daily schedules to follow, and new rules of etiquette to learn. Living with this constant stress can make people feel incompetent and insecure. People react to frustration in a new culture, Oberg found, by initially rejecting it and glorifying one’s own culture. An American visiting Italy might long for a “real” pizza or complain about the unsafe driving habits of Italians compared to people in the United States.

It helps to remember that culture is learned. Everyone is ethnocentric to an extent, and identifying with one’s own country is natural.

Caitlin’s shock was minor compared to that of her friends Dayar and Mahlika, a Turkish couple living in married student housing on campus. And it was nothing like that of her classmate Sanai. Sanai had been forced to flee war-torn Bosnia with her family when she was 15. After two weeks in Spain, Caitlin had developed a bit more compassion and understanding for what those people had gone through. She understood that adjusting to a new culture takes time. It can take weeks or months to recover from culture shock, and years to fully adjust to living in a new culture.

By the end of Caitlin’s trip, she’d made new lifelong friends. She’d stepped out of her comfort zone. She’d learned a lot about Spain, but she’d also discovered a lot about herself and her own culture.


Figure 3.4. Experiencing new cultures offers an opportunity to practise cultural relativism. (Photo courtesy of OledSidorenko/flickr)


3.2. Elements of Culture

Values and Beliefs

The first, and perhaps most crucial, elements of culture we will discuss are its values and beliefs. Values are a culture’s standard for discerning what is good and just in society. Values are deeply embedded and critical for transmitting and teaching a culture’s beliefs. Beliefs are the tenets or convictions that people hold to be true. Individuals in a society have specific beliefs, but they also share collective values. To illustrate the difference, North Americans commonly believe that anyone who works hard enough will be successful and wealthy. Underlying this belief is the value that wealth is good and important.

Values help shape a society by suggesting what is good and bad, beautiful and ugly, sought or avoided. Consider the value the culture North Americans place upon youth. Children represent innocence and purity, while a youthful adult appearance signifies sexuality. Shaped by this value, individuals spend millions of dollars each year on cosmetic products and surgeries to look young and beautiful.

Sometimes the values of Canada and the United States are contrasted. Americans are said to have an individualistic culture, meaning people place a high value on individuality and independence. In contrast, Canadian culture is said to be more collectivist, meaning the welfare of the group and group relationships are a primary value. Seymour Martin Lipset used these contrasts of values to explain why the two societies, which have common roots as British colonies, developed such different political institutions and cultures (Lipset 1990).

Living up to a culture’s values can be difficult. It’s easy to value good health, but it’s hard to quit smoking. Marital monogamy is valued, but many spouses engage in infidelity. Cultural diversity and equal opportunities for all people are valued in Canada, yet the country’s highest political offices have been dominated by white men.

Values often suggest how people should behave, but they do not accurately reflect how people do behave. As we saw in Chapter 1, Harriet Martineau’s basic distinction between what people say they believe and what they actually do are often at odds. Values portray an ideal culture, the standards society would like to embrace and live up to. But ideal culture differs from real culture, the way society actually is, based on what occurs and exists. In an ideal culture, there would be no traffic accidents, murders, poverty, or racial tension. But in real culture, police officers, lawmakers, educators, and social workers constantly strive to prevent or repair those accidents, crimes, and injustices. Teenagers are encouraged to value celibacy. However, the number of unplanned pregnancies among teens reveals that not only is the ideal hard to live up to, but that the value alone is not enough to spare teenagers from the potential consequences of having sex.

One way societies strive to put values into action is through rewards, sanctions, and punishments. When people observe the norms of society and uphold its values, they are often rewarded. A boy who helps an elderly woman board a bus may receive a smile and a “thank you.” A business manager who raises profit margins may receive a quarterly bonus. People sanction certain behaviours by giving their support, approval, or permission, or by instilling formal actions of disapproval and non-support. Sanctions are a form of social control, a way to encourage conformity to cultural norms. Sometimes people conform to norms in anticipation or expectation of positive sanctions: good grades, for instance, may mean praise from parents and teachers.

When people go against a society’s values, they are punished. A boy who shoves an elderly woman aside to board the bus first may receive frowns or even a scolding from other passengers. A business manager who drives away customers will likely be fired. Breaking norms and rejecting values can lead to cultural sanctions such as earning a negative label—lazy, no-good bum—or to legal sanctions such as traffic tickets, fines, or imprisonment.

Values are not static; they vary across time and between groups as people evaluate, debate, and change collective societal beliefs. Values also vary from culture to culture. For example, cultures differ in their values about what kinds of physical closeness are appropriate in public. It’s rare to see two male friends or coworkers holding hands in Canada where that behaviour often symbolizes romantic feelings. But in many nations, masculine physical intimacy is considered natural in public. A simple gesture, such as hand-holding, carries great symbolic differences across cultures.


Figure 3.5. In many parts of Africa and the Middle East, it is considered normal for men to hold hands in friendship. How would Canadians react to these two soldiers? (Photo courtesy of Geordie Mott/Wikimedia Commons)


So far, the examples in this chapter have often described how people are expected to behave in certain situations—for example, when buying food or boarding a bus. These examples describe the visible and invisible rules of conduct through which societies are structured, or what sociologists call norms. Norms define how to behave in accordance with what a society has defined as good, right, and important, and most members of the society adhere to them.

Formal norms are established, written rules. They are behaviours worked out and agreed upon in order to suit and serve the most people. Laws are formal norms, but so are employee manuals, college entrance exam requirements, and “no running” signs at swimming pools. Formal norms are the most specific and clearly stated of the various types of norms, and the most strictly enforced. But even formal norms are enforced to varying degrees, reflected in cultural values

For example, money is highly valued in North America, so monetary crimes are punished. It’s against the law to rob a bank, and banks go to great lengths to prevent such crimes. People safeguard valuable possessions and install antitheft devices to protect homes and cars. Until recently, a less strictly enforced social norm was driving while intoxicated. While it is against the law to drive drunk, drinking is for the most part an acceptable social behaviour. Though there have been laws in Canada to punish drunk driving since 1921, there were few systems in place to prevent the crime until quite recently. These examples show a range of enforcement in formal norms.

There are plenty of formal norms, but the list of informal norms—casual behaviours that are generally and widely conformed to—is longer. People learn informal norms by observation, imitation, and general socialization. Some informal norms are taught directly—“Kiss your Aunt Edna” or “Use your napkin”—while others are learned by observation, including observations of the consequences when someone else violates a norm. Children learn quickly that picking your nose is subject to ridicule when they see someone shamed for it by other children. But although informal norms define personal interactions, they extend into other systems as well. Think back to the discussion of fast food restaurants at the beginning of this chapter. In Canada, there are informal norms regarding behaviour at these restaurants. Customers line up to order their food, and leave when they are done. They do not sit down at a table with strangers, sing loudly as they prepare their condiments, or nap in a booth. Most people do not commit even benign breaches of informal norms. Informal norms dictate appropriate behaviours without the need of written rules.

Making Connections: Sociological Research

Breaching Experiments

Sociologist Harold Garfinkel (1917–2011) studied people’s customs in order to find out how tacit and often unconscious societal rules and norms not only influenced behaviour but enabled the social order to exist (Weber 2011). Like the symbolic interactionists, he believed that members of society together create a social order. He noted however, that people often draw on inferred knowledge and unspoken agreements to do so. His resulting book, Studies in Ethnomethodology, published in 1967, discusses the underlying assumptions that people use to create “accounts” or stories that enable them to make sense of the world.

One of his research methods was known as a “breaching experiment.” His breaching experiments tested sociological concepts of social norms and conformity. In a breaching experiment, the researcher purposely breaks a social norm or behaves in a socially awkward manner. The participants are not aware an experiment is in progress. If the breach is successful, however, these “innocent bystanders” will respond in some way. For example, he had his students go into local shops and begin to barter with the sales clerks for fixed price goods. “This says $14.99, but I’ll give you $10 for it.” Often the clerks were shocked or flustered. This breach reveals the unspoken convention in North America that amount given on the price tag is the price. It also breaks a number of other conventions which seek to make commercial transactions as efficient and impersonal as possible. In another example, he had his students respond to the casual greeting, “How are you?” with a detailed and elaborate description of their state of health and well-being. The point of the experiments was not that the experimenter would simply act obnoxiously or weird in public. Rather, the point is to deviate from a specific social norm in a small way, to subtly break some form of social etiquette, and see what happens.

To conduct his ethnomethodology, Garfinkel deliberately imposed strange behaviours on unknowing people. Then he would observe their responses. He suspected that odd behaviours would shatter conventional expectations, but he was not sure how. He set up, for example, a simple game of tic-tac-toe. One player was asked beforehand not to mark Xs and Os in the boxes but on the lines dividing the spaces instead. The other player, in the dark about the study, was flabbergasted and did not know how to continue. The reactions of outrage, anger, puzzlement, or other emotions illustrated the deep level at which unspoken social norms constitute social life.

There are many rules about speaking with strangers in public. It is okay to tell a woman you like her shoes. It is not okay to ask if you can try them on. It is okay to stand in line behind someone at the ATM. It is not okay to look over their shoulder as they make the transaction. It is okay to sit beside someone on a crowded bus. It is weird to sit beside a stranger in a half-empty bus.

For some breaches, the researcher directly engages with innocent bystanders. An experimenter might strike up a conversation in a public bathroom, where it’s common to respect each other’s privacy so fiercely as to ignore other people’s presence. In a grocery store, an experimenter might take a food item out of another person’s grocery cart, saying, “That looks good! I think I’ll try it.” An experimenter might sit down at a table with others in a fast food restaurant, or follow someone around a museum, studying the same paintings. In those cases, the bystanders are pressured to respond, and their discomfort illustrates how much we depend on social norms. These cultural norms play an important role. They let us know how to behave around each other and how to feel comfortable in our community. Breaching experiments uncover and explore the many unwritten social rules we live by.


Norms may be further classified as either mores or folkways. Mores (mor-ays) are norms that embody the moral views and principles of a group. Violating them can have serious consequences. The strongest mores are legally protected with laws or other formal norms. In the United States, for instance, murder is considered immoral, and it is punishable by law (a formal norm). But more often, mores are judged and guarded by public sentiment (an informal norm). People who violate mores are seen as shameful. They can even be shunned or banned from some groups. The mores of the Canadian school system require that a student’s writing be in the student’s own words or use special forms (such as quotation marks and a whole system of citation) for crediting other writers. Writing another person’s words as if they are one’s own has a name—plagiarism. The consequences for violating this norm are severe, and can usually result in expulsion.

Unlike mores, folkways are norms without any moral underpinnings. Folkways direct appropriate behaviour in the day-to-day practices and expressions of a culture. Folkways indicate whether to shake hands or kiss on the cheek when greeting another person. They specify whether to wear a tie and blazer or a T-shirt and sandals to an event. In Canada, women can smile and say hello to men on the street. In Egypt, it’s not acceptable. In Northern Europe, it is fine for people to go into a sauna or hot tub naked. Typically in North America, it is not. An opinion poll that asked Canadian women what they felt would end a relationship after a first date showed that women in British Columbia were “pickier” than women in the rest of the country (Times Colonist 2014). First date “deal breakers” included poor hygiene (82 percent), being distracted by a mobile device (74 percent), talking about sexual history and being rude to waiters (72 percent), and eating with their mouths open (60 percent). All of these examples illustrate breaking informal rules, which are not serious enough to be called mores, but are serious enough to terminate a relationship before it has begun.

Many folkways are actions we take for granted. People need to act without thinking to get seamlessly through daily routines; they can’t stop and analyze every action (Sumner 1906). People who experience culture shock may find that it subsides as they learn the new culture’s folkways and are able to move through their daily routines more smoothly Folkways might be small manners, learned by observation and imitated, but they are by no means trivial. Like mores and laws, these norms help people negotiate their daily life within a given culture.

Symbols and Language

Humans, consciously and subconsciously, are always striving to make sense of their surrounding world. Symbols—such as gestures, signs, objects, signals, and words—help people understand the world. Symbols provide clues to understanding experiences. They convey recognizable meanings that are shared by societies.

The world is filled with symbols. Sports uniforms, company logos, and traffic signs are symbols. In some cultures, a gold ring is a symbol of marriage. Some symbols are highly functional; stop signs, for instance, provide useful instruction. As physical objects, they belong to material culture, but because they function as symbols, they also convey nonmaterial cultural meanings. Some symbols are only valuable in what they represent. Trophies, blue ribbons, or gold medals, for example, serve no other purpose other than to represent accomplishments. But many objects have both material and nonmaterial symbolic value.

A police officer’s badge and uniform are symbols of authority and law enforcement. The sight of an officer in uniform or a squad car triggers reassurance in some citizens, and annoyance, fear, or anger in others.

It’s easy to take symbols for granted. Few people challenge or even think about stick figure signs on the doors of public bathrooms. But those figures are more than just symbols that tell men and women which bathrooms to use. They also uphold the value, in North America, that public restrooms should be gender exclusive. Even though stalls are relatively private, it is still relatively uncommon for places to offer unisex bathrooms.

The photo (a) shows a sign of a pedestrian crossing and an arrow; The photo (b) shows a sign with writing in Chinese.

Figure 3.6. Some road signs are universal. But how would you interpret the signage on the right? (Photo (a) courtesy of Andrew Bain/flickr; Photo (b) courtesy of HonzaSoukup/flickr)

Symbols often get noticed when they are used out of context. Used unconventionally, symbols convey strong messages. A stop sign on the door of a corporation makes a political statement, as does a camouflage military jacket worn in an antiwar protest. Together, the semaphore signals for “N” and “D” represent nuclear disarmament—and form the well-known peace sign (Westcott 2008). Internet “memes”—images that spread from person to person through reposting—often adopt the tactics of “detournement” or misappropriation used by the French Situationists of the 1950s and 1960s. The Situationists sought to subvert media and political messages by altering them slightly—“detouring” or hijacking them—in order to defamiliarize familiar messages, signs, and symbols. An ordinary image of a cat combined with the grammatically challenged caption “I Can Has Cheezburger?” spawned an internet phenomenon (LOL Cats) because of the funny, nonsensical nature of its non-sequitur message. An image of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a folksy sweater holding a cute cat, altered to show him holding an oily duck instead, is a detournement with a more political message.

Even the destruction of symbols is symbolic. Effigies representing public figures are beaten to demonstrate anger at certain leaders. In 1989, crowds tore down the Berlin Wall, a decades-old symbol of the division between East and West Germany, communism, and capitalism.

While different cultures have varying systems of symbols, there is one that is common to all: language. Language is a symbolic system through which people communicate and through which culture is transmitted. Some languages contain a system of symbols used for written communication, while others rely only on spoken communication and nonverbal actions.

Societies often share a single language, and many languages contain the same basic elements. An alphabet is a written system made of symbolic shapes that refer to spoken sound. Taken together, these symbols convey specific meanings. The English alphabet uses a combination of 26 letters to create words; these 26 letters make up over 600,000 recognized English words (OED Online 2011).

Rules for speaking and writing vary even within cultures, most notably by region. Do you refer to a can of carbonated liquid as a “soda,” “pop,” or “soft drink”? Is a household entertainment room a “family room,” “rec room,” or “den”? When leaving a restaurant, do you ask your server for the “cheque,” the “ticket,” “l’addition,” or the “bill”?

Language is constantly evolving as societies create new ideas. In this age of technology, people have adapted almost instantly to new nouns such as “email” and “internet,” and verbs such as “downloading,” “texting,” and “blogging.” Twenty years ago, the general public would have considered these nonsense words.

Even while it constantly evolves, language continues to shape our reality. This insight was established in the 1920s by two linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf. They believed that reality is culturally determined, and that any interpretation of reality is based on a society’s language. To prove this point, the sociologists argued that every language has words or expressions specific to that language. In Canada, for example, the number 13 is associated with bad luck. In Japan, however, the number four is considered unlucky, since it is pronounced similarly to the Japanese word for “death.”

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is based on the idea that people experience their world through their language, and that they therefore understand their world through the culture embedded in their language. The hypothesis, which has also been called linguistic relativity, states that language shapes thought (Swoyer 2003). Studies have shown, for instance, that unless people have access to the word “ambivalent,” they do not recognize an experience of uncertainty due to conflicting positive and negative feelings about one issue. Essentially, the hypothesis argues, if a person cannot describe the experience, the person is not having the experience.

In addition to using language, people communicate without words. Nonverbal communication is symbolic, and, as in the case of language, much of it is learned through one’s culture. Some gestures are nearly universal: smiles often represent joy and crying often represents sadness. Other nonverbal symbols vary across cultural contexts in their meaning. A thumbs-up, for example, indicates positive reinforcement in Canada, whereas in Russia and Australia, it is an offensive curse (Passero 2002). Other gestures vary in meaning depending on the situation and the person. A wave of the hand can mean many things, depending on how it is done and for whom. It may mean “hello,” “goodbye,” “no thank you,” or “I’m royalty.” Winks convey a variety of messages, including “We have a secret,” “I’m only kidding,” or “I’m attracted to you.” From a distance, a person can understand the emotional gist of two people in conversation just by watching their body language and facial expressions. Furrowed brows and folded arms indicate a serious topic, possibly an argument. Smiles, with heads lifted and arms open, suggest a lighthearted, friendly chat.

Making Connections: Social Policy & Debate

Is Canada Bilingual?

In the 1960s it became clear that the federal government needed to develop a bilingual language policy to integrate French Canadians into the national identity and prevent their further alienation. The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1965) recommended establishing official bilingualism within the federal government. As a result, the Official Languages Act became law in 1969 and established both English and French as the official languages of the federal government and federal institutions such as the courts. The Trudeau governments of the late 1960s and early 1970s had an even broader ambition to make Canada itself bilingual. Not only would Canadians be able to access government services in either French or English, no matter where they were in the country, but also French or English education. The entire country would be home for both French or English speakers (McRoberts 1997).

However, in the 1971 census, 67 percent of Canadians spoke English most often at home, while only 26 percent spoke French at home and most of these were in Quebec. Approximately 13 percent of Canadians could maintain a conversation in both languages (Statistics Canada 2007). Outside Quebec, the highest proportion of French spoken at home was 31.4 percent in New Brunswick. The next highest were Ontario at 4.6 percent and Manitoba at 4 percent. In British Columbia, only 0.5 percent of the population spoke French at home. French speakers had widely settled Canada, but French speaking outside Quebec had lost ground since Confederation because of the higher rates of anglophone immigrants, the assimilation of francophones, and the lack of French-speaking institutions outside Quebec (McRoberts 1997). It seemed even in 1971 that the ideal of creating a bilingual nation was unlikely and unrealistic.

What has happened to the concept of bilingualism over the last 40 years? According to the 2011 census, 58 percent of the Canadian population spoke English at home, while only 18.2 percent spoke French at home. Proportionately the number of both English and French speakers has actually decreased since the introduction of the Official Languages Act in 1969. On the other hand, the number of people who can maintain a conversation in both official languages has increased to 17.5 percent from 13 percent (Statistics Canada 2007). However, the most significant linguistic change in Canada has not been French-English bilingualism, but the growth in the use of languages other than French and English. In a sense, what has happened is that the shifting cultural composition of Canada has rendered the goal of a bilingual nation anachronistic.

Today it would be more accurate to speak of Canada as a multilingual nation. One-fifth of Canadians speak a language other than French or English at home; 11.5 percent report speaking English and a language other than French, and 1.3 percent report speaking French and a language other than English. In Toronto, 32.2 percent of the population speak a language other than French and English at home; 8.8 percent of whom speak Cantonese, 8 percent Punjabi, 7 percent an unspecified dialect of Chinese, 5.9 percent Urdu, and 5.7 percent Tamil. In Greater Vancouver, 31 percent of the population speak a language other than French and English at home; 17.7 percent of whom speak Punjabi, followed by Cantonese (16.0 percent), unspecified Chinese (12.2 percent), Mandarin (11.8 percent), and Philippine Tagalog (6.7 percent).

Today, the government of Canada still conducts its business in both official languages. French and English are the dominant languages in the workplace and school. Labels on products are required to be in both French and English. But increasingly a lot of product information is available in  in multiple languages. In Vancouver and Toronto, and to a lesser extent Montreal, linguistic diversity has become increasingly prevalent. French and English are still the central languages of convergence and integration for immigrant communities who speak other languages—only 1.8 percent of the population were unable to conduct a conversation in either English or French in 2011—but increasingly Canada is linguistically diverse rather than bilingual.

Figure 3.7. Nowadays, many signs—on streets and in stores—are multilingual. What effect does this have on members of society? What effect does it have on our culture? (Photo courtesy of Michael Gil/flickr)

Figure 3.7. Nowadays, many signs—on streets and in stores—are multilingual. What effect does this have on members of society? What effect does it have on our culture? (Photo courtesy of Michael Gil/flickr)


3.3. Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change

It may seem obvious that there are a multitude of cultural differences between societies in the world. After all, we can easily see that people vary from one society to the next. It is natural that a young woman from rural Kenya would have a very different view of the world from an elderly man in Mumbai—one of the most populated cities in the world. Additionally, each culture has its own internal variations. Sometimes the differences between cultures are not nearly as large as the differences inside cultures however.

High Culture and Popular Culture

Do you prefer listening to opera or hip hop music? Do you like watching horse jumping or NASCAR? Do you read books of poetry or celebrity magazines? In each pair, one type of entertainment is considered high-brow and the other low-brow. Sociologists use the term high culture to describe the pattern of cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in the highest class segments of a society. People often associate high culture with intellectualism, aesthetic taste, political power, and prestige. In North America, high culture also tends to be associated with wealth. Events considered high culture can be expensive and formal—attending a ballet, seeing a play, or listening to a live symphony performance.

The term popular culture refers to the pattern of cultural experiences and attitudes that exist in mainstream society. Popular culture events might include a parade, a baseball game, or a rock concert. Rock and pop music—“pop” short for “popular”—are part of popular culture. In modern times, popular culture is often expressed and spread via commercial media such as radio, television, movies, the music industry, publishers, and corporate-run websites. Unlike high culture, popular culture is known and accessible to most people. You can share a discussion of favourite hockey teams with a new coworker, or comment on American Idol when making small talk in line at the grocery store. But if you tried to launch into a deep discussion on the classical Greek play Antigone, few members of Canadian society today would be familiar with it.

Although high culture may be viewed as superior to popular culture, the labels of “high culture” and “popular culture” vary over time and place. Shakespearean plays, considered pop culture when they were written, are now among our society’s high culture. In the current second “Golden Age of Television,” (the first Golden Age was in the 1950s and 1960s), television programming has gone from typical low-brow situation comedies, soap operas, and crime dramas to the development of “high-quality” series with increasingly sophisticated characters, narratives, and themes (e.g., The Sopranos, True Blood, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones).

Contemporary culture is frequently referred to as a “postmodern culture.” In the era of modern culture, or modernity, the distinction between high culture and popular culture framed the experience of culture in more or less a clear way. The high culture of modernity was often experimental and avant-garde, seeking new and original forms in literature, art, and music to express the elusive, transient, underlying experiences of the modern human condition. It appealed to a limited-but-sophisticated audience. Popular culture was simply the culture of “the people,” immediately accessible and easily digestible, either in the guise of folk traditions or commercialized mass culture. In postmodern culture this distinction begins to break down and it becomes more common to find various sorts of “mash ups” of high and low: serious literature combined with zombie themes, pop music constructed from samples of original “hooks” and melodies, symphony orchestras performing the soundtracks of cartoons, architecture that borrows and blends historical styles, etc. Rock and roll music is the subject of many high-brow histories and academic analyses, just as the common objects of popular culture are transformed and re-presented as high art (e.g., Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans and Marilyn Munro pictures). The dominant sensibility of postmodern popular culture is both playful and ironic, as if the blending and mixing of cultural references (in the television show The Simpsons, for example) is one big “in” joke.

Subculture and Counterculture

A subculture is just as it sounds—a smaller cultural group within a larger culture; people of a subculture are part of the larger culture, but also share a specific identity within a smaller group.

Thousands of subcultures exist within Canada. Ethnic groups share the language, food, and customs of their heritage. Other subcultures are united by shared experiences. Biker culture revolves around a dedication to motorcycles. Some subcultures are formed by members who possess traits or preferences that differ from the majority of a society’s population. Alcoholics Anonymous offers support to those suffering from alcoholism. The body modification community embraces aesthetic additions to the human body, such as tattoos, piercings, and certain forms of plastic surgery. The post-Second World War period was characterized by a series of “spectacular” youth cultures: Teddy boys, beatniks, mods, hippies, skinheads, Rastas, punks, new wavers, ravers, hip-hoppers, and hipsters. But even as members of a subculture band together, they still identify with and participate in the larger society.

Sociologists distinguish subcultures from countercultures, which are a type of subculture that rejects some of the larger culture’s norms and values. In contrast to subcultures, which operate relatively smoothly within the larger society, countercultures might actively defy larger society by developing their own set of rules and norms to live by, sometimes even creating communities that operate outside of greater society.

Cults, a word derived from culture, are also considered counterculture groups. They are usually informal, transient religious groups or movements that deviate from orthodox beliefs and often, but not always, involve allegiance to a charismatic leader. The group Yearning for Zion (YFZ) in Eldorado, Texas, existed outside the mainstream, and the limelight, until its leader was accused of statutory rape and underage marriage. The sect’s formal norms clashed too severely to be tolerated by U.S. law, and in 2008, authorities raided the compound, removing more than 200 women and children from the property.

Making Connections: Careers in Sociology

The Evolution of American Hipster Subculture

Skinny jeans, chunky glasses, ironic moustaches, and T-shirts with vintage logos—the hipster is a recognizable figure in contemporary North American culture. Predominantly based in metropolitan areas, hipsters seek to define themselves by a rejection of mainstream norms and fashion styles. As a subculture, hipsters spurn many values and beliefs of North American society, tending to prefer a bohemian lifestyle over one defined by the accumulation of power and wealth.

When did hipster subculture begin? While commonly viewed as a recent trend among middle-class youth, the history of the group stretches back to the early decades of the 1900s. In the 1940s, black American jazz music was on the rise in the United States. Musicians were known as “hepcats” and had a smooth, relaxed style that contrasted with more conservative and mainstream expressions of cultural taste. Norman Mailer, in his essay, “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” defined those who were “hep” or “hip” as largely white youth living by a jazz-inspired code of resistance, while those who were “square” lived according to society’s rules and conventions.

As hipster attitudes spread and young people were increasingly drawn to alternative music and fashion, attitudes and language derived from the culture of jazz were adopted. Unlike the vernacular of the day, hipster slang was purposefully ambiguous. When hipsters said, “It’s cool, man,” they meant not that everything was good, but that it was the way it was.


Figure 3.8. In the 1940s, American hipsters were associated with the “cool” culture of jazz. (Photo courtesy of William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress)

By the 1950s, the influence of jazz was winding down and many traits of hepcat culture were becoming mainstream. A new subculture was on the rise. The “Beat Generation,” a title coined by Quebecois-American writer Jack Kerouac, was defined as an age that was nonconformist and anti-materialistic. Prominent in this movement were writers and poets who listened to jazz and embraced radical politics. They bummed around, hitchhiked the country, sought experience, and lived marginally.

College students, questioning the relevance and vitality of the American dream in the face of post-war skepticism, clutched copies of Kerouac’s On the Road, dressed in berets, black turtlenecks, and black-rimmed glasses. Women wore black leotards and grew their hair long. Herb Caen, a San Francisco journalist, used the suffix from Sputnik 1, the Russian satellite that orbited Earth in 1957, to dub the movement’s followers as “beatniks.”

As the Beat Generation faded, a new, related movement began. It too focused on breaking social boundaries, but also advocated freedom of expression, philosophy, and love. It took its name from the generations before; in fact, some theorists claim that the beats themselves coined the term to describe their children. Over time, the “little hipsters” of the 1970s became known simply as “hippies.”

Contemporary expressions of the hipster rose out of the hippie movement in the same way that hippies evolved from the beats and beats from hepcats. Although today’s hipster may not seem to have much in common with the jazz-inspired youth of the 1940s, an apparent emphasis on nonconformity persists. The sociologist Mark Greif set about investigating the hipster subculture of the United States and found that much of what tied the group together was not a specific set of fashion or music choices, nor a specific point of contention with the mainstream. What has emerged rather is a culture of consumer capitalism that seeks authenticity in and of itself.

In his New York Times article, “The Hipster in the Mirror” (2010), Greif wrote, “All hipsters play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties: pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world.” And what tends to be cool is an ironic pastiche of borrowed styles or tastes that signify other identities or histories.

Young people are often drawn to oppose mainstream conventions. Much as the hepcats of jazz era opposed common culture with carefully crafted appearances of coolness and relaxation, modern hipsters reject mainstream values with a purposeful apathy. Ironic, cool to the point of non-caring, and intellectual, hipsters continue to embody a subculture, while simultaneously impacting mainstream culture.


Figure 3.9. Intellectual and trendy, today’s hipsters define themselves through cultural irony. (Photo courtesy of Lorena Cupcake/wikimedia commons)


Cultural Change

As the hipster example illustrates, culture is always evolving. Moreover, new things are added to material culture every day, and they affect nonmaterial culture as well. Cultures change when something new (say, railroads or smartphones) opens up new ways of living and when new ideas enter a culture (say, as a result of travel or globalization).

Innovation: Discovery and Invention

An innovation refers to an object or concept’s initial appearance in society—it’s innovative because it is markedly new. There are two ways to come across an innovative object or idea: discover it or invent it. Discoveries make known previously unknown but existing aspects of reality. In 1610, when Galileo looked through his telescope and discovered Saturn, the planet was already there, but until then, no one had known about it. When Christopher Columbus encountered America, the land was, of course, already well known to its inhabitants. However, Columbus’s discovery was new knowledge for Europeans, and it opened the way to changes in European culture, as well as to the cultures of the discovered lands. For example, new foods such as potatoes and tomatoes transformed the European diet, and horses brought from Europe changed hunting practices of Native American tribes of the Great Plains.

Inventions result when something new is formed from existing objects or concepts—when things are put together in an entirely new manner. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, electric appliances were invented at an astonishing pace. Cars, airplanes, vacuum cleaners, lamps, radios, telephones, and televisions were all new inventions. Inventions may shape a culture when people use them in place of older ways of carrying out activities and relating to others, or as a way to carry out new kinds of activities. Their adoption reflects (and may shape) cultural values, and their use may require new norms for new situations.

Consider the introduction of modern communication technology such as mobile phones and smartphones. As more and more people began carrying these devices, phone conversations no longer were restricted to homes, offices, and phone booths. People on trains, in restaurants, and in other public places became annoyed by listening to one-sided conversations. Norms were needed for cell phone use. Some people pushed for the idea that those who are out in the world should pay attention to their companions and surroundings. However, technology enabled a workaround: texting, which enables quiet communication, and has surpassed phoning as the chief way to meet today’s highly valued ability to stay in touch anywhere, everywhere.

When the pace of innovation increases, it can lead to generation gaps. Technological gadgets that catch on quickly with one generation are sometimes dismissed by a skeptical older generation. A culture’s objects and ideas can cause not just generational but cultural gaps. Material culture tends to diffuse more quickly than nonmaterial culture; technology can spread through society in a matter of months, but it can take generations for the ideas and beliefs of society to change. Sociologist William F. Ogburn coined the term culture lag to refer to this time that elapses between when a new item of material culture is introduced and when it becomes an accepted part of nonmaterial culture (Ogburn 1957).

Culture lag can also cause tangible problems. The industrial economy of North America was built on the assumption that the resources available to exploit and the ability for the environment to sustain industrial activity were unlimited. The concept of sustainable development did not enter into the public imagination until environmental movement of the 1960s and the Limits to Growth report of the Club of Rome in 1972. Today it seems easier to imagine global catastrophe as a result of climate change than it does to implement regulatory changes needed to stem carbon emissions or find alternatives to fossil fuels. There is a lag in conceptualizing solutions to technological problems. Exhausted groundwater supplies, increased air pollution, and climate change are all symptoms of culture lag. Although people are becoming aware of the consequences of overusing resources and of neglecting the integrity of the ecosystems that sustain life, the means to support changes takes time to achieve.


Figure 3.10. Sociologist Everett Rogers (1962) developed a model of the diffusion of innovations. As consumers gradually adopt an innovation, the item grows toward a market share of 100 percent, or complete saturation within a society. (Graph courtesy of Tungsten/Wikimedia Commons)

Diffusion and Globalization

The integration of world markets and technological advances of the last decades have allowed for greater exchange between cultures through the processes of globalization and diffusion. Beginning in the 1970s, Western governments began to deregulate social services while granting greater liberties to private businesses. As a result of this process of neo-liberalization, world markets became dominated by unregulated, international flows of capital investment and new multinational networks of corporations. A global economy emerged to replace nationally based economies. We have since come to refer to this integration of international trade and finance markets as “globalization.” Increased communications and air travel have further opened doors for international business relations, facilitating the flow not only of goods but of information and people as well (Scheuerman 2010). Today, many Canadian companies set up offices in other nations where the costs of resources and labour are cheaper. When a person in Canada calls to get information about banking, insurance, or computer services, the person taking that call may be working in India or Indonesia.

Alongside the process of globalization is diffusion, or, the spread of material and nonmaterial culture. While globalization refers to the integration of markets, diffusion relates a similar process to the integration of international cultures. Middle-class North Americans can fly overseas and return with a new appreciation of Thai noodles or Italian gelato. Access to television and the internet has brought the lifestyles and values portrayed in Hollywood sitcoms into homes around the globe. Twitter feeds from public demonstrations in one nation have encouraged political protesters in other countries. When this kind of diffusion occurs, material objects and ideas from one culture are introduced into another.

Hybridity in cultures is one of the consequences of the increased global flows of capital, people, culture, and entertainment. Hybrid cultures refer to new forms of culture that arise from cross-cultural exchange, especially in the aftermath of the colonial era. On one hand, there are blendings of different cultural elements that had at one time been distinct and locally based: fusion cuisines, mixed martial arts, and New Age shamanism. On the other hand, there are processes of indigenization and appropriation in which local cultures adopt and redefine foreign cultural forms. The classic examples are the cargo cults of Melanesia in which isolated indigenous peoples “re-purposed” Western goods (cargo) within their own ritualistic practices in order to make sense of Westerners’ material wealth. Other examples include Arjun Appadurai’s discussion of how the colonial Victorian game of cricket has been taken over and absorbed as a national passion into the culture of the Indian subcontinent (Appadurai 1996). Similarly, Chinese “duplitecture” reconstructs famous European and North American buildings, or in the case of Hallstatt, Austria, entire villages, in Chinese housing developments (Bosker 2013). As cultural diasporas, or emigrant communities, begin to introduce their cultural traditions to new homelands and absorb the cultural traditions they find there, opportunities for new and unpredictable forms of hybrid culture emerge

Figure (a) shows drawings of a patent for the zipper; Figure (b) shows a modern zipper.

Figure 3.11. Officially patented in 1893 as the “clasp locker” (left), the zipper did not diffuse through society for many decades. Today, it is immediately recognizable around the world. (Photo (a) courtesy of U.S. Patent Office/Wikimedia Commons; Photo (b) courtesy of Rabensteiner/Wikimedia Commons)

3.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Culture

Music, fashion, technology, and values—all are products of culture. But what do they mean? How do sociologists perceive and interpret culture based on these material and nonmaterial items? Let’s finish our analysis of culture by reviewing them in the context of three theoretical perspectives: functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.

Functionalists view society as a system in which all parts work—or function—together to create society as a whole. In this way, societies need culture to exist. Cultural norms function to support the fluid operation of society, and cultural values guide people in making choices. Talcott Parsons referred to the function of culture as “latent pattern maintenance” meaning that the cultural practices that reproduce and circulate symbolic meanings and codes serve the function of maintaining social patterns of behaviour and facilitating orderly pattern change. Culture functions to ensure that the “meaning of life” remains stable.

By focusing on the function that culture plays in maintaining the stable equilibrium of society as a whole, functionalism can often provide interesting insights into cultural activities that seem irrational and bizarre on the surface. Bronislaw Malinowski (1925) described the way that the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea used magic at each stage of preparation in fishing. From a rationalized, calculative point of view, magic ritual has nothing to do with the ability to catch fish. Fishing is a practical activity. However, as Malinowski pointed out, fishing for the Trobriand Islanders was also a risky and uncertain activity. It was dangerous, weather was unpredictable, the whereabouts of fish variable. Magic provided the fishers with a sense of control over their environment and a sense of confidence that enabled them to venture out into the dangerous waters day after day. Whether magic “worked” or not, it performed an important and rational function in the economic life of the Islanders. It provided a stable pattern of meaning that empowered the fishers to bring back an essential food resource.

Functionalists argue that cultural practices play a similar role in modern societies. The game of hockey for example, in which highly skilled men and women chase a disk of rubber around a frozen sheet of ice risking injury and expending energy for nonproductive purposes, is on the surface of it, an irrational and crazy activity. Yet millions of people watch hockey, millions of dollars are spent on it, millions of people’s identities are defined by their fandom, and millions of people’s collective sense of self-worth can hang on the fortunes and failures of their favourite hockey teams. Hockey is both, practically speaking, useless and yet clearly a highly valued activity. Why? As Durkheim argued with respect to religious rituals and totems, when people come together and focus their attention on a common object—in this case, a disk of rubber— thoughts and feelings pass back and forth between them until they take on a supra-individual force, detached from individuals themselves. A pre-rational collective consciousness emerges that provides the basis for group solidarity or a moral sense of group togetherness. Hockey functions as a site of collective convergence in a society that otherwise threatens to dissolve into incoherence as people’s everyday lives diverge in pursuit of individual self-interests.

In addition, many people point to the latent functions of hockey in that it provides an outlet for energies that might otherwise be directed to negative activities; it provides the basis for the cultivation of the self in the pursuit of excellence; it provides important lessons on the value of team play; and it provides an exercise activity that contributes to the health of the population. As many Canadians know, it is often easier to get a good physical workout when you are chasing a puck or a hockey ball than it is to convince yourself to go out into the cold to go for a jog or to do another repetition down at the gym.


Figure 3.12. This statue of Superman stands in the centre of Metropolis, Illinois. His pedestal reads “Truth—Justice—The American Way.” How would a functionalist interpret this statue? What does it reveal about the values of American culture? (Photo courtesy of David Wilson/flickr)

Symbolic interactionism is a sociological perspective that is most concerned with the face-to-face interactions between members of society. Interactionists see culture as being created and maintained by the ways people interact and how individuals interpret each other’s actions. Proponents of this theory conceptualize human interactions as a continuous process of deriving meaning from both objects in the environment and the actions of others. This is where the term “symbolic” comes into play. Every object and action has a symbolic meaning, and language serves as a means for people to represent and communicate their interpretations of these meanings to others. Those who believe in symbolic interactionism perceive culture as highly dynamic and fluid, as it is dependent on how meaning is interpreted and how individuals interact when conveying these meanings.

A symbolic interactionist approach to fashion for example would emphasize that fashion is a language that we use to interpret who others are and communicate who we are. Clothing fashions in particular represent an extremely intricate language of interpersonal communication, as anyone who has gone shopping with a friend for clothes is well aware. What are the variables involved in the question, “Does this look good on me?” Clothes are never simply “functional,” because even the most functional and practical Mountain Equipment Co-op style clothing makes a statement about the wearer. Georg Simmel (1904) noted that, while extremely transitory, the establishment of fashions always has to contend with two seemingly contradictory tendencies—the desire of individuals to fit in and conform to what is fashionable and the desire of individuals to stand out as individuals. Being fashionable involves a highly nuanced negotiation between these two poles.

Critical sociologists view social structure as inherently unequal, based on power differentials related to issues like class, gender, race, and age. For a critical sociologist, culture is seen as reinforcing and perpetuating those inequalities and differences in power. Unlike the functionalists who examine culture in terms of the general interests it supports, or symbolic interactionists who emphasize how people come to mutual understandings through cultural practices and interactions, critical sociologists examine how inequalities and power relationships are maintained by a culture’s value system.

Only women serving in the armed forces during WWI, including nurses, were allowed to vote in federal elections. It was not until 1919 that the rest of women in Canada could vote federally. (Source: William Rider-Rider, Library and Archives Canada, # PA-002279

Figure 3.13. Women serving in the armed forces during World War I, including nurses, were the only women who were allowed to vote in federal elections. It was not until 1919 that the rest of women in Canada could vote federally. (Photo Courtesy of William Rider-Rider/Wikimedia Commons)

Some norms, formal and informal, are practised at the expense of others. After Confederation in 1867, women were not allowed to vote in federal elections in Canada until 1919 and it was not until 1940 that they could vote in provincial elections in Quebec. (Women had been able to vote, as property owners, prior to Confederation.) It was not until 1947 and 1948 that Canadians of Japanese, Chinese, and South Asian origins were permitted to vote. Native Canadians, who had been able to vote in some regions up until 1898, had their rights revoked and were not permitted to vote federally again until 1960. In each case of discrimination, it was dominant cultural attitudes toward the subordinate groups that served as the rationale for refusing them the franchise. For example, in 1898 the member of Parliament for Saint John argued that “Indians knew no more of politics ‘than a child two years old’” (Elections Canada 2014). Because of prevailing paternalistic and racist attitudes, it was argued that aboriginal people would somehow be more susceptible to manipulation by politicians than other Canadians.

A key focus of cultural analysis in critical sociology is the critique of ideology. An ideology is a set of ideas that serve to support, justify or conceal existing power relationships in society. Classical liberalism for example is a set of ideas that emphasize the freedom of the individual to pursue his or her own self-interest without the interference of others, or of the state, unless the individual impinges on the right of others to do the same. The idea espoused by Enlightenment thinkers, utilitarians, and other early advocates of liberal thought was that the aggregate of freely made decisions would lead to the best and most rational outcomes—“the greatest good for the greatest number”—whether in democratic politics or in the operation of supply and demand in markets. Liberalism is also the source of the mythical notion of the “self-made man,” the individual who through determination, intelligence, and good decision making rises up from poverty and becomes a millionaire. As in all ideology, there is a kernel of truth in liberalism. However, to the degree that liberalism supports not only personal freedoms but also the property rights of corporations, it is clear that it is an ideology that perpetuates the power of capital. By focusing on the individual—individual rights, individual self-interest, individual responsibility—liberalism also makes it difficult to see that power structures are not the product of individual initiative but of historical, structural inequalities based on class, gender, race, and colonization. In the liberal culture of capitalism, we continue to strive on an individual basis toward the promise of success, which perpetuates the belief that the wealthy deserve their privileges.

We began this chapter by asking what culture is. Culture comprises all the practices, beliefs, and behaviours of a society. Because culture is learned, it includes how people think and express themselves. While we may like to consider ourselves individuals, we must acknowledge the impact of culture; we inherit thought language that shapes our perceptions and patterned behaviour, including about issues of family and friends, and faith and politics.

To an extent, culture is a social comfort. After all, sharing a similar culture with others is precisely what defines societies. Nations would not exist if people did not coexist culturally. There could be no societies if people did not share heritage and language, and civilization would cease to function if people did not agree to similar values and systems of social control. Culture is preserved through transmission from one generation to the next, but it also evolves through processes of innovation, discovery, and cultural diffusion. We may be restricted by the confines of our own culture, but as humans we have the ability to question values and make conscious decisions. No better evidence of this freedom exists than the amount of cultural diversity within our own society and around the world. The more we study another culture, the better we become at understanding our own.


Figure 3.14. This child’s clothing may be culturally specific, but her facial expression is universal. (Photo courtesy of Beth Rankin/flickr)

Key Terms

beliefs tenets or convictions that people hold to be true

countercultures groups that reject and oppose society’s widely accepted cultural patterns

cultural imperialism the deliberate imposition of one’s own cultural values on another culture

cultural relativism the practice of assessing a culture by its own standards, and not in comparison to another culture

cultural universals patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies

culture shared beliefs, values, and practices

culture lag the gap of time between the introduction of material culture and nonmaterial culture’s acceptance of it

culture shock an experience of personal disorientation when confronted with an unfamiliar way of life

diffusion the spread of material and nonmaterial culture from one culture to another

discoveries things and ideas found from what already exists

ethnocentrism to evaluate another culture according to the standards of one’s own culture

folkways norms that direct appropriate behaviour in the day-to-day practices and expressions of a culture

formal norms established, written rules

globalization the integration of international trade and finance markets

high culture the cultural patterns of a society’s elite

ideal culture consists of the standards a society would like to embrace and live up to

informal norms casual behaviours that are generally and widely conformed to

innovations new objects or ideas introduced to culture for the first time

inventions a combination of pieces of existing reality into new forms

language a symbolic system of communication

material culture the objects or belongings of a group of people

mores the moral views and principles of a group

nonmaterial culture the ideas, attitudes, and beliefs of a society

norms the visible and invisible rules of conduct through which societies are structured

popular culture mainstream, widespread patterns among a society’s population

real culture the way society really is based on what actually occurs and exists

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis the idea that people understand the world based on their form of language

sanctions a way to authorize or formally disapprove of certain behaviours

social control a way to encourage conformity to cultural norms

society people who live in a definable community and who share a culture

subcultures groups that share a specific identification, apart from a society’s majority, even as the members exist within a larger society

symbols gestures or objects that have meanings associated with them that are recognized by people who share a culture

values a culture’s standard for discerning what is good and just in society

Section Summary

3.1. What Is Culture?
Though “society” and “culture” are often used interchangeably, they have different meanings. A society is a group of people sharing a community and culture. Culture generally describes the shared behaviours and beliefs of these people, and includes material and nonmaterial elements. Our experience of cultural difference is influenced by our ethnocentrism and androcentrism.

3.2. Elements of Culture
A culture consists of many elements, such as the values and beliefs of its society. Culture is also governed by norms, including laws, mores, and folkways. The symbols and language of a society are key to developing and conveying culture.

3.3. Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change
Sociologists recognize high culture and popular culture within societies. Societies also comprise many subcultures—smaller groups that share an identity. Countercultures reject mainstream values and create their own cultural rules and norms. Through invention or discovery, cultures evolve via new ideas and new ways of thinking. In many modern cultures, the cornerstone of innovation is technology, the rapid growth of which can lead to cultural lag. Technology is also responsible for the spread of both material and nonmaterial culture that contributes to globalization.

3.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Culture
There are three major theoretical approaches toward the interpretation of culture. A functionalist perspective acknowledges that there are many parts of culture that work together as a system to fulfill society’s needs. Functionalists view culture as a reflection of society’s values. An interactionist is primarily interested in culture as experienced in the daily interactions between individuals and the symbols that make up a culture. Critical sociologists see culture as inherently unequal, based on factors like gender, class, race, and age. Various cultural and sociological occurrences can be explained by these theories; however, there is no one “right” view through which to understand culture.

Section Quiz

3.1. What Is Culture?
1. The terms _________________ and ______________ are often used interchangeably, but have nuances that differentiate them.

  1. imperialism and relativism
  2. culture and society
  3. society and ethnocentrism
  4. ethnocentrism and xenocentrism

2. The American flag is a material object that denotes the United States of America; however, there are certain connotations that many associate with the flag, like bravery and freedom. In this example, what are bravery and freedom?

  1. symbols
  2. language
  3. material culture
  4. nonmaterial culture

3. The belief that one’s culture is inferior to another culture is called?

  1. ethnocentrism
  2. nationalism
  3. xenocentrism
  4. imperialism

4. Rodney and Elise are American students studying abroad in Italy. When they are introduced to their host families, the families kiss them on both cheeks. When Rodney’s host brother introduces himself and kisses Rodney on both cheeks, Rodney pulls back in surprise. Where he is from, unless they are romantically involved, men do not kiss one another. This is an example of:

  1. culture shock
  2. imperialism
  3. ethnocentrism
  4. xenocentrism

5. Most cultures have been found to identify laughter as a sign of humour, joy, or pleasure. Likewise, most cultures recognize music in some form. Music and laughter are examples of:

  1. relativism
  2. ethnocentrism
  3. xenocentrism
  4. universalism

3.2. Elements of Culture
6. A nation’s flag is:

  1. a symbol
  2. a value
  3. a culture
  4. a folkway

7. The existence of social norms, both formal and informal, is one of the main things that inform ___________, otherwise known as a way to encourage social conformity.

  1. values
  2. sanctions
  3. social control
  4. mores

8. The biggest difference between mores and folkways is that:

  1. mores are primarily linked to morality, whereas folkways are primarily linked to being commonplace within a culture
  2. mores are absolute, whereas folkways are temporary
  3. mores refer to material culture, whereas folkways refer to nonmaterial culture
  4. mores refer to nonmaterial culture, whereas folkways refer to material culture

9. The notion that people cannot feel or experience something that they do not have a word for can be explained by:

  1. linguistics
  2. Sapir-Whorf
  3. ethnographic imagery
  4. bilingualism

10. Cultural sanctions can also be viewed as ways that society:

  1. establishes leaders
  2. determines language
  3. regulates behaviour
  4. determines laws

3.3. Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change
11. An example of high culture is ___________, whereas an example of popular culture would be ____________.

  1. Dostoevsky style in film; American Idol winners
  2. medical marijuana; film noir
  3. country music; pop music
  4. political theory; sociological theory

12. The Ku Klux Klan is an example of what part of culture?

  1. Counterculture
  2. Subculture
  3. Multiculturalism
  4. Afrocentricity

13. Modern-day hipsters are an example of:

  1. ethnocentricity
  2. counterculture
  3. subculture
  4. high culture

14. Your 83-year-old grandmother has been using a computer for some time now. As a way to keep in touch, you frequently send emails of a few lines to let her know about your day. She calls after every email to respond point by point, but she has never emailed a response back. This can be viewed as an example of:

  1. cultural lag
  2. innovation
  3. ethnocentricity
  4. xenophobia

15. Some jobs today advertise in multinational markets and permit telecommuting in lieu of working from a primary location. This broadening of the job market and the way that jobs are performed can be attributed to:

  1. cultural lag
  2. innovation
  3. discovery
  4. globalization

16. The major difference between invention and discovery is:

  1. invention is based on technology, whereas discovery is usually based on culture
  2. discovery involves finding something that already exists, but invention puts things together in a new way
  3. invention refers to material culture, whereas discovery can be material or theoretic, like laws of physics
  4. invention is typically used to refer to international objects, whereas discovery refers to that which is local to one’s culture

17. That McDonald’s is found in almost every country around the world is an example of:

  1. globalization
  2. diffusion
  3. culture lag
  4. xenocentrism

3.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Culture
18. A sociologist conducts research into the ways that Hispanic American students are historically underprivileged in the American education system. What theoretical approach is the sociologist using?

  1. symbolic interactionism
  2. functionalism
  3. conflict theory
  4. ethnocentrism

19. The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 grew to be an international movement. Supporters believe that the economic disparity between the highest economic class and the mid to lower economic classes is growing at an exponentially alarming rate. A sociologist who studies that movement by examining the interactions between members at Occupy camps would most likely use what theoretical approach?

  1. symbolic interactionism
  2. functionalism
  3. conflict theory
  4. ethnocentrism

20. What theoretical perspective views society as having a system of interdependent inherently connected parts?

  1. sociobiology
  2. functionalism
  3. conflict theory
  4. ethnocentrism

21. The “American Dream”—the notion that anybody can be successful and rich if they work hard enough—is most commonly associated with which sociological theory?

  1. sociobiology
  2. functionalism
  3. conflict theory
  4. ethnocentrism

Short Answer

3.1. What Is Culture?

  1. Examine the difference between material and nonmaterial culture in your world. Identify ten objects that are part of your regular cultural experience. For each, then identify what aspects of nonmaterial culture (values and beliefs) that these objects represent. What has this exercise revealed to you about your culture?
  2. Do you feel that feelings of ethnocentricity or xenocentricity are more prevalent in U.S. culture? Why do you believe this? What issues or events might inform this?

3.2. Elements of Culture

  1. What do you think of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? Do you agree or disagree with it? Cite examples or research to support your point of view.
  2. How do you think your culture would exist if there were no such thing as a social “norm”? Do you think chaos would ensue or relative peace could be kept? Explain.

3.3. Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change

  1. Identify several examples of popular culture and describe how they inform larger culture. How prevalent is the effect of these examples in your everyday life?
  2. Consider some of the specific issues or concerns of your generation. Are any ideas countercultural? What subcultures have emerged from your generation? How have the issues of your generation expressed themselves culturally? How has your generation made its mark on society’s collective culture?
  3. What are some examples of cultural lag that are present in your life? Do you think technology affects culture positively or negatively? Explain.

3.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Culture

  1. Consider a current social trend that you have witnessed, perhaps situated around family, education, transportation, or finances. For example, many veterans of the Armed Forces, after completing tours of duty in the Middle East, are returning to college rather than entering jobs as veterans as previous generations did. Choose a sociological approach—functionalism, conflict theory, or symbolic interactionism—to describe, explain, and analyze the social issue you choose. Afterwards, determine why you chose the approach you did. Does it suit your own way of thinking? Or did it offer the best method to illuminate the social issue?

Further Research

3.1. What Is Culture?
In January 2011, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America presented evidence indicating that the hormone oxytocin could regulate and manage instances of ethnocentrism. Read the full article here:

3.2. Elements of Culture
The science-fiction novel, Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delaney was based upon the principles of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Read an excerpt from the novel here:

3.3. Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change
The Beats were a counterculture that birthed an entire movement of art, music, and literature—much of which is still highly regarded and studied today. The man responsible for naming the generation was Jack Kerouac; however, the man responsible for introducing the world to that generation was John Clellon Holmes, a writer often lumped in with the group. In 1952 he penned an article for the New York Times Magazine titled “This Is the Beat Generation.” Read that article and learn more about Clellon Holmes and the Beats:

Popular culture meets counterculture as Oprah Winfrey interacts with members of the Yearning for Zion cult. Read about it here:


3.1. What Is Culture?
Barger, Ken. 2008. “Ethnocentrism.” Indiana University, July 1. Retrieved May 2, 2011 (

Barthes, Roland. 1977. “Rhetoric of the Image.” Pp. 32-51 in Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang.

Darwin, Charles R. 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray.

DuBois, Cora. 1951. “Culture Shock.” Presentation to Panel Discussion at the First Midwest Regional Meeting of the Institute of International Education.” November 28. Also presented to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 3, 1954.

Fritz, Thomas, Sebastian Jentschke, Nathalie Gosselin, et al. 2009. “Universal Recognition of Three Basic Emotions in Music.” Current Biology 19(7).

Murdock, George P. 1949. Social Structure. New York: Macmillan.

Oberg, Kalervo. 1960. “Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments.” Practical Anthropology 7:177–182.

Smith, Dorothy. 1987. The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Sumner, William G. 1906. Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. New York: Ginn and Co.

3.2. Elements of Culture
Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1990. Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall.

McRoberts, Kenneth. 1997. Misconceiving Canada: The Struggle for National Unity. Toronto: Oxford University Press .

OED Online. 2011. Oxford University Press. Retrieved May 5, 2011 (

Passero, Kathy. 2002. “Global Travel Expert Roger Axtell Explains Why.” Biography July:70–73,97–98.

Statistics Canada 2007. Languages in Canada: 2001 Census. Catalogue no. 96-326-XIE. Retrieved April 10, 2014, from

Sumner, William G. 1906. Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals. New York: Ginn and Co.

Swoyer, Chris. 2003. “The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by E. N. Zalta, Winter. Retrieved May 5, 2011 (

Times Colonist (Victoria, B.C.). 2014. “Poll: B.C. Women pickier than most in Canada on romance.” February 16:A2.

Weber, Bruce. 2011. “Harold Garfinkel, a Common-Sense Sociologist, Dies at 93.” The New York Times, May 3. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (

Westcott, Kathryn. 2008. “World’s Best-Known Protest Symbol Turns 50.” BBC News, March 20. Retrieved January 3, 2012 (

3.3. Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change
Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bosker, Bianca. Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Greif, Mark. 2010. “The Hipster in the Mirror.” New York Times, November 12. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (

Ogburn, William F. 1957. “Cultural Lag as Theory.” Sociology & Social Research 41(3):167–174.

Rogers, Everett M. 1962. Diffusion of Innovations. Glencoe: Free Press.

Scheuerman, William. 2010. “Globalization.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by E. N. Zalta, Summer. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (

3.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Culture
Elections Canada. 2014. “A History of the Vote in Canada.” Elections Canada Resource Centre. Retrieved February 19, 2014 (

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1954 (1925). Magic, Science and Religion. NY: Doubleday.

Simmel, Georg. 1971 [1904]. “Fashion.” Pp. 294–323 in On Individuality and Social Forms, edited by Donald Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Solutions to Section Quiz

1. B | 2. D | 3. C | 4. A | 5. D | 6. A | 7. C | 8. A | 9. B | 10. C | 11. A | 12. A | 13. C | 14. A | 15. D | 16. B | 17. B | 18. C | 19. A | 20. B | 21. C

Image Attributions

Figure 3.3. Ruth Benedict ( is in the public domain (

Figure 3.7. Multilingual City by Michael Gil ( used under CC-BY 2.0 license (

Figure 3.13. Canadian nurses voting 1917 by William Rider-Rider ( is in public domain


Chapter 4. Society and Social Interaction


Figure 4.1. Sociologists study how societies interact with the environment and how they use technology. This Maasai village in Tanzania looks very different from a rural Canadian town. (Photo courtesy of Guillaume Baviere/Wikimedia Commons)

Learning Objectives

4.1. Types of Societies

  • Describe the difference between preindustrial, industrial, and postindustrial societies
  • Understand the role of environment on preindustrial societies
  • Understand how technology impacts societal development

4.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Society

  • Describe Durkheim’s functionalist view of modern society
  • Understand the critical sociology view of modern society
  • Explain the difference between Marx’s concept of alienation and Weber’s concept of rationalization
  • Identify how feminists analyze the development of society

4.3. Social Constructions of Reality

  • Understand the sociological concept of reality as a social construct
  • Define roles and describe their place in people’s daily interactions
  • Explain how individuals present themselves and perceive themselves in a social context

Introduction to Society and Social Interaction

Early in the morning, a group of male warriors creeps out of the village and heads for the savannah. They must be careful not to wake the other members of the tribe, lest they be accosted by the women or elders. Once they have regrouped on the plains, the warriors begin preparing for the hunt. The eldest members of the group choose the most qualified hunters, known as ilmeluaya, meaning men who are not afraid of death. Warriors who are not selected are sent home in shame.

Once the select group has been chosen, the warriors begin the hunt. They scour the plains for footprints or droppings, and search for dense bushes or tall termite mounds that might conceal their resting prey. The search can take ten minutes to ten hours, but once a lion is found, the warriors quickly move into place.

Selected hunters ring bells and rattle the brush, forcing the lion away from its protected hiding spot. The goal is to face the beast one-on-one on the open savannah. There will be no tricks or cheating, simply warrior against warrior. If all goes as planned, the lion will be brought down with a single spear.

When the warriors return to the village with their trophy, it is the beginning of a weeklong celebration. Although the hunt must be planned in secret, news of the warriors’ success spreads quickly, and all village members come to congratulate the victors. The warrior who wounded the lion first is honoured and given a nickname based on his accomplishment. Songs are sung about the warrior, and from then on he will be remembered and acknowledged throughout the community, even among other tribes.

To the Maasai, lion hunting is about more than food and security. It is a way to strengthen the bonds of community and the hierarchy among the hunters. Disputes over power are settled before the hunt, and roles are reinforced at the end, with the bravest warrior receiving the lion’s tail as a trophy (Maasai Association 2011). Although Maasai society is very different from contemporary Canada, both can be seen as different ways of expressing the human need to cooperate and live together in order to survive.

4.1. Types of Societies


Figure 4.2. Maasai men are hunting with shepherd’s staves and spears. How does technology influence a society’s daily occupations? (Photo courtesy of Abir Anwar/flickr)

Maasai villagers, Iranians, Canadians—each is a society. But what does this mean? Exactly what is a society? In sociological terms, society refers to a group of people who live in a definable territory and share the same culture. On a broader scale, society consists of the people and institutions around us, our shared beliefs, and our cultural ideas.

Sociologist Gerhard Lenski (1924–) defined societies in terms of their technological sophistication. As a society advances, so does its use of technology. Societies with rudimentary technology are at the mercy of the fluctuations of their environment, while industrialized societies have more control over the impact of their surroundings and thus develop different cultural features. This distinction is so important that sociologists generally classify societies along a spectrum of their level of industrialization, from preindustrial to industrial to postindustrial.

Preindustrial Societies

Before the Industrial Revolution and the widespread use of machines, societies were small, rural, and dependent largely on local resources. Economic production was limited to the amount of labour a human being could provide, and there were few specialized occupations. The very first occupation was that of hunter-gatherer.


Hunter-gatherer societies demonstrate the strongest dependence on the environment of the various types of preindustrial societies. As the basic structure of all human society until about 10,000–12,000 years ago, these groups were based around kinship or tribes. Hunter-gatherers relied on their surroundings for survival—they hunted wild animals and foraged for uncultivated plants for food. When resources became scarce, the group moved to a new area to find sustenance, meaning they were nomadic. These societies were common until several hundred years ago, but today only a few hundred remain in existence, such as indigenous Australian tribes sometimes referred to as “aborigines,” or the Bambuti, a group of pygmy hunter-gatherers residing in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hunter-gatherer groups are quickly disappearing as the world’s population explodes.


Changing conditions and adaptations led some societies to rely on the domestication of animals where circumstances permitted. Roughly 7,500 years ago, human societies began to recognize their ability to tame and breed animals and to grow and cultivate their own plants. Pastoral societies rely on the domestication of animals as a resource for survival. Unlike earlier hunter-gatherers who depended entirely on existing resources to stay alive, pastoral groups were able to breed livestock for food, clothing, and transportation, creating a surplus of goods. Herding, or pastoral, societies remained nomadic because they were forced to follow their animals to fresh feeding grounds. Around the time that pastoral societies emerged, specialized occupations began to develop, and societies commenced trading with local groups.

Making Connections: The Big Picture

The Bedouin

Throughout Northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula live the Bedouin, modern-day nomads. While many different tribes of Bedouin exist, they all share similarities. Members migrate from one area to another, usually in conjunction with the seasons, settling near oases in the hot summer months. They tend to herds of goats, camels, and sheep, and they harvest dates in the fall (Kjeilen N.d.).

In recent years, there has been increased conflict between the Bedouin society and more modernized societies. National borders are harder to cross now than in the past, making the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Bedouin difficult. The clash of traditions among Bedouin and other residents has led to discrimination and abuse. Bedouin communities frequently have high poverty and unemployment rates, and their members have little formal education (Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada 2005).

The future of the Bedouin is uncertain. Government restrictions on farming and residence are slowly forcing them to integrate into modern society. Although their ancestors have traversed the deserts for thousands of years, the days of the nomadic Bedouin may be at an end.


Figure 4.3. This photo shows a Bedouin family from eastern Oman. How will their society respond to the constraints modern society places on a nomadic lifestyle? (Photo courtesy of Tanenhaus/Wikimedia Commons)



Around the same time that pastoral societies were on the rise, another type of society developed, based on the newly developed capacity for people to grow and cultivate plants. Previously, the depletion of a region’s crops or water supply forced pastoral societies to relocate in search of food sources for their livestock. Horticultural societies formed in areas where rainfall and other conditions allowed them to grow stable crops. They were similar to hunter-gatherers in that they largely depended on the environment for survival, but since they did not have to abandon their location to follow resources, they were able to start permanent settlements. This created more stability and more material goods and became the basis for the first revolution in human survival.


While pastoral and horticultural societies used small, temporary tools such as digging sticks or hoes, agricultural societies relied on permanent tools for survival. Around 3000 BCE., an explosion of new technology known as the Agricultural Revolution made farming possible—and profitable. Farmers learned to rotate the types of crops grown on their fields and to reuse waste products such as fertilizer, leading to better harvests and bigger surpluses of food. New tools for digging and harvesting were made of metal, making them more effective and longer lasting. Human settlements grew into towns and cities, and particularly bountiful regions became centres of trade and commerce.

This is also the age in which people had the time and comfort to engage in more contemplative and thoughtful activities, such as music, poetry, and philosophy. This period became referred to as the “dawn of civilization” by some because of the development of leisure and arts. Craftspeople were able to support themselves through the production of creative, decorative, or thought-provoking aesthetic objects and writings.

As agricultural techniques made the production of surpluses possible, social classes and power structures emerged. Those with the power to appropriate the surpluses were able to dominate the society. Classes of nobility and religious elites developed. Difference in social standing between men and women appeared. Slavery was institutionalized. As cities expanded, ownership and protection of resources became a pressing concern and militaries became more prominent.


In Europe, the ninth century gave rise to feudal societies. These societies contained a strict hierarchical system of power based around land ownership, protection, and mutual obligation. The nobility, known as lords, rewarded knights or vassals by granting them pieces of land. In return for the resources that the land provided, vassals promised to fight for their lords.


Figure 4.4. Tapestry from the 1070s in which King Harold swears an oath to become the vassal of Duke William of Normandy (Photo courtesy of Myrabella/Wikimedia Commons)

These individual pieces of land, known as fiefdoms, were cultivated by the lower class of serfs. In return for maintaining and working the land, serfs were guaranteed a place to live and protection from outside enemies. Power was handed down through family lines, with serf families serving lords for generations and generations. Ultimately, the social and economic system of feudalism was surpassed by the rise of capitalism and the technological advances of the industrial era.

Industrial Society

In the 18th century, Europe experienced a dramatic rise in technological invention, ushering in an era known as the Industrial Revolution. What made this period remarkable was the number of new inventions that influenced people’s daily lives. Within a generation, tasks that had until this point required months of labour became achievable in a matter of days. Before the Industrial Revolution, work was largely person- or animal-based, relying on human workers or horses to power mills and drive pumps. In 1782, James Watt and Matthew Boulton created a steam engine that could do the work of 12 horses by itself.

Steam power began appearing everywhere. Instead of paying artisans to painstakingly spin wool and weave it into cloth, people turned to textile mills that produced fabric quickly at a better price, and often with better quality. Rather than planting and harvesting fields by hand, farmers were able to purchase mechanical seeders and threshing machines that caused agricultural productivity to soar. Products such as paper and glass became available to the average person, and the quality and accessibility of education and health care soared. Gas lights allowed increased visibility in the dark, and towns and cities developed a nightlife.

One of the results of increased wealth, productivity, and technology was the rise of urban centres. Serfs and peasants, expelled from their ancestral lands, flocked to the cities in search of factory jobs, and the populations of cities became increasingly diverse. The new generation became less preoccupied with maintaining family land and traditions, and more focused on survival. Some were successful in acquiring wealth and achieving upward mobility for themselves and their family. Others lived in devastating poverty and squalor. Whereas the class system of feudalism had been rigid, and resources for all but the highest nobility and clergy scarce, under capitalism social mobility (both upward and downward) became possible.

It was during the 18th and 19th centuries of the Industrial Revolution that sociology was born. Life was changing quickly and the long-established traditions of the agricultural eras did not apply to life in the larger cities. Masses of people were moving to new environments and often found themselves faced with horrendous conditions of filth, overcrowding, and poverty. Social science emerged in response to the unprecedented scale of the social problems of modern society.

It was during this time that power moved from the hands of the aristocracy and “old money” to the new class of rising bourgeoisie who amassed fortunes in their lifetimes. A new cadre of financiers and industrialists (like Donald Smith [1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal] and George Stephen [1st Baron Mount Stephen] in Canada) became the new power players, using their influence in business to control aspects of government as well. Eventually, concerns over the exploitation of workers led to the formation of labour unions and laws that set mandatory conditions for employees. Although the introduction of new technology at the end of the 20th century ended the industrial age, much of our social structure and social ideas—like the nuclear family, left-right political divisions, and time standardization—have a basis in industrial society.

George Stephen 1865

Figure 4.5. George Stephen, one of the Montreal consortium who financed and built the Canadian Pacific Railway, grew up the son of a carpenter in Scotland. He was titled 1st Baron Mount Stephen in 1891. The Canadian Pacific Railway was a risky financial venture but as Canada’s first transcontinental railroad played a fundamental role in the settlement and development of west. (Photo courtesy of McCord Museum, File no. I-14179.1 Wikimedia Commons)

Postindustrial Society

Information societies, sometimes known as postindustrial or digital societies, are a recent development. Unlike industrial societies that are rooted in the production of material goods, information societies are based on the production of information and services.

Digital technology is the steam engine of information societies, and high tech companies such as Apple and Microsoft are its version of railroad and steel manufacturing corporations. Since the economy of information societies is driven by knowledge and not material goods, power lies with those in charge of creating, storing, and distributing information. Members of a postindustrial society are likely to be employed as sellers of services—software programmers or business consultants, for example—instead of producers of goods. Social classes are divided by access to education, since without technical and communication skills, people in an information society lack the means for success.

4.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Society

Pencil drawing of an old city with low lying buildings and a tall smoke stack to the far right. Street cars, horse and carriages and people are on the streets.

Figure 4.6. Image of the T. Eaton Co. department store in Toronto, Canada from the back cover of the 1901 Eaton’s catalogue. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

While many sociologists have contributed to research on society and social interaction, three thinkers form the base of modern-day perspectives. Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber developed different theoretical approaches to help us understand the formation of modern industrial society.

Émile Durkheim and Functionalism

As a functionalist, Émile Durkheim’s (1858–1917) perspective on society stressed the necessary interconnectivity of all of its elements. To Durkheim, society was greater than the sum of its parts. He asserted that individual behaviour was not the same as collective behaviour, and that studying collective behaviour was quite different from studying an individual’s actions. Society acted as an external restraint on individual behaviour. In his quest to understand what causes individuals to act in similar and predictable ways, he wrote, “If I do not submit to the conventions of society, if in my dress I do not conform to the customs observed in my country and in my class, the ridicule I provoke, the social isolation in which I am kept, produce, although in an attenuated form, the same effects as punishment” (Durkheim 1895). Durkheim called the communal beliefs, morals, and attitudes of a society the collective conscience.

Durkheim also believed that social integration, or the strength of ties that people have to their social groups, was a key factor in social life. Following the ideas of Comte and Spencer, Durkheim likened society to that of a living organism, in which each organ plays a necessary role in keeping the being alive. Even the socially deviant members of society are necessary, Durkheim argued, as punishments for deviance affirm established cultural values and norms. That is, punishment of a crime reaffirms our moral consciousness. “A crime is a crime because we condemn it,” Durkheim wrote in 1893. “An act offends the common consciousness not because it is criminal, but it is criminal because it offends that consciousness” (Durkheim 1893). Durkheim called these elements of society “social facts.” By this, he meant that social forces were to be considered real and existed outside the individual.

As an observer of his contemporary social world, particularly the fractious late 19th century history of France, Durkheim was concerned with indications that modern society was in a process of social disintegration. His primary concern was that the cultural glue that held society together was failing, and that people were becoming more divided. In his book The Division of Labour in Society (1893), Durkheim argued that as society grew more populated, more complex, and more difficult to regulate, the underlying basis of solidarity or unity within the social order needed to evolve.

Preindustrial societies, Durkheim explained, were held together by mechanical solidarity, a type of social order maintained through a minimal division of labour and a common collective consciousness. Such societies permitted a low degree of individual autonomy. Essentially there was no distinction between the individual conscience and the collective conscience. Societies with mechanical solidarity act in a mechanical fashion; things are done mostly because they have always been done that way. If anyone violated the collective conscience embodied in laws and taboos, punishment was swift and retributive. This type of thinking was common in preindustrial societies where strong bonds of kinship and a low division of labour created shared morals and values among people, such as hunter-gatherer groups. When people tend to do the same type of work, Durkheim argued, they tend to think and act alike.

In industrial societies, mechanical solidarity is replaced with organic solidarity, social order based around an acceptance of economic and social differences. In capitalist societies, Durkheim wrote, division of labour becomes so specialized that everyone is doing different things. Even though there is an increased level of individual autonomy—unique “personalities” and individualism—society coheres because everyone depends on everyone else. Instead of punishing members of a society for failure to assimilate to common values, organic solidarity allows people with differing values to coexist. Laws exist as formalized morals and are based on restitution rather than retribution or revenge.

While the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity is, in the long run, advantageous for a society, Durkheim noted that it can be a time of chaos and “normlessness.” One of the outcomes of the transition is social anomie. Anomie—literally, “without norms”—is a situation in which society no longer has the support of a firm collective consciousness. There are no clear norms or values to guide and regulate behaviour. Anomie was associated with the rise of industrial society, which removed traditional modes of moral regulation; the rise of individualism, which removed limits on what individuals could desire; and the rise of secularism, which removed ritual or symbolic foci. During times of war or rapid economic development, the normative basis of society was also challenged. People isolated in their specialized tasks tend to become alienated from one another and from a sense of collective conscience. However, Durkheim felt that as societies reach an advanced stage of organic solidarity, they avoid anomie by redeveloping a set of shared norms. According to Durkheim, once a society achieves organic solidarity, it has finished its development.

Karl Marx and Critical Sociology

Karl Marx (1818–1883) offered one of the most comprehensive theories of the development of human societies from the earliest hunter-gatherers to the modern industrial age. For Marx, the underlying structure of societies and of the forces of historical change was predicated on the idea of “base and superstructure.” In this model, a society’s economic structure forms its base, on which the culture and social institutions rest, forming its superstructure. For Marx, it is the base—the economic mode of production—that determines what a society’s culture, law, political system, family form, and, most importantly, its typical form of struggle or conflict will be like. Each type of society—hunter-gatherer, pastoral, agrarian, feudal, capitalist—could be characterized as the total way of life that forms around different economic bases.


Figure 4.7. Karl Marx asserted that all elements of a society’s structure depend on its economic structure.

Marx saw economic conflict in society as the primary means of change. The base of each type of society in history—its economic mode of production—had its own characteristic form of economic struggle. This was because a mode of production was essentially two things: the means of production of a society—anything that is used in production to satisfy needs and maintain existence (e.g., land, animals, tools, machinery, factories, etc.)—and the relations of production of a society—the division of society into economic classes (the social roles allotted to individuals in production). Marx observed historically that in each epoch or type of society, only one class of persons has owned or monopolized the means of production. Different epochs are characterized by different forms of ownership and different class structures: hunter-gatherer (classless/common ownership), agricultural (citizens/slaves), feudal (lords/peasants), and capitalism (capitalists/“free” labourers). As a result, the relations of production have been characterized by relations of domination since the emergence of private property. Throughout history, classes have had opposed or contradictory interests. These “class antagonisms,” as he called them, periodically lead to periods of social revolution in which it becomes possible for one type of society to replace another.

The most recent revolutionary transformation resulted in the end of feudalism. A new revolutionary class emerged from among the freemen, small property owners, and middle-class burghers of the medieval period to challenge and overthrow the privilege and power of the feudal aristocracy. The members of the bourgeoisie or capitalist class were revolutionary in the sense that they represented a radical change and redistribution of power in European society. Their power was based in the private ownership of industrial property, which they sought to protect through the struggle for property rights, notably in the English Civil War (1642–1651) and the French Revolution (1789—1799). The development of capitalism inaugurated a period of world transformation and incessant change through the destruction of the previous class structure, the ruthless competition for markets, the introduction of new technologies, and the globalization of economic activity. As Marx and Engels put it in The Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation…. The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society…. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind (1848).

However, the rise of the bourgeoisie and the development of capitalism also brought into existence the class of “free” wage labourers, or the proletariat. The proletariat were made up largely of guild workers and serfs who were freed or expelled from their indentured labour in feudal guild and agricultural production and migrated to the emerging cities where industrial production was centred. They were “free” labour in the sense that they were no longer bound to feudal lords or guildmasters. The new labour relationship was based on a contract. However, as Marx pointed out, this meant in effect that workers could sell their labour as a commodity to whomever they wanted, but if they did not sell their labour they would starve. The capitalist had no obligations to provide them with security, livelihood, or a place to live as the feudal lords had done for their serfs. The source of a new class antagonism developed based on the contradiction of fundamental interests between the bourgeois owners and the wage labourers: where the owners sought to reduce the wages of labourers as far as possible to reduce the costs of production and remain competitive, the workers sought to retain a living wage that could provide for a family and secure living conditions. The outcome, in Marx and Engel’s words, was that “society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other—Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” (1848).

In the mid-19th century, as industrialization was booming, the conditions of labour became more and more exploitative. The large manufacturers of steel were particularly ruthless, and their facilities became popularly dubbed “satanic mills” based on a poem by William Blake. Marx’s colleague and friend, Frederick Engels, wrote The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844, which described in detail the horrid conditions.

Such is the Old Town of Manchester, and on re-reading my description, I am forced to admit that instead of being exaggerated, it is far from black enough to convey a true impression of the filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness, the defiance of all considerations of cleanliness, ventilation, and health which characterise the construction of this single district, containing at least twenty to thirty thousand inhabitants. And such a district exists in the heart of the second city of England, the first manufacturing city of the world (1812).

Add to that the long hours, the use of child labour, and exposure to extreme conditions of heat, cold, and toxic chemicals, and it is no wonder that Marx referred to capital as “dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” (Marx 1867).


Figure 4.8. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (Figure 4.9) analyzed differences in social power between “have” and “have-not” groups. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)


Figure 4.9. Friedrich Engels. (Photo courtesy of George Lester/Wikimedia Commons) 

For Marx, what we do defines who we are. What it is to be “human” is defined by the capacity we have as a species to creatively transform the world in which we live in to meet our needs for survival. Humanity at its core is Homo faber (“Man the Creator”). In historical terms, in spite of the persistent nature of one class dominating another, the element of humanity as creator existed. There was at least some connection between the worker and the product, augmented by the natural conditions of seasons and the rising and setting of the sun, such as we see in an agricultural society. But with the bourgeois revolution and the rise of industry and capitalism, workers now worked for wages alone. The essential elements of creativity and self-affirmation in the free disposition of their labour was replaced by compulsion. The relationship of workers to their efforts was no longer of a human nature, but based on purely animal needs. As Marx put it, the worker “only feels himself freely active in his animal functions of eating, drinking and procreating, at most also in his dwelling and dress, and feels himself an animal in his human functions” (1932).

Marx described the economic conditions of production under capitalism in terms of alienation. Alienation refers to the condition in which the individual is isolated and divorced from his or her society, work, or the sense of self and common humanity. Marx defined four specific types of alienation that arose with the development of wage labour under capitalism.

Alienation from the product of one’s labour. An industrial worker does not have the opportunity to relate to the product he or she is labouring on. The worker produces commodities, but at the end of the day the commodities not only belong to the capitalist, but serve to enrich the capitalist at the worker’s expense. In Marx’s language, the worker relates to the product of his or her labour “as an alien object that has power over him [or her]” (1932). Workers do not care if they are making watches or cars; they care only that their jobs exist. In the same way, workers may not even know or care what products they are contributing to. A worker on a Ford assembly line may spend all day installing windows on car doors without ever seeing the rest of the car. A cannery worker can spend a lifetime cleaning fish without ever knowing what product they are used for.

Alienation from the process of one’s labour. Workers do not control the conditions of their jobs because they do not own the means of production. If someone is hired to work in a fast food restaurant, that person is expected to make the food the way as taught. All ingredients must be combined in a particular order and in a particular quantity; there is no room for creativity or change. An employee at Burger King cannot decide to change the spices used on the fries in the same way that an employee on a Ford assembly line cannot decide to place a car’s headlights in a different position. Everything is decided by the owners who then dictate orders to the workers. The workers relate to their own labour as an activity that does not belong to them.

Alienation from others. Workers compete, rather than cooperate. Employees vie for time slots, bonuses, and job security. Different industries and different geographical regions compete for investment. Even when a worker clocks out at night and goes home, the competition does not end. As Marx commented in The Communist Manifesto, “No sooner is the exploitation of the labourer by the manufacturer, so far at an end, that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portion of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker” (1848).

Alienation from one’s humanity. A final outcome of industrialization is a loss of connectivity between a worker and what makes him or her truly human. Humanity is defined for Marx by “conscious life-activity” but under conditions of wage labour this is taken not as an end in itself but only as a means of satisfying the most base animal-like needs. The “species being” (i.e., conscious activity) is only confirmed when individuals can create and produce freely, not simply when they work to reproduce their existence and satisfy immediate needs like animals.

Taken as a whole, then, alienation in modern society means that individuals have no control over their lives. There is nothing that ties workers to their occupations. Instead of being able to take pride in an identity such as being a watchmaker, automobile builder, or chef, a person is simply a cog in the machine. Even in feudal societies, people controlled the manner of their labour as to when and how it was carried out. But why, then, does the modern working class not rise up and rebel?

In response to this problem, Marx developed the concept of false consciousness. False consciousness is a condition in which the beliefs, ideals, or ideology of a person are not in the person’s own best interest. In fact, it is the ideology of the dominant class (here, the bourgeoisie capitalists) that is imposed upon the proletariat. Ideas such as the emphasis of competition over cooperation, of hard work being its own reward, of individuals as being the isolated masters of their own fortunes and ruins, etc. clearly benefit the owners of industry. Therefore, to the degree that workers live in a state of false consciousness, they are less likely to question their place in society and assume individual responsibility for existing conditions.

As “consciousness,” like other elements of the superstructure, are products of the underlying economic Marx proposed that the workers’ false consciousness would eventually be replaced with class consciousness, the awareness of their actual material and political interests as members of a unified class. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote,

The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself. But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons—the modern working class—the proletarians (1848).

As capitalism developed the industrial means by which the problems of economic scarcity could be resolved, while at the same time intensifying the conditions of exploitation due to competition for markets and profits, the conditions for a successful working class revolution would emerge. Instead of existing as an unconscious “class in itself,” the proletariat would become a “class for itself” and act collectively to produce social change (Marx and Engels 1848). Instead of just being an inert strata of society, the class could become an advocate for social improvements. Only once society entered this state of political consciousness would it be ready for a social revolution. Indeed, Marx predicted that this would be the ultimate outcome and collapse of capitalism.

Charlie Chaplin

Figure 4.10. Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936). Has technology made this type of labour more or less alienating? (Photo courtesy of Insomnia Cured Here used under CC-BY-SA license)

Max Weber and Rationalization

Like the other social thinkers discussed here, Max Weber (1864–1920) was concerned with the important changes taking place in Western society with the advent of capitalism. Like Marx and Durkheim, he feared that capitalist industrialization would have negative effects on individuals.

Weber’s analysis of modern society centred on the concept of rationalization. Arguably, the primary focus of Weber’s entire sociological oeuvre was to determine how and why Western civilization and capitalism developed where and when they did. Why was the West the West? Key to his answer was that rationalization did not develop in the same way elsewhere as it did in Western society. Rationalization refers to the general tendency in modern society for all institutions and most areas of life to be transformed by the application of rationality. It overcomes forms of magical thinking and replaces them with calculation. A rational society is one built around rational forms of organization, technology, and efficiency rather than religion, morality, or tradition. Older styles of social organization, whether political, economic, military, or what have you, based on other principles, could not compete with the efficiency of rational styles of organization and were gradually replaced. Weber’s question was, what are the consequences of rationality for everyday life, for the social order, and for the spiritual fate of humanity?

To Weber, capitalism became possible through the processes of rationalization. He defined capitalism as a type of continuous, calculated economic action in which every element was examined with respect to the logic of investment and return. As opposed to previous types of economic action in which wealth was acquired by force, capitalism rested “on the expectation of profit by the utilization of opportunities for exchange, that is on (formally) peaceful chances for profit….Where capitalist acquisition is rationally pursued, the corresponding action is adjusted to calculations in terms of capital” (Weber 1904). Capitalism required the prior existence of rational procedures like double-entry bookkeeping, free market enterprise, free labour contracts, free market exchange, and calculable law so that it could operate as a form of rational enterprise.

Weber argued that although this leads to efficiency and rational, calculated decision making, it is in the end an irrational system. The emphasis on rationality and efficiency ultimately has negative effects when taken to the extreme. In modern societies, this is seen when rigid routines and strict adherence to performance-related goals lead to a mechanized work environment and a focus on efficiency for its own sake. To the degree that rational efficiency begins to undermine the substantial human values it was designed to serve (i.e., the ideals of the good life) rationalization becomes irrational.

An example of the extreme conditions of rationality can be found in Charlie Chaplin’s classic film Modern Times (1936). Chaplin’s character works on an assembly line twisting a bolts into place over and over again. When he has to stop to swat a fly on his nose all the tasks down the line from him are thrown into disarray. He performs his routine task to the point where he cannot stop his jerking motions even after the whistle blows for lunch. Indeed, today we even have a recognized medical condition that results from such tasks, known as “repetitive stress syndrome.”

For Weber, the culmination of industrialization and rationalization results in what he referred to as the iron cage, in which the individual is trapped by the systems of efficiency that were designed to enhance the well-being of humanity. It is a cage, or literally, from the original German, steel housing that we are encased in, because efficient rational forms of organization have become indispensable. Even if there was a social revolution of the type that Marx envisioned, the bureaucratic and rational organizational structures would remain. There appears to be no alternative. The modern economic order “is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force” (Weber 1904).

This leads to a sense of “disenchantment of the world,” a phrase Weber used to describe the final condition of humanity (see Chapter 1). Indeed a dark prediction, but one that has, at least to some degree, been borne out. In a rationalized, modern society, we have supermarkets instead of family-owned stores. We have chain restaurants instead of local eateries. Superstores that offer a multitude of merchandise have replaced independent businesses that focused on one product line, such as hardware, groceries, automotive repair, or clothing. Shopping malls offer retail stores, restaurants, fitness centres, even condominiums. This change may be rational, but is it universally desirable?


Figure 4.11. Cubicles are used to maximize individual workspace in an office. Such structures may be rational, but they are also isolating. (Photo courtesy of Tim Patterson/flickr)

Making Connections: Sociological Research

The Protestant Work Ethic

In a series of essays in 1904, Weber presented the idea of the Protestant work ethic, a new attitude toward work based on the Calvinist principle of predestination. In the 16th century, Europe was shaken by the Protestant Revolution. Religious leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin argued against the Catholic Church’s belief in salvation through obedience. While Catholicism, in principle at least, emphasized nonmaterialistic values—the importance of poverty, humility, chastity, and performance of good deeds—as a gateway to heaven, the new Protestant sects began to emphasize outward displays of hard work and self-discipline to “prove oneself” before God. The idea that one must “work hard in one’s calling” combined the materialist value of work (rewarded by fortune and standing in the community), with the spiritual value of attaining salvation.

John Calvin in particular popularized the Christian concept of predestination, the idea that all events—including salvation—have already been decided by God. Because followers were never sure whether they had been chosen to enter Heaven or Hell, they looked for signs in their everyday lives. People lived on a kind of permanent ethical probation. If a person was hard-working and successful, he or she was likely to be one of the chosen. If a person was lazy or simply indifferent, he or she was likely to be one of the damned.

Weber argued that this ethic provided the basis for a rationalized approach to life: “rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling” (Weber 1904). It encouraged people to work hard in a disciplined, methodical way for personal gain. Emphasis was placed on proving one’s state of inner grace to God and on proving one’s state of “election” to the wider community. “The God of Calvinism demanded of his believers not single good works, but a life of good works united into a unified system” (Weber 1904).

The irrational component of this, however, was that the spiritual goal of attaining salvation was gradually forgotten as the Protestant ethic was absorbed into the way of life of capitalism, and all that was left was the compulsion to work for work’s sake. As Weber famously put it at the end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, “The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so,” (Weber 1904 ).

Her-story: The History of Gender Inequality

Missing in the classical theoretical accounts of modernity is an explanation of how the developments of modern society, industrialization, and capitalism have affected women differently from men. Despite the differences in Durkheim’s, Marx’s, and Weber’s main themes of analysis, they are equally androcentric to the degree that they cannot account for why women’s experience of modern society is structured differently from men’s, or why the implications of modernity are different for women than they are for men. They tell his-story but neglect her-story.

For most of human history, men and women held more or less equal status in society. In hunter-gatherer societies gender inequality was minimal as these societies did not sustain institutionalized power differences. They were based on cooperation, sharing, and mutual support. There was often a gendered division of labour in that men are most frequently the hunters and women the gatherers and child care providers (although this division is not necessarily strict), but as women’s gathering accounted for up to 80 percent of the food, their economic power in the society was assured. Where headmen do lead tribal life, their leadership is informal, based on influence rather than institutional power (Endicott 1999). In prehistoric Europe from 7000 to 3500 BCE, archaeological evidence indicates that religious life was in fact focused on female deities and fertility, while family kinship was traced through matrilineal (female) descent (Lerner 1986).


Figure 4.12. The Venus of Willendorf discovered in Willendorf, Austria, is thought to be 25,000 years old. It is widely assumed to be a fertility goddess and indicative of the central role of women in Paleolithic society. (Photo courtesy of Matthias Kabel, Wikimedia Commons)

It was not until about 6,000 years ago that gender inequality emerged. With the transition to early agrarian and pastoral types of societies, food surpluses created the conditions for class divisions and power structures to develop. Property and resources passed from collective ownership to family ownership with a corresponding shift in the development of the monogamous, patriarchal (rule by the father) family structure. Women and children also became the property of the patriarch of the family. The invasions of old Europe by the Semites to the south and the Kurgans to the northeast led to the imposition of male-dominated hierarchical social structures and the worship of male warrior gods. As agricultural societies developed, so did the practice of slavery. Lerner (1986) argues that the first slaves were women and children.

The development of modern, industrial society has been a two-edged sword in terms of the status of women in society. Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) argued in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) that the historical development of the male-dominated monogamous family originated with the development of private property. The family became the means through which property was inherited through the male line. This also led to the separation of a private domestic sphere and a public social sphere. “Household management lost its public character. It no longer concerned society. It became a private service; the wife became the head servant, excluded from all participation in social production” (1884). Under the system of capitalist wage labour, women were doubly exploited. When they worked outside the home as wage labourers they were exploited in the workplace, often as cheaper labour than men. When they worked within the home, they were exploited as the unpaid source of labour needed to reproduce the capitalist workforce. The role of the proletarian housewife was tantamount to “open or concealed domestic slavery” as she had no independent source of income herself (Engels 1884). Early Canadian law, for example, was based on the idea that the wife’s labour belonged to the husband. This was the case even up to the divorce case of Irene Murdoch in 1973, who had worked the family farm in the Turner Valley, Alberta, side by side with her husband for 25 years. When she claimed 50 percent of the farm assets in the divorce, the judge ruled the farm belonged to her husband, and she was awarded only $200 a month for a lifetime of work (CBC 2001).

On the other hand, feminists note that gender inequality was more pronounced and permanent in the feudal and agrarian societies that proceeded capitalism. Women were more or less owned as property, kept ignorant and isolated within the domestic sphere. (These types of society still exist today, of course.) Engels also noted that there was an improvement in women’s condition when she was able to work outside the home. Writers like Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) in her Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) were able to see in the discourses of rights and freedoms of the bourgeois revolutions and the Enlightenment, a general “promise” of universal emancipation that could be extended to include the rights of women. The focus of the Vindication of the Rights of Women was on the right of women to have an education, which would put them on the same footing as men with regard to the knowledge and rationality required for “enlightened” political participation and skilled work outside the home. Whereas property rights, the role of wage labour, and the law of modern society continued to be a source for gender inequality, the principles of universal rights became a powerful resource for women to use to press their claims for equality.

4.3. Social Constructions of Reality


Figure 4.13. Who are we? What role do we play in society? According to sociologists, we construct reality through our interactions with others. In a way, our day-to-day interactions are like those of actors on a stage. (Photo courtesy of Jan Lewandowski/flickr)

Until now, we’ve primarily discussed the differences between types of societies from a macro-perspective. Rather than discuss their problems and configurations, we will now explore how society came to be and how sociologists view social interaction from a micro-perspective.

In 1966 sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote The Social Construction of Reality. In it, they argued that society is created by humans and human interaction, which they call habitualization. Habitualization describes how “any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be … performed again in the future in the same manner and with the same economical effort” (Berger and Luckmann 1966). Not only do we construct our own society, but we accept it as it is because others have created it before us. Society is, in fact, “habit.”

For example, your school exists as a school and not just as a building because you and others agree that it is a school. If your school is older than you are, it was created by the agreement of others before you. In a sense, it exists by consensus, both prior and current. This is an example of the process of institutionalization, the act of implanting a convention or norm into society. Bear in mind that the institution, while socially constructed, is still quite real.

Another way of looking at this concept is through W. I. Thomas’s notable Thomas theorem which states, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928). That is, people’s behaviour can be determined by their subjective construction of reality rather than by objective reality. For example, a teenager who is repeatedly given a label—overachiever, player, bum—might live up to the term even though it initially was not a part of his or her character.

Like Berger and Luckmann’s description of habitualization, Thomas states that our moral codes and social norms are created by “successive definitions of the situation.” This concept is defined by sociologist Robert K. Merton as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Merton explains that with a self-fulfilling prophecy, even a false idea can become true if it is acted on. One example he gives is of a “bank run.” Say for some reason, a number of people falsely fear that their bank is soon to be bankrupt. Because of this false notion, people run to their bank and demand all their cash at once. As banks rarely, if ever, have that much money on hand, the bank does indeed run out of money, fulfilling the customers’ prophecy. On the other hand, “investor confidence” is another social construct, which as we saw in the lead up to the financial crisis of 2008, is “real in its consequences” but based on a fiction. Reality is constructed by an idea.


Figure 4.14. The story line of a self-fulfilling prophecy appears in many literary works, perhaps most famously in the story of Oedipus. Oedipus is told by an oracle that he will murder his father and marry his mother. In going out of his way to avoid his fate, Oedipus inadvertently fulfills it. Oedipus’s story illustrates one way in which members of society contribute to the social construction of reality. (Photo courtesy of Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust/Wikimedia Commons)

Roles and Status

As you can imagine, people employ many types of behaviours in day-to-day life. Roles are patterns of behaviour that we recognize in each other that are representative of a person’s social status. Currently, while reading this text, you are playing the role of a student. However, you also play other roles in your life, such as “daughter,” “neighbour,” or “employee.” These various roles are each associated with a different status.

Sociologists use the term status to describe the access to resources and benefits a person experiences according to the rank or prestige of his or her role in society. Some statuses are ascribed—those you do not select, such as son, elderly person, or female. Others, called achieved statuses, are obtained by personal effort or choice, such as a high school dropout, self-made millionaire, or nurse. As a daughter or son, you occupy a different status than as a neighbour or employee. One person can be associated with a multitude of roles and statuses. Even a single status such as “student” has a complex role-set, or array of roles, attached to it (Merton 1957).

If too much is required of a single role, individuals can experience role strain. Consider the duties of a parent: cooking, cleaning, driving, problem solving, acting as a source of moral guidance—the list goes on. Similarly, a person can experience role conflict when one or more roles are contradictory. A parent who also has a full-time career can experience role conflict on a daily basis. When there is a deadline at the office but a sick child needs to be picked up from school, which comes first? When you are working toward a promotion but your children want you to come to their school play, which do you choose? Being a college student can conflict with being an employee, being an athlete, or even being a friend. Our roles in life have a great effect on our decisions and who we become.

Presentation of Self

Of course, it is impossible to look inside a person’s head and study what role he or she is playing. All we can observe is behaviour, or role performance. Role performance is how a person expresses his or her role. Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman presented the idea that a person is like an actor on a stage. Calling his theory “dramaturgy,” Goffman believed that we use “impression management” to present ourselves to others as we hope to be perceived. The positive value that we would claim for ourselves depends crucially on whether others accept the credibility of our performance. Each situation is a new scene, and individuals perform different roles depending on who is present (Goffman 1959). Think about the way you behave around your coworkers versus the way you behave around your grandparents versus the way you behave with a blind date. Even if you’re not consciously trying to alter your personality, your grandparents, coworkers, and date probably see different sides of you.

As in a play, the setting matters as well. If you have a group of friends over to your house for dinner, you are playing the role of a host. It is agreed upon that you will provide food and seating and probably be stuck with a lot of the cleanup at the end of the night. Similarly, your friends are playing the roles of guests, and they are expected to respect your property and any rules you may set forth (“Don’t leave the door open or the cat will get out.”). In any scene, there needs to be a shared reality between players. In this case, if you view yourself as a guest and others view you as a host, there are likely to be problems.

Impression management is a critical component of symbolic interactionism. For example, a judge in a courtroom has many “props” to create an impression of fairness, gravity, and control—like a robe and gavel. Those entering the courtroom are expected to adhere to the scene being set. Just imagine the “impression” that can be made by how a person dresses. This is the reason that attorneys frequently select the hairstyle and apparel for witnesses and defendants in courtroom proceedings.


Figure 4.15. A courtroom exemplifies a scene where all players have clearly defined roles and expected performances. (Photo courtesy of John Marino/Flicker)

Goffman’s dramaturgy ideas expand on the ideas of Charles Cooley and the looking-glass self. According to Cooley, we base our image on what we think other people see (Cooley 1902). We imagine how we must appear to others, then react to this speculation. We don certain clothes, prepare our hair in a particular manner, wear makeup, use cologne, and the like—all with the notion that our presentation of ourselves is going to affect how others perceive us. We expect a certain reaction, and, if lucky, we get the one we desire and feel good about it. Cooley believed that our sense of self is not based on some internal source of individuality. Rather, we imagine how we look to others, draw conclusions based on their reactions to us, and then develop our personal sense of self. In other words, people’s reactions to us are like a mirror in which we are reflected. We live a mirror image of ourselves. “The imaginations people have of one another are the solid facts of society” (Cooley 1902).

Key Terms

achieved statuses obtained by personal effort or choice, such as a high school dropout, self-made millionaire, or nurse

alienation the condition in which an individual is isolated from his or her society, work, or the sense of self and common humanity

anomie a situation in which society no longer has the support of a firm collective consciousness

ascribed status the status outside of an individual’s control, such as sex or race

bourgeoisie the owners of the means of production in a society

class consciousness awareness of one’s rank in society

collective conscience the communal beliefs, morals, and attitudes of a society

false consciousness when a person’s beliefs and ideology are in conflict with his or her best interests

feudal societies societies that operate on a strict hierarchical system of power based around land ownership and protection

habitualization the idea that society is constructed by us and those before us, and it is followed like a habit

horticultural societies societies based around the cultivation of plants

hunter-gatherer societies societies that depend on hunting wild animals and gathering uncultivated plants for survival

industrial societies societies characterized by a reliance on mechanized labour to create material goods

information societies societies based on the production of nonmaterial goods and services

institutionalization the act of implanting a convention or norm into society

iron cage a situation in which an individual is trapped by social institutions

looking-glass self our reflection of how we think we appear to others

mechanical solidarity a type of social order maintained by the collective consciousness of a culture

organic solidarity a type of social order based around an acceptance of economic and social differences

pastoral societies societies based around the domestication of animals

proletariat the labourers in a society

rationalization the general tendency in modern society for all institutions and most areas of life to be transformed by the application of rationality and efficiency

role conflict when one or more of an individual’s roles clash

role performance the expression of a role

role strain stress that occurs when too much is required of a single role

role-set an array of roles attached to a particular status

roles patterns of behaviour that are representative of a person’s social status

self-fulfilling prophecy an idea that becomes true when acted on

social integration how strongly a person is connected to his or her social group

status the responsibilities and benefits that a person experiences according to his or her rank and role in society

Thomas theorem how a subjective reality can drive events to develop in accordance with that reality, despite being originally unsupported by objective reality

Section Summary

4.1. Types of Societies
Societies are classified according to their development and use of technology. For most of human history, people lived in preindustrial societies characterized by limited technology and low production of goods. After the Industrial Revolution, many societies based their economies around mechanized labour, leading to greater profits and a trend toward greater social mobility. At the turn of the new millennium, a new type of society emerged. This postindustrial, or information, society is built on digital technology and nonmaterial goods.

4.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Society
Émile Durkheim believed that as societies advance, they make the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity. For Karl Marx, society exists in terms of class conflict. With the rise of capitalism, workers become alienated from themselves and others in society. Sociologist Max Weber noted that the rationalization of society can be taken to unhealthy extremes. Feminists note that the androcentric point of view of the classical theorists does not provide an adequate account of the difference in the way the genders experience modern society.

4.3. Social Constructions of Reality
Society is based on the social construction of reality. How we define society influences how society actually is. Likewise, how we see other people influences their actions as well as our actions toward them. We all take on various roles throughout our lives, and our social interactions depend on what types of roles we assume, who we assume them with, and the scene where interaction takes place.

Section Quiz

4.1. Types of Societies
1. Which of the following fictional societies is an example of a pastoral society?

  1. the Deswan people, who live in small tribes and base their economy on the production and trade of textiles
  2. the Rositian Clan, a small community of farmers who have lived on their family’s land for centuries
  3. the Hunti, a wandering group of nomads who specialize in breeding and training horses
  4. the Amaganda, an extended family of warriors who serve a single noble family

2. Which of the following occupations is a person of power most likely to have in an information society?

  1. software engineer
  2. coal miner
  3. children’s book author
  4. sharecropper

3. Which of the following societies were the first to have permanent residents?

  1. industrial
  2. hunter-gatherer
  3. horticultural
  4. feudal

4.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Society
4. Organic solidarity is most likely to exist in which of the following types of societies?

  1. hunter-gatherer
  2. industrial
  3. agricultural
  4. feudal

5. According to Marx, the _____ own the means of production in a society.

  1. proletariat
  2. vassals
  3. bourgeoisie
  4. anomie

6. Which of the following best depicts Marx’s concept of alienation from the process of one’s labour?

  1. A supermarket cashier always scans store coupons before company coupons because she was taught to do it that way.
  2. A businessman feels that he deserves a raise, but is nervous to ask his manager for one; instead, he comforts himself with the idea that hard work is its own reward.
  3. An associate professor is afraid that she won’t be given tenure and starts spreading rumours about one of her associates to make herself look better.
  4. A construction worker is laid off and takes a job at a fast food restaurant temporarily, although he has never had an interest in preparing food before.

7. The Protestant work ethic is based on the concept of predestination, which states that ________.

  1. performing good deeds in life is the only way to secure a spot in Heaven
  2. salvation is only achievable through obedience to God
  3. no person can be saved before he or she accepts Jesus Christ as his or her saviour
  4. God has already chosen those who will be saved and those who will be damned

8. The concept of the iron cage was popularized by which of the following sociological thinkers?

  1. Max Weber
  2. Karl Marx
  3. Émile Durkheim
  4. Friedrich Engels

9. Émile Durkheim’s ideas about society can best be described as ________.

  1. functionalist
  2. conflict theorist
  3. symbolic interactionist
  4. rationalist

4.3. Social Constructions of Reality
10. Mary works full-time at an office downtown while her young children stay at a neighbour’s house. She’s just learned that the child care provider is leaving the country. Mary has succumbed to pressure to volunteer at her church, plus her ailing mother-in-law will be moving in with her next month. Which of the following is likely to occur as Mary tries to balance her existing and new responsibilities?

  1. role strain
  2. self-fulfilling prophecy
  3. status conflict
  4. status strain

11. According to Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, society is based on ________.

  1. habitual actions
  2. status
  3. institutionalization
  4. role performance

12. Paco knows that women find him attractive, and he’s never found it hard to get a date. But as he ages, he dyes his hair to hide the grey and wears clothes that camouflage the weight he has put on. Paco’s behaviour can be best explained by the concept of ___________.

  1. role strain
  2. the looking-glass self
  3. role performance
  4. habitualization

Short Answer

4.1. Types of Societies

  1. How can the difference in the way societies relate to the environment be used to describe the different types of societies that have existed in world history?
  2. Is Gerhard Lenski right in classifying societies based on technological advances? What other criteria might be appropriate, based on what you have read?

4.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Society

  1. How might Durkheim, Marx, and Weber be used to explain a current social event such as the Occupy movement. Do their theories hold up under modern scrutiny? Are their theories necessarily androcentric?
  2. Think of the ways workers are alienated from the product and process of their jobs. How can these concepts be applied to students and their educations?

4.3. Social Constructions of Reality

  1. Draw a large circle and then “slice” the circle into pieces like a pie, labelling each piece with a role or status that you occupy. Add as many statuses, ascribed and achieved, that you have. Don’t forget things like dog owner, gardener, traveller, student, runner, employee. How many statuses do you have? In which ones are there role conflicts?
  2. Think of a “self-fulfilling prophecy” that you have experienced. Based on this experience, do you agree with the Thomas theorem? What are the implications of the Thomas theorem for the difference between studying natural as opposed to social phenomena? Or is there a difference?

Further Research

4.1. Types of Societies
The Maasai are a modern pastoral society with an economy largely structured around herds of cattle. Read more about the Maasai people and see pictures of their daily lives here:

4.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Society
One of the most influential pieces of writing in modern history was Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto. Visit this site to read the original document that spurred revolutions around the world:

4.3. Social Constructions of Reality
TV Tropes is a website where users identify concepts that are commonly used in literature, film, and other media. Although its tone is for the most part humorous, the site provides a good jumping-off point for research. Browse the list of examples under the entry of “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Pay careful attention to the real-life examples. Are there ones that surprised you or that you don’t agree with?


4.. Introduction to Society and Social Interaction
Maasai Association. “Facing the Lion.” Retrieved January 4, 2012 (

4.1. Types of Societies
Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. 2005. “Israel: Treatment of Bedouin, Including Incidents of Harassment, Discrimination or Attacks; State Protection (January 2003–July 2005)”, Refworld, July 29. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (

Kjeilen, Tore. N.d. “Bedouin.” Retrieved February 17, 2012 (

4.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Society
CBC. 2001. “Equal Under the Law: Canadian women fight for equality as the country creates a charter of rights” Canada: A People’s History. Retrieved February 21, 2014 (

Durkheim, Émile. 1960 [1893]. The Division of Labor in Society. Translated by George Simpson. New York: Free Press.

Durkheim, Émile. 1982 [1895]. The Rules of the Sociological Method. Translated by W. D. Halls. New York: Free Press.

Endicott, Karen. 1999. “Gender relations in hunter-gatherer societies.” Pp. 411–418 in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, edited by R.B. Lee and R. Daly. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Engels, Friedrich. 1972 [1884]. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. New York: International Publishers.

Engels, Friedrich. 1892. The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co.

Lerner, Gerda. 1986. The Creation of Patriarchy. New York: Oxford Press.

Marx, Karl. 1995 [1867]. Capital. Marx/Engels Internet Archive. Retrieved February 18, 2014 (

Marx, Karl. 1977 [1932]. “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.” Pp. 75–112 in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, edited by  David McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1977 [1848]. The Communist Manifesto (Selections). Pp. 221–247 in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, edited by  David McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. 1958 [1904]. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons

4.3. Social Constructions of Reality
Berger, P. L. and T. Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Cooley, Charles H. 1902. Human Nature and the Social Order. New York: Scribner’s.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.

Merton, Robert K. 1957. “The Role-Set: Problems in Sociological Theory.” British Journal of Sociology 8(2):110–113.

Thomas, W. I. and D. S. Thomas. 1928. The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs. New York: Knopf.

Solutions to Section Quiz

1. C | 2. A | 3. C | 4. B | 5. C | 6. A | 7. D | 8. A | 9. A | 10. A | 11. A | 12. B

Image Attributions

Figure 4.4.  Bayeux Tapestry – Scene 23 by Myrabella ( is in the public domain (

Figure 4.5. George Stephen, 1965 by William Notman ( is in the public domain (

Figure 4.6.  Image of the T. Eaton Co. department store in Toronto, Ontario, Canada from the back cover of the 1901 Eaton’s catalogue  ( is in the public domain (

Figure 4.10. Charlie Chaplin by Insomnia Cured Here ( used under CC BY SA 2.0 (

Figure 4.11. I Love Cubicles by Tim Patterson ( used under CC BY 2.0 license (

Figure 4.12. Venus of Willendorf by MatthiasKabel ( used under CC BY SA 3.0 license (


Chapter 5. Socialization


Figure 5.1. Socialization is how we learn the norms and beliefs of our society. From our earliest family and play experiences, we are made aware of societal values and expectations. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives/flickr)

Learning Objectives

5.1. Theories of Self Development

  • Understand the difference between psychological and sociological theories of self development
  • Explain the process of moral development

5.2. Why Socialization Matters

  • Understand the importance of socialization both for individuals and society
  • Explain the nature versus nurture debate

5.3. Agents of Socialization

  • Learn the roles of families and peer groups in socialization
  • Understand how we are socialized through formal institutions like schools, workplaces, and the government

5.4. Socialization across the Life Course

  • Explain how socialization occurs and recurs throughout life
  • Understand how people are socialized into new roles at age-related transition points
  • Describe when and how resocialization occurs

Introduction to Socialization

In the summer of 2005, police detective Mark Holste followed an investigator from the Department of Children and Families to a home in Plant City, Florida. They were there to look into a statement from the neighbour concerning a shabby house on Old Sydney Road. A small girl was reported peering from one of its broken windows. This seemed odd because no one in the neighbourhood had seen a young child in or around the home, which had been inhabited for the past three years by a woman, her boyfriend, and two adult sons.

Who was the mystery girl in the window?

Entering the house, Detective Holste and his team were shocked. It was the worst mess they’d ever seen, infested with cockroaches, smeared with feces and urine from both people and pets, and filled with dilapidated furniture and ragged window coverings.

Detective Holste headed down a hallway and entered a small room. That’s where he found the little girl, with big, vacant eyes, staring into the darkness. A newspaper report later described the detective’s first encounter with the child: “She lay on a torn, moldy mattress on the floor. She was curled on her side . . . her ribs and collarbone jutted out . . . her black hair was matted, crawling with lice. Insect bites, rashes and sores pocked her skin . . . She was naked—except for a swollen diaper. … Her name, her mother said, was Danielle. She was almost seven years old” (DeGregory 2008).

Detective Holste immediately carried Danielle out of the home. She was taken to a hospital for medical treatment and evaluation. Through extensive testing, doctors determined that, although she was severely malnourished, Danielle was able to see, hear, and vocalize normally. Still, she wouldn’t look anyone in the eyes, didn’t know how to chew or swallow solid food, didn’t cry, didn’t respond to stimuli that would typically cause pain, and didn’t know how to communicate either with words or simple gestures such as nodding “yes” or “no.” Likewise, although tests showed she had no chronic diseases or genetic abnormalities, the only way she could stand was with someone holding onto her hands, and she “walked sideways on her toes, like a crab” (DeGregory 2008).

What had happened to Danielle? Put simply: beyond the basic requirements for survival, she had been neglected. Based on their investigation, social workers concluded that she had been left almost entirely alone in rooms like the one where she was found. Without regular interaction—the holding, hugging, talking, the explanations and demonstrations given to most young children—she had not learned to walk or to speak, to eat or to interact, to play or even to understand the world around her. From a sociological point of view, Danielle had not had been socialized.

Socialization is the process through which people are taught to be proficient members of a society. It describes the ways that people come to understand societal norms and expectations, to accept society’s beliefs, and to be aware of societal values. Socialization is not the same as socializing (interacting with others, like family, friends, and coworkers); to be precise, it is a sociological process that occurs through socializing. As Danielle’s story illustrates, even the most basic of human activities are learned. You may be surprised to know that even physical tasks like sitting, standing, and walking had not automatically developed for Danielle as she grew. And without socialization, Danielle hadn’t learned about the material culture of her society (the tangible objects a culture uses): for example, she couldn’t hold a spoon, bounce a ball, or use a chair for sitting. She also hadn’t learned its nonmaterial culture, such as its beliefs, values, and norms. She had no understanding of the concept of “family,” didn’t know cultural expectations for using a bathroom for elimination, and had no sense of modesty. Most importantly, she hadn’t learned to use the symbols that make up language—through which we learn about who we are, how we fit with other people, and the natural and social worlds in which we live.

Sociologists have long been fascinated by circumstances like Danielle’s—in which a child receives sufficient human support to survive, but virtually no social interaction—because they highlight how much we depend on social interaction to provide the information and skills that we need to be part of society or even to develop a “self.”

The necessity for early social contact was demonstrated by the research of Harry and Margaret Harlow. From 1957 to 1963, the Harlows conducted a series of experiments studying how rhesus monkeys, which behave a lot like people, are affected by isolation as babies. They studied monkeys raised under two types of “substitute” mothering circumstances: a mesh and wire sculpture, or a soft terrycloth “mother.” The monkeys systematically preferred the company of a soft, terrycloth substitute mother (closely resembling a rhesus monkey) that was unable to feed them, to a mesh and wire mother that provided sustenance via a feeding tube. This demonstrated that while food was important, social comfort was of greater value (Harlow and Harlow 1962; Harlow 1971). Later experiments testing more severe isolation revealed that such deprivation of social contact led to significant developmental and social challenges later in life.


Figure 5.2. Baby rhesus monkeys, like humans, need to be raised with social contact for healthy development. (Photo courtesy of Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble/flickr)

In the following sections, we will examine the importance of the complex process of socialization and how it takes place through interaction with many individuals, groups, and social institutions. We will explore how socialization is not only critical to children as they develop, but how it is a lifelong process through which we become prepared for new social environments and expectations in every stage of our lives. But first, we will turn to scholarship about self development, the process of coming to recognize a sense of self, a “self” that is then able to be socialized.

5.1. Theories of Self Development

When we are born, we have a genetic makeup and biological traits. However, who we are as human beings develops through social interaction. Many scholars, both in the fields of psychology and in sociology, have described the process of self development as a precursor to understanding how that “self” becomes socialized.

Psychological Perspectives on Self Development

Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was one of the most influential modern scientists to put forth a theory about how people develop a sense of self. He believed that personality and sexual development were closely linked, and he divided the maturation process into psychosexual stages: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. He posited that people’s self development is closely linked to early stages of development, like breastfeeding, toilet training, and sexual awareness (Freud 1905).

Key to Freud’s approach to child development is to trace the formations of desire and pleasure in the child’s life. The child is seen to be at the centre of a tricky negotiation between internal, instinctual drives for gratification (the pleasure principle) and external, social demands to repress those drives in order to conform to the rules and regulations of civilization (the reality principle). Failure to resolve the traumatic tensions and impasses of childhood psychosexual development results in emotional and psychological consequences throughout adulthood. For example, according to Freud failure to properly engage in or disengage from a specific stage of child development results in predictable outcomes later in life. An adult with an oral fixation may indulge in overeating or binge drinking. An anal fixation may produce a neat freak (hence the term “anal retentive”), while a person stuck in the phallic stage may be promiscuous or emotionally immature.

Making Connections: Sociological Research

Sociology or Psychology: What’s the Difference?

You might be wondering: if sociologists and psychologists are both interested in people and their behaviour, how are these two disciplines different? What do they agree on, and where do their ideas diverge? The answers are complicated, but the distinction is important to scholars in both fields.

As a general difference, we might say that while both disciplines are interested in human behaviour, psychologists are focused on how the mind influences that behaviour, while sociologists study the role of society in shaping both behaviour and the mind. Psychologists are interested in people’s mental development and how their minds process their world. Sociologists are more likely to focus on how different aspects of society contribute to an individual’s relationship with the world. Another way to think of the difference is that psychologists tend to look inward to qualities of individuals (mental health, emotional processes, cognitive processing), while sociologists tend to look outward to qualities of social context (social institutions, cultural norms, interactions with others) to understand human behaviour.

Émile Durkheim (1958–1917) was the first to make this distinction in research, when he attributed differences in suicide rates among people to social causes (religious differences) rather than to psychological causes (like their mental well-being) (Durkheim 1897). Today, we see this same distinction. For example, a sociologist studying how a couple gets to the point of their first kiss on a date might focus her research on cultural norms for dating, social patterns of romantic activity in history, or the influence of social background on romantic partner selection. How is this process different for seniors than for teens? A psychologist would more likely be interested in the person’s romantic history, psychological type, or the mental processing of sexual desire.

The point that sociologists like Durkheim would make is that an analysis of individuals at the psychological level cannot adequately account for social variability of behaviours, for example, the difference in suicide rates of Catholics and Protestants, or the difference in dating scripts between cultures or historical periods. Sometimes sociology and psychology can combine in interesting ways, however. Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979) argued that the neurotic personality was a product of an earlier Protestant Ethic style of competitive capitalism, whereas late, postindustrial consumer capitalism is conducive to narcissistic personality structures (the “me” society).


Psychologist Erik Erikson (1902–1994) created a theory of personality development based, in part, on the work of Freud. However, Erikson was also interested in the social dimension of Freud’s child development schema (1963). He noted that each stage of psycho-social child development was associated with the formation of basic emotional structures in adulthood. The outcome of the oral stage will determine whether someone is trustful or distrustful as an adult; the outcome of the anal stage, whether they will be confident and generous or ashamed and doubtful; the outcome of the genital stage, whether they will be full of initiative or guilt.

Erikson retained Freud’s idea that the stages of child development were universal, but that different cultures handled them differently. Child-raising techniques varied in line with the dominant social formation of their societies. So, for example, the tradition in the Sioux First Nation was not to wean infants, but to breastfeed them until they lost interest. This tradition created trust between the infant and his or her mother, and eventually trust between the child and the tribal group as a whole. On the other hand, modern industrial societies practised early weaning of children, which lead to a different, more distrustful character structure. Children develop a possessive disposition toward objects that carries with them through to adulthood, as the child is eager to get things and grab hold of things in lieu of the experience of generosity and comfort in being held. Societies in which individuals rely heavily on each other and on the group to survive in a hostile environment will handle child training in a different manner, and with different outcomes, than societies that are based on individualism, competition, self-reliance and self-control (Erikson 1963).

Jean Piaget (1896–1980) was a psychologist who specialized in child development, focusing specifically on the role of social interactions in their development. He recognized that the development of self evolved through a negotiation between the world as it exists in one’s mind and the world that exists as it is experienced socially (Piaget 1954). All three of these thinkers have contributed to our modern understanding of self development.

Sociological Theories of Self Development

One of the pioneering contributors to sociological perspectives on self-development was Charles Cooley (1864–1929). As we saw in the last chapter, he asserted that people’s self understanding is constructed, in part, by their perception of how others view them—a process termed “the looking glass self” (Cooley 1902). The self or “self idea” is thoroughly social. It is based on how we imagine we appear to others. This projection defines how we feel about ourselves and who we feel ourselves to be. The development of a self therefore involves three elements in Cooley’s analysis: “the imagination of our appearance to the other person; the imagination of his judgment of that appearance, and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification.”

Later, George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) advanced a more detailed sociological approach to the self. He agreed that the self, as a person’s distinct identity, is only developed through social interaction. He further noted that the crucial component of the self is its capacity for self reflection, its capacity to be “an object to itself” (Mead 1934). On this basis, he broke the self down into two components or “phases,” the “I” and the “me.” The “me” represents the part of the self in which one recognizes the “organized sets of attitudes” of others toward the self. It is who we are in other’s eyes: our roles, our “personalities,” our public personas. The “I,” on the other hand, represents the part of the self that acts on its own initiative or responds to the organized attitudes of others. It is the novel, spontaneous, unpredictable part of the self: the part of the self that embodies the possibility of change or undetermined action. The self is always caught up in a social process in which one flips back and forth between two distinguishable phases, the I and the me, as one mediates between one’s own individual actions and individual responses to various social situations and the attitudes of the community.

This flipping back and forth is the condition of our being able to be social. It is not an ability that we are born with (Mead 1934). The case of Danielle, for example, illustrates what happens when social interaction is absent from early experience: she had no ability to see herself as others would see her. From Mead’s point of view, she had no “self.” Without others, or without society, the self cannot exist: “[I]t is impossible to conceive of a self arising outside of social experience” (Mead 1934).

How do we get from being newborns to being humans with “selves?” Mead developed a specifically sociological theory of the path of development that all people go through, which he divided into stages of increasing capacity for role play: the four stages of child socialization. During the preparatory stage, children are only capable of imitation: they have no ability to imagine how others see things. They copy the actions of people with whom they regularly interact, such as their mothers and fathers. A child’s baby talk is a reflection of its inability to make an object of itself through which it can approach itself. This is followed by the play stage, during which children begin to imitate and take on roles that another person might have. Thus, children might try on a parent’s point of view by acting out “grownup” behaviour, like playing “dress up” and acting out the mom role, or talking on a toy telephone the way they see their father do. However, they are still not able to take on roles in a consistent and coherent manner. Role play is very fluid and transitory, and children flip in and out of roles easily.

During the game stage, children learn to consider several specific roles at the same time and how those roles interact with each other. They learn to understand interactions involving different people with a variety of purposes. They understand that role play in each situation involves following a consistent set of rules and expectations. For example, a child at this stage is likely to be aware of the different responsibilities of people in a restaurant who together make for a smooth dining experience (someone seats you, another takes your order, someone else cooks the food, while yet another person clears away dirty dishes).

Mead uses the example of a baseball game. At one point in the life of children they are simply unable to play an organized game like baseball. They do not “get it” that when they hit the ball they need to run, or that after their turn someone else gets a turn to bat. In order for baseball to work, the players not only have to know what the rules of the game are, and what their specific role in the game is (batter, catcher, first base, etc.), but simultaneously the role of every other player on the field. The players have to be able to anticipate the actions of others and adjust or orient their behaviour accordingly.

Finally, children develop, understand, and learn the idea of the generalized other, the common behavioural expectations of general society. By this stage of development, an individual is able to internalize how he or she is viewed, not simply from the perspective of specific others, but from the perspective of the generalized other or “organized community.” Being able to guide one’s actions according to the attitudes of the generalized other provides the basis of having a “self” in the sociological sense. This capacity defines the conditions of thinking, of language, and of society itself as the organization of complex cooperative processes and activities.

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Moral development is an important part of the socialization process. The term refers to the way people learn what society considered to be “good” and “bad,” which is important for a smoothly functioning society. Moral development prevents people from acting on unchecked urges, instead considering what is right for society and good for others. Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987) was interested in how people learn to decide what is right and what is wrong. To understand this topic, he developed a theory of moral development that includes three levels: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional.

In the preconventional stage, young children, who lack a higher level of cognitive ability, experience the world around them only through their senses. It isn’t until the teen years that the conventional theory develops, when youngsters become increasingly aware of others’ feelings and take those into consideration when determining what’s “good” and “bad.” The final stage, called postconventional, is when people begin to think of morality in abstract terms, such as Americans believing that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At this stage, people also recognize that legality and morality do not always match up evenly (Kohlberg 1981). When hundreds of thousands of Egyptians turned out in 2011 to protest government corruption, they were using postconventional morality. They understood that although their government was legal, it was not morally correct.

Gilligan’s Theory of Moral Development and Gender

Another sociologist, Carol Gilligan (1936–), recognized that Kohlberg’s theory might show gender bias since his research was conducted only on male subjects. Would females study subjects have responded differently? Would a female social scientist notice different patterns when analyzing the research? To answer the first question, she set out to study differences between how boys and girls developed morality. Gilligan’s research demonstrated that boys and girls do, in fact, have different understandings of morality. Boys tend to have a justice perspective, placing emphasis on rules and laws. Girls, on the other hand, have a care and responsibility perspective; they consider people’s reasons behind behaviour that seems morally wrong.

Gilligan also recognized that Kohlberg’s theory rested on the assumption that the justice perspective was the right, or better, perspective. Gilligan, in contrast, theorized that neither perspective was “better”: the two norms of justice served different purposes. Ultimately, she explained that boys are socialized for a work environment where rules make operations run smoothly, while girls are socialized for a home environment where flexibility allows for harmony in caretaking and nurturing (Gilligan 1982, 1990).

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

What a Pretty Little Lady!

“What a cute dress!” “I like the ribbons in your hair.” “Wow, you look so pretty today.”

According to Lisa Bloom, author of Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed Down World, most of us use pleasantries like these when we first meet little girls. “So what?” you might ask.

Bloom asserts that we are too focused on the appearance of young girls, and as a result, our society is socializing them to believe that how they look is of vital importance. And Bloom may be on to something. How often do you tell a little boy how attractive his outfit is, how nice looking his shoes are, or how handsome he looks today? To support her assertions, Bloom cites, as one example, that about 50 percent of girls ages three to six worry about being fat (Bloom 2011). We’re talking about kindergarteners who are concerned about their body image. Sociologists are acutely interested in of this type of gender socialization, where societal expectations of how boys and girls should be—how they should behave, what toys and colours they should like, and how important their attire is—are reinforced.

One solution to this type of gender socialization is being experimented with at the Egalia preschool in Sweden, where children develop in a genderless environment. All of the children at Egalia are referred to with neutral terms like “friend” instead of “he” or “she.” Play areas and toys are consciously set up to eliminate any reinforcement of gender expectations (Haney 2011). Egalia strives to eliminate all societal gender norms from these children’s preschool world.

Extreme? Perhaps. So what is the middle ground? Bloom suggests that we start with simple steps: when introduced to a young girl, ask about her favourite book or what she likes. In short, engage her mind … not her outward appearance (Bloom 2011).


5.2. Why Socialization Matters

Socialization is critical both to individuals and to the societies in which they live. It illustrates how completely intertwined human beings and their social worlds are. First, it is through teaching culture to new members that a society perpetuates itself. If new generations of a society don’t learn its way of life, it ceases to exist. Whatever is distinctive about a culture must be transmitted to those who join it in order for a society to survive. For Canadian culture to continue, for example, children in Canada must learn about cultural values related to democracy: they have to learn the norms of voting, as well as how to use material objects such as a ballot. Of course, some would argue that it is just as important in Canadian culture for the younger generation to learn the etiquette of eating in a restaurant or the rituals of tailgate parties after softball games. In fact, there are many ideas and objects that Canadians teach children in hopes of keeping the society’s way of life going through another generation.

Figure 5.3. Socialization teaches us our society’s expectations for dining out. The manners and customs of different cultures (When can you use your hands to eat? How should you compliment the cook? Who is the “head” of the table?) are learned through socialization. (Photo courtesy of Niyam Bhushan/flickr)

Figure 5.3. Socialization teaches us our society’s expectations for dining out. The manners and customs of different cultures (When can you use your hands to eat? How should you compliment the cook? Who is the “head” of the table?) are learned through socialization. (Photo courtesy of Niyam Bhushan/flickr)

Socialization is just as essential to us as individuals. Social interaction provides the means via which we gradually become able to see ourselves through the eyes of others, learning who we are and how we fit into the world around us. In addition, to function successfully in society, we have to learn the basics of both material land nonmaterial culture, everything from how to dress ourselves to what is suitable attire for a specific occasion; from when we sleep to what we sleep on; and from what is considered appropriate to eat for dinner to how to use the stove to prepare it. Most importantly, we have to learn language—whether it is the dominant language or one common in a subculture, whether it is verbal or through signs—in order to communicate and to think. As we saw with Danielle, without socialization we literally have no self. We are unable to function socially.

Nature versus Nurture

Some experts assert that who we are is a result of nurture—the relationships and caring that surround us. Others argue that who we are is based entirely in genetics. According to this belief, our temperaments, interests, and talents are set before birth. From this perspective, then, who we are depends on nature.

One way that researchers attempt to prove the impact of nature is by studying twins. Some studies followed identical twins who were raised separately. The pairs shared the same genetics, but, in some cases, were socialized in different ways. Instances of this type of situation are rare, but studying the degree to which identical twins raised apart are the same and different can give researchers insight into how our temperaments, preferences, and abilities are shaped by our genetic makeup versus our social environment.

For example, in 1968, twin girls born to a mentally ill mother were put up for adoption. However, they were also separated from each other and raised in different households. The parents, and certainly the babies, did not realize they were one of five pairs of twins who were made subjects of a scientific study (Flam 2007).

In 2003, the two women, then age 35, reunited. Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein sat together in awe, feeling like they were looking into a mirror. Not only did they look alike, but they behaved alike, using the same hand gestures and facial expressions (Spratling 2007). Studies like these point to the genetic roots of our temperament and behaviour.

On the other hand, studies of identical twins have difficulty accounting for divergences in the development of inherited diseases. In the case of schizophrenia, epidemiological studies show that there is a strong biological component to the disease. The closer our familial connection to someone with the condition, the more likely we will develop it. However, even if our identical twin develops schizophrenia we are less than 50 percent likely to develop it ourselves. Why is it not 100 percent likely? What occurs to produce the divergence between genetically identical twins (Carey 2012)?

Though genetics and hormones play an important role in human behaviour, biological explanations of human behaviour have serious deficiencies from a sociological point of view, especially when they are used to try to explain complex aspects of human social life like homosexuality, male aggressiveness, female spatial skills, and the like. The logic of biological explanation usually involves three components: the identification of a supposedly universal quality or trait of human behaviour, an argument about why this behaviour makes it more likely that the genes that code for it will be passed successfully to descendents, and the conclusion that this behaviour or quality is “hard-wired” or difficult to change (Brym et al. 2012). However, an argument, for example, that males are naturally aggressive because of their hormonal structure (or other biological mechanisms) does not take into account the huge variations in the meaning or practice of aggression between cultures, nor the huge variations in what counts as aggressive in different situations, let alone the fact that many men are not aggressive by any definition, and that men and women both have “male” hormones like testosterone. More interesting for the sociologist in this example is that men who are not aggressive often get called “sissies.” This indicates that male aggression has to do more with a normative structure within male culture than with a genetic or hormonal structure that explains aggressive behaviour.

Sociology’s larger concern is the effect that society has on human behaviour, the “nurture” side of the nature versus nurture debate. To what degree are processes of identification and “self-fulfilling prophecy” at work in the lives of the twins Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein? Despite growing up apart do they share common racial, class, or religious characteristics? Aside from the environmental or epigenetic factors that lead to the divergence of twins with regard to schizophrenia, what happens to the social standing and social relationships of a person when the condition develops? What happens to schizophrenics in different societies? How does the social role of the schizophrenic integrate him or her into a society (or not)? Whatever the role of genes or biology in our lives, genes are never expressed in a vacuum. Environmental influence always matters.

Making Connections: Careers in Sociology

The Life of Chris Langan, the Smartest Man You’ve Never Heard Of

Bouncer. Firefighter. Factory worker. Cowboy. Chris Langan spent the majority of his adult life just getting by with jobs like these. He had no college degree, few resources, and a past filled with much disappointment. Chris Langan also had an IQ of over 195, nearly 100 points higher than the average person (Brabham 2001). So why didn’t Chris become a neurosurgeon, professor, or aeronautical engineer? According to Macolm Gladwell (2008) in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Chris didn’t possess the set of social skills necessary to succeed on such a high level—skills that aren’t innate, but learned.

Gladwell looked to a recent study conducted by sociologist Annette Lareau in which she closely shadowed 12 families from various economic backgrounds and examined their parenting techniques. Parents from lower-income families followed a strategy of “accomplishment of natural growth,” which is to say they let their children develop on their own with a large amount of independence; parents from higher-income families, however, “actively fostered and accessed a child’s talents, opinions, and skills” (Gladwell 2008). These parents were more likely to engage in analytical conversation, encourage active questioning of the establishment, and foster development of negotiation skills. The parents were also able to introduce their children to a wide range of activities, from sports to music to accelerated academic programs. When one middle class child was denied entry to a gifted and talented program, the mother petitioned the school and arranged additional testing until her daughter was admitted. Lower-income parents, however, were more likely to unquestioningly obey authorities such as school boards. Their children were not being socialized to comfortably confront the system and speak up (Gladwell 2008).

What does this have to do with Chris Langan, deemed by some as the smartest man in the world (Brabham 2001)? Chris was born in severe poverty, moving across the country with an abusive and alcoholic stepfather. Chris’s genius went greatly unnoticed. After accepting a full scholarship to Reed College, his funding was revoked after his mother failed to fill out necessary paperwork. Unable to successfully make his case to the administration, Chris, who had received straight A’s the previous semester, was given F’s on his transcript and forced to drop out. After enrolling in Montana State, an administrator’s refusal to rearrange his class schedule left him unable to find the means necessary to travel the 16 miles to attend classes. What Chris had in brilliance, he lacked practical intelligence, or what psychologist Robert Sternberg defines as “knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect” (Sternberg et al. 2000). Such knowledge was never part of his socialization.

Chris gave up on school and began working an array of blue-collar jobs, pursuing his intellectual interests on the side. Though he’s recently garnered attention from work on his “Cognitive Theoretic Model of the Universe,” he remains weary and resistant of the educational system.

As Gladwell concluded, “He’d had to make his way alone, and no one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone” (2008).



Figure 5.4. Identical twins may look alike, but their differences can give us clues to the effects of socialization. (Photo courtesy of D. Flam/flickr)

Sociologists all recognize the importance of socialization for healthy individual and societal development. But how do scholars working in the three major theoretical paradigms approach this topic? Structural functionalists would say that socialization is essential to society, both because it trains members to operate successfully within it and because it perpetuates culture by transmitting it to new generations. Without socialization, a society’s culture would perish as members died off. A critical sociologist might argue that socialization reproduces inequality from generation to generation by conveying different expectations and norms to those with different social characteristics. For example, individuals are socialized differently by gender, social class, and race. As in the illustration of Chris Langan, this creates different (unequal) opportunities. An interactionist studying socialization is concerned with face-to-face exchanges and symbolic communication. For example, dressing baby boys in blue and baby girls in pink is one small way that messages are conveyed about differences in gender roles

5.3. Agents of Socialization

Socialization helps people learn to function successfully in their social worlds. How does the process of socialization occur? How do we learn to use the objects of our society’s material culture? How do we come to adopt the beliefs, values, and norms that represent its nonmaterial culture? This learning takes place through interaction with various agents of socialization, like peer groups and families, plus both formal and informal social institutions.

Social Group Agents

Social groups often provide the first experiences of socialization. Families, and later peer groups, communicate expectations and reinforce norms. People first learn to use the tangible objects of material culture in these settings, as well as being introduced to the beliefs and values of society.


Family is the first agent of socialization. Mothers and fathers, siblings and grandparents, plus members of an extended family, all teach a child what he or she needs to know. For example, they show the child how to use objects (such as clothes, computers, eating utensils, books, bikes); how to relate to others (some as “family,” others as “friends,” still others as “strangers” or “teachers” or “neighbours”); and how the world works (what is “real” and what is “imagined”). As you are aware, either from your own experience as a child or your role in helping to raise one, socialization involves teaching and learning about an unending array of objects and ideas.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that families do not socialize children in a vacuum. Many social factors impact how a family raises its children. For example, we can use sociological imagination to recognize that individual behaviours are affected by the historical period in which they take place. Sixty years ago, it would not have been considered especially strict for a father to hit his son with a wooden spoon or a belt if he misbehaved, but today that same action might be considered child abuse.

Sociologists recognize that race, social class, religion, and other societal factors play an important role in socialization. For example, poor families usually emphasize obedience and conformity when raising their children, while wealthy families emphasize judgment and creativity (National Opinion Research Center 2008). This may be because working-class parents have less education and more repetitive-task jobs for which the ability to follow rules and to conform helps. Wealthy parents tend to have better educations and often work in managerial positions or in careers that require creative problem solving, so they teach their children behaviours that would be beneficial in these positions. This means that children are effectively socialized and raised to take the types of jobs that their parents already have, thus reproducing the class system (Kohn 1977). Likewise, children are socialized to abide by gender norms, perceptions of race, and class-related behaviours.

In Sweden, for instance, stay-at-home fathers are an accepted part of the social landscape. A government policy provides subsidized time off work—68 weeks for families with newborns at 80 percent of regular earnings—with the option of 52 of those weeks of paid leave being shared between both mothers and fathers, and eight weeks each in addition allocated for the father and the mother. This encourages fathers to spend at least eight weeks at home with their newborns (Marshall 2008). As one stay-at-home dad says, being home to take care of his baby son “is a real fatherly thing to do. I think that’s very masculine” (Associated Press 2011). Overall 90 percent of men participate in the paid leave program. In Canada on the other hand, outside of Quebec, parents can share 35 weeks of paid parental leave at 55 percent of their regular earnings. Only 10 percent of men participate. In Quebec, however, where in addition to 32 weeks of shared parental leave, men also receive five weeks of paid leave, the participation rate of men is 48 percent. In Canada overall, the participation of men in paid parental leave increased from 3 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2006 because of the change in law in 2001 that extended the number of combined paid weeks parents could take. Researchers note that a father’s involvement in child raising has a positive effect on the parents’ relationship, the father’s personal growth, and the social, emotional, physical and cognitive development of children (Marshall 2008). How will this effect differ in Sweden and Canada as a result of the different nature of their paternal leave policies?


Figure 5.5. The socialized roles of dads (and moms) vary by society. (Photo courtesy of Nate Grigg/flickr)

Peer Groups

A peer group is made up of people who are similar in age and social status and who share interests. Peer group socialization begins in the earliest years, such as when kids on a playground teach younger children the norms about taking turns or the rules of a game or how to shoot a basket. As children grow into teenagers, this process continues. Peer groups are important to adolescents in a new way, as they begin to develop an identity separate from their parents and exert independence. Additionally, peer groups provide their own opportunities for socialization since kids usually engage in different types of activities with their peers than they do with their families. Peer groups provide adolescents’ first major socialization experience outside the realm of their families. Interestingly, studies have shown that although friendships rank high in adolescents’ priorities, this is balanced by parental influence.

Institutional Agents

The social institutions of our culture also inform our socialization. Formal institutions—like schools, workplaces, and the government—teach people how to behave in and navigate these systems. Other institutions, like the media, contribute to socialization by inundating us with messages about norms and expectations.


Most Canadian children spend about seven hours a day, 180 days a year, in school, which makes it hard to deny the importance school has on their socialization. In elementary and junior high, compulsory education amounts to over 8,000 hours in the classroom (OECD 2013). Students are not only in school to study math, reading, science, and other subjects—the manifest function of this system. Schools also serve a latent function in society by socializing children into behaviours like teamwork, following a schedule, and using textbooks.


Figure 5.6. These kindergarteners aren’t just learning to read and write, they are being socialized to norms like keeping their hands to themselves, standing in line, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. (Photo courtesy of Bonner Springs Library/flickr)

School and classroom rituals, led by teachers serving as role models and leaders, regularly reinforce what society expects from children. Sociologists describe this aspect of schools as the hidden curriculum, the informal teaching done by schools.

For example, in North America, schools have built a sense of competition into the way grades are awarded and the way teachers evaluate students. Students learn to evaluate themselves within a hierarchical system as “A,” “B,” “C,” etc. students (Bowles and Gintis 1976). However, different “lessons” can be taught by different instructional techniques. When children participate in a relay race or a math contest, they learn that there are winners and losers in society. When children are required to work together on a project, they practise teamwork with other people in cooperative situations. Bowles and Gintis argue that the hidden curriculum prepares children for a life of conformity in the adult world. Children learn how to deal with bureaucracy, rules, expectations, waiting their turn, and sitting still for hours during the day. The latent functions of competition, teamwork, classroom discipline, time awareness and dealing with bureaucracy are features of the hidden curriculum.

Schools also socialize children by teaching them overtly about citizenship and nationalism. In the United States, children are taught to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Most districts require classes about U.S. history and geography. In Canada, on the other hand, critics complain that students do not learn enough about national history, which undermines the development of a sense of shared national identity (Granatstein 1998). Textbooks in Canada are also continually scrutinized and revised to update attitudes toward the different cultures in Canada as well as perspectives on historical events; thus, children are socialized to a different national or world history than earlier textbooks may have done. For example, information about the mistreatment of First Nations more accurately reflects those events than in textbooks of the past. In this regard, schools educate students explicitly about aspects of citizenship important for being able to participate in a modern, heterogeneous culture.

Making Connections: the Big Pictures

Controversial Textbooks

On August 13, 2001, 20 South Korean men gathered in Seoul. Each chopped off one of his own fingers because of textbooks. These men took drastic measures to protest eight middle school textbooks approved by Tokyo for use in Japanese middle schools. According to the Korean government (and other East Asian nations), the textbooks glossed over negative events in Japan’s history at the expense of other Asian countries (The Telegraph 2001).

In the early 1900s, Japan was one of Asia’s more aggressive nations. Korea was held as a colony by the Japanese between 1910 and 1945. Today, Koreans argue that the Japanese are whitewashing that colonial history through these textbooks. One major criticism is that they do not mention that, during World War II, the Japanese forced Korean women into sexual slavery. The textbooks describe the women as having been “drafted” to work, a euphemism that downplays the brutality of what actually occurred. Some Japanese textbooks dismiss an important Korean independence demonstration in 1919 as a “riot.” In reality, Japanese soldiers attacked peaceful demonstrators, leaving roughly 6,000 dead and 15,000 wounded (Crampton 2002).

Although it may seem extreme that people are so enraged about how events are described in a textbook that they would resort to dismemberment, the protest affirms that textbooks are a significant tool of socialization in state-run education systems.

The Workplace

Just as children spend much of their day at school, most Canadian adults at some point invest a significant amount of time at a place of employment. Although socialized into their culture since birth, workers require new socialization into a workplace, both in terms of material culture (such as how to operate the copy machine) and nonmaterial culture (such as whether it is okay to speak directly to the boss or how the refrigerator is shared).

Different jobs require different types of socialization. In the past, many people worked a single job until retirement. Today, the trend is to switch jobs at least once a decade. Between the ages of 18 and 44, the average baby boomer of the younger set held 11 different jobs (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2010). This means that people must become socialized to, and socialized by, a variety of work environments.


While some religions may tend toward being an informal institution, this section focuses on practices related to formal institutions. Religion is an important avenue of socialization for many people. Canada is full of synagogues, temples, churches, mosques, and similar religious communities where people gather to worship and learn. Like other institutions, these places teach participants how to interact with the religion’s material culture (like a mezuzah, a prayer rug, or a communion wafer). For some people, important ceremonies related to family structure—like marriage and birth—are connected to religious celebrations. Many of these institutions uphold gender norms and contribute to their enforcement through socialization. From ceremonial rites of passage that reinforce the family unit, to power dynamics which reinforce gender roles, religion fosters a shared set of socialized values that are passed on through society.


Although we do not think about it, many of the rites of passage people go through today are based on age norms established by the government. To be defined as an “adult” usually means being 18 years old, the age at which a person becomes legally responsible for themselves. And 65 is the start of “old age” since most people become eligible for senior benefits at that point.

Each time we embark on one of these new categories—senior, adult, taxpayer—we must be socialized into this new role. Seniors, for example, must learn the ropes of obtaining pension benefits. This government program marks the points at which we require socialization into a new category.

Mass Media

Mass media refers to the distribution of impersonal information to a wide audience, via television, newspapers, radio, and the internet. With the average person spending over four hours a day in front of the TV (and children averaging even more screen time), media greatly influences social norms (Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout 2005). People learn about objects of material culture (like new technology and transportation options), as well as nonmaterial culture—what is true (beliefs), what is important (values), and what is expected (norms).

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

Girls and Movies


Figure 5.7. Some people are concerned about the way girls today are socialized into a “princess culture.” (Photo courtesy of Emily Stanchfield/flickr)

Pixar is one of the largest producers of children’s movies in the world and has released large box office draws, such as Toy Story, Cars, The Incredibles, and Up. What Pixar has never before produced is a movie with a female lead role. This changed with Pixar’s movie Brave in 2012. Before Brave, women in Pixar served as supporting characters and love interests. In Up, for example, the only human female character dies within the first 10 minutes of the film. For the millions of girls watching Pixar films, there are few strong characters or roles for them to relate to. If they do not see possible versions of themselves, they may come to view women as secondary to the lives of men.

The animated films of Pixar’s parent company, Disney, have many female lead roles. Disney is well known for films with female leads, such as Snow White, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and Mulan. Many of Disney’s movies star a female, and she is nearly always a princess figure. If she is not a princess to begin with, she typically ends the movie by marrying a prince or, in the case of Mulan, a military general. Although not all “princesses” in Disney movies play a passive role in their lives, they typically find themselves needing to be rescued by a man, and the happy ending they all search for includes marriage.

Alongside this prevalence of princesses, many parents are expressing concern about the culture of princesses that Disney has created. Peggy Orenstein addresses this problem in her popular book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Orenstein wonders why every little girl is expected to be a “princess” and why pink has become an all-consuming obsession for many young girls. Another mother wondered what she did wrong when her three-year-old daughter refused to do “non-princessy” things, including running and jumping. The effects of this princess culture can have negative consequences for girls throughout life. An early emphasis on beauty and sexiness can lead to eating disorders, low self-esteem, and risky sexual behaviour among older girls.

What should we expect from Pixar’s Brave, the first starring a female character? Although Brave features a female lead, she is still a princess. Will this film offer any new type of role model for young girls? (Barnes 2010; O’Connor 2011; Rose 2011).


5.4. Socialization Across the Life Course

Socialization isn’t a one-time or even a short-term event. We are not “stamped” by some socialization machine as we move along a conveyor belt and thereby socialized once and for all. In fact, socialization is a lifelong process.

In Canada, socialization throughout the life course is determined greatly by age norms and “time-related rules and regulations” (Setterson 2002). As we grow older, we encounter age-related transition points that require socialization into a new role, such as becoming school age, entering the workforce, or retiring. For example, the Canadian government mandates that all children attend school. Child labour laws, enacted in the early 20th century, nationally declared that childhood be a time of learning, not of labour. In countries such as Niger and Sierra Leone, however, child labour remains common and socially acceptable, with little legislation to regulate such practices (UNICEF 2011).

Making Connections: the Big Pictures

Gap Year: How Different Societies Socialize Young Adults

Prince William photo from Alexandre Goulet used Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license

Figure 5.8. Prince William, who took a gap year after secondary school. (photo courtesy of Alexandre Goulet/wikimedia commons)

Have you ever heard of gap year? It’s a common custom in British society. When teens finish their secondary schooling (i.e., high school), they often take a year “off” before entering college. Frequently, they might take a job, travel, or find other ways to experience another culture. Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, spent his gap year practising survival skills in Belize, teaching English in Chile, and working on a dairy farm in the United Kingdom (Prince of Wales 2012a). His brother, Prince Harry, advocated for AIDS orphans in Africa and worked as a jackeroo (a novice ranch hand) in Australia (Prince of Wales 2012b).

In Canada, this life transition point is socialized quite differently, and taking a year off is generally frowned on. Instead, Canadian youth are encouraged to pick career paths by their mid-teens, to select a university or college and a major by their late teens, and to have completed all university schooling or technical training for their career by their early 20s.

In other nations, this phase of the life course is tied into conscription, a term that describes compulsory military service. Egypt, Austria, Switzerland, Turkey, and Singapore all have this system in place. Youth in these nations (often only the males) are expected to undergo a number of months or years of military training and service.

How might your life be different if you lived in one of these other countries? Can you think of similar social norms—related to life age-transition points—that vary from country to country?


Many of life’s social expectations are made clear and enforced on a cultural level. Through interacting with others and watching others interact, the expectation to fulfill roles becomes clear. While in elementary or middle school, the prospect of having a boyfriend or girlfriend may have been considered undesirable. The socialization that takes place in high school changes the expectation. By observing the excitement and importance attached to dating and relationships within the high school social scene, it quickly becomes apparent that one is now expected not only to be a child and a student, but a significant other as well. Graduation from formal education—high school, vocational school, or college—involves socialization into a new set of expectations.

Educational expectations vary not only from culture to culture, but from class to class. While middle- or upper-class families may expect their daughter or son to attend a four-year university after graduating from high school, other families may expect their child to immediately begin working full-time, as many within their family have done before.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

The Long Road to Adulthood for Millennials

Millennials, sometimes also called Gen Y, is a term that describes the generation born during the early 1980s to early 1990s. They are the generation that is currently between the ages of 18 and 33. While the recession was in full swing, many were in the process of entering, attending, or graduating from high school and college. With employment prospects at historical lows, large numbers of graduates were unable to find work, sometimes moving back in with their parents and struggling to pay back student loans.

According to the New York Times, this economic stall is causing the Millennials to postpone what most North Americans consider to be adulthood: “The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain untethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary … jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life” (Henig 2010).

In Canada:

  • 30 percent of Millennials find it difficult to support themselves on their low wages
  • 44 percent find it difficult to pay for their education
  • 38 percent are strapped by loan payments
  • 51 percent still live with their parents
  • 90 percent feel overwhelmed and experience excessive stress (Tsintziras 2013)

The five milestones, Henig writes, that define adulthood, are “completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child” (Henig 2010). These social milestones are taking longer for Millennials to attain, if they’re attained at all. Sociologists wonder what long-term impact this generation’s situation may have on society as a whole.


In the process of socialization, adulthood brings a new set of challenges and expectations, as well as new roles to fill. As the aging process moves forward, social roles continue to evolve. Pleasures of youth, such as wild nights out and serial dating, become less acceptable in the eyes of society. Responsibility and commitment are emphasized as pillars of adulthood, and men and women are expected to “settle down.” During this period, many people enter into marriage or a civil union, bring children into their families, and focus on a career path. They become partners or parents instead of students or significant others.

Just as young children pretend to be doctors or lawyers, play house, and dress up, adults also engage anticipatory socialization, the preparation for future life roles. Examples would include a couple who cohabitate before marriage, or soon-to-be parents who read infant care books and prepare their home for the new arrival. As part of anticipatory socialization, adults who are financially able begin planning for their retirement, saving money and looking into future health care options. The transition into any new life role, despite the social structure that supports it, can be difficult.

Socialization is ongoing throughout adulthood in another sense as well. The study of contemporary society reveals an increasing fluidity of roles, as opposed to previous eras when one could expect to be married only once, live in one location, or to have a single career. This experience is part of what Zygmunt Bauman has called liquid modernity. As opposed to previous eras when one could expect to have a career that spanned one’s entire working life, the expectation today is that the individual will experience an increasing fluidity of roles. It is more difficult to view socialization as a smooth and uninterrupted process. Rather, life is increasingly fragmented, “cut into a succession of ill-connected episodes” (Bauman 2004). As a result, social identities have become more flexible, more adaptable to unpredictable transitions, and more open to taking on new roles or picking and choosing from a globalized palette of cultural values and practices.


In the process of resocialization, old behaviours that were helpful in a previous role are removed because they are no longer of use. Resocialization is necessary when a person moves to a senior care centre, goes to boarding school, or serves time in jail. In the new environment, the old rules no longer apply. The process of resocialization is typically more stressful than normal socialization because people have to unlearn behaviours that have become customary to them.

The most common way resocialization occurs is in a total institution where people are isolated from society and are forced to follow someone else’s rules. A ship at sea is a total institution, as are religious convents, prisons, or some cult organizations. They are places cut off from a larger society. The 15,000 Canadians who lived in federal prisons or penitentiaries at the end of 2012 are also members of this type of institution (Sapers 2013). As another example, every branch of the military is a total institution.

Many individuals are resocialized into an institution through a two-part process. First, members entering an institution must leave behind their old identity through what is known as a degradation ceremony. In a degradation ceremony, new members lose the aspects of their old identity and are given new identities. The process is sometimes gentle. To enter a senior care home, an elderly person often must leave a family home and give up many belongings which were part of his or her long-standing identity. Though caretakers guide the elderly compassionately, the process can still be one of loss. In many cults, this process is also gentle and happens in an environment of support and caring.

In other situations, the degradation ceremony can be more extreme. Goffman refered to the process of being stripped of ones external identity as a “mortification of the self” (Goffman 1961). New prisoners lose freedom, rights (including the right to privacy), and personal belongings. When entering the army, soldiers have their hair cut short. Their old clothes are removed and they wear matching uniforms. These individuals must give up any markers of their former identity in order to be resocialized into an identity as a “soldier.”


Figure 5.9. In basic training, soldiers are taught to walk, move, and look like each other (Photo courtesy of Staff Sergeant Desiree N. Palacios, U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons)

After new members of an institution are stripped of their old identity, they build a new one that matches the new society. In the military, soldiers go through basic training together, where they learn new rules and bond with one another. They follow structured schedules set by their leaders. Soldiers must keep their areas clean for inspection, learn to march in correct formations, and salute when in the presence of superiors.

Learning to deal with life after having lived in a total institution requires yet another process of resocialization. In the Canadian military, soldiers learn discipline and a capacity for hard work. They set aside personal goals to achieve a mission, and they take pride in the accomplishments of their units. Many soldiers who leave the military transition these skills into excellent careers. Others find themselves lost upon leaving, uncertain about the outside world, and what to do next. The process of resocialization to civilian life is not a simple one.

Key Terms

anticipatory socialization when we prepare for future life roles

degradation ceremony the process by which new members of a total institution lose aspects of their old identity and are given new ones

game stage  the stage in child development in which children begin to recognize and interact on the basis of fixed norms and roles

generalized other the common behavioural expectations of general society

hidden curriculum the informal teaching done in schools that socializes children to societal norms

I and me the two components or phases of the self-reflective self

liquid modernity the fluid and transitory nature of modern life, which is increasingly fragmented and cut into a succession of ill-connected episodes

looking glass self the self or self-image that arises as the reaction to the judgment of others

mass media the distribution of impersonal information to a wide audience via television, newspapers, radio, and the Internet

moral development the way people learn what is “good” and “bad” in society

nature the influence of our genetic makeup on self development

nurture the role that our social environment plays in self development

peer group a group made up of people who are similar in age and social status and who share interests

play stage a time when children begin to imitate and take on roles that another person might have

preparatory stage a time when children are only capable of imitation and have no ability to imagine how others see things

resocialization the process by which old behaviours are removed and new behaviours are learned in their place

self a person’s distinct sense of identity as developed through social interaction

socialization the process wherein people come to understand societal norms and expectations, to accept society’s beliefs, and to be aware of societal values

stages of child socialization the four stages of child development (preparatory, play, game, and generalized other) in which the child develops the capacity to assume social roles

total institution an institution in which members are required to live in isolation from the rest of society

Section Summary

5.1. Theories of Self Development
Psychological theories of self development have been broadened by sociologists who explicitly study the role of society and social interaction in self development. Charles Cooley and George Mead both contributed significantly to the sociological understanding of the development of self. Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan developed their ideas further, researching how our sense of morality develops. Gilligan added the dimension of gender differences to Kohlberg’s theory.

5.2. Why Socialization Matters
Socialization is important because it helps uphold societies and cultures; it is also a key part of individual development. Research demonstrates that who we are is affected by both nature (our genetic and hormonal makeup) and nurture (the social environment in which we are raised). Sociology is most concerned with the way that society’s influence affects our behaviour patterns, made clear by the way behaviour varies across class and gender.

5.3. Agents of Socialization
Our direct interactions with social groups, like families and peers, teach us how others expect us to behave. Likewise, a society’s formal and informal institutions socialize its population. Schools, workplaces, and the media communicate and reinforce cultural norms and values.

5.4. Socialization across the Life Course
Socialization is a lifelong process recurring as we enter new phases of life, such as adulthood or senior age. Resocialization is a process that removes the socialization we have developed over time and replaces it with newly learned rules and roles. Because it involves removing old habits that have been built up, resocialization can be a stressful and difficult process.

Section Quiz

5.1. Theories of Self Development
1. Socialization, as a sociological term, describes:

  1. how people interact during social situations
  2. how people learn societal norms, beliefs, and values
  3. a person’s internal mental state when in a group setting
  4. the difference between introverts and extroverts

2. The Harlows’ study on rhesus monkeys showed that:

  1. rhesus monkeys raised by other primate species are poorly socialized
  2. monkeys can be adequately socialized by imitating humans
  3. food is more important than social comfort
  4. social comfort is more important than food

3. What occurs in Lawrence Kohlberg’s conventional level?

  1. Children develop the ability to have abstract thoughts.
  2. Morality is developed by pain and pleasure.
  3. Children begin to consider what society considers moral and immoral.
  4. Parental beliefs have no influence on children’s morality.

4. What did Carol Gilligan believe earlier researchers into morality had overlooked?

  1. The justice perspective
  2. Sympathetic reactions to moral situations
  3. The perspective of females
  4. How social environment affects how morality develops

5. What is one way to distinguish between psychology and sociology?

  1. Psychology focuses on the mind, while sociology focuses on society.
  2. Psychologists are interested in mental health, while sociologists are interested in societal functions.
  3. Psychologists look inward to understand behaviour while sociologists look outward.
  4. All of the above.

6. How did nearly complete isolation as a child affect Danielle’s verbal abilities?

  1. She could not communicate at all.
  2. She never learned words, but she did learn signs.
  3. She could not understand much, but she could use gestures.
  4. She could understand and use basic language like “yes” and “no.”

5.2. Why Socialization Matters
7. Why do sociologists need to be careful when drawing conclusions from twin studies?

  1. The results do not apply to singletons.
  2. The twins were often raised in different ways.
  3. The twins may turn out to actually be fraternal.
  4. The sample sizes are often small.

8. From a sociological perspective, which factor does not greatly influence a person’s socialization?

  1. gender
  2. class
  3. blood type
  4. race

9. Chris Langan’s story illustrates that:

  1. children raised in one-parent households tend to have higher IQs
  2. intelligence is more important than socialization
  3. socialization can be more important than intelligence
  4. neither socialization nor intelligence affects college admissions

5.3. Agents of Socialization
10. Why are wealthy parents more likely than poor parents to socialize their children toward creativity and problem solving?

  1. Wealthy parents are socializing their children toward the skills of white-collar employment.
  2. Wealthy parents are not concerned about their children rebelling against their rules.
  3. Wealthy parents never engage in repetitive tasks.
  4. Wealthy parents are more concerned with money than with a good education.

11. How do schools prepare children to one day enter the workforce?

  1. with a standardized curriculum
  2. through the hidden curriculum
  3. by socializing them in teamwork
  4. all of the above

12. Which one of the following is not a way people are socialized by religion?

  1. People learn the material culture of their religion.
  2. Life stages and roles are connected to religious celebration.
  3. An individual’s personal internal experience of a divine being leads to their faith.
  4. Places of worship provide a space for shared group experiences.

13. Which of the following is a manifest function of schools?

  1. understanding when to speak up and when to be silent
  2. learning to read and write
  3. following a schedule
  4. knowing locker room etiquette

14. Which of the following is typically the earliest agent of socialization?

  1. school
  2. gamily
  3. mass media
  4. workplace

5.4. Socialization across the Life Course
15. Which of the following is not an age-related transition point when Canadians must be socialized to new roles?

  1. Infancy
  2. School age
  3. Adulthood
  4. Senior citizen

16. Which of the following is true regarding Canadian socialization of recent high school graduates?

  1. They are expected to take a year “off” before college.
  2. They are required to serve in the military for one year.
  3. They are expected to enter college, trade school, or the workforce shortly after graduation.
  4. They are required to move away from their parents.

Short Answer

5.1. Theories of Self Development

  1. Think of a current issue or pattern that a sociologist might study. What types of questions would the sociologist ask, and what research methods might he or she employ? Now consider the questions and methods a psychologist might use to study the same issue. Comment on their different approaches.
  2. Explain why it’s important to conduct research using both male and female participants. What sociological topics might show gender differences? Provide some examples to illustrate your ideas.

5.2. Why Socialization Matters

  1. Why are twin studies an important way to learn about the relative effects of genetics and socialization on children? What questions about human development do you believe twin studies are best for answering? For what types of questions would twin studies not be as helpful?
  2. Why do you think that people like Chris Langan continue to have difficulty even after they are helped through societal systems? What is it they’ve missed that prevents them from functioning successfully in the social world?

5.3. Agents of Socialization

  1. Do you think it is important that parents discuss gender roles with their young children, or is gender a topic better left for later? How do parents consider gender norms when buying their children books, movies, and toys? How do you believe they should consider it?
  2. Based on your observations, when are adolescents more likely to listen to their parents or to their peer groups when making decisions? What types of dilemmas lend themselves toward one social agent over another?

5.4. Socialization across the Life Course

  1. Consider a person who is moving into residence, or attending university or boarding school, or even a child beginning kindergarten. How is the process the student goes through a form of socialization? What new cultural behaviours must the student adapt to?
  2. Do you think resocialization requires a total institution? Why or why not? Can you think of any other ways someone could be resocialized?

Further Research

5.1. Theories of Self Development
Lawrence Kohlberg was most famous for his research using moral dilemmas. He presented dilemmas to boys and asked them how they would judge the situations. Visit to read about Kohlberg’s most famous moral dilemma, known as the Heinz dilemma.

5.2. Why Socialization Matters
Learn more about five other sets of twins who grew up apart and discovered each other later in life at

5.3. Agents of Socialization
Most societies expect parents to socialize children into gender norms. See the controversy surrounding one Canadian couple’s refusal to do so at

5.4. Socialization across the Life Course
Homelessness is an endemic problem among veterans. Many soldiers leave the military or return from war and have difficulty resocializing into civilian life. Learn more about this problem at or


5. Introduction to Socialization
DeGregory, Lane. 2008. “The Girl in the Window.” St. Petersburg Times, July 31. Retrieved January 31, 2012 (

Harlow, Harry F. 1971. Learning to Love. New York: Ballantine.

Harlow, Harry F. and Margaret Kuenne Harlow. 1962. “Social Deprivation in Monkeys.” Scientific American November:137–46.

5.1. Theories of Self Development
Bloom, Lisa. 2011. “How to Talk to Little Girls.” Huffington Post, June 22. Retrieved January 12, 2012 (

Cooley, Charles Horton. 1902. “The Looking Glass Self.” Pp. 179–185 in Human Nature and Social Order. New York: Scribner’s.

Durkheim, Émile. 2011 [1897]. Suicide. London: Routledge.

Erikson, Erik. 1963. Childhood and Society. New York: W.W. Norton.

Freud, Sigmund. 2000 [1905]. Three Essays on Theories of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gilligan, Carol. 1990. Making Connections: The Relational Worlds of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Haney, Phil. 2011. “Genderless Preschool in Sweden.” Baby & Kids, June 28. Retrieved January 12, 2012 (

Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1981. The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages. New York: Harper and Row.

Lasch, Christopher. 1979. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York: W. Norton and Co.

Mead, George H. 1934. Mind, Self and Society, edited by C. W. Morris. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Piaget, Jean. 1954. The Construction of Reality in the Child. New York: Basic Books.

5.2. Why Socialization Matters
Brabham, Denis. 2001. “The Smart Guy.” Newsday, August 21. Retrieved January 31, 2012 (

Brym, Robert, Lance W. Roberts, John Lie, and Steven Rytina. 2013. Sociology: Your Compass for a New World, 4th ed. Toronto: Nelson.

Carey, Nessa. 2012. The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease and Inheritance. New York: Columbia University Press.

Flam, Faye. 2007. “Separated Twins Shed Light on Identity Issues.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 9. Retrieved January 31, 2012 (

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2008. “The Trouble With Geniuses, Part 2.” Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Spratling, Cassandra. 2007. “Nature and Nurture.” Detroit Free Press. November 25. Retrieved January 31, 2012 (

Sternberg, R.J., G.B. Forsythe, J. Hedlund, J. Horvath, S. Snook, W.M. Williams, R.K. Wagner, and E.L. Grigorenko. 2000. Practical Intelligence in Everyday Life. New York: Cambridge University Press.

5.3. Agents of Socialization
Associated Press. 2011. “Swedish Dads Swap Work for Child Care.” The Gainesville Sun, October 23. Retrieved January 12, 2012 (

Barnes, Brooks. 2010. “Pixar Removes Its First Female Director.” The New York Times, December 20. Retrieved August 2, 2011 (

Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis. 1976. Schooling in Capitalistic America: Educational Reforms and the Contradictions of Economic Life. New York: Basic Books.

Crampton, Thomas. 2002. “The Ongoing Battle over Japan’s Textbooks.” New York Times, February 12. Retrieved August 2, 2011 (

Granatstein, J.L. 1998. Who Killed Canadian History? Toronto: HarperCollins.

Kohn, Melvin L. 1977. Class and Conformity: A Study in Values. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.

Marshall, Katherine. 2008. “Fathers’ use of paid parental leave.” Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 75-001-X. Retrieved February 23, 2014 (

National Opinion Research Center. 2008. General Social Surveys, 1972–2006: Cumulative Codebook. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center.

O’Connor, Lydia. 2011. “The Princess Effect: Are Girls Too ‘Tangled’ in Disney’s Fantasy?” Annenberg Digital News, January 26. Retrieved August 2, 2011 (

OECD. 2013. Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators. OECD Publishing. Retrieved February 23, 2014 (

Roberts, Donald F., Ulla G. Foehr, and Victoria Rideout. 2005. “Parents, Children, and Media: A Kaiser Family Foundation Survey.” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved February 14, 2012 (

Rose, Steve. 2011. “Studio Ghibli: Leave the Boys Behind.” The Guardian, July 14. Retrieved August 2, 2011 (

The Telegraph. 2001. “South Koreans Sever Fingers in Anti-Japan Protest.”  Retrieved January 31, 2012 (

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2010. “Number of Jobs Held, Labor Market Activity, and Earnings Growth Among the Youngest Baby Boomers.” September 10. Retrieved January 31, 2012 (

5.4. Socialization across the Life Course
Bauman, Zygmunt. 2004. Identity: Conversations with Benedetto Vecchi. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Goffman, Irving. 1961. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York: Anchor Books.

Henig, Robin Marantz. 2010. “What Is It About Twenty-Somethings?” New York Times, August 18. Retrieved December 28, 2011 (

Prince of Wales. 2012a. “Duke of Cambridge, Gap Year.” Retrieved January 26, 2012 (

Prince of Wales. 2012b. “Prince Harry, Gap Year.” Retrieved January 26, 2012 (

Sapers, Howard. 2013. Annual Report of the Correctional Investigator: 2012-2013. The Correctional Investigator Canada. Retrieved February 23, 2014 (

Setterson, Richard A., Jr. 2002. “Socialization in the Life Course: New Frontiers in Theory and Research.” New Frontiers in Socialization, Vol. 7. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Science Ltd.

Tsintziras, Aya. 2013. “Millennials and Anxiety: Is Generation Y Anxious?” Huffington Post. July 26. Retrieved February 23, 2014 (

UNICEF. 2011. “Percentage of Children Aged 5–14 Engaged in Child Labour.” Retrieved December 28, 2011 (

Solutions to Section Quiz

1. B | 2. D | 3. C | 4. C | 5. D | 6. A | 7. D | 8. C | 9. C | 10. A | 11. D | 12. C | 13. B | 14. B | 15. A | 16. C

Image Attributions

Figure 5.8. Prince William by Alexandre Goulet ( used Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license (


Chapter 6. Groups and Organizations

occupy Victoria 3

Figure 6.1. Students, environmentalists, union members, and aboriginal people showed up to protest at the Occupy movement in Victoria, B.C. (Photo courtesy of rpaterso/flickr)

Learning Objectives

6.1. Types of Groups

  • Understand primary and secondary groups as two key sociological groups
  • Recognize in-groups and out-groups as subtypes of primary and secondary groups
  • Define reference groups

6.2. Groups and Networks

  • Determine the distinction between groups, social networks, and formal organizations
  • Analyze the dynamics of dyads, triads, and larger social networks
  • Distinguish between different styles of leadership
  • Explain how conformity is impacted by groups
  • Understand why groups and networks are more than the sum of their parts

6.3. Formal Organizations

  • Understand the different types of formal organizations
  • Categorize the characteristics of bureaucracies
  • Analyze the opposing tendencies of bureaucracy toward efficiency and inefficiency
  • Identify the concepts of the McDonaldization of society and the McJob as aspects of the process of rationalization

Introduction to Groups and Organizations

The punk band NOFX is playing outside in Los Angeles. The music is loud, the crowd pumped up and excited. But neither the lyrics nor the people in the audience are quite what you might expect. Mixed in with the punks and young rebel students are members of local unions, from well-dressed teachers to more grizzled labour leaders. The lyrics are not published anywhere but are available on YouTube: “We’re here to represent/The 99 percent/Occupy, occupy, occupy.” The song: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice If Every Movement Had a Theme Song” (Cabrel 2011).

At an Occupy camp in New York, roughly three dozen members of the Facilitation Working Group, a part of the General Assembly, take a steady stream of visitors with requests at their unofficial headquarters. One person wants a grant for $1,500 to make herbal medications available to those staying at the park. Another wants to present Native American peace principles derived from the Iroquois Confederacy. Yet another has a spreadsheet that he wants used as an evaluation tool for the facilitators. A group of women press for more inclusive language to be used in the “Declaration of the Occupation” document so that racial and women’s concerns are recognized as central to the movement.

In Victoria, B.C., a tent community springs up in Centennial Square outside city hall, just like tent cities in other parts of the country. Through the “horizontal decision-making process” of daily general assemblies, the community decides to change its name from Occupy Victoria to the  People’s Assembly of Victoria because of the negative colonial connotations of the word “occupy” for aboriginal members of the group. As the tent cities of the Occupy movement begin to be dismantled, forcibly in some cases, a separate movement, Idle No More, emerges to advocate for aboriginal justice.

Numerous groups make up the Occupy movement, yet there is no central movement leader. What makes a group something more than just a collection of people? How are leadership functions and styles established in a group dynamic?

Most people have a sense of what it means to be part of some kind of a group, whether it is a social movement, sports team, school club, or family. Groups connect us to others through commonalities of geography, interests, race, religion, and activities. But for the groups of people protesting from New York City to Victoria, B.C., and in the hundreds of cities in between, their connection within the Occupy Wall Street movement is harder to define. What unites these people? Are homeless people truly aligned with law school students? Do aboriginal people genuinely feel for the environmental protests against pipelines and fish farming?

Groups are prevalent in our social lives and provide a significant way to understand and define ourselves—both through groups we feel a connection to and those we do not. Groups also play an important role in society. As enduring social units, they help foster shared value systems and are key to the structure of society as we know it. There are four primary sociological perspectives for studying groups: functionalist, critical, feminist, and symbolic interactionist. We can look at the Occupy movement through the lenses of these methods to better understand the roles and challenges that groups offer.

The functionalist perspective is a big-picture, macro-level view that looks at how different aspects of society are intertwined. This perspective is based on the idea that society is a well-balanced system with all parts necessary to the whole. It studies the functions these parts play in the reproduction of the whole. In the case of the Occupy movement, a functionalist might look at what macro-level needs the movement serves. Structural functionalism recognizes that there are tensions or conflicts between different structural elements of the system. The huge inequalities generated by the economic system might function positively as part of the incentive needed for people to commit themselves to risky economic ventures, but they conflict with the normative structure of the political decision-making system based on equality and democratic principles. The Occupy movement forces both haves and have-nots to pay attention to the imbalances between the economic and political systems. Occupy emerges as an expression of the disjunction between these two systems and functions as a means of initiating a resolution of the issues.

The critical perspective is another macroanalytical view, one that focuses on the genesis and growth of inequality. A critical theorist studying the Occupy movement might look at how business interests have manipulated the system to reduce financial regulations and corporate taxes over the last 30 years. In particular, they would be interested in how these led to the financial crisis of 2008 and the increasing inequality we see today. The slogan, “We are the 99%,” emblematic of the Occupy movement, refers to the massive redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the upper class. Even when the mismanagement of the corporate elite (i.e., the “1%”) had threatened the stability of people’s livelihoods and the entire global economy in the financial meltdown of 2008, and even when their corporations and financial institutions were receiving bailouts from the American and Canadian governments, their personal income, bonuses, and overall share of social wealth increased.

Feminist analysis of the Occupy movement would be interested in the connection  between contemporary capitalism and patriarchy. Why are women the poorest of the poor? They would also be interested in the type of organizational models used by the Occupy movement to understand and address the resulting issues of power structure  and economic injustice. The consciousness-raising techniques and non-hierarchical decision-making processes developed by feminists in the 1960s and 1970s were, in fact, incorporated into the daily political activities of the Occupy movement in order to extend the critique of corporate greed and financial institutions to largely invisible issues of privilege and daily, personal struggle. Occupy Montreal adopted the concept of stepping back or “progressive stack” in their meetings. Men and other dominant movement figures were encouraged to step back from monopolizing the conversation so that a diversity of opinions and experiences could be heard.  “We are not here to reproduce the same monopolization of voice and power as the ‘1%,’ we are here to diversify spaces for radical inclusion” (Boler 2012).

A fourth perspective is the symbolic interactionist perspective. This method of analyzing groups takes a micro-level view. Instead of studying the big picture, these researchers look at the day-to-day interactions of groups. Studying these details, the interactionist looks at issues like leadership style, communicative interactions, and group dynamics. In the case of the Occupy movement, interactionists might ask, “How does a non-hierarchical organization work?”; “How is the social order of a diverse group maintained when there are no formal regulations in place?”; “What are the implicit or tacit rules such groups rely on?”; “How do members come to share a common set of meanings concerning what the movement is about?”

zizek occupy

Figure 6.2. Slavoj Zizek addresses the crowd at Occupy Wall Street, “You don’t need to be a genius to lead, anyone can be leader.” (Photo courtesy of Daniel Latorre/Flickr).

At one point during the occupation of Wall Street, speakers like Slovenian social critic and philosopher Slavoj Zizek were obliged to abandon the use of microphones and amplification to comply with noise bylaws. They gave their speeches one line at a time and the people within earshot repeated the lines so that those further away could hear. The symbolic interactionist would be interested in examining how this communicational format, despite its cumbersome nature, could come to be an expression of group solidarity.

6.1. Types of Groups

Most of us feel comfortable using the word “group” without giving it much thought. But what does it mean to be part of a group? The concept of a group is central to much of how we think about society and human interaction. As Georg Simmel (1858–1915) put it, “[s]ociety exists where a number of individuals enter into interaction” (1908). Society exists in groups. For Simmel, society did not exist otherwise. What fascinated him was the way in which people mutually attune to one another to create relatively enduring forms. In a group, individuals behave differently than they would if they were alone. They conform, they resist, they forge alliances, they cooperate, they betray, they organize, they defer gratification, they show respect, they expect obedience, they share, they manipulate, etc. Being in a group changes their behaviour and their abilities. This is one of the founding insights of sociology: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The group has properties over and above the properties of its individual members. It has a reality sui generis, of its own kind. But how exactly does the whole come to be greater?

Defining a Group

How can we hone the meaning of the term group more precisely for sociological purposes? The term is an amorphous one and can refer to a wide variety of gatherings, from just two people (think about a “group project” in school when you partner with another student), a club, a regular gathering of friends, or people who work together or share a hobby. In short, the term refers to any collection of at least two people who interact with some frequency and who share a sense that their identity is somehow aligned with the group. Of course, every time people gather, they do not necessarily form a group. An audience assembled to watch a street performer is a one-time random gathering. Conservative-minded people who come together to vote in an election are not a group because the members do not necessarily interact with one another with some frequency. People who exist in the same place at the same time, but who do not interact or share a sense of identity—such as a bunch of people standing in line at Starbucks—are considered an  aggregate, or a crowd. People who share similar characteristics but are not otherwise tied to one another in any way are considered a category.

An example of a category would be Millennials, the term given to all children born from approximately 1980 to 2000. Why are Millennials a category and not a group? Because while some of them may share a sense of identity, they do not, as a whole, interact frequently with each other.

Interestingly, people within an aggregate or category can become a group. During disasters, people in a neighbourhood (an aggregate) who did not know each other might become friendly and depend on each other at the local shelter. After the disaster ends and the people go back to simply living near each other, the feeling of cohesiveness may last since they have all shared an experience. They might remain a group, practising emergency readiness, coordinating supplies for next time, or taking turns caring for neighbours who need extra help. Similarly, there may be many groups within a single category. Consider teachers, for example. Within this category, groups may exist like teachers’ unions, teachers who coach, or staff members who are involved with the school board.

Types of Groups

Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley (1864–1929) suggested that groups can broadly be divided into two categories: primary groups and secondary groups (Cooley 1909). According to Cooley, primary groups play the most critical role in our lives. The primary group is usually fairly small and is made up of individuals who generally engage face-to-face in long-term, emotional ways. This group serves emotional needs: expressive functions rather than pragmatic ones. The primary group is usually made up of significant others—those individuals who have the most impact on our socialization. The best example of a primary group is the family.

Secondary groups are often larger and impersonal. They may also be task focused and time limited. These groups serve an instrumental function rather than an expressive one, meaning that their role is more goal or task oriented than emotional. A classroom or office can be an example of a secondary group. Neither primary nor secondary groups are bound by strict definitions or set limits. In fact, people can move from one group to another. A graduate seminar, for example, can start as a secondary group focused on the class at hand, but as the students work together throughout their program, they may find common interests and strong ties that transform them into a primary group.

Peter Marsden (1987) refers to one’s group of close social contacts as a core discussion group. These are individuals with whom you can discuss important personal matters or with whom you choose to spend your free time. Christakis and Fowler (2009) found that the average North American had four close personal contacts. However, 12 percent of their sample had no close personal contacts of this sort, while 5 percent had more than eight close personal contacts. Half of the people listed in the core discussion group were characterized as friends, as might be expected, but the other half included family members, spouses, children, colleagues, and professional consultants of various sorts. Marsden’s original research from the 1980s showed that the size of the core discussion group decreases as one ages, there was no difference in size between men and women, and those with a post-secondary degree had core discussion groups almost twice the size of those who had not completed high school.

Making Connections: Careers in Sociology

Best Friends She’s Never Met

Writer Allison Levy worked alone. While she liked the freedom and flexibility of working from home, she sometimes missed having a community of coworkers, both for the practical purpose of brainstorming and the more social “water cooler” aspect. Levy did what many do in the internet age: she found a group of other writers online through a web forum. Over time, a group of approximately 20 writers, who all wrote for a similar audience, broke off from the larger forum and started a private invitation-only forum. While writers in general represent all genders, ages, and interests, it ended up being a collection of 20- and 30-something women who comprised the new forum—they all wrote fiction for children and young adults.

At first, the writers’ forum was clearly a secondary group united by the members’ professions and work situations. As Levy explained, “On the internet, you can be present or absent as often as you want. No one is expecting you to show up.” It was a useful place to research information about different publishers and who had recently sold what, and to track industry trends. But as time passed, Levy found it served a different purpose. Since the group shared other characteristics beyond their writing (such as age and gender), the online conversation naturally turned to matters such as childrearing, aging parents, health, and exercise. Levy found it was a sympathetic place to talk about any number of subjects, not just writing. Further, when people didn’t post for several days, others expressed concern, asking whether anyone had heard from the missing writers. It reached a point where most members would tell the group if they were travelling or needed to be offline for a while.

The group continued to share. One member on the site who was going through a difficult family illness wrote, “I don’t know where I’d be without you women. It is so great to have a place to vent that I know isn’t hurting anyone.” Others shared similar sentiments.

So is this a primary group? Most of these people have never met each other. They live in Hawaii, Australia, Minnesota, and across the world. They may never meet. Levy wrote recently to the group, saying, “Most of my ‘real-life’ friends and even my husband don’t really get the writing thing. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” Despite the distance and the lack of physical contact, the group clearly fills an expressive need.



Figure 6.3. Engineering and construction students gather around a job site. How do your academic interests define your in- and out-groups? (Photo courtesy of USACEpublicaffairs/flickr)

In-Groups and Out-Groups

One of the ways that groups can be powerful is through inclusion, and its inverse, exclusion. In-groups and out-groups are subcategories of primary and secondary groups that help identify this dynamic. Primary groups consist of both in-groups and out-groups, as do secondary groups. The feeling that one belongs in an elite or select group is a heady one, while the feeling of not being allowed in, or of being in competition with a group, can be motivating in a different way. Sociologist William Sumner (1840–1910) developed the concepts of in-group and out-group to explain this phenomenon (Sumner 1906). In short, an in-group is the group that an individual feels he or she belongs to, and believes it to be an integral part of who he or she is. An out-group, conversely, is a group someone doesn’t belong to; often there may be a feeling of disdain or competition in relation to an out-group. Sports teams, unions, and secret societies are examples of in-groups and out-groups; people may belong to, or be an outsider to, any of these.

While these affiliations can be neutral or even positive, such as the case of a team-sport competition, the concept of in-groups and out-groups can also explain some negative human behaviour, such as white supremacist movements like the Ku Klux Klan, or the bullying of gay or lesbian students. By defining others as “not like us” and inferior, in-groups can end up practicing ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, ageism, and heterosexism—manners of judging others negatively based on their culture, race, sex, age, or sexuality. Often, in-groups can form within a secondary group. For instance, a workplace can have cliques of people, from senior executives who play golf together, to engineers who write code together, to young singles who socialize after hours. While these in-groups might show favouritism and affinity for other in-group members, the overall organization may be unable or unwilling to acknowledge it. Therefore, it pays to be wary of the politics of in-groups, since members may exclude others as a form of gaining status within the group.

Making Connections: the Big Pictures

Bullying and Cyberbullying: How Technology Has Changed the Game

Most of us know that the old rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is inaccurate. Words can hurt, and never is that more apparent than in instances of bullying. Bullying has always existed, often reaching extreme levels of cruelty in children and young adults. People at these stages of life are especially vulnerable to others’ opinions of them, and they’re deeply invested in their peer groups. Today, technology has ushered in a new era of this dynamic. Cyberbullying is the use of interactive media by one person to torment another, and it is on the rise. Cyberbullying can mean sending threatening texts, harassing someone in a public forum (such as Facebook), hacking someone’s account and pretending to be him or her, posting embarrassing images online, and so on. A study by the Cyberbullying Research Center found that 20 percent of middle-school students admitted to “seriously thinking about committing suicide” as a result of online bullying (Hinduja and Patchin 2010). Whereas bullying face-to-face requires willingness to interact with your victim, cyberbullying allows bullies to harass others from the privacy of their homes without witnessing the damage firsthand. This form of bullying is particularly dangerous because it’s widely accessible and therefore easier to accomplish.

Cyberbullying, and bullying in general, made international headlines in 2012 when a 15-year-old girl, Amanda Todd, in Port Coquitlam, B.C., committed suicide after years of bullying by her peers and internet sexual exploitation. A month before her suicide, she posted a YouTube video in which she recounted her story. It began in grade 7 when she had been lured to reveal her breasts in a webcam photo. A year later, when she refused to give an anonymous male “a show,” the picture was circulated to her friends, family, and contacts on Facebook. Statistics Canada  report that 7 percent of internet users aged 18 and over have been cyberbullied, most commonly (73 percent) by receiving threatening or aggressive emails or text messages. Nine percent of adults who had a child at home aged 8 to 17 reported that at least one of their children had been cyberbullied. Two percent reported that their child had been lured or sexually solicited online (Perreault, 2011).

In the aftermath of Amanda Todd’s death, most provinces enacted strict guidelines and codes of conduct obliging schools to respond to cyberbullying and encouraging students to come forward to report victimization.  In 2013, the federal government proposed Bill C-13—the  Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act–which would make it illegal to share an intimate image of a person without that person’s consent. (Critics however note that the anti-cyberbullying provision in the bill is only a minor measure among many others that expand police powers to surveil all internet activity.) Will these measures change the behaviour of would-be cyberbullies? That remains to be seen. But hopefully communities can work to protect victims before they feel they must resort to extreme measures.


Reference Groups

Hayley Wickenheiser

Figure 6.4. Athletes are often viewed as a reference group for young people. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

A reference group is a group that people compare themselves to—it provides a standard of measurement. In Canadian society, peer groups are common reference groups. Children, teens, and adults pay attention to what their peers wear, what music they like, what they do with their free time—and they compare themselves to what they see. Most people have more than one reference group, so a middle-school boy might look not only at his classmates but also at his older brother’s friends and see a different set of norms. And he might observe the antics of his favourite athletes for yet another set of behaviours.

Some other examples of reference groups can be one’s church, synagogue, or mosque; one’s cultural centre, workplace, or family gathering; and even one’s parents. Often, reference groups convey competing messages. For instance, on television and in movies, young adults often have wonderful apartments, cars, and lively social lives despite not holding a job. In music videos, young women might dance and sing in a sexually aggressive way that suggests experience beyond their years. At all ages, we use reference groups to help guide our behaviour and show us social norms. So how important is it to surround yourself with positive reference groups? You may never meet or know a reference group, but it still impacts and influences how you act. Identifying reference groups can help you understand the source of the social identities you aspire to or want to distance yourself from.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

University: A World of In-Groups, Out-Groups, and Reference Groups


Figure 6.5. Which university club would you fit into, if any? Campus club recruitment day offers students an opportunity to learn about these different groups. (Photo courtesy of Murray State/flickr)

For a student entering university, the sociological study of groups takes on an immediate and practical meaning. After all, when we arrive someplace new, most of us look around to see how well we fit in or stand out in the ways we want. This is a natural response to a reference group, and on a large campus, there can be many competing groups. Say you are a strong athlete who wants to play intramural sports, but your favourite musicians are a local punk band. You may find yourself engaged with two very different reference groups.

These reference groups can also become your in-groups or out-groups. For instance, different groups on campus might solicit you to join. Are there student-union-sponsored clubs at your school? Is there a club day when the student clubs set up tables and displays? The spelunking club, the Aikido club, the square dance club, the Conservative Party club, the Green Party club, the chess club, the jazz club, the kayak club, the tightrope walkers club, the peace and disarmament club, the French club, the young women in business club—enumerable clubs will try to convince students to join them. While most clubs are pretty casual, along with a shared interest comes many subtle cues about what sorts of people will fit in and what sorts will not. While most campus groups refrain from insulting competing groups, there is a definite sense of an in-group versus an out-group. “Them?” a member might say, “They’re all right, but they are pretty geeky.” Or, “Only really straight people join that group.” This immediate categorization into in-groups and out-groups means that students must choose carefully, since whatever group they associate with will not just define their friends—it may also define types of people with whom they will not associate.


6.2. Groups and Networks


Figure 6.6. Cadets illustrate how strongly conformity can define groups. (Photo courtesy David Spender/flickr)

Dyads, Triads, and Social Networks

A small group is typically one where the collection of people is small enough that all members of the group know each other and share simultaneous interaction, such as a nuclear family, a dyad, or a triad. Georg Simmel wrote extensively about the difference between a  dyad, or two-member group, and a  triad, a three-member group (Simmel 1902 (1950)). No matter what the content of the groups is—business, friendship, family, teamwork, etc.—the dynamic or formal qualities of the groups differ simply by virtue of the number of individuals involved. In a dyad, if one person withdraws, the group can no longer exist. Examples include a divorce, which effectively ends the “group” of the married couple, or two best friends never speaking again. Neither of the two members can hide what he or she has done behind the group, nor hold the group responsible for what he or she has failed to do.

In a triad, however, the dynamic is quite different. If one person withdraws, the group lives on. A triad has a different set of relationships. If there are three in the group, two-against-one dynamics can develop and the potential exists for a majority opinion on any issue. At the same time, the relationships in a triad cannot be as close as in a dyad because a third person always intrudes. Where a group of two is both closer and more unstable than a group of three, because it rests on the immediate, ongoing reciprocity of the two members, a group of three is able to attain a sense of super-personal life, independent of the members.

The difference between a dyad and a triad is an example of network analysis. A social network is a collection of people tied together by a specific configuration of connections. They can be characterized by the number of people involved, as in the dyad and triad, but also in terms of their structures (who is connected to whom) and functions (what flows across ties). The particular configurations of the connections determine how networks are able to do more things and different things than individuals acting on their own could. Networks have this effect, regardless of the content of the connections or persons involved.

For example, if one person phones 50 people one after the other to see who could come out to play ball hockey on Wednesday night, it would take a long time to work through the phone list. The structure of the network would be one in which the telephone caller has an individual connection with each of the 50 players, but the players themselves do not necessarily have any connections with each other. There is only one node in the network. On the other hand, if the telephone caller phones five key (or nodal) individuals, who would then call five individuals, and so on, then the telephone calling would be accomplished much more quickly. A telephone tree like this has a different network structure than the single telephone caller model does and can therefore accomplish the task much more efficiently and quickly. Of course the responsibility is also shared so there are more opportunities for the communication network to break down.

Network analysis is interesting because much of social life can be understood as operating outside of either formal organizations or traditional group structures. Social media like Twitter or Facebook connect people through networks. One’s posts are seen by friends, but also by friends of friends. The revolution in Tunisia in 2010–2011 was aided by social media networks, which were able to disseminate an accurate, or alternate, account of the events as they unfolded, even while the official media characterized the unrest as vandalism and terrorism (Zuckerman 2011). On the other hand, military counterinsurgency strategies trace cell phone connections to model the networks of insurgents in asymmetrical or guerilla warfare. Increased network densities indicate the ability of insurgents to mount coordinated attacks (Department of the Army 2006). The amorphous nature of global capital and the formation of a global capitalist class consciousness can also be analyzed by mapping interlocking directorates; namely, the way institutionalized social networks are established between banks and corporations in different parts of the world through shared board members (Carroll 2010).

Christakis and Fowler (2009) argue that social networks are influential in a wide range of social aspects of life including political opinions, weight gain, and happiness. They develop Stanley Milgram’s claim that there is only six degrees of separation between any two individuals on Earth by adding that in a network, it can be demonstrated that there are also three degrees of influence. That is, one is not only influenced by one’s immediate friends and social contacts, but by their friends, and their friends’ friends.  For example, an individual’s chance of becoming obese increases 57 percent if a friend becomes obese; it increases by 20 percent if it is a friend’s friend who becomes obese; and it increases 10 percent if it is a friend’s friend’s friend who becomes obese. Beyond the third degree of separation, there is no measurable influence.

Large Groups

It is difficult to define exactly when a small group becomes a large group. One step might be when there are too many people to join in a simultaneous discussion. Another might be when a group joins with other groups as part of a movement that unites them. These larger groups may share a geographic space, such as Occupy Montreal or the People’s Assembly of Victoria, or they might be spread out around the globe. The larger the group, the more attention it can garner, and the more pressure members can put toward whatever goal they wish to achieve. At the same time, the larger the group becomes, the more the risk grows for division and lack of cohesion.

Group Leadership

Often, larger groups require some kind of leadership. In small, primary groups, leadership tends to be informal. After all, most families don’t take a vote on who will rule the group, nor do most groups of friends. This is not to say that de facto leaders don’t emerge, but formal leadership is rare. In secondary groups, leadership is usually more overt. There are often clearly outlined roles and responsibilities, with a chain of command to follow. Some secondary groups, like the army, have highly structured and clearly understood chains of command, and many lives depend on those. After all, how well could soldiers function in a battle if they had no idea whom to listen to or if different people were calling out orders? Other secondary groups, like a workplace or a classroom, also have formal leaders, but the styles and functions of leadership can vary significantly.

Leadership function refers to the main focus or goal of the leader. An instrumental leader is one who is goal oriented and largely concerned with accomplishing set tasks. An army general or a Fortune 500 CEO would be an instrumental leader. In contrast, expressive leaders are more concerned with promoting emotional strength and health, and ensuring that people feel supported. Social and religious leaders—rabbis, priests, imams, and directors of youth homes and social service programs—are often perceived as expressive leaders. There is a longstanding stereotype that men are more instrumental leaders and women are more expressive leaders. Although gender roles have changed, even today many women and men who exhibit the opposite-gender manner can be seen as deviants and can encounter resistance. Former U.S. Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton provides an example of how society reacts to a high-profile woman who is an instrumental leader. Despite the stereotype, Boatwright and Forrest (2000) have found that both men and women prefer leaders who use a combination of expressive and instrumental leadership.


Figure 6.7. This gag gift demonstrates how female leaders may be viewed if they violate social norms. (Photo courtesy of istolethetv/flickr)

In addition to these leadership functions, there are three different leadership styles. Democratic leaders encourage group participation in all decision making. These leaders work hard to build consensus before choosing a course of action and moving forward. This type of leader is particularly common, for example, in a club where the members vote on which activities or projects to pursue. These leaders can be well liked, but there is often a challenge that the work will proceed slowly since consensus building is time-consuming. A further risk is that group members might pick sides and entrench themselves into opposing factions rather than reaching a solution. In contrast, a laissez-faire leader (French for “leave it alone”) is hands-off, allowing group members to self-manage and make their own decisions. An example of this kind of leader might be an art teacher who opens the art cupboard, leaves materials on the shelves, and tells students to help themselves and make some art. While this style can work well with highly motivated and mature participants who have clear goals and guidelines, it risks group dissolution and a lack of progress. As the name suggests, authoritarian leaders issue orders and assigns tasks. These leaders are clear instrumental leaders with a strong focus on meeting goals. Often, entrepreneurs fall into this mould, like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Not surprisingly, this type of leader risks alienating the workers. There are times, however, when this style of leadership can be required. In different circumstances, each of these leadership styles can be effective and successful. Consider what leadership style you prefer. Why? Do you like the same style in different areas of your life, such as a classroom, a workplace, and a sports team?

Making Connections: the Big Pictures

Women Leaders and the Glass Ceiling

elizabeth may

Figure 6.8. Green Party leader Elizabeth May stands out both for her gender and her leadership style among federal party leaders. (Photo courtesy Itzafineday/flickr)

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, was voted best parliamentarian of the year in 2012 and hardest working parliamentarian in 2013. She stands out among the party leaders as both the only female and the only leader focused on changing leadership style. Among her proposals for changing leadership are reducing centralization and hierarchical control of party leaders, allowing MPs to vote freely, decreasing narrow political partisanship, engaging in cross-partisan collaboration, and restoring respect and decorum to House of Commons debates. The focus on a collaborative, non-conflictual approach to politics is a component of her expressive leadership style, typically associated with female leadership qualities.

However, as a female leader Elizabeth May is obliged to walk a tight line that does not generally apply to male politicians. According to some political analysts, women candidates face a paradox: they must be as tough as their male opponents on issues such as foreign or economic policy or risk appearing weak (Weeks 2011). However, the stereotypical expectation of women as expressive leaders is still prevalent. Consider that Hillary Clinton’s popularity surged in her 2008 campaign for the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination after she cried on the campaign trail. It was enough for the New York Times to publish an editorial, “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back to the White House?” (Dowd 2008). Harsh, but her approval ratings soared afterwards. In fact, many compared it to how politically likable she was in the aftermath of President Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal.

In the case of Elizabeth May, many pundits believed that she won the 2008 election leaders debate by being firm in her criticism of government policy and being both intelligent and clear in her statements. (Notably, she was prevented from participating in the 2011 election leaders’ debate, perhaps for the same reasons.) She was able to articulate the rationale behind a national carbon tax to reduce greenhouse gases, whereas then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion seemed to struggle to explain his “Green Shift” policy.  “We tax the pollution, and we take the taxes off families,” she said (Foot 2008). The idea of winning debates and defeating opponents in a hostile environment is regarded as a masculine virtue. At the same time, May is subject to criticisms that have to do with her femininity, in a way that male politicians are not subject to similar criticisms about their masculinity. Media tycoon Conrad Black called her “a frumpy, noisy, ill-favoured, half-deranged windbag” to which, May quipped, “He’s right on one point: I certainly am frumpy. I don’t have anything like Barbara Amiel’s [Black’s well-known journalist wife] sense of style. But on the whole, I figure being attacked by Conrad Black is in its own way an accolade in this country” (Allemang 2009).

Despite the cleverness of May’s retort, the pitfalls of her situation as a female leader reflect broader issues women confront in assuming leadership roles. Whereas women have been closing the gap with men in terms of workforce participation and educational attainment over the last decades, their average income  has remained at approximately 70 percent of men’s and their representation in leadership roles (legislators, senior officials, and managers) has remained at 50 percent of men’s (i.e., men are twice as likely as women to attain leadership roles in these professions than women). In terms of the representation of women in Parliament, cabinet, and political leadership, the figures are much lower at 15 percent (despite the fact that several provinces have had women as premiers) (McInturff 2013).

One concept for describing the situation facing women’s access to leadership positions is  the glass ceiling. Whereas most of the explicit barriers to women’s achievement have been removed through legislative action, norms of gender equality, and affirmative action policies, women often get stuck at the level of middle management. There is a glass ceiling or invisible barrier that prevents them from achieving positions of leadership (Tannen 1994).  This is also reflected in gender inequality in income over time. Early in their careers men’s and women’s incomes are more or less equal but at mid-career, the gap increases significantly (McInturff 2013).

Tannen argues that this barrier exists in part because of the different work styles of men and women, in particular conversational-style differences. Whereas men are very aggressive in their conversational style and their self-promotion, women are typically consensus builders who seek to avoid appearing bossy and arrogant. As a linguistic strategy of office politics, it is common for men to say “I” and claim personal credit in situations where women would be more likely to use “we” and emphasize teamwork. As it is men who are often in the positions to make promotion decisions, they interpret women’s style of communication “as showing indecisiveness, inability to assume authority, and even incompetence” (Tannen 1994).

Because of qualities of women’s expressive leadership, which in many cases is more effective, their skills, merits, and achievements go unrecognized. In terms of political leadership, as one political analyst said bluntly, “women don’t succeed in politics—or other professions—unless they act like men. The standard for running for national office remains distinctly male” (Weeks 2011).



We all like to fit in to some degree. Likewise, when we want to stand out, we want to choose how we stand out and for what reasons. For example, a woman who loves cutting-edge fashion and wants to dress in thought-provoking new styles likely wants to be noticed within a framework of high fashion. She would not want people to think she was too poor to find proper clothes. Conformity is the extent to which an individual complies with group norms or expectations. As you might recall, we use reference groups to assess and understand how we should act, dress, and behave. Not surprisingly, young people are particularly aware of who conforms and who does not. A high school boy whose mother makes him wear ironed button-down shirts might protest that he will look stupid—that everyone else wears T-shirts. Another high school boy might like wearing those shirts as a way of standing out. Recall Georg Simmel’s analysis of the contradictory dynamics of fashion: it represents both the need to conform and the need to stand out. How much do you enjoy being noticed? Do you consciously prefer to conform to group norms so as not to be singled out? Are there people in your class or peer group who immediately come to mind when you think about those who do, and do not, want to conform?

A number of famous experiments in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s tested the propensity of individuals to conform to authority. We have already examined the Stanford Prison experiment in Chapter 2. Within days of beginning the simulated prison experiment the random sample of university students proved themselves capable of conforming to the roles of prison guards and prisoners to an extreme degree, even though the conditions were highly artificial (Haney, Banks, and Zimbardo 1973).

Stanley Milgram conducted experiments in the 1960s on how structures of authority rendered individuals obedient (Milgram 1963). This was shortly after the Adolf Eichmann war crime trial in which Eichmann claimed that he was just a bureaucrat following orders when he helped to organize the Holocaust. Milgram had experimental subjects administer what they were led to believe were electric shocks to a subject when the subject gave a wrong answer to a question. Each time a wrong answer was given, the experimental subject was told to increase the intensity of the shock. The experiment was supposed to be testing the relationship between punishment and learning, but the subject receiving the shocks was an actor. As the experimental subjects increased the amount of voltage, the actor began to show distress, eventually begging to be released. When the subjects became reluctant to administer more shocks, Milgram (wearing a white lab coat to underline his authority as a scientist) assured them that the actor would be fine and that the results of the experiment would be compromised if the subject did not continue. Seventy-one percent of the experimental subjects were willing to continue administering shocks even beyond 285 volts even though the actor was clearly in pain and the voltage dial was labelled with warnings like “Danger: Severe shock.”

Making Connections: Sociological Research

Conforming to Expectations


Figure 6.9. In the Asch conformity experiments a subject had to determine which of the three lines on the left matched the length of the line on the right. (Photo courtesy of Nyenyec/Wikimedia Commons).

Psychologist Solomon Asch (1907–1996) conducted experiments that illustrated how great the pressure to conform is, specifically within a small group (1956).  In 1951, he sat a small group of eight people around a table. Only one of the people sitting there was the true experimental subject; the rest were actors or associates of the experimenter. However, the subject was led to believe that the others were all, like him, people brought in for an experiment in visual judgments. The group was shown two cards, the first card with a single vertical line, and the second card with three vertical lines differing in length. The experimenter polled the group, asking each participant one at a time which line on the second card matched up with the line on the first card.

However, this was not really a test of visual judgment. Rather, it was Asch’s study on the pressures of conformity. He was curious to see what the effect of multiple wrong answers would be on the subject, who presumably was able to tell which lines matched. In order to test this, Asch had each planted respondent answer in a specific way. The subject was seated in such a way that he had to hear almost everyone else’s answers before it was his turn. Sometimes the non-subject members would unanimously choose an answer that was clearly wrong.

So what was the conclusion? Asch found that 37 out of 50 test subjects responded with an “obviously erroneous” answer at least once. When faced by a unanimous wrong answer from the rest of the group, the subject conformed to a mean of four of the staged answers. Asch revised the study and repeated it, wherein the subject still heard the staged wrong answers, but was allowed to write down his answer rather than speak it aloud. In this version, the number of examples of conformity—giving an incorrect answer so as not to contradict the group—fell by two-thirds. He also found that group size had an impact on how much pressure the subject felt to conform.

The results showed that speaking up when only one other person gave an erroneous answer was far more common than when five or six people defended the incorrect position. Finally, Asch discovered that people were far more likely to give the correct answer in the face of near-unanimous consent if they had a single ally. If even one person in the group also dissented, the subject conformed only a quarter as often. Clearly, it was easier to be a minority of two than a minority of one.

Asch concluded that there are two main causes for conformity: people want to be liked by the group or they believe the group is better informed than they are. He found his study results disturbing. To him, they revealed that intelligent, well-educated people would, with very little coaxing, go along with an untruth. He believed this result highlighted real problems with the education system and values in our society (Asch 1956).

What would you do in Asch’s experiment? Would you speak up? What would help you speak up and what would discourage you?


6.3. Formal Organizations

A complaint of modern life is that society is dominated by large and impersonal secondary organizations. From schools to businesses to health care to government, these organizations are referred to as formal organizations. A formal organization is a large secondary group deliberately organized to achieve its goals efficiently. Typically, formal organizations are highly bureaucratized. The term bureaucracy refers to what Max Weber termed “an ideal type” of formal organization (1922). In its sociological usage, “ideal” does not mean “best”; it refers to a general model that describes a collection of characteristics, or a type that could describe most examples of the item under discussion. For example, if your professor were to tell the class to picture a car in their minds, most students will picture a car that shares a set of characteristics: four wheels, a windshield, and so on. Everyone’s car will be somewhat different, however. Some might picture a two-door sports car while others might picture an SUV. It is possible for a car to have three wheels instead of four. However, the general idea of the car that everyone shares is the ideal type. Bureaucracies are similar. While each bureaucracy has its own idiosyncratic features, the way each is deliberately organized to achieve its goals efficiently shares a certain consistency. We will discuss bureaucracies as an ideal type of organization.

Types of Formal Organizations

Figure a shows two girl guides; Figure b shows the hallway of a correctional facility.

Figure 6.10. Cub and Guide troops and correctional facilities are both formal organizations. (Photo (a) courtesy of Paul Hourigan/Hamilton Spectator 1983; Photo (b) courtesy of CxOxS/flickr)

Sociologist Amitai Etzioni (1975) posited that formal organizations fall into three categories. Normative organizations, also called voluntary organizations, are based on shared interests. As the name suggests, joining them is voluntary and typically done because people find membership rewarding in an intangible way. Compliance to the group is maintained through moral control. The Audubon Society or a ski club are examples of normative organizations. Coercive organizations are groups that one must be coerced, or pushed, to join. These may include prison, the military, or a rehabilitation centre. Compliance is maintained through force and coercion. Goffman (1961) states that most coercive organizations are total institutions. A total institution is one in which inmates live a controlled life apart from the rest of society and in which total resocialization takes place. The third type are utilitarian organizations, which, as the name suggests, are joined because of the need for a specific material reward. High school or a workplace would fall into this category—one joined in pursuit of a diploma, the other in order to make money. Compliance is maintained through remuneration and rewards.

Table 6.1. Etzioni’s Three Types of Formal Organizations (Source: Etzioni 1975)

Normative or Voluntary Coercive Utilitarian
Benefit of Membership Non-material benefit Corrective or disciplinary benefit Material benefit
Type of Membership Volunteer basis Obligatory basis Contractual basis
Feeling of Connectedness Shared affinity Coerced affinity Pragmatic affinity


Bureaucracies are an ideal type of formal organization. Pioneer sociologist Max Weber (1922) popularly characterized a bureaucracy as having a hierarchy of authority, a clear division of labour, explicit rules, and impersonality. Bureaucracies were the basic structure of rational efficient organization, yet people often complain about bureaucracies, declaring them slow, rule-bound, difficult to navigate, and unfriendly. Let us take a look at terms that define  bureaucracy as an ideal type of formal organization to understand what they mean.

Hierarchy of authority refers to the aspect of bureaucracy that places one individual or office in charge of another, who in turn must answer to her own superiors. For example, if you are an employee at Walmart, your shift manager assigns you tasks. Your shift manager answers to the store manager, who must answer to the regional manager, and so on in a chain of command up to the CEO who must answer to the board members, who in turn answer to the stockholders. There is a clear chain of authority that enables the organization to make and comply with decisions.

A clear division of labour refers to the fact that within a bureaucracy, each individual has a specialized task to perform. For example, psychology professors teach psychology, but they do not attempt to provide students with financial aid forms. In this case, it is a clear and commonsensical division. But what about in a restaurant where food is backed up in the kitchen and a hostess is standing nearby texting on her phone? Her job is to seat customers, not to deliver food. Is this a smart division of labour?

The existence of explicit rules refers to the way in which rules are outlined, written down, and standardized. There is a continuous organization of official functions bound by rules. For example, at your college or university, student guidelines are contained within the student handbook. As technology changes and campuses encounter new concerns like cyberbullying, identity theft, and other issues, organizations are scrambling to ensure their explicit rules cover these emerging topics.

Bureaucracies are also characterized by impersonality, which takes personal feelings out of professional situations. Each office or position exists independently of its  incumbent, and clients and workers receive equal treatment. This characteristic grew, to some extent, out of a desire to eliminate the potential for nepotism, backroom deals, and other types of “irrational” favouritism, simultaneously protecting customers and others served by the organization. Impersonality is an attempt by large formal organizations to protect their members. However, the result is often that personal experience is disregarded. For example, you may be late for work because your car broke down, but the manager at Pizza Hut doesn’t care why you are late, only that you are late.

Finally, bureaucracies are, in theory at least, meritocracies, meaning that hiring and promotion are based on proven and documented skills, rather than on nepotism or random choice. In order to get into graduate school, you need to have an impressive transcript. In order to become a lawyer and represent clients, you must graduate from law school and pass the provincial bar exam. Of course, there is a popular image of bureaucracies that they reward conformity and sycophancy rather than skill or merit. How well do you think established meritocracies identify talent? Wealthy families hire tutors, interview coaches, test-prep services, and consultants to help their children get into the best schools. This starts as early as kindergarten in New York City, where competition for the most highly regarded schools is especially fierce. Are these schools, many of which have copious scholarship funds that are intended to make the school more democratic, really offering all applicants a fair shake?

There are several positive aspects of bureaucracies. They are intended to improve efficiency, ensure equal opportunities, and increase efficiency. And there are times when rigid hierarchies are needed. However, there is a clear component of irrationality within the rational organization of bureaucracies. Firstly, bureaucracies create conditions of bureaucratic alienation in which workers cannot find meaning in the repetitive, standardized nature of the tasks they are obliged to perform. As Max Weber put it, the “individual bureaucrat cannot squirm out of the apparatus in which he is harnessed… He is only a single cog in an ever‐moving mechanism which prescribes to him an essentially fixed route of march” (1922). Secondly, bureaucracies can lead to bureaucratic inefficiency and ritualism (red tape). They can focus on rules and regulations to the point of undermining the organization’s goals and purpose. Thirdly, bureaucracies have a tendency toward inertia. You may have heard the expression “trying to turn a tanker around mid-ocean,” which refers to the difficulties of changing direction with something large and set in its ways. Inertia means bureaucracies focus on perpetuating themselves rather than effectively accomplishing or re-evaluating the tasks they were designed to achieve. Finally, as Robert Michels (1911) suggested, bureaucracies are characterized by the iron law of oligarchy in which the organization is ruled by a few elites. The organization serves to promote the self-interest of oligarchs and insulate them from the needs of the public or clients.

Remember that many of our bureaucracies grew large at the same time that our school model was developed—during the Industrial Revolution. Young workers were trained and organizations were built for mass production, assembly-line work, and factory jobs. In these scenarios, a clear chain of command was critical. Now, in the information age, this kind of rigid training and adherence to protocol can actually decrease both productivity and efficiency. Today’s workplace requires a faster pace, more problem solving, and a flexible approach to work. Too much adherence to explicit rules and a division of labour can leave an organization behind. Unfortunately, once established, bureaucracies can take on a life of their own. As Max Weber said, “Once it is established, bureaucracy is among those social structures which are the hardest to destroy” (1922).


Figure 6.11. This McDonald’s storefront in Egypt shows the McDonaldization of society. (Photo courtesy of s_w_ellis/flickr)

The McDonaldization of Society

The McDonaldization of society (Ritzer 1994) refers to the increasing presence of the fast-food business model in common social institutions. This business model includes efficiency (the division of labour), predictability, calculability, and control (monitoring). For example, in your average chain grocery store, people at the cash register check out customers while stockers keep the shelves full of goods, and deli workers slice meats and cheese to order (efficiency). Whenever you enter a store within that grocery chain, you receive the same type of goods, see the same store organization, and find the same brands at the same prices (predictability). You will find that goods are sold by the kilogram, so that you can weigh your fruit and vegetable purchases rather than simply guessing at the price for that bag of onions, while the employees use a time card to calculate their hours and receive overtime pay (calculability). Finally, you will notice that all store employees are wearing a uniform (and usually a name tag) so that they can be easily identified. There are security cameras to monitor the store, and some parts of the store, such as the stockroom, are generally considered off-limits to customers (control).

While McDonaldization has resulted in improved profits and an increased availability of various goods and services to more people worldwide, it has also reduced the variety of goods available in the marketplace while rendering available products uniform, generic, and bland. Think of the difference between a mass-produced shoe and one made by a local cobbler, between a chicken from a family-owned farm versus a corporate grower, or a cup of coffee from the local roaster instead of one from a coffee-shop chain. Ritzer also notes that the rational systems, as efficient as they are, are irrational in that they become more important than the people working within them, or the clients being served by them. “Most specifically, irrationality means that rational systems are unreasonable systems. By that I mean that they deny the basic humanity, the human reason, of the people who work within or are served by them.” (Ritzer 1994)

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

Secrets of the McJob

We often talk about bureaucracies disparagingly, and no organizations have taken more heat than fast-food restaurants. The book and movie Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schossler (2001) paints an ugly picture of what goes in, what goes on, and what comes out of fast-food chains. From their environmental impact to their role in the U.S. obesity epidemic, fast-food chains are connected to numerous societal ills. Furthermore, working at a fast-food restaurant is often disparaged, and even referred to dismissively, as a McJob rather than a real job.

But business school professor Jerry Newman (2007) went undercover and worked behind the counter at seven fast-food restaurants to discover what really goes on there. His book, My Secret Life on the McJob, documents his experience. Newman found, unlike Schossler, that these restaurants have much good alongside the bad. Specifically, he asserted that the employees were honest and hard-working, the management was often impressive, and the jobs required a lot more skill and effort than most people imagined. In the book, Newman cites a pharmaceutical executive who states that a fast-food service job on an applicant’s résumé is a plus because it indicates the employee is reliable and can handle pressure.

So what do you think? Are these McJobs and the organizations that offer them still serving a role in the economy and people’s careers? Or are they dead-end jobs that typify all that is negative about large bureaucracies? Have you ever worked in one? Would you?


Figure 6.12.Fast-food jobs are expected to grow more quickly than most industries. (Graph courtesy of U.S. Department of Labor)


Key Terms

aggregate  a collection of people who exist in the same place at the same time, but who don’t interact or share a sense of identity

authoritarian leader  a leader who issues orders and assigns tasks

bureaucracy  a formal organization characterized by a hierarchy of authority, a clear division of labour, explicit rules, and impersonality

category people who share similar characteristics but who are not connected in any way

clear division of labour the structuring of work in a bureaucracy such that each individual has a specialized task to perform

coercive organization organization that people do not voluntarily join, such as prison or a mental hospital

conformity the extent to which an individual complies with group or societal norms

core discussion group the group of close personal contacts with whom one confides on personal matters and with whom one chooses to spend free time

democratic leader a leader who encourages group participation and consensus-building before acting

dyad a two-member group

explicit rules the types of rules in a bureaucracy; rules that are outlined, recorded, and standardized

expressive function a group function that serves an emotional need

expressive leader a leader who is concerned with process and with ensuring everyone’s emotional well-being

formal organizations large, impersonal organizations

glass ceiling an invisible barrier that prevents women from achieving positions of leadership

group refers to any collection of at least two people who interact with some frequency and who share a sense that their identity is somehow aligned with the group

hierarchy of authority a clear chain of command found in a bureaucracy

impersonality the absence of personal feelings from a professional situation

in-group a group a person belongs to and feels is an integral part of his or her identity

instrumental function orientation toward a task or goal

instrumental leader a leader who is goal oriented with a primary focus on accomplishing tasks

iron law of oligarchy the theory that an organization is ruled by a few elites rather than through collaboration

laissez-faire leader a hands-off leader who allows members of the group to make their own decisions

leadership function the main focus or goal of a leader

leadership style the style a leader uses to achieve goals or elicit action from group members

McDonaldization the increasing presence of the fast-food business model in common social institutions

meritocracy a bureaucracy where membership and advancement are based on merit as shown through proven and documented skills

normative or voluntary organizations organizations that people join to pursue shared interests or because they provide intangible rewards

out-group a group that an individual is not a member of and may compete with

primary groups small, informal groups of people who are closest to us

reference groups groups to which an individual compares herself or himself

secondary groups larger and more impersonal groups that are task focused and time limited

social network a collection of people tied together by a specific configuration of connections

total institution an organization in which participants live a controlled life and in which total resocialization occurs

triad a three-member group

utilitarian organization an organization that people join to fill a specific material need

Section Summary

6.1. Types of Groups
Groups largely define how we think of ourselves. There are two main types of groups: primary and secondary. As the names suggest, the primary group is the long-term, complex one. People use groups as standards of comparison to define themselves—as both who they are and who they are not. Sometimes groups can be used to exclude people or as a tool that strengthens prejudice.

6.2. Groups and Networks
The size and dynamic of a group greatly affects how members act. Primary groups rarely have formal leaders, although there can be informal leadership. Groups generally are considered large when there are too many members for a simultaneous discussion. Social networks are  collections of people tied together by a specific configuration of connections. The structure and function of the connections determine what the network is capable of and how it influences its members.

In secondary groups, there are two types of leadership functions, with expressive leaders focused on emotional health and wellness, and instrumental leaders more focused on results. Further, there are different leadership styles: democratic leaders, authoritarian leaders, and laissez-faire leaders.

Within a group, conformity is the extent to which people want to go along with the norm. A number of experiments have illustrated how strong the drive to conform can be. It is worth considering real-life examples of how conformity and obedience can lead people to ethically and morally suspect acts.

6.3. Formal Organizations
Large organizations fall into three main categories: normative/voluntary, coercive, and utilitarian. We live in a time of contradiction: while the pace of change and technology are requiring people to be more nimble and less bureaucratic in their thinking, large bureaucracies like hospitals, schools, and governments are more hampered than ever by their organizational format. At the same time, the past few decades have seen the development of a trend to bureaucratize and conventionalize local institutions. Increasingly, Main Streets across the country resemble each other; instead of a Bob’s Coffee Shop and Jane’s Hair Salon there is a Dunkin Donuts and a Supercuts. This trend has been referred to as the McDonaldization of society.

Section Quiz

6.1. Types of Groups
1. What does a functionalist consider when studying a phenomenon like the Occupy Wall Street movement?

  1. The minute functions that every person at the protests plays in the whole
  2. The internal conflicts that play out within such a diverse and leaderless group
  3. How the movement contributes to the stability of society by offering the discontented a safe, controlled outlet for dissension
  4. The factions and divisions that form within the movement

2. What is the largest difference between the functionalist, conflict, and, interactionist perspectives?

  1. The first two consider long-term repercussions of the group or situation, while the last one focuses on the present.
  2. The first two are the more common sociological perspectives, while the last one is a newer sociological model.
  3. The first two focus on hierarchical roles within an organization, while the last one takes a more holistic view.
  4. The first two address large-scale issues facing groups, while the last one examines more detailed aspects.

3. What role do secondary groups play in society?

  1. They are transactional, task based, and short term, filling practical needs.
  2. They provide a social network that allows people to compare themselves to others.
  3. The members give and receive emotional support.
  4. They allow individuals to challenge their beliefs and prejudices.

4. When a high school student gets teased by her basketball team for receiving an academic award, she is dealing with competing ______________.

  1. Primary groups
  2. Out-groups
  3. Reference groups
  4. Secondary groups

5. Which of the following is NOT an example of an in-group?

  1. The Ku Klux Klan
  2. A university club
  3. A synagogue
  4. A high school

6. What is a group whose values, norms, and beliefs come to serve as a standard for one’s own behaviour?

  1. Secondary group
  2. Formal organization
  3. Reference group
  4. Primary group

7. A parent who is worrying over her teenager’s dangerous and self-destructive behaviour and low self-esteem may wish to look at her child’s ______________.

  1. Reference group
  2. In-group
  3. Out-group
  4. All of the above

6.2. Group Size and Structure
8. Two people who have just had a baby have turned from a _______ to a _________.

  1. Primary group; secondary group
  2. Dyad; triad
  3. Couple; family
  4. De facto group; nuclear family

9. Who is more likely to be an expressive leader?

  1. The sales manager of a fast-growing cosmetics company
  2. A high school teacher at a youth correctional facility
  3. The director of a summer camp for chronically ill children
  4. A manager at a fast-food restaurant

10. Which of the following is NOT an appropriate group for democratic leadership?

  1. A fire station
  2. A college classroom
  3. A high school prom committee
  4. A homeless shelter

11. In Asch’s study on conformity, what contributed to the ability of subjects to resist conforming?

  1. A very small group of witnesses
  2. The presence of an ally
  3. The ability to keep one’s answer private
  4. All of the above

12. Which type of group leadership has a communication pattern that flows from the top down?

  1. Authoritarian
  2. Democratic
  3. Laissez-faire
  4. Expressive

6.3. Formal Organizations
13. Which is NOT an example of a normative organization?

  1. A book club
  2. A church youth group
  3. A People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) protest group
  4. A study hall

14. Which of these is an example of a total institution?

  1. Jail
  2. High school
  3. Political party
  4. A gym

15. Why do people join utilitarian organizations?

  1. Because they feel an affinity with others there
  2. Because they receive a tangible benefit from joining
  3. Because they have no choice
  4. Because they feel pressured to do so

16. Which of the following is NOT a characteristic of bureaucracies?

  1. Coercion to join
  2. Hierarchy of authority
  3. Explicit rules
  4. Division of labour

17. What are some of the intended positive aspects of bureaucracies?

  1. Increased productivity
  2. Increased efficiency
  3. Equal treatment for all
  4. All of the above

18. What is an advantage of the McDonaldization of society?

  1. There is more variety of goods.
  2. There is less theft.
  3. There is more worldwide availability of goods.
  4. There is more opportunity for businesses.

19. What is a disadvantage of the McDonaldization of society?

  1. There is less variety of goods.
  2. There is an increased need for employees with postgraduate degrees.
  3. There is less competition so prices are higher.
  4. There are fewer jobs so unemployment increases.

Short Answer

6.1. Types of Groups

  1. How has technology changed your primary groups and secondary groups? Do you have more (and separate) primary groups due to online connectivity? Do you believe that someone, like Levy, can have a true primary group made up of people she has never met? Why or why not?
  2. Compare and contrast two different political groups or organizations, such as the Occupy and Tea Party movements (in the United States) or one of the Arab Spring uprisings. How do the groups differ in terms of leadership, membership, and activities? How do the group’s goals influence participants? Are any of them in-groups (and have they created out-groups)? Explain your answer.
  3. The concept of hate crimes has been linked to in-groups and out-groups. Can you think of an example where people have been excluded or tormented due to this kind of group dynamic?

6.2. Group Size and Structure

  1. Think of a scenario where an authoritarian leadership style would be beneficial. Explain. What are the reasons it would work well? What are the risks?
  2. Describe a time you were led by a leader using, in your opinion, a leadership style that didn’t suit the situation. When and where was it? What could she or he have done better?
  3. Imagine you are in Asch’s study. Would you find it difficult to give the correct answer in that scenario? Why or why not? How would you change the study now to improve it?
  4. What kind of leader do you tend to be? Do you embrace different leadership styles and functions as the situation changes? Give an example of a time you were in a position of leadership. What function and style did you express?

6.3. Formal Organizations

  1. What do you think about the spotlight on fast-food restaurants? Do you think they contribute to society’s ills? Do you believe they provide a needed service? Have you ever worked in a fast-food restaurant? What did you learn?
  2. Do you consider today’s large companies like General Motors, Amazon, or Facebook to be bureaucracies? Why or why not? Which of the main characteristics of bureaucracies do you see in them? Which are absent?
  3. Where do you prefer to shop, eat out, or grab a cup of coffee? Large chains like Walmart or smaller retailers? Starbucks or a local restaurant? What do you base your decisions on? Does this section change how you think about these choices? Why or why not?

Further Research

6.1. Types of Groups
For more information about cyberbullying causes and statistics, check out this website:

6.2. Group Size and Structure
What is your leadership style? The website offers a quiz to help you find out.

Explore other experiments on conformity at

6.3. Formal Organizations
As mentioned above, the concept of McDonaldization is a growing one. The following link discusses this phenomenon further:


6. Introduction to Groups and Organizations
Boler, Megan. 2012. “Occupy feminism: Start of a fourth wave?” May 29. Retrieved February 25, 2014, from

Cabrel, Javier. 2011. “NOFX – Occupy LA.”, November 28. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (

6.1. Types of Groups
Christakis, N., & J. Fowler. 2009. Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they change our lives New York: Little Brown and Co.

Cooley, Charles Horton.1963 [1909]. Social Organizations: A Study of the Larger Mind. New York: Shocken.

Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved November 30, 2011 (

Hinduja, Sameer and Justin W. Patchin.2010. “Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Suicide.”Archives of Suicide Research 14(3): 206–221.

Marsden, Peter. 1987. “Core discussion networks of Americans.” American Sociological Review. 52:122-131.

New York Times. 2011. “Times Topics: Occupy Wall Street.”Retrieved February 10, 2012 ( wall street&st=cse).

Occupy Wall Street. Retrieved November 27, 2011. (

Perreault, Samuel. 2011. Self-reported Internet victimization in Canada, 2009. September 15. Juristat. Statistics Canada catalogue no. 85-002-X. Retrieved September 20, 2014, from

Simmel, Georg. 1971 [1908]. “The problem of sociology.” Pp. 23–27 in D. Levine (Ed.), Georg Simmel: On Individuality and Social Forms.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Sumner, William. 1959 [1906]. Folkways. New York: Dover.

6.2. Groups and Networks
Allemang, John. 2009.  “Elizabeth May is not only Losing Confidence – she agrees with Conrad Black.” The Globe and Mail. Toronto. April 18: F.3.

Asch, Solomon. 1956. “Studies of Independence and Conformity: A Minority of One Against a Unanimous Majority.” Psychological Monographs 70(9, Whole No. 416).

Boatwright, K.J. and L. Forrest. 2000. “Leadership Preferences: The Influence of Gender and Needs for Connection on Workers’ Ideal Preferences for Leadership Behaviors.” The Journal of Leadership Studies 7(2): 18–34.

Carroll, William. 2010. The Making of a Transnational Capitalist Class: Corporate Power in the 21st Century. London: Zed Books.

Christakis, Nicholas and James Fowler. 2009. Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. NY: Little, Brown and Company

Department of the Army. 2006. Counterinsurgency. Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from

Dowd, Maureen. 2008. “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back to the White House?” New York Times, January 9. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (

Foot, Richard. 2008 “May changes debate rules.” Edmonton Journal October 13: A.3.

Haney, C., W.C. Banks, and P.G. Zimbardo. 1973. “Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison.” International Journal of Criminology and Penology. 1, 69–97.

McInturff, Kate. 2013. Closing Canada’s Gender Gap: Year 2240 Here We Come! Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Ottawa. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from Office/2013/04/Closing_Canadas_Gender_Gap_0.pdf

Milgram, Stanley. 1963. “Behavioral Study of Obedience.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67: 371–378.

Simmel, Georg. 1950. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Tannen, Deborah. 1994. You Just Don’t Understand. NY: William Morrow and Co.

Weeks, Linton. 2011. “The Feminine Effect on Politics.” National Public Radio (NPR), June 9. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (

Zuckerman, Ethan. 2011. “The First Twitter Revolution?” Foreign Policy. January 14. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from

6.3. Formal Organizations
Etzioni, Amitai. 1975. A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations: On Power, Involvement, and Their Correlates. New York: Free Press.

Goffman, Erving. 1961. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Chicago, IL: Aldine.

Michels, Robert. 1949 [1911]. Political Parties. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Newman, Jerry. 2007. My Secret Life on the McJob. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ritzer, George. 1994. The McDonaldization of Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.

Schlosser, Eric. 2001. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

United States Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010–2011 Edition. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (

Weber, Max. 1946 [1922]. “Bureaucracy.” Pp. 196-244 in HH Gerth and CW Mills (ed.s) From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. NY: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. 1968 [1922]. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretative Sociology. New York: Bedminster.

Solutions to Section Quiz

1.C  | 2. D  |  3. A  |  4.C  |  5.D  |  6. C  |  7. D  |  8. B  |  9. C  |  10. A  |  11. D  |  12. A  |  13. D  |  14. A  |  15. B  |  16. A  |  17. D  |  18. C  |  19. A

Image Attributions

Figure 6.1 Occupy Victoria (vii) by r.a. paterson ( used undr CC BY SA 2.0 (

Figure 6.2. OccupyWallStNYC by Daniel Latorre ( used under CC BY 2.0 license (

Figure 6.4. Hayley Wickenheiser celebrates her first CIS goal with her teammates by Canada Hky ( used under CC BY SA 3.0 (

Figure 6.8. Elizabeth May on CBC Radio One by Tavis Ford ( used under CC BY 2.0 license (

Figure 6.10. (a) Brownie and Cub compare badges by Girl Guides of Canada ( used under CC BY 2.0 license (


Chapter 7. Deviance, Crime, and Social Control


Figure 7.1. Psychopaths and sociopaths are some of the star deviants in contemporary popular culture. What makes them so appealing as fictional characters? (Photo courtesy of Christian Weber/Flickr)

Learning Objectives

7.1. Deviance and Control

  • Define deviance and categorize different types of deviant behaviour
  • Determine why certain behaviours are defined as deviant while others are not
  • Differentiate between methods of social control
  • Describe the characteristics of disciplinary social control and their relationship to normalizing societies

7.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance

  • Describe the functionalist view of deviance in society and compare Durkheim’s views with social disorganization theory, control theory, and strain theory
  • Explain how critical sociology understands deviance and crime in society
  • Understand feminist theory’s unique contributions to the critical perspective on crime and deviance
  • Describe the symbolic interactionist approach to deviance, including labelling and other theories

7.3. Crime and the Law

  • Identify and differentiate between different types of crimes
  • Evaluate Canadian crime statistics
  • Understand the nature of the corrections system in Canada

Introduction to Deviance, Crime, and Social Control

Psychopaths and sociopaths are some of the favourite “deviants” in contemporary popular culture. From Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, to Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, to Dexter Morgan in Dexter, to Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock and Elementary, the figure of the dangerous individual who lives among us provides a fascinating fictional figure. Psychopathy and sociopathy both refer to personality disorders that involve anti-social behaviour, diminished empathy, and lack of inhibitions. In clinical analysis, these analytical categories should be distinguished from psychosis, which is a condition involving a debilitating break with reality.

Psychopaths and sociopaths are often able to manage their condition and pass as “normal” citizens, although their capacity for manipulation and cruelty can have devastating consequences for people around them. The term psychopathy is often used to emphasize that the source of the disorder is internal, based on psychological, biological, or genetic factors, whereas sociopathy is used to emphasize predominant social factors in the disorder: the social or familial sources of its development and the inability to be social or abide by societal rules (Hare 1999). In this sense sociopathy would be the sociological disease par excellence. It entails an incapacity for companionship (socius), yet many accounts of sociopaths describe them as being charming, attractively confident, and outgoing (Hare 1999).

In a modern society characterized by the predominance of secondary rather than primary relationships, the sociopath or psychopath functions, in popular culture at least, as a prime index of contemporary social unease. The sociopath is like the nice neighbour next door who one day “goes off” or is revealed to have had a sinister second life. In many ways the sociopath is a cypher for many of the anxieties we have about the loss of community and living among people we do not know. In this sense, the sociopath is a very modern sort of deviant. Contemporary approaches to psychopathy and sociopathy have focused on biological and genetic causes. This is a tradition that goes back to 19th century positivist approaches to deviance, which attempted to find a biological cause for criminality and other types of deviant behaviour.

The Italian professor of legal psychiatry Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909) was a key figure in positivist criminology who thought he had isolated specific physiological characteristics of “degeneracy” that could distinguish “born criminals” from normal individuals (Rimke 2011). In a much more sophisticated way, this was also the premise of Dr. James Fallon, a neuroscientist at the University of California. His research involved analyzing brain scans of serial killers. He found that areas of the frontal and temporal lobes associated with empathy, morality, and self-control are “shut off” in serial killers. In turn, this lack of brain activity has been linked with specific genetic markers suggesting that psychopathy or sociopathy was passed down genetically. Fallon’s premise was that psychopathy is genetically determined. An individual’s genes determine whether they are psychopathic or not (Fallon 2013).


Figure 7.2. Lizzie Borden (1860–1927) was tried but not convicted of the axe murders of her father and stepmother in 1892. The popular rhyme of the time went, “Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother 40 whacks.When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41. ” (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

However, at the same time that he was conducting research on psychopaths, he was studying the brain scans of Alzheimer’s patients. In the Alzheimer’s study, he discovered a brain scan from a control subject that indicated the symptoms of psychopathy he had seen in the brain scans of serial killers. The scan was taken from a member of his own family. He broke the seal that protected the identity of the subject and discovered it was his own brain scan.

Fallon was a successfully married man, who had raised children and held down a demanding career as a successful scientist and yet the brain scan indicated he was a psychopath. When he researched his own genetic history, he realized that his family tree contained seven alleged murderers including the famous Lizzie Borden, who allegedly killed her father and stepmother in 1892. He began to notice some of his own behaviour patterns as being manipulative, obnoxiously competitive, egocentric, and aggressive, just not in a criminal manner.He decided that he was a “pro-social psychopath”—an individual who lacks true empathy for others but keeps his or her behaviour within acceptable social norms—due to the loving and nurturing family he grew up in. He had to acknowledge that environment, and not just genes, played a significant role in the expression of genetic tendencies (Fallon 2013).

What can we learn from Fallon’s example from a sociological point of view? Firstly,  psychopathy and sociopathy are recognized as problematic forms of deviance because of prevalent social anxieties about serial killers as types of criminal who “live next door” or blend in. This is partly because we live in a type of society where we do not know our neighbours well and partly because we are concerned to discover their identifiable traits as these are otherwise concealed. Secondly, Fallon acknowledges that there is no purely biological or genetic explanation for psychopathy and sociopathy.

Many individuals with the biological and genetic markers of psychopathy are not dangers to society—key to pathological expressions of psychopathy are elements of an individual’s social environment and social upbringing (i.e., nurture). Finally, in Fallon’s own account, it is difficult to separate the discovery of the aberrant brain scan and the discovery and acknowledgement of his personal traits of psychopathy. Is it clear which came first? He only recognizes the psychopatholoy in himself after seeing the brain scan. This is the problem of what Ian Hacking (2006) calls the “looping effect” that affects the sociological study of deviance (see discussion below).  In summary, what Fallon’s example illustrates is the complexity of the study of social deviance.

7.1. Deviance and Control


Figure 7.3. Much of the appeal of watching entertainers perform in drag comes from the humour inherent in seeing everyday norms violated. (Photo courtesy of Cassiopeija/Wikimedia Commons)

What, exactly, is deviance? And what is the relationship between deviance and crime? According to sociologist William Graham Sumner, deviance is a violation of established contextual, cultural, or social norms, whether folkways, mores, or codified law (1906).  Folkways are norms based on everyday cultural customs concerning practical matters like how to hold a fork, what type of clothes are appropriate for different situations, or how to greet someone politely. Mores are more serious moral injunctions or taboos that are broadly recognized in a society, like the incest taboo. Codified laws are norms that are specified in explicit codes and enforced by government bodies. A crime is therefore an act of deviance that breaks not only a norm, but a law. Deviance can be as minor as picking one’s nose in public or as major as committing murder.

John Hagen (1994) provides a typology to classify deviant acts in terms of their perceived harmfulness, the degree of consensus concerning the norms violated, and the severity of the response to them. The most serious acts of deviance are consensus crimes about which there is near-unanimous public agreement. Acts like murder and sexual assault are generally regarded as morally intolerable, injurious, and subject to harsh penalties. Conflict crimes are acts like prostitution or smoking marijuana, which may be illegal but about which there is considerable public disagreement concerning their seriousness. Social deviations are acts like abusing serving staff or behaviours arising from mental illness and addiction, which are not illegal in themselves but are widely regarded as serious or harmful. People agree that they call for institutional intervention. Finally there are social diversions like riding skateboards on sidewalks, overly tight leggings, or facial piercings that violate norms in a provocative way but are generally regarded as distasteful but harmless, or for some, cool.

The point is that the question, “What is deviant behaviour?” cannot be answered in a straightforward manner. This follows from two key insights of the  sociological approach to deviance (which distinguish it from moral and legalistic approaches). Firstly, deviance is defined by its social context. To understand why some acts are deviant and some are not, it is necessary to understand what the context is, what the existing rules are, and how these rules came to be established. If the rules change, what counts as deviant also changes. As rules and norms vary across cultures and time, it makes sense that notions of deviance also change.

Fifty years ago, public schools in Canada had strict dress codes that, among other stipulations, often banned women from wearing pants to class. Today, it is socially acceptable for women to wear pants, but less so for men to wear skirts. In a time of war, acts usually considered morally reprehensible, such as taking the life of another, may actually be rewarded. Much of the confusion and ambiguity regarding the use of violence in hockey has to do with the different sets of rules that apply inside and outside the arena. Acts that are acceptable and even encouraged on the ice would be punished with jail time if they occurred on the street.

Whether an act is deviant or not depends on society’s definition of that act. Acts are not deviant in themselves. The second sociological insight is that deviance is not an intrinsic (biological or psychological) attribute of individuals, nor of the acts themselves, but a product of social processes. The norms themselves, or the social contexts that determine which acts are deviant or not, are continually defined and redefined through ongoing social processes—political, legal, cultural, etc. One way in which certain activities or people come to be understood and defined as deviant is through the intervention of moral entrepreneurs.

Becker (1963) defined moral entrepreneurs as individuals or groups who, in the service of their own interests, publicize and problematize “wrongdoing” and have the power to create and enforce rules to penalize wrongdoing. Judge Emily Murphy, commonly known today as one of the “Famous Five” feminist suffragists who fought to have women legally recognized as “persons” (and thereby qualified to hold a position in the Canadian Senate), was a moral entrepreneur instrumental in changing Canada’s drug laws. In 1922 she wrote The Black Candle, in which she demonized the use of marijuana:

[Marijuana] has the effect of driving the [user] completely insane. The addict loses all sense of moral responsibility. Addicts to this drug, while under its influence, are immune to pain, and could be severely injured without having any realization of their condition. While in this condition they become raving maniacs and are liable to kill or indulge in any form of violence to other persons, using the most savage methods of cruelty without, as said before, any sense of moral responsibility…. They are dispossessed of their natural and normal will power, and their mentality is that of idiots. If this drug is indulged in to any great extent, it ends in the untimely death of its addict (Murphy 1922).

One of the tactics used by moral entrepreneurs is to create a moral panic about activities, like marijuana use, that they deem deviant. A moral panic occurs when media-fuelled public fear and overreaction lead authorities to label and repress deviants, which in turn creates a cycle in which more acts of deviance are discovered, more fear is generated, and more suppression enacted. The key insight is that individuals’ deviant status is ascribed to them through social processes. Individuals are not born deviant, but become deviant through their interaction with reference groups, institutions, and authorities.

Through social interaction, individuals are labelled deviant or come to recognize themselves as deviant. For example, in ancient Greece, homosexual relationships between older men and young acolytes were a normal component of the teacher-student relationship. Up until the 19th century, the question of  who slept with whom was a matter of indifference to the law or customs, except where it related to family alliances through marriage and the transfer of property through inheritance. However, in the 19th century sexuality became a matter of moral, legal, and psychological concern. The homosexual, or “sexual invert,” was defined by the emerging psychiatric and biological disciplines as a psychological deviant whose instincts were contrary to nature.

Homosexuality was defined as not simply a matter of sexual desire or the act of sex, but as a dangerous quality that defined the entire personality and moral being of an individual (Foucault 1980). From that point until the late 1960s, homosexuality was regarded as a deviant, closeted activity that, if exposed, could result in legal prosecution, moral condemnation, ostracism, violent assault, and loss of career. Since then, the gay rights movement and constitutional protections of civil liberties have reversed many of the attitudes and legal structures that led to the prosecution of gays, lesbians, and transgendered people. The point is that to whatever degree homosexuality has a natural  or inborn  biological  cause, its deviance is the outcome of a social process.

It is not simply a matter of the events that lead authorities to define an activity or category of persons deviant, but of the processes by which individuals come to recognize themselves as deviant. In the process of socialization, there is a “looping effect” (Hacking 2006).  Once a category of deviance has been established and applied to a person, that person begins to define himself or herself in terms of this category and behave accordingly. This influence makes it difficult to define criminals as kinds of person in terms of pre-existing, innate predispositions or individual psychopathologies. As we will see later in the chapter, it is a central tenet of symbolic interactionist labelling theory, that individuals become criminalized through contact with the criminal justice system (Becker 1963). When we add to this insight the sociological research into the social characteristics of those who have been arrested or processed by the criminal justice system—variables such as gender, age, race, and class— it is evident that social variables and power structures are key to understanding who chooses a criminal career path.

One of the principle outcomes of these two sociological insights is that a focus on the social construction of different social experiences and problems leads to alternative ways of understanding them and responding to them. In the study of crime and deviance, the sociologist often confronts a legacy of entrenched beliefs concerning either the innate biological disposition or the individual psychopathology of persons considered abnormal: the criminal personality, the sexual or gender “deviant,” the disabled or ill person, the addict, or the mentally unstable individual. However, as Ian Hacking observes, even when these beliefs about kinds of persons are products of objective scientific classification, the institutional context of science and expert knowledge is not independent of societal norms, beliefs, and practices (2006).

The process of classifying kinds of people is a social process that Hacking calls “making up people” and Howard Becker calls “labelling” (1963). Crime and deviance are social constructs that vary according to the definitions of crime, the forms and effectiveness of policing, the social characteristics of criminals, and the relations of power that structure society. Part of the problem of deviance is that the social process of labelling some kinds of persons or activities as abnormal or deviant limits the type of social responses available. The major issue is not that labels are arbitrary or that it is possible not to use labels at all, but that the choice of label has consequences. Who gets labelled by whom and the way social labels are applied have powerful social repercussions.

Making Connections: Careers in Sociology

Why I Drive a Hearse

When Neil Young left Canada in 1966 to seek his fortune in California as a musician, he was driving his famous 1953 Pontiac hearse “Mort 2.” He and Bruce Palmer were driving the hearse in Hollywood when they happened to see Stephen Stills and Richie Furray driving the other way, a fortuitous encounter that led to the formation of the band Buffalo Springfield (McDonough 2002). Later Young wrote “Long May You Run” as an elegy to his first hearse “Mort,” which he performed at the closing ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Rock musicians are often noted for their eccentricities, but is driving a hearse deviant behaviour? When sociologist Todd Schoepflin ran into his childhood friend Bill who drove a hearse, he wondered what effect driving a hearse had on his friend and what effect it might have on others on the road. Would using such a vehicle for everyday errands be considered deviant by most people? Schoepflin interviewed Bill, curious first to know why he drove such an unconventional car. Bill had simply been on the lookout for a reliable winter car; on a tight budget, he searched used car ads and stumbled on one for the hearse. The car ran well and the price was right, so he bought it. Bill admitted that others’ reactions to the car had been mixed. His parents were appalled and he received odd stares from his coworkers. A mechanic once refused to work on it, stating that it was “a dead person machine.” On the whole, however, Bill received mostly positive reactions. Strangers gave him a thumbs-up on the highway and stopped him in parking lots to chat about his car. His girlfriend loved it, his friends wanted to take it tailgating, and people offered to buy it. Could it be that driving a hearse isn’t really so deviant after all? Schoepflin theorized that, although viewed as outside conventional norms, driving a hearse is such a mild form of deviance that it actually becomes a mark of distinction. Conformists find the choice of vehicle intriguing or appealing, while nonconformists see a fellow oddball to whom they can relate. As one of Bill’s friends remarked, “Every guy wants to own a unique car like this and you can certainly pull it off.” Such anecdotes remind us that although deviance is often viewed as a violation of norms, it’s not always viewed in a negative light (Schoepflin 2011).

Figure 7.4. A hearse with the license plate “LASTRYD.” How would you view the owner of this car? (Photo courtesy of Brian Teutsch/flickr)

Figure 7.4. A hearse with the license plate “LASTRYD.” How would you view the owner of this car? (Photo courtesy of Brian Teutsch/flickr)

Social Control

When a person violates a social norm, what happens? A driver caught speeding can receive a speeding ticket. A student who texts in class gets a warning from a professor. An adult belching loudly is avoided. All societies practise social control, the regulation and enforcement of norms. Social control can be defined broadly as an organized action intended to change people’s behaviour (Innes 2003). The underlying goal of social control is to maintain social order, an arrangement of practices and behaviours on which society’s members base their daily lives. Think of social order as an employee handbook and social control as the incentives and disincentives used to encourage or oblige employees to follow those rules. When a worker violates a workplace guideline, the manager steps in to enforce the rules. One means of enforcing rules are through sanctions. Sanctions can be positive as well as negative. Positive sanctions are rewards given for conforming to norms. A promotion at work is a positive sanction for working hard. Negative sanctions are punishments for violating norms. Being arrested is a punishment for shoplifting. Both types of sanctions play a role in social control.

Sociologists also classify sanctions as formal or informal. Although shoplifting, a form of social deviance, may be illegal, there are no laws dictating the proper way to scratch one’s nose. That doesn’t mean picking your nose in public won’t be punished; instead, you will encounter informal sanctions. Informal sanctions emerge in face-to-face social interactions. For example, wearing flip-flops to an opera or swearing loudly in church may draw disapproving looks or even verbal reprimands, whereas behaviour that is seen as positive—such as helping an old man carry grocery bags across the street—may receive positive informal reactions, such as a smile or pat on the back.

Formal sanctions, on the other hand, are ways to officially recognize and enforce norm violations. If a student plagiarizes the work of others or cheats on an exam, for example, he or she might be expelled. Someone who speaks inappropriately to the boss could be fired. Someone who commits a crime may be arrested or imprisoned. On the positive side, a soldier who saves a life may receive an official commendation, or a CEO might receive a bonus for increasing the profits of his or her corporation. Not all forms of social control are adequately understood through the use of sanctions, however. Black (1976) identifies four key styles of social control, each of which defines deviance and the appropriate response to it in a different manner. Penal social control functions by prohibiting certain social behaviours and responding to violations with punishment. Compensatory social control obliges an offender to pay a victim to compensate for a harm committed. Therapeutic social control involves the use of therapy to return individuals to a normal state. Conciliatory social control aims to reconcile the parties of a dispute and mutually restore harmony to a social relationship that has been damaged. While penal and compensatory social controls emphasize the use of sanctions, therapeutic and conciliatory social controls emphasize processes of restoration and healing.

Social Control as Government and Discipline

Michel Foucault notes that from a period of early modernity onward, European society became increasingly concerned with social control as a practice of government (Foucault 2007). In this sense of the term, government does not simply refer to the activities of the state, but to all the practices by which individuals or organizations seek to govern the behaviour of others or themselves. Government refers to the strategies by which one seeks to direct or guide the conduct of another or others. In the 15th and 16th centuries, numerous treatises were written on how to govern and educate children, how to govern the poor and beggars, how to govern a family or an estate, how to govern an army or a city, how to govern a state and run an economy, and how to govern one’s own conscience and conduct. These treatises described the burgeoning arts of government, which defined the different ways in which the conduct of individuals or groups might be directed. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532), which offers advice to the prince on how best to conduct his relationship with his subjects, is the most famous of these treatises.


Figure 7.5. Machiavelli: “If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.” The ruthlessness with which Machiavelli advised the prince to govern his relationships with subjects and rivals has earned its own adjective in common usage: Machiavellian. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

The common theme in the various arts of governing proposed in early modernity was the extension of Christian monastic practices involving the detailed and continuous government and salvation of souls. The principles of monastic government were applied to a variety of non-monastic areas. People needed to be governed in all aspects of their lives. It was not, however, until the 19th century and the invention of modern institutions like the prison, the public school, the modern army, the asylum, the hospital, and the factory, that the means for extending government and social control widely through the population were developed.

Foucault (1979) describes these modern forms of government as disciplinary social control because they each rely on the detailed continuous training, control, and observation of individuals to improve their capabilities: to transform criminals into law abiding citizens, children into educated and productive adults, recruits into disciplined soldiers, patients into healthy people, etc. Foucault argues that the ideal of discipline as a means of social control is to render individuals docile. That does not mean that they become passive or sheep-like, but that disciplinary training simultaneously increases their abilities, skills, and usefulness while making them more compliant and manipulable.


Figure 7.6. The Presidio Modelo Prison, Cuba, built between 1926 and 1928 was based on Bentham’s panopticon design. (Photo courtesy of Friman/Wikimedia Commons)

The chief components of disciplinary social control in modern institutions like the prison and the school are surveillance, normalization, and examination (Foucault 1979). Surveillance refers to the various means used to make the lives and activities of individuals visible to authorities. In 1791, Jeremy Bentham published his book on the ideal prison, the panopticon or “seeing machine.” Prisoners’ cells would be arranged in a circle around a central observation tower where they could be both separated from each other and continually exposed to the view of prison guards. In this way, Bentham proposed, social control could become automatic because prisoners would be induced to monitor their own behaviour.

Similarly, in a school classroom, students sit in rows of desks immediately visible to the teacher at the front of the room. In a store, shoppers can be observed through one-way glass or video monitors. Contemporary surveillance expands the capacity for observation using video or electronic forms of surveillance to render the activities of a population visible. London, England, holds the dubious honour of being the most surveilled city in the world. The city’s “ring of steel” is a security cordon in which over half a million surveillance cameras are used to monitor and record traffic moving in and out of the city centre.

The practice of normalization refers to the way in which norms, such as the level of math ability expected from a grade 2 student, are first established and then used to assess, differentiate, and rank individuals according to their abilities (an A student, B student, C student, etc.). Individuals’ progress in developing their abilities, whether in math skills, good prison behaviour, health outcomes, or other areas, is established through constant comparisons with others and with natural and observable norms. Minor sanctions are used to continuously modify behaviour that does not comply with correct conduct: rewards are applied for good behaviour and penalties for bad.

Periodic examinations through the use of tests in schools, medical examinations in hospitals, inspections in prisons, year-end reviews in the workplace, etc. bring together surveillance and normalization in a way that enables each individual and each individual’s abilities to be assessed, documented, and known by authorities. On the basis of examinations, individuals can be subjected to different disciplinary procedures more suited to them. Gifted children might receive an enriched educational program, whereas poorer students might receive remedial lessons.

Foucault describes disciplinary social control as a key mechanism in creating a normalizing society. The establishment of norms and the development of disciplinary procedures to correct deviance from norms become increasingly central to the organization and operation of institutions from the 19th century onward. To the degree that “natural” or sociological norms are used to govern our lives more than laws and legal mechanisms, society can be said to be controlled through normalization and disciplinary procedures. Whereas the use of formal laws, courts, and the police come into play only when laws are broken, disciplinary techniques enable the continuous and ongoing social control of an expanding range of activities in our lives through surveillance, normalization, and examination. While we may never encounter the police for breaking a law, if we work, go to school, or end up in hospital, we are routinely subject to disciplinary control through most of the day.

7.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance


Figure 7.7. Functionalists believe that deviance plays an important role in society and can be used to challenge people’s views. Protesters, such as these PETA members, often use this method to draw attention to their cause. (Photo courtesy of David Shankbone/flickr)

Why does deviance occur? How does it affect a society? Since the early days of sociology, scholars have developed theories attempting to explain what deviance and crime mean to society. These theories can be grouped according to the three major sociological paradigms: functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory.


Sociologists who follow the functionalist approach are concerned with how the different elements of a society contribute to the whole. They view deviance as a key component of a functioning society. Social disorganization theory, strain theory, and cultural deviance theory represent three functionalist perspectives on deviance in society.

Émile Durkheim: The Essential Nature of Deviance

Émile Durkheim believed that deviance is a necessary part of a successful society. One way deviance is functional, he argued, is that it challenges people’s present views (1893). For instance, when black students across the United States participated in “sit-ins” during the civil rights movement, they challenged society’s notions of segregation. Moreover, Durkheim noted, when deviance is punished, it reaffirms currently held social norms, which also contributes to society (1893). Seeing a student given a detention for skipping class reminds other high schoolers that playing hooky isn’t allowed and that they, too, could get a detention.

Social Disorganization Theory

Developed by researchers at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, social disorganization theory asserts that crime is most likely to occur in communities with weak social ties and the absence of social control. In a certain way, this is the opposite of Durkheim’s thesis. Rather than deviance being a force that reinforces moral and social solidarity, it is the absence of moral and social solidarity that provides the conditions for social deviance to emerge.

Early Chicago School sociologists used an ecological model to map the zones in Chicago where high levels of social problem were concentrated. During this period, Chicago was experiencing a long period of economic growth, urban expansion, and foreign immigration. They were particularly interested in the zones of transition between established working class neighbourhoods and the manufacturing district. The city’s poorest residents tended to live in these transitional zones, where there was a mixture of races, immigrant ethnic groups, and non-English languages, and a high rate of influx as people moved in and out. They proposed that these zones were particularly prone to social disorder because the residents had not yet assimilated to the American way of life. When they did assimilate they moved out, making it difficult for a stable social ecology to become established there.


Figure 7.8. Proponents of social disorganization theory believe that individuals who grow up in impoverished areas are more likely to participate in deviant or criminal behaviours. (Photo courtesy of Apollo 1758/Wikimedia Commons)

Social disorganization theory points to broad social factors as the cause of deviance. A person is not born a criminal, but becomes one over time, often based on factors in his or her social environment. This theme was taken up by Travis Hirschi’s control theory (1969). According to Hirschi, social control is directly affected by the strength of social bonds. Many people would be willing to break laws or act in deviant ways to reap the rewards of pleasure, excitement, and profit, etc. if they had the opportunity. Those who do have the opportunity are those who are only weakly controlled by social restrictions. Similar to Durkheim’s theory of anomie, deviance is seen to result where feelings of disconnection from society predominate. Individuals who believe they are a part of society are less likely to commit crimes against it. Hirschi (1969) identified four types of social bonds that connect people to society:

  1.  Attachment measures our connections to others. When we are closely attached to people, we worry about their opinions of us. People conform to society’s norms in order to gain approval (and prevent disapproval) from family, friends, and romantic partners.
  2. Commitment refers to the investments we make in conforming to conventional behaviour. A well-respected local businesswoman who volunteers at her synagogue and is a member of the neighbourhood block organization has more to lose from committing a crime than a woman who does not have a career or ties to the community. There is a cost/benefit calculation in the decision to commit a crime in which the costs of being caught are much higher for some than others.
  3. Similarly, levels of involvement, or participation in socially legitimate activities, lessen a person’s likelihood of deviance. Children who are members of Little League baseball teams have fewer family crises.
  4. The final bond, belief, is an agreement on common values in society. If a person views social values as beliefs, he or she will conform to them. An environmentalist is more likely to pick up trash in a park because a clean environment is a social value to that person.

An individual who grows up in a poor neighbourhood with high rates of drug use, violence, teenage delinquency, and deprived parenting is more likely to become a criminal than an individual from a wealthy neighbourhood with a good school system and families who are involved positively in the community. The mutual dependencies and complex relationships that form the basis of a healthy “ecosystem” or social control do not get established. Research into social disorganization theory can greatly influence public policy. For instance, studies have found that children from disadvantaged communities who attend preschool programs that teach basic social skills are significantly less likely to engage in criminal activity. In the same way, the Chicago School sociologists focused their efforts on community programs designed to help assimilate new immigrants into North American culture. However, in proposing that social disorganization is essentially a moral problem—that it is shared moral values that hold communities together and prevent crime and social disorder—questions about economic inequality, racism, and power dynamics do not get asked.

Robert Merton: Strain Theory

Sociologist Robert Merton agreed that deviance is, in a sense, a normal behaviour in a functioning society, but he expanded on Durkheim’s ideas by developing strain theory, which notes that access to socially acceptable goals plays a part in determining whether a person conforms or deviates. From birth, we are encouraged to achieve the goal of financial success. A woman who attends business school, receives her MBA, and goes on to make a million-dollar income as CEO of a company is said to be a success. However, not everyone in our society stands on equal footing. A person may have the socially acceptable goal of financial success but lack a socially acceptable way to reach that goal. According to Merton’s theory, an entrepreneur who can not afford to launch his own company may be tempted to embezzle from his employer for start-up funds. The discrepancy between the reality of structural inequality and the high cultural value of economic success creates a strain that has to be resolved by some means. Merton defined five ways that people adapt to this gap between having a socially accepted goal but no socially accepted way to pursue it.

  1. Conformity: The majority of people in society choose to conform and not to deviate. They pursue their society’s valued goals to the extent that they can through socially accepted means.
  2. Innovation: Those who innovate pursue goals they cannot reach through legitimate means by instead using criminal or deviant means.
  3. Ritualism: People who ritualize lower their goals until they can reach them through socially acceptable ways. These “social ritualists”  focus on conformity to the accepted means of goal attainment while abandoning the distant, unobtainable dream of success.
  4. Retreatism: Others retreat from the role strain and reject both society’s goals and accepted means. Some beggars and street people have withdrawn from society’s goal of financial success. They drop out.
  5. Rebellion: A handful of people rebel, replacing a society’s goals and means with their own. Rebels seek to create a greatly modified social structure in which provision would be made for closer correspondence between merit, effort, and reward.

As many youth from poor backgrounds are exposed to the high value placed on material success in capitalist society but face insurmountable odds to achieving it, turning to illegal means to achieve success is a rational, if deviant, solution.

Critical Sociology

Critical sociology looks to social and economic factors as the causes of crime and deviance. Unlike functionalists, conflict theorists don’t see these factors as necessary functions of society, but as evidence of inequality in the system. As a result of inequality, many crimes can be understood as crimes of accommodation, or ways in which individuals cope with conditions of oppression (Quinney 1977). Predatory crimes like break and enters, robbery, and drug dealing are often simply economic survival strategies. Personal crimes like murder, assault, and sexual assault are products of the stresses and strains of living under stressful conditions of scarcity and deprivation. Defensive crimes like economic sabotage, illegal strikes, civil disobedience, and eco-terrorism are direct challenges to social injustice. The analysis of critical sociologists is not meant to excuse or rationalize crime, but to locate its underlying sources at the appropriate level so that they can be addressed effectively.

Critical sociologists do not see the normative order and the criminal justice system as simply neutral or “functional” with regard to the collective interests of society. Institutions of normalization and the criminal justice system have to be seen in context as mechanisms that actively maintain the power structure of the political-economic order. The rich, the powerful, and the privileged have unequal influence on who and what gets labelled deviant or criminal, particularly in instances when their privilege is being challenged. As capitalist society is based on the institution of private property, for example, it is not surprising that theft is a major category of crime. By the same token, when street people, addicts, or hippies drop out of society, they are labelled deviant and are subject to police harassment because they have refused to participate in productive labour.

On the other hand, the ruthless and sometimes sociopathic behaviour of many business people and politicians, otherwise regarded as deviant according to the normative codes of society, is often rewarded or regarded with respect. In his book The Power Elite (1956), sociologist C. Wright Mills described the existence of what he dubbed the power elite, a small group of wealthy and influential people at the top of society who hold the power and resources. Wealthy executives, politicians, celebrities, and military leaders often have access to national and international power, and in some cases, their decisions affect everyone in society. Because of this, the rules of society are stacked in favour of a privileged few who manipulate them to stay on top. It is these people who decide what is criminal and what is not, and the effects are often felt most by those who have little power. Mills’s theories explain why celebrities such as Chris Brown and Paris Hilton, or once-powerful politicians such as Eliot Spitzer and Tom DeLay, can commit crimes with little or no legal retribution.

Crime and Social Class

While functionalist theories often emphasize crime and deviance associated with the underprivileged, there is in fact no clear evidence that crimes are committed disproportionately by the poor or lower classes. There is an established association between the underprivileged and serious street crimes like armed robbery and assault, but these do not constitute the majority of crimes in society, nor the most serious crimes in terms of their overall social, personal, and environmental effects. On the other hand, crimes committed by the wealthy and powerful remain an underpunished and costly problem within society. White-collar or corporate crime refers to crimes committed by corporate employees or owners in the pursuit of profit or other organization goals. They are more difficult to detect because the transactions take place in private and are more difficult to prosecute because the criminals can secure expert legal advice on how to bend the rules.

In the United States it has been estimated that the yearly value of all street crime is roughly 5 percent of the value of corporate crime or “suite crime” (Snider 1994). Comparable data is not compiled in Canada; however, the Canadian Department of Justice reported that the total value of property stolen or damaged due to property crime in 2008 was an estimated $5.8 billion (Zhang 2008), which would put the cost of corporate crime at $116 billion (if the ratio holds in Canada). For example, Canadians for Tax Fairness estimates that wealthy Canadians have a combined total of $170 billion concealed in untaxed offshore tax havens (Tencer 2013). “Tax haven use has robbed at least $7.8 billion in tax revenues from Canada” (Howlett 2013).

PricewaterhouseCoopers reports that 36 percent of Canadian companies were subject to white-collar crime in 2013 (theft, fraud, embezzlement, cybercrime). One in ten lost $5 million or more (McKenna 2014). Recent high-profile Ponzi scheme and investment frauds run into tens of millions of dollars each, destroying investors retirement savings. Vincent Lacroix was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2009 for defrauding investors of $115 million; Earl Jones was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2010 for defrauding investors of $50 million; Weizhen Tang was sentenced to 6 years in prison in 2013 for defrauding investors of $52 million. These were highly publicized cases in which jail time was demanded by the public (although as nonviolent offenders the perpetrators are eligible for parole after serving one-sixth of their sentence). However, in 2011–2012 prison sentences were nearly twice as likely for the typically lower-class perpetrators of break and enters (59 percent) as they were for typically middle- and upper-class perpetrators of fraud (35 percent) (Boyce 2013).

This imbalance based on class power can also be put into perspective with respect to homicide rates (Samuelson 2000). In 2005, there were 658 homicides in Canada recorded by police, an average of 1.8 a day. This is an extremely serious crime, which merits the attention given to it by the criminal justice system. However, in 2005 there were also 1,097 workplace deaths that were, in principle, preventable. Canadians work on average 230 days a year, meaning that there were on average five workplace deaths a day for every working day in 2005 (Sharpe and Hardt 2006). Estimates from the United States suggest that only one-third of on-the-job deaths and injuries can be attributed to worker carelessness (Samuelson 2000).

In 2005, 51 percent of the workplace deaths in Canada were due to occupational diseases like cancers from exposure to asbestos (Sharpe and Hardt 2006). The Ocean Ranger oil-rig collapse that killed 84 workers off Newfoundland in 1982 and the Westray mine explosion that killed 26 workers in Nova Scotia in 1992 were due to design flaws and unsafe working conditions that were known to the owners. However, whereas corporations are prosecuted for regulatory violations governing health and safety, it is rare for corporations or corporate officials to be prosecuted for the consequences of those violations. “For example, a company would be fined for not installing safety bolts in a construction crane, but not prosecuted for the death of several workers who were below the crane when it collapsed (as in a recent case in Western Canada)” (Samuelson 2000).

Corporate crime is arguably a more serious type of crime than street crime, and yet white-collar criminals are treated relatively leniently. Fines, when they are imposed, are typically absorbed as a cost of doing business and passed on to consumers, and many crimes, from investment fraud to insider trading and price fixing, are simply not prosecuted. From a critical sociology point of view, this is because white-collar crime is committed by elites who are able to use their power and financial resources to evade punishment. Here are some examples:

  1. In the United States, not a single criminal charge was filed against a corporate executive after the financial mismanagement of the 2008 financial crisis. The American Security and Exchange Commission levied a total of $2.73 billion in fines and out-of-court settlements, but the total cost of the financial crisis was estimated to be between $6 and $14 trillion (Pyke 2013).
  2. In Canada, three Nortel executives were charged by the RCMP’s Integrated Market Enforcement Team (IMET) with fraudulently altering accounting procedures in 2002–2003 to make it appear that Nortel was running a profit (thereby triggering salary bonuses for themselves totalling $12 million), but were acquitted in 2013. The accounting procedures were found to inflate the value of the company, but the intent to defraud could not be proven. The RCMP’s IMET, implemented in 2003 to fight white-collar crime, managed only 11 convictions over the first nine years of its existence (McFarland and Blackwell 2013).
  3. Enbridge’s 20,000 barrel spill of bitumen (tar sands) oil into the Kalamazoo River, Michigan, in 2010 was allowed to continue for 17 hours and involved twice re-pumping bitumen into the pipeline. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board report noted that the spill was the result of  “pervasive organizational failures,” and documents revealed that the pipeline operators were more concerned about getting home for the weekend than solving the problem (Rusnell 2012). No criminal charges were laid.

Figure 7.9. From 1986 until 2010, the punishment for possessing crack, a “poor person’s drug,” was 100 times stricter than the punishment for cocaine use, a drug favoured by the wealthy. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Feminist Contributions

Women who are regarded as criminally deviant are often seen as being  doubly deviant. They have broken the laws but they have also broken gender norms about appropriate female behaviour, whereas men’s criminal behaviour is seen as consistent with their aggressive, self-assertive character. This double standard also explains the tendency to medicalize women’s deviance, to see it as the product of physiological or psychiatric pathology. For example, in the late 19th century, kleptomania was a diagnosis used in legal defences that linked an extreme desire for department store commodities with various forms of female physiological or psychiatric illness. The fact that “good” middle- and upper-class women, who were at that time coincidentally beginning to experience the benefits of independence from men, would turn to stealing in department stores to obtain the new feminine consumer items on display there, could not be explained without resorting to diagnosing the activity as an illness of the “weaker” sex (Kramar 2011).

Feminist analysis focuses on the way gender inequality influences the opportunities to commit crime and the definition, detection, and prosecution of crime. In part the gender difference revolves around patriarchal attitudes toward women and the disregard for matters considered to be of a private or domestic nature. For example, until 1969, abortion was illegal in Canada, meaning that hundreds of women died or were injured each year when they received illegal abortions (McLaren and McLaren 1997). It was not until the Supreme Court ruling in 1988 that struck down the law that it was acknowledged that women are capable of making their own choice, in consultation with a doctor, about the procedure. Similarly, until the 1970s, two major types of criminal deviance were largely ignored or were difficult to prosecute as crimes: sexual assault and spousal assault.

Through the 1970s, women worked to change the criminal justice system and establish rape crisis centres and battered women’s shelters, bringing attention to domestic violence. In 1983 the Criminal Code was amended to replace the crimes of rape and indecent assault with a three-tier structure of sexual assault (ranging from unwanted sexual touching that violates the integrity of the victim to sexual assault with a weapon or threats or causing bodily harm to aggravated sexual assault that results in wounding, maiming, disfiguring, or endangering the life of the victim) (Kong et al. 2003). Johnson (1996) reported that in the mid-1990s, when violence against women began to be surveyed systematically in Canada, 51 percent of Canadian women had been the subject to at least one sexual or physical assault since the age of 16.

The goal of the amendments was to emphasize that sexual assault is an act of violence, not a sexual act. Previously, rape had been defined as an act that involved penetration and was perpetrated against a woman who was not the wife of the accused. This had excluded spousal sexual assault as a crime and had also exposed women to secondary victimization by the criminal justice system when they tried to bring charges. Secondary victimization occurs when the women’s own sexual history and her willingness to consent are questioned in the process of laying charges and reaching a conviction, which as feminists pointed out, increased victims’ reluctance to lay charges.

In particular feminists challenged the twin myths of rape that were often the subtext of criminal justice proceedings presided over largely by men (Kramar 2011). The first myth is that women are untrustworthy and tend to lie about assault out of malice toward men, as a way of getting back at them for personal grievances. The second myth, is that women will say “no” to sexual relations when they really mean “yes.” Typical of these types of issues was the judge’s comment in a Manitoba Court of Appeal case in which a man plead guilty to sexually assaulting his twelve- or thirteen-year-old babysitter:

The girl, of course, could not consent in the legal sense, but nonetheless was a willing participant. She was apparently more sophisticated than many her age and was performing many household tasks including babysitting the accused’s children. The accused and his wife were somewhat estranged (cited in Kramar 2011).

Because the girl was willing to perform household chores in place of the man’s estranged wife, the judge assumed she was also willing to engage in sexual relations. In order to address these types of issue, feminists successfully pressed the Supreme Court to deliver rulings that restricted a defence attorney’s access to a victim’s medical and counselling records and rules of evidence were changed to prevent a woman’s past sexual history being used against her. Consent to sexual discourse was redefined as what a woman actually says or does, not what the man believes to be consent. Feminists also argued that spousal assault was a key component of patriarchal power. Typically it was hidden in the household and largely regarded as a private, domestic matter in which police were reluctant to get involved.

Interestingly women and men report similar rates of spousal violence—in 2009, 6 percent had experienced spousal violence in the previous five years—but women are more likely to experience more severe forms of violence including multiple victimizations and violence leading to physical injury (Sinha 2013). In order to empower women, feminists pressed lawmakers to develop zero-tolerance policies that would support aggressive policing and prosecution of offenders. These policies oblige police to lay charges in cases of domestic violence when a complaint is made, whether or not the victim wished to proceed with charges (Kramar 2011).

In 2009, 84 percent of violent spousal incidents reported by women to police resulted in charges being laid. However, according to victimization surveys only 30 percent of actual incidents were reported to police. The majority of women who did not report incidents to the police stated that they dealt with them in another way, felt they were a private matter, or did not think the incidents were important enough to report. A significant proportion, however, did not want anyone to find out (44 percent), did not want their spouse to be arrested (40 percent), or were too afraid of their spouse (19 percent) (Sinha 2013).

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is a theoretical approach that can be used to explain how societies and/or social groups come to view behaviours as deviant or conventional. The key component of this approach is to emphasize the social processes through which deviant activities and identities are socially defined and then “lived” as deviant. Social groups and authorities create deviance by first making the rules and then applying them to people who are thereby labelled as outsiders (Becker 1963). Deviance is not an intrinsic quality of individuals but is created through the social interactions of individuals and various authorities. Deviance is something that, in essence, is learned.

Deviance as Learned Behaviour

In the early 1900s, sociologist Edwin Sutherland sought to understand how deviant behaviour developed among people. Since criminology was a young field, he drew on other aspects of sociology including social interactions and group learning (Laub 2006). His conclusions established differential association theory, stating that individuals learn deviant behaviour from those close to them who provide models of and opportunities for deviance. According to Sutherland, deviance is less a personal choice and more a result of differential socialization processes. A tween whose friends are sexually active is more likely to view sexual activity as acceptable.

A classic study of differential association is Howard Becker’s study of marijuana users in the jazz club scene of Chicago in the 1950s (Becker 1953). Becker paid his way through graduate studies by performing as a jazz pianist and took the opportunity to study his fellow musicians. He conducted 50 interviews and noted that becoming a marijuana user involved a social process of initiation into a deviant role that could not be accounted for by either the physiological properties of marijuana or the psychological needs (for escape, fantasy, etc.) of the individual. Rather the “career” of the marijuana user involved a sequence of changes in attitude and experience learned through social interactions with experienced users before marijuana could be regularly smoked for pleasure.

Regular marijuana use was a social achievement that required the individual to pass through three distinct stages. Failure to do so meant that the individual would not assume the deviant role as a regular user of marijuana. Firstly, individuals had to learn to smoke marijuana in a way that would produce real effects. Many first-time users do not feel the effects. If they are not shown how to inhale the smoke or how much to smoke, they might not feel the drug had any effect on them. Their “career” might end there if they are not encouraged by others to persist. Secondly, they had to learn to recognize the effects of “being high” and connect them with drug use.

Although people might display different symptoms of intoxication—feeling hungry, elated, rubbery, etc.—they might not recognize them as qualities associated with the marijuana or even recognize them as different at all. Through listening to experienced users talk about their experiences, novices are able to locate the same type of sensations in their own experience and notice something qualitatively different going on. Thirdly, they had to learn how to enjoy the sensations: they had to learn how to define the situation of getting high as pleasurable. Smoking marijuana is not necessarily pleasurable and often involves uncomfortable experiences like loss of control, impaired judgment, distorted perception, and paranoia. Unless the experiences can be redefined as pleasurable the individual will not become a regular user. Often experienced users are able to coach novices through difficulties and encourage them by telling them they will learn to like it. It is through differential association with a specific set of individuals that a person learns and assumes a deviant role. The role needs to be learned and its value recognized before it can become routine or normal for the individual.

Labelling Theory

Although all of us violate norms from time to time, few people would consider themselves deviant. Often, those who do, however, have gradually come to believe they are deviant because they been labelled “deviant” by society. Labelling theory examines the ascribing of a deviant behaviour to another person by members of society. Thus, what is considered deviant is determined not so much by the behaviours themselves or the people who commit them, but by the reactions of others to these behaviours. As a result, what is considered deviant changes over time and can vary significantly across cultures. As Becker put it, “deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to the offender. The deviant is one to whom the label has successfully been applied; deviant behaviour is behaviour people so label” (1963).

It is important to note that labelling theory does not address the initial motives or reasons for the rule-breaking behaviour, which might be unknowable, but the importance of its social consequences. It does not attempt to answer the question why people break the rules or why they are deviant so much as why particular acts or particular individuals are labelled deviant while others are not. How do certain acts get labelled deviant and what are the consequences?

Sociologist Edwin Lemert expanded on the concepts of labelling theory, identifying two types of deviance that affect identity formation. Primary deviance is a violation of norms that does not result in any long-term effects on the individual’s self-image or interactions with others. Speeding is a deviant act, but receiving a speeding ticket generally does not make others view you as a bad person, nor does it alter your own self-concept. Individuals who engage in primary deviance still maintain a feeling of belonging in society and are likely to continue to conform to norms in the future.

Sometimes, in more extreme cases, primary deviance can morph into secondary deviance. Secondary deviance occurs when a person’s self-concept and behaviour begin to change after his or her actions are labelled as deviant by members of society. The person may begin to take on and fulfill the role of a “deviant” as an act of rebellion against the society that has labelled that individual as such. For example, consider a high school student who often cuts class and gets into fights. The student is reprimanded frequently by teachers and school staff, and soon enough, develops a reputation as a “troublemaker.” As a result, the student starts acting out even more and breaking more rules, adopting the “troublemaker” label and embracing this deviant identity.

Secondary deviance can be so strong that it bestows a master status on an individual. A master status is a label that describes the chief characteristic of an individual. Some people see themselves primarily as doctors, artists, or grandfathers. Others see themselves as beggars, convicts, or addicts. The criminal justice system is ironically one of the primary agencies of socialization into the criminal “career path.” The labels “juvenile delinquent” or “criminal” are not automatically applied to individuals who break the law. A teenager who is picked up by the police for a minor misdemeanour might be labelled as a “good kid” who made a mistake and then released after a stern talking to, or he or she might be labelled a juvenile delinquent and processed as a young offender. In the first case, the incident may not make any impression on the teenager’s personality or on the way others react to him or her. In the second case, being labelled a juvenile delinquent sets up a set of responses to the teenager by police and authorities that lead to criminal charges, more severe penalties, and a process of socialization into the criminal identity.

In detention in particular, individuals learn how to assume the identity of serious offenders as they interact with hardened, long-term inmates within the prison culture (Wheeler 1961). The act of imprisonment itself modifies behaviour, to make individuals more criminal. Aaron Cicourel’s research in the 1960s showed how police used their discretionary powers to label rule-breaking teenagers who came from homes where the parents were divorced as juvenile delinquents and to arrest them more frequently than teenagers from intact homes (Cicourel 1968). Judges were also found to be more likely to impose harsher penalties on teenagers from divorced families.

Unsurprisingly, Cicourel noted that subsequent research conducted on the social characteristics of teenagers who were charged and processed as juvenile delinquents found that children from divorced families were more likely to be charged and processed. Divorced families were seen as a cause of youth crime. This set up a vicious circle in which the research confirmed the prejudices of police and judges who continued to label, arrest, and convict the children of divorced families disproportionately. The labelling process acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy in which police found what they expected to see.

7.3. Crime and the Law


Figure 7.10. How is a crime different from other types of deviance? (Photo courtesy of Fox Features Syndicate/Wikimedia Commons.)

The sociological study of crime, deviance, and social control is especially important with respect to public policy debates. In 2012 the Conservative government passed the Safe Streets and Communities Act, a controversial piece of legislation because it introduced mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug and sex-related offences, restricted the use of conditional sentencing (i.e., non-prison punishments), imposed harsher sentences on certain categories of young offender, reduced the ability for Canadians with a criminal record to receive a pardon, and made it more difficult for Canadians imprisoned abroad to transfer back to a Canadian prison to be near family and support networks. The legislation imposes a mandatory six-month sentence for cultivating six marijuana plants, for example. This followed the Tackling Violent Crime Act passed in 2008, which among other provisions, imposed a mandatory three-year sentence for first-time gun-related offences.

This government policy represents a shift toward a punitive approach to crime control and away from preventive strategies such as drug rehabilitation, prison diversion, and social reintegration programs. Despite the evidence that rates of serious and violent crime have been falling in Canada, and while even some of the most conservative politicians in the United States have begun to reject the punitive approach as an expensive failure, the government pushed the legislation through Parliament. In response to evidence that puts into question the need for more punitive measures of crime control, the Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said, “Unlike the Opposition, we do not use statistics as an excuse not to get tough on criminals. As far as our Government is concerned, one victim of crime is still one too many” (Galloway 2011). What accounts for the appeal of “get tough on criminals” policies at a time when rates of crime, and violent crime in particular, are falling and are currently at their lowest level since 1972 (Perreault 2013)? One reason is that violent crime is a form of deviance that lends itself to spectacular media coverage that distorts its actual threat to the public.

Television news broadcasts frequently begin with “chaos news”—crime, accidents, natural disasters—that present an image of society as a dangerous and unpredictable place. However, the image of crime presented in the headlines does not accurately represent the types of crime that actually occur. Whereas the news typically reports on the worst sorts of violent crime, violent crime made up only 21 percent of all police-reported crime in 2012 (down 17 percent from 2002), and homicides made up only one-tenth of 1 percent of all violent crimes in 2012 (down 16 percent from 2002). In 2012, the homicide rate fell to its lowest level since 1966 (Perreault 2013). Moreover, an analysis of television news reporting on murders in 2000 showed that while 44 percent of CBC news coverage and 48 percent of CTV news coverage focused on murders committed by strangers, only 12 percent of murders in Canada are committed by strangers. Similarly, while 24 percent of the CBC reports and 22 percent of the CTV reports referred to murders in which a gun had been used, only 3.3 percent of all violent crime involved the use of a gun in 1999.In 1999, 71 percent of violent crimes in Canada did not involve any weapon (Miljan 2001).

This distortion creates the conditions for moral panics around crime. As we noted earlier, a moral panic occurs when a relatively minor or atypical situation of deviance arises that is amplified and distorted by the media, police, or members of the public. It thereby comes to be defined as a general threat to the civility or moral fibre of society (Cohen 1972). As public attention is brought to the situation, more instances are discovered, the deviants are rebranded as “folk devils,” and authorities react by taking social control measures disproportionate to the original acts of deviance that began the cycle. For example, the implementation of mandatory minimum sentences for the cultivation of marijuana is framed in the Safe Streets and Communities legislation as a response to the infiltration of organized crime into Canada. For years newspapers have uncritically published police messaging on grow-ops and the marijuana trade that characterizes the activities as widespread, gang-related, and linked to the cross-border trade in guns and more serious drugs like heroin and cocaine.

Television news coverage often shows police in white, disposable hazardous-waste outfits removing marijuana plants from suburban houses, and presenting exaggerated estimates of the street value of the drugs. However a Justice Department study in 2011 revealed that out of a random sample of 500 grow-ops, only 5 percent had connections to organized crime. Moreover, an RCMP-funded study from 2005 noted that “firearms or other hazards” were found in only 6 percent of grow-op cases examined (Boyd and Carter 2014). While 76 percent of Canadians believe that marijuana should be legally available (Stockwell et al. 2006), and several jurisdictions (Washington State, Colorado, and Uruguay) have legalized marijuana, the Safe Streets and Communities Act appears to be an attempt to reinvigorate the punitive messaging of the “war on drugs” based on disinformation and moral panic around marijuana use and cultivation.

The political controversies that surround the question of how best to respond to crime are difficult to resolve at the level of political rhetoric. Often, in the news and public discourse, the issue is framed in moral terms and therefore, for example, the policy alternatives get narrowed to the option of either being “tough” on crime or “soft” on crime. “Tough” and “soft” are moral categories that reflect a moral characterization of the issue. A question framed by these types of moral categories cannot be resolved by using evidence-based procedures. Posing the debate in these moral terms narrows the range of options available and undermines the ability to raise questions about what responses to crime actually work.

What Is Crime?

Although deviance is a violation of social norms, it is not always punishable, and it is not necessarily bad.  Crime, on the other hand, is a behaviour that violates official law and is punishable through formal sanctions. Walking to class backwards is a deviant behaviour. Driving with a blood alcohol percentage over the province’s limit is a crime. Like other forms of deviance, however, ambiguity exists concerning what constitutes a crime and whether all crimes are, in fact, “bad” and deserve punishment. For example, in 1946 Viola Desmond refused to sit in the balcony designated for blacks at a cinema in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, where she was unable to see the screen. She was dragged from the cinema by two men who injured her knee, and she was then arrested, obliged to stay overnight in the male cell block, tried without counsel, and fined.

The courts ignored the issue of racial segregation in Canada. Instead her crime was determined to be tax evasion because she had not paid the 1 cent difference in tax between a balcony ticket and a main floor ticket. She took her case to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia where she lost. In hindsight, and long after her death, she was posthumously pardoned, because the application of the law was clearly in violation of norms of social equality. As you learned previously, all societies have informal and formal ways of maintaining social control. Within these systems of norms, societies have legal codes that maintain formal social control through laws, which are rules adopted and enforced by a political authority. Those who violate these rules incur negative formal sanctions. Normally, punishments are relative to the degree of the crime and the importance to society of the value underlying the law. As we will see, however, there are other factors that influence criminal sentencing.

Types of Crimes

Not all crimes are given equal weight. Society generally socializes its members to view certain crimes as more severe than others. For example, most people would consider murdering someone to be far worse than stealing a wallet and would expect a murderer to be punished more severely than a thief. In modern North American society, crimes are classified as one of two types based on their severity. Violent crimes (also known as “crimes against a person”) are based on the use of force or the threat of force. Rape, murder, and armed robbery fall under this category. Nonviolent crimes involve the destruction or theft of property, but do not use force or the threat of force. Because of this, they are also sometimes called “property crimes.” Larceny, car theft, and vandalism are all types of nonviolent crimes. If you use a crowbar to break into a car, you are committing a nonviolent crime; if you mug someone with the crowbar, you are committing a violent crime.

As we noted earlier in the section on critical sociological approaches, when we think of crime, we often picture street crime, or offences committed by ordinary people against other people or organizations, usually in public spaces. An often overlooked category is corporate crime (“suite crime”), or crime committed by white-collar workers in a business environment. Embezzlement, insider trading, and identity theft are all types of corporate crime. Although these types of offences rarely receive the same amount of media coverage as street crimes, they can be far more damaging. The current economic recession in the United States is the ultimate result of a financial collapse triggered by corporate crime. An often-debated third type of crime is victimless crime. These are called victimless because the perpetrator is not explicitly harming another person. As opposed to battery or theft, which clearly has a victim, a crime like drinking a beer at age 17 or selling a sexual act do not result in injury to anyone other than the individual who engages in them, although they are illegal. While some claim acts like these are victimless, others argue that they actually do harm society. Prostitution may foster abuse toward women by clients or pimps. Drug use may increase the likelihood of employee absences. Such debates highlight how the deviant and criminal nature of actions develops through ongoing public discussion.

Making Connections: the Big Pictures

Hate Crimes

In the early morning of January 4, 1998, a 65-year-old Sikh caretaker in Surrey, B.C., was beaten to death in the parking lot of the Guru Nanak Sikh temple by five white-supremacist skinheads, aged 17 to 25, as he was about to open the temple for early morning worship. The skinheads were part of a group that called itself White Power. They had been to an all-night drinking party when they decided they were going to vandalize some cars in the temple parking lot. They encountered the caretaker Nirmal Singh Gill and took turns attacking him. In trial it came out that the eldest of the skinheads had recently been released from the military because of his racist beliefs. Another had a large Nazi flag pinned to the wall of his apartment. In an intercepted telephone call from the investigation leading to the skinheads’ arrest, one was recorded as saying, “Can’t go wrong with a Hindu death cause it always sends a f’n message” (R. v. Miloszewski 1999). Attacks motivated by hate based on a person’s race, religion, or other characteristics are known as hate crimes. The category of hate crimes grew out of the provisions in the Criminal Code that prohibit hate propaganda (sections 318 and 319) including advocating genocide, public incitement of hatred, or the willful promotion of hatred against an identifiable group.

In 1996, section 718.2 of the Criminal Code was amended to introduce hate motivation as an aggravating factor in crime that needed to be considered in sentencing (Silver et al. 2004). In 2009 Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey on Victimization reported that 5 percent of the offences experienced by victims of crime in Canada were believed by the victims to be motivated by hate (approximately 399,000 incidents in total) (Perreault and  Brennan, 2010). However, police reported hate crimes totalled only 1,473 incidents in 2009. About one-third of the General Social Survey respondents said they reported the hate-motivated incidents to the police. In 2011 police-reported hate crimes had dropped to 1,322 incidents. The majority of these were racially or ethnically motivated, but many were based on religious (especially anti-Semitic) prejudice or sexual orientation. A significant portion of the hate-motivated crimes (50 percent) involved mischief (vandalism, graffiti, and other destruction of property). This figure increased to 75 percent for religious-motivated hate crimes. Violent hate crimes constituted 39 percent of all hate crimes (22 percent accounted for by violent assault specifically). Sexual-orientation-motivated hate crimes were the most likely to be violent (65 percent) (Allen and Boyce 2013).

hate crimes

Figure 7.11. In Canada, there were 1,332 reported victims of hate crimes in 2011. The General Social Survey suggests that only one-third of hate motivated incidences are reported to police. (Source: Allen and Boyce 2013) Source:


Crime Statistics

What crimes are people in Canada most likely to commit, and who is most likely to commit them? To understand criminal statistics, you must first understand how these statistics are collected. Since 1962, Statistics Canada has been collecting and publishing an archive of crime statistics known as the Uniform Crime Reports Survey (UCR). These annual publications contain data from all the police agencies in Canada. Although the UCR contains comprehensive data on police reports, it fails to take into account the fact that many crimes go unreported due to the victims’ unwillingness to report them, largely based on fear, shame, or distrust of the police. The accuracy of the data collected by the UCR also varies greatly. Because police and other authorities decide which criminal acts they are going to focus on, the data reflects the priorities of the police rather than actual levels of crime per se.  For example, if police decide to focus on gun-related crimes chances are that more gun-related crimes will be discovered and counted.

Similarly, changes in legislation that introduce new crimes or change the categories under which crimes are recorded will also alter the statistics. To address some of these problems, in 1985, Statistics Canada began to publish a separate report known as the General Social Survey on Victimization (GSS). The GSS is a  self-report study. A self-report study is a collection of data acquired using voluntary response methods, based on telephone interviews. In 2014, for example, survey data were gathered from 79,770 households across Canada on the frequency and type of crime they experience in their daily lives. The surveys are thorough, providing a wider scope of information than was previously available. This allows researchers to examine crime from more detailed perspectives and to analyze the data based on factors such as the relationship between victims and offenders, the consequences of the crimes, and substance abuse involved in the crimes. Demographics are also analyzed, such as age, ethnicity, gender, location, and income level.

The GSS reports a higher rate of crime than the UCR. In the 2009 GSS on Victimization, only 31 percent of criminal incidents experienced by respondents were reported to police (Perreault and  Brennan 2010). Though the GSS is a critical source of statistical information, disadvantages exist. “Non-response,” or a victim’s failure to participate in the survey or a particular question, is among them. Inability to contact important demographics, such as those who do not have access to phones or who frequently relocate, also skews the data. For those who participate, memory issues can be problematic for the data sets. Some victims’ recollection of the crimes can be inaccurate or simply forgotten over time. While neither of these publications can take into account all of the crimes committed in the country, some general trends may be noted. Crime rates were on the rise after 1960, but following an all-time high in the 1980s and 1990s, rates of violent and nonviolent crimes started to decline.  In 2012 they reached their lowest level since 1972 (Perreault 2013).

crime rates

Figure 7.12. The crime rates for all types of crime in Canada, including violent crime, have been declining since 1992. Why? (Source: Perreault, 2013). Source:

In 2012, approximately 2 million crimes occurred in Canada. Of those, 415,000 were classified as violent crimes, the majority being assault and robbery. The rate of violent crime reached its lowest level since 1987, led by decreases in sexual assault, common assault, and robbery. The homicide rate fell to its lowest level since 1966. An estimated 1.58 million nonviolent crimes also took place, the most common being theft under $5,000 and mischief. The major contribution to the declining crime rate has been decreases in nonviolent crime, especially decreases in mischief, break-ins, disturbing the peace, theft of a motor vehicle, and possession of stolen property.

As noted above however, only 31 percent of violent and nonviolent crimes were reported to the police. What accounts for the decreases in the crime rate? Opinion polls continue to show that a majority of Canadians believe that crime rates, especially violent crime rates, are rising (Edmiston 2012), even though the statistics show a steady decline since 1991. Where is the disconnect? There are three primary reasons for the decline in the crime rate. Firstly, it reflects the demographic changes to the Canadian population. Most crime is committed by people aged 15 to 24. This age cohort has declined in size since 1991. Secondly, male unemployment is highly correlated with the crime rate. Following the recession of 1990–1991, better economic conditions improved male unemployment. Thirdly, police methods have arguably improved since 1991, including having a more targeted approach to particular sites and types of crime. Whereas reporting on spectacular crime has not diminished, the underlying social and policing conditions have. It is very difficult to get a feel for statistical realities when you are sitting in front of a TV screen that shows a daily litany of violent and frightening crime.

kingston penitentiary

Figure 7.13. Kingston Penitentiary was opened in 1835 and officially closed in 2013. (Photo courtesy of R. Orville Lyttle/flickr)


The  corrections system, more commonly known as the prison system, is tasked with supervising individuals who have been arrested, convicted, and sentenced for a criminal offence. At the end of 2011, approximately 38,000 adults were in prison in Canada, while another 125,000 were under community supervision or probation (Dauvergne 2012). By way of contrast, seven million Americans were behind bars in 2010 (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2011). Canada’s rate of adult incarceration in 2011 was 140 per 100,000 population. In the United States in 2008, the incarceration rate was approximately 1,000 per 100,000 population. More than 1 in 100 U.S. adults were in jail or prison, the highest benchmark in U.S.  history. While Americans account for 5 percent of the global population, they have 25 percent of the world’s inmates, the largest number of prisoners in the world (Liptak 2008). While Canada’s rate of incarceration is far lower than that of the United States, there are nevertheless some disturbing features of the Canadian corrections system.

As we noted in Chapter 1, from 2010 to 2011, aboriginal Canadians were 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than the non-aboriginal population. While aboriginal people accounted for about 4 percent of the Canadian population, in 2013, they made up 23.2 percent of the federal penitentiary population. Aboriginal women made up 33.6 percent of incarcerated women in Canada. This problem of overrepresentation of aboriginal people in the corrections system continues to grow appreciably despite a Supreme Court ruling in 1999 that the social history of aboriginal offenders should be considered in sentencing. Prison is supposed to be used only as a last resort. Between 2003 and 2013, the aboriginal population in prison grew by 44 percent (Correctional Investigator Canada 2013).

Although black Canadians are a smaller minority of the Canadian population than aboriginal people, they experience a similar problem of overrepresentation in the prison system. Blacks represent approximately 2.9 percent of the Canadian population, but accounted for 9.5 percent of the total prison population in 2013, up from 6.3 percent in 2003–2004 (Correctional Investigator Canada 2013). A survey revealed that blacks in Toronto are subject to racial profiling by the police, which might partially explain their higher incarceration rate (Wortley 2003). Racial profiling occurs when police single out a particular racial group for extra policing, including a disproportionate use of stop-and-search practices, undercover sting operations, police patrols in racial minority neighbourhoods, and extra attention at border crossings and airports. Survey respondents revealed that blacks in Toronto were much more likely to be stopped and searched by police than were whites and Asians. Moreover, in a reverse of the situation for whites, older and more affluent black males were more likely to be stopped and searched than younger, lower-income blacks. As one survey respondent put it: “If you are Black and drive a nice car, the police think you are a drug dealer or that you stole the car. They always pull you over to check you out” (Wortley 2003).

There are a number of alternatives to prison sentences used as criminal sanctions in Canada including fines, electronic monitoring, probation, and community service. These alternatives divert offenders from forms of penal social control, largely on the basis of principles drawn from labelling theory. They emphasize to varying degrees compensatory social control, which obliges an offender to pay a victim to compensate for a harm committed; therapeutic social control, which involves the use of therapy to return individuals to a normal state; and conciliatory social control, which reconciles the parties of a dispute to mutually restore harmony to a social relationship that has been damaged. Many non-custodial sentences involve community-based sentencing, in which offenders serve a conditional sentence in the community, usually by performing some sort of community service. The argument for these types of programs is that rehabilitation is more effective if the offender is in the community rather than prison. A version of community-based sentencing is restorative justice conferencing, which focuses on establishing a direct, face-to-face connection between the offender and the victim. The offender is obliged to make restitution to the victim, thus “restoring” a situation of justice. Part of the process of restorative justice is to bring the offender to a position in which he or she can fully acknowledge responsibility for the offence, express remorse, and make a meaningful apology to the victim (Department of Justice 2013).

In special cases where the parties agree, aboriginal sentencing circles involve victims, the aboriginal community, and aboriginal elders in a process of deliberation with aboriginal offenders to determine the best way to find healing for the harm done to victims and communities. The emphasis is on forms of traditional aboriginal justice, which centre on healing and building community rather than retribution. These might involve specialized counselling or treatment programs, community service under the supervision of elders, or the use of an aboriginal nation’s traditional penalties (Aboriginal Justice Directorate 2005). It is difficult to find data in Canada on the effectiveness of these types of programs. However, a large meta-analysis study that examined ten studies from Europe, North America, and Australia was able to determine that restorative justice conferencing was effective in reducing rates of recidivism—the likelihood for people to be arrested again after an initial arrest—and in reducing costs to the criminal justice system (Strang et al. 2013). The authors suggest that recidivism was reduced between 7 and 45 percent from traditional penal sentences by using restorative justice conferencing. Rehabilitation and recidivism are of course not the only goals of the corrections systems. Many people are skeptical about the capacity of offenders to be rehabilitated and see criminal sanctions more importantly as a means of deterrence to prevent crimes, retribution or revenge to address harms to victims and communities, or incapacitation to remove dangerous individuals from society.

Key Terms

aboriginal sentencing circles the involvement of aboriginal communities in the sentencing of aboriginal offenders

community-based sentencing offenders serve a conditional sentence in the community, usually by performing some sort of community service

compensatory social control a means of social control that obliges an offender to pay a victim to compensate for a harm committed

conciliatory social control a means of social control that reconciles the parties of a dispute and mutually restores harmony to a social relationship that has been damaged

consensus crimes serious acts of deviance about which there is near-unanimous public agreement

conflict crimes acts of deviance that may be illegal but about which there is considerable public disagreement concerning their seriousness

control theory theory that states social control is directly affected by the strength of social bonds and that deviance results from a feeling of disconnection from society

corporate crime crime committed by white-collar workers in a business environment

corrections system the system tasked with supervising individuals who have been arrested for, convicted of, or sentenced for criminal offences

court a system that has the authority to make decisions based on law

crime a behaviour that violates official law and is punishable through formal sanctions

crimes of accommodation crimes committed as ways in which individuals cope with conditions of oppression and inequality

criminal justice system an organization that exists to enforce a legal code

critical sociology looks to social and economic factors as the causes of crime and deviance

cultural deviance theory that suggests conformity to the prevailing cultural norms of lower-class society causes crime

deviance a violation of contextual, cultural, or social norms

differential association theory theory that states individuals learn deviant behaviour from those close to them who provide models of and opportunities for deviance

disciplinary social control  detailed continuous training, control, and observation of individuals to improve their capabilities

doubly deviant women (or other categories of individual) who break both laws and gender (or other) norms

examination the use of tests by authorities to assess, document, and know individuals

folkways norms based on everyday cultural customs like etiquette

formal sanctions sanctions that are officially recognized and enforced

government practices by which individuals or organizations seek to govern the behaviour of others or themselves

hate crimes attacks based on a person’s race, religion, or other characteristics

informal sanctions sanctions that occur in face-to-face interactions

labelling theory the ascribing of a deviant behaviour to another person by members of society

law  norms that are specified in explicit codes and enforced by government bodies

legal codes codes that maintain formal social control through laws

master status a label that describes the chief characteristic of an individual

moral entrepreneur  an individual  or group who, in the service of its own interests,  publicizes and problematizes “wrongdoing” and has the power to create and enforce rules to penalize wrongdoing

moral panic an expanding cycle of deviance, media-generated public fears, and police repression

mores  serious moral injunctions or taboos that are broadly recognized in a society

negative sanctions punishments for violating norms

nonviolent crimes crimes that involve the destruction or theft of property, but do not use force or the threat of force

normalization  the process by which norms are used to differentiate, rank, and correct individual behaviour

normalizing society  a society that uses continual observation, discipline, and correction of its subjects to exercise social control

panopticon Jeremy Bentham’s “seeing machine” that became the model for the ideal prison

penal social control a means of social control that prohibits certain social behaviours and responds to violations with punishment

police a civil force in charge of regulating laws and public order at a federal, state, or community level

positive sanctions rewards given for conforming to norms

power elite a small group of wealthy and influential people at the top of society who hold the power and resources

primary deviance a violation of norms that does not result in any long-term effects on the individual’s self-image or interactions with others

psychopathy a personality disorder characterized by anti-social behaviour, diminished empathy, and lack of inhibitions

racial profiling  the singling out of a particular racial group for extra policing

recidivism  the likelihood for people to be arrested again after an initial arrest

restorative justice conferencing   focuses on establishing a direct, face-to-face connection between the offender and the victim

sanctions the means of enforcing rules

secondary deviance a change in a person’s self-concept and behaviour after his or her actions are labelled as deviant by members of society

secondary victimization  after an initial victimization, secondary victimization is incurred through criminal justice processes

self-report study collection of data acquired using voluntary response methods, such as questionnaires or telephone interviews

social control the regulation and enforcement of norms

social deviations  deviant acts that are not illegal but are widely regarded as harmful

social disorganization theory theory that asserts crime occurs in communities with weak social ties and the absence of social control

social diversions acts that violate social norms but are generally regarded as harmless

social order an arrangement of practices and behaviours on which society’s members base their daily lives

sociopathy a personality disorder characterized by anti-social behaviour, diminished empathy, and lack of inhibitions

strain theory theory that addresses the relationship between having socially acceptable goals and having socially acceptable means to reach those goals

street crime crime committed by average people against other people or organizations, usually in public spaces

surveillance various means used to make the lives and activities of individuals visible to authorities

therapeutic social control a means of social control that uses therapy to return individuals to a normal state

traditional aboriginal justice centres on healing and building community rather than retribution

twin myths of rape the notion that women lie about sexual assault out of malice toward men and women will say “no” to sexual relations when they really mean “yes”

victimless crime activities against the law that do not result in injury to any individual other than the person who engages in them

violent crimes (also known as “crimes against a person”) based on the use of force or the threat of force

white-collar crime crimes committed by high status or privileged members of society

Section Summary

7.1. Deviance and Control
Deviance is a violation of norms. Whether or not something is deviant depends on contextual definitions, the situation, and people’s response to the behaviour. Society seeks to limit deviance through the use of sanctions that help maintain a system of social control. In modern normalizing societies, disciplinary social control is a primary governmental strategy of social control.

7.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance
The three major sociological paradigms offer different explanations for the motivation behind deviance and crime. Functionalists point out that deviance is a social necessity since it reinforces norms by reminding people of the consequences of violating them. Violating norms can open society’s eyes to injustice in the system. Critical sociologists argue that crime stems from a system of inequality that keeps those with power at the top and those without power at the bottom. Feminist sociologists emphasize that gender inequalities play an important role in determining what types of acts are actually regarded as criminal. Symbolic interactionists focus attention on the socially constructed nature of the labels related to deviance. Crime and deviance are learned from the environment and enforced or discouraged by those around us.

7.3. Crime and the Law
Crime is established by legal codes and upheld by the criminal justice system. The corrections system is the dominant system of criminal punishment but a number of community-based sentencing models offer alternatives that promise more effective outcomes in terms of recidivism. Although crime rates increased throughout most of the 20th century, they have been dropping since their peak in 1991.

Section Quiz

7.1. Deviance and Control
1. Which of the following best describes how deviance is defined?

  1. Deviance is defined by federal, provincial, and local laws.
  2. Deviance’s definition is determined by one’s religion.
  3. Deviance occurs whenever someone else is harmed by an action.
  4. Deviance is socially defined.

2. In 1946, Viola Desmond was arrested for refusing to sit in the blacks-only section of the cinema in Nova Scotia. This is an example of______________.

  1. A consensus crime
  2. A conflict crime
  3. A social deviation
  4. A social diversion

3. A student has a habit of texting during class. One day, the professor stops his lecture and asks her to respect the other students in the class by turning off her phone. In this situation, the professor used __________ to maintain social control.

  1. Informal positive sanctions
  2. Formal negative sanction
  3. Informal negative sanctions
  4. Formal positive sanctions

4. Societies practise social control to maintain ________.

  1. Formal sanctions
  2. Social order
  3. Cultural deviance
  4. Sanction labelling

5. School discipline obliges students to sit in rows and listen to lessons quietly in order for them to learn. This strategy of education demonstrates_______.

  1. Compensatory social control
  2. Formal sanctions
  3. Docility
  4. Positive sanctions

7.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance
6. A student wakes up late and realizes her sociology exam starts in five minutes. She jumps into her car and speeds down the road, where she is pulled over by a police officer. The student explains that she is running late, and the officer lets her off with a warning. The student’s actions are an example of _________.

  1. Primary deviance
  2. Positive deviance
  3. Secondary deviance
  4. Master deviance

7. According to critical sociology, which of the following people is most likely to commit a crime of accommodation?

  1. A student struggling to get better grades
  2. An addict who sees a stack of CDs in an unlocked car
  3. A professor who is tempted to publish someone else’s work as his own
  4. A mechanic who dislikes a customer

8. According to social disorganization theory, where is crime most likely to occur?

  1. A community where neighbours don’t know each other very well
  2. A neighbourhood with mostly elderly citizens
  3. A city with a large minority population
  4. A college campus with students who are very competitive

9. Symbolic interactionists argue that crime is linked primarily to ________.

  1. Power
  2. Master status
  3. Family values
  4. Wealth

10. According to the concept of the power elite, why would a celebrity such as Charlie Sheen commit a crime?

  1. Because his parents committed similar crimes
  2. Because his fame protects him from retribution
  3. Because his fame disconnects him from society
  4. Because he is challenging socially accepted norms

11. A convicted sexual offender is released on parole and arrested two weeks later for repeated sexual crimes. How would labelling theory explain this?

  1. The offender has been labelled deviant by society and has accepted this master status.
  2. The offender has returned to his old neighbourhood and so re-established his former habits.
  3. The offender has lost the social bonds he made in prison and feels disconnected from society.
  4. The offender is poor and coping with conditions of oppression and inequality.

12. ______ deviance is a violation of norms that ______result in a person being labelled a deviant.

  1. Secondary; does not
  2. Negative; does
  3. Primary; does not
  4. Primary; may or may not

7.3. Crime and the Law
13. Which of the following is an example of corporate crime?

  1. Embezzlement
  2. Larceny
  3. Assault
  4. Burglary

14. Spousal abuse is an example of a ________.

  1. Street crime
  2. Corporate crime
  3. Violent crime
  4. Nonviolent crime

15. Which of the following situations best describes crime trends in Canada?

  1. Rates of violent and nonviolent crimes are decreasing.
  2. Rates of violent crimes are decreasing, but there are more nonviolent crimes now than ever before.
  3. Crime rates have skyrocketed since the 1970s due to lax court rulings.
  4. Rates of street crime have gone up, but corporate crime has gone down.

16.  What is a disadvantage of crime victimization surveys?

  1. They do not include demographic data, such as age or gender.
  2. They may be unable to reach important groups, such as those without phones.
  3. They do not address the relationship between the criminal and the victim.
  4. They only include information collected by police officers.

Short Answer

7.1. Deviance and Control

  1. If given the choice, would you purchase an unusual car such as a hearse for everyday use? How would your friends, family, or significant other react? Since deviance is culturally defined, most of the decisions we make are dependent on the reactions of others. Is there anything the people in your life encourage you to do that you don’t do? Why do you resist their encouragement?
  2. Think of a recent time when you used informal negative sanctions. To what act of deviance were you responding? How did your actions affect the deviant person or persons? How did your reaction help maintain social control?

7.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance

  1. Pick a famous politician, business leader, or celebrity who has been arrested recently. What crime did he or she allegedly commit? Who was the victim? Explain his or her actions from the point of view of one of the major sociological paradigms. What factors best explain how this person might be punished if convicted of the crime?
  2. If we assume that the power elite’s status is always passed down from generation to generation, how would Edwin Sutherland explain these patterns of power through differential association theory? What crimes do these elite few get away with?

7.3. Crime and the Law

  1. Recall the crime statistics presented in this section. Do they surprise you? Are these statistics represented accurately in the media? Why is the public perception that crime rates are increasing and that punishment should be stricter when actual crime rates have been steadily decreasing?

Further Research

7.1. Deviance and Control
Although we rarely think of it in this way, deviance can have a positive effect on society. Check out the Positive Deviance Initiative, a program initiated by Tufts University to promote social movements around the world that strive to improve people’s lives, at

7.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance
The Vancouver safe injection site is a controversial strategy to address the public health concerns associated with intravenous drug use. Read about the perspectives that promote and critique the safe injection site model at the following websites. Can you determine how the positions expressed by the different sides of the issue fit within the different sociological perspectives on deviance?  What is the best way to deal with the problems of addiction?

7.3. Crime and the Law
How is crime data collected in Canada? Read about the victimization survey used by Statistics Canada and take the survey yourself. Visit


7. Introduction to Deviance, Crime, and Social Control
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7.1. Deviance and Control
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Foucault, Michel. 1980. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. NY: Vintage Books.

Foucault, Michel. 2007. The Politics of Truth. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e) Hacking, Ian 2006 “Making Up People” London Review of Books (28: 16/17) August pp. 23-26.

Hagen, John. 1994. Crime and Disrepute. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Innes, Martin. 2003. Understanding Social Control: Deviance, Crime and Social Order. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.

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Murphy, Emily. 1973[1922]. The Black Candle. Toronto: Coles Publishing.

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7.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance
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Hirschi, Travis. 1969. Causes of Delinquency. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

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Johnson, Holly. 1996. Dangerous Domains: Violence against Women in Canada. Toronto: Nelson.

Kong, R., H. Johnson, S. Beattie, and A. Cardillo. 2003. “Sexual offences in Canada.” Juristat. Vol. 23, no. 6. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85-002-XIE. Ottawa.

Kramar, Kirsten. 2011. Criminology: Critical Canadian Perspectives. Toronto: Pearson.

Laub, John H. 2006. “Edwin H. Sutherland and the Michael-Adler Report: Searching for the Soul of Criminology Seventy Years Later.” Criminology 44:235–57.

McFarland, Janet  and Richard Blackwell. 2013. “Three former Nortel executives found not guilty of fraud.” Globe and Mail. Jan. 14. Retrieved March 2, 2014, from

McLaren, Angus and Arlene McLaren. 1997. The Bedroom and the State: The Changing Practices and Politics of Contraception and Abortion in Canada, 1880-1997. Toronto: Oxford.

McKenna, Barrie. 2014. “White-collar crime hits more than a third of Canadian organizations” Globe and Mail. Feb. 24.  Retrieved March 2, 2014, from

Pyke, Alan. 2013. “Are Regulators Throwing In The Towel On Financial Crisis Investigations?” ThinkProgress. Aug. 7. Retrieved March 2, 2014, from

Quinney, Richard. 1977. Class, State and Crime: On the Theory and Practice of Criminal Justice. New York: Longman.

Rusnell, Charles. 2012 “Enbridge staff ignored warnings in Kalamazoo River spill.” CBC News. June 22. Retrieved March 2, 2014, from

Samuelson, Leslie. 2000. “The Canadian Criminal Justice System: Inequalities of Class, Race and Gender.” Pp. 273-303 in B. Singh Bolaria (ed.) Social Issues and Contradictions in Canadian Society. Toronto: Nelson.

Sharpe, Andrew and Jill Hardt. 2006. Five Deaths a Day: Workplace Fatalities in Canada: 1993-2005. Centre for the Study of Living Standards. Ottawa. Retrieved, March 12, 2014, from

Sinha, Maire (ed.). 2013. “Measuring violence against women: Statistical trends.” Statistics Canada Juristat Article no. 85-002-X. Retrieved, March 5, 2014, from

Snider, Laureen. 1994. “The Regulatory Dance: Understanding Reform Processes in Corporate Crime.” In Readings in Critical Criminology, ed. R. Hinch (Scarborough, On: Prentice Hall).

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Wheeler, Stanton. 1961. “Socialization in Correctional Communities.” American Sociological Review 26: 697-712. Zhang, Ting. 2008. “Costs of Crime in Canada, 2008” Department of Justice Canada. Retrieved January 13, 2014 from

7.3. Crime and the Law
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Allen, Mary and Jillian Boyce. 2013. “Police-Reported Hate Crime in Canada, 2011.” Statistics Canada catalogue no. 85-002-X. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from

Boyd, Susan and Connie Carter. 2014. Killer Weed: Marijuana Grow Ops, Media, and Justice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2011. “U.S. Correctional Population Declined for Second Consecutive Year.” Retrieved January 6, 2011, from

Cohen, Stanley. 1972. Folk Devils and Moral Panics. London: MacGibbon and Kee.

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Perreault, Samuel and Shannon Brennan. 2010. Criminal victimization in Canada, 2009.  Statistics Canada Juristat: Catalogue No. 85-002-X. Summer. Retrieved March 5, 2014, from

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Wortley, Scot. 2003. “Hidden Intersections: Research on Race, Crime, and Criminal Justice in Canada.”  Canadian Ethnic Studies.  35(3): 99-117.

Solutions to Section Quiz

1. D  |  2. B  |  3. A  |  4. B  |  5. C  |  6. A  |  7. B  |  8. A  |  9. D  |  10. B  |  11. A  |  12. C  |  13. A  |  14. C  |  15. A  |  16. B

Image Attributions

Figure 7.1. DEXTER by pimkie ( used under CC BY SA 2.0 license (

Figure 7.2. Lizzie Borden ( is in the public domain (

Figure 7.5. Cover page of 1550 edition of Machiavelli’s Il Principe and La Vita di Castruccio Castracani da Lucca by RJC ( is in the public domain (

Figure 7.6. Inside one of the prison buildings at Presidio Modelo by Friman ( used under CC BY SA 3.0 (

Figure 7.10. Cover scan of a Famous Crimes by Fox Features Syndicate ( is in the public domain (

Figure 7.13. Kingston ON – Dominion Penitentiary by R Orville Lyttle ( used under CC BY SA 2.0 (


Chapter 8. Media and Technology

Ron McGivern


Figure 8.1. Facebook does more than expand one’s circle of friends from a few dozen to a few hundred. It changes the way we interact with our world. (Photo courtesy of Frederick M. Drocks/flickr)

Learning Objectives

8.1. Technology Today

  • Define technology and describe its evolution
  • Understand technological inequality and issues related to unequal access to technology
  • Describe the role of planned obsolescence in technological development

8.2. Media and Technology in Society

  • Describe the evolution and current role of different media, like newspapers, television, and new media
  • Understand the function of product advertising in media
  • Demonstrate awareness of the social homogenization and social fragmentation that are occurring via modern society’s use of technology and media

8.3. Global Implications

  • Explain the advantages and concerns of media globalization
  • Understand the globalization of technology

8.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology

  • Understand and discuss how media and technology are analyzed through various sociological perspectives

Introduction to Media and Technology

How many good friends do you have? How many people do you meet for coffee or a movie? How many would you call with news about an illness or invite to your wedding? Now, how many “friends” do you have on Facebook? Technology has changed how we interact with each other. It has turned “friend” into a verb and has made it possible to share mundane news (“My dog just threw up under the bed! Ugh!”) with hundreds or even thousands of people who might know you only slightly, if at all. Through the magic of Facebook, you might know about an old elementary school friend’s new job before her mother does. By thinking of everyone as fair game in networking for personal gain, we can now market ourselves professionally to the world with LinkedIn.

At the same time that technology is expanding the boundaries of our social circles, various media are also changing how we perceive and interact with each other. We do not only use Facebook to keep in touch with friends; we also use it to “like” certain TV shows, products, or celebrities. Even television is no longer a one-way medium but an interactive one. We are encouraged to tweet, text, or call in to vote for contestants in everything from singing competitions to matchmaking endeavours—bridging the gap between our entertainment and our own lives.

How does technology change our lives for the better? Or does it? When you tweet a social cause or cut and paste a status update about cancer awareness on Facebook, are you promoting social change? Does the immediate and constant flow of information mean we are more aware and engaged than any society before us? Or are TV reality shows and talent competitions today’s version of ancient Rome’s “bread and circuses”—distractions and entertainment to keep the lower classes indifferent to the inequities of our society? Do media and technology liberate us from gender stereotypes and provide us with a more cosmopolitan understanding of each other, or have they become another tool in promoting misogyny?  Is ethnic and gay and lesbian intolerance being promoted through a ceaseless barrage of minority stereotyping in movies, video games, and websites?

These are some of the questions that interest sociologists. How might we examine these issues from a sociological perspective? A structural functionalist would probably focus on what social purposes technology and media serve. For example, the web is both a form of technology and a form of media, and it links individuals and nations in a communication network that facilitates both small family discussions and global trade networks. A functionalist would also be interested in the manifest functions of media and technology, as well as their role in social dysfunction. Someone applying the critical perspective would probably focus on the systematic inequality created by differential access to media and technology. For example, how can Canadians be sure the news they hear is an objective account of reality, unsullied by moneyed political interests? Someone applying the interactionist perspective to technology and the media might seek to understand the difference between the real lives we lead and the reality depicted on “reality” television shows, such as the U.S., based but Canadian MTV production Jersey Shore, with up to 800,000 Canadian viewers (Vlessing 2011). Throughout this chapter, we will use our sociological imagination to explore how media and technology impact society.

8.1. Technology Today


Figure 8.2. Technology is the application of science to address the problems of daily life, from hunting tools and agricultural advances, to manual and electronic ways of computing, to today’s tablets and smartphones. (Photo (a) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Photo (b) courtesy Martin Pettitt/flickr; Photo (c) courtesy Whitefield d./flickr; Photo (d) courtesy Andrew Parnell/flickr; Photo (e) courtesy Jemimus/flickr; Photo (f) courtesy digitpedia/flickr)

It is easy to look at the latest sleek tiny Apple product and think that technology is only recently a part of our world. But from the steam engine to the most cutting-edge robotic surgery tools, technology describes the application of science to address the problems of daily life. We might look back at the enormous and clunky computers of the 1970s that had about as much storage as an iPod Shuffle and roll our eyes in disbelief. But chances are 30 years from now our skinny laptops and MP3 players will look just as archaic.

What Is Technology?

While most people probably picture computers and cell phones when the subject of technology comes up, technology is not merely a product of the modern era. For example, fire and stone tools were important forms of technology developed during the Stone Age. Just as the availability of digital technology shapes how we live today, the creation of stone tools changed how premodern humans lived and how well they ate. From the first calculator, invented in 2400 BCE in Babylon in the form of an abacus, to the predecessor of the modern computer, created in 1882 by Charles Babbage, all of our technological innovations are advancements on previous iterations. And indeed, all aspects of our lives today are influenced by technology. In agriculture, the introduction of machines that can till, thresh, plant, and harvest greatly reduced the need for manual labour, which in turn meant there were fewer rural jobs, which led to the urbanization of society, as well as lowered birthrates because there was less need for large families to work the farms. In the criminal justice system, the ability to ascertain innocence through DNA testing has saved the lives of people on death row. The examples are endless: technology plays a role in absolutely every aspect of our lives.

Technological Inequality


Figure 8.3. Some schools sport cutting-edge computer labs, while others sport barbed wire. Is your academic technology at the cusp of innovation, relatively disadvantaged, or somewhere in between? (Photo courtesy of Carlos Martinez/flickr)

As with any improvement to human society, not everyone has equal access. Technology, in particular, often creates changes that lead to ever greater inequalities. In short, the gap gets wider faster. This technological stratification has led to a new focus on ensuring better access for all.

There are two forms of technological stratification. The first is differential class-based access to technology in the form of the digital divide. This digital divide has led to the second form, a knowledge gap, which is, as it sounds, an ongoing and increasing gap in information for those who have less access to technology. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines the digital divide as “the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard to both their opportunities to access information and communication technology (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities.” (OECD 2001 p.5) For example, students in well-funded schools receive more exposure to technology than students in poorly funded schools. Those students with more exposure gain more proficiency, making them far more marketable in an increasingly technology-based job market, leaving our society divided into those with technological knowledge and those without. Even as we improve access, we have failed to address an increasingly evident gap in e-readiness, the ability to sort through, interpret, and process knowledge (Sciadas 2003).

Since the beginning of the millennium, social science researchers have tried to bring attention to the digital divide, the uneven access to technology along race, class, and geographic lines. The term became part of the common lexicon in 1996, when then U.S. Vice-President Al Gore used it in a speech. In part, the issue of the digital divide had to do with communities that received infrastructure upgrades that enabled high-speed internet access, upgrades that largely went to affluent urban and suburban areas, leaving out large swaths of the country.

At the end of the 20th century, technology access was also a big part of the school experience for those whose communities could afford it. Early in the millennium, poorer communities had little or no technology access, while well-off families had personal computers at home and wired classrooms in their schools. In Canada we see a clear relationship between youth computer access and use and socioeconomic status in the home. As one study points out, about a third of the youth whose parents have no formal or only elementary school education have no computer in their home compared to 13 percent of those whose parent has completed high school (Looker and Thiessen 2003). In the 2000s, however, the prices for low-end computers dropped considerably, and it appeared the digital divide was ending. And while it is true that internet usage, even among those with low annual incomes, continues to grow, it would be overly simplistic to say that the digital divide has been completely resolved.

In fact, new data from the Pew Research Center (2011) suggest the emergence of a new divide. As technological devices gets smaller and more mobile, larger percentages of minority groups are using their phones to connect to the internet. In fact, about 50 percent of people in these minority groups connect to the web via such devices, whereas only one-third of whites do (Washington 2011). And while it might seem that the internet is the internet, regardless of how you get there, there is a notable difference. Tasks like updating a résumé or filling out a job application are much harder on a cell phone than on a wired computer in the home. As a result, the digital divide might not mean access to computers or the internet, but rather access to the kind of online technology that allows for empowerment, not just entertainment (Washington 2011).

Liff and Shepard (2004) found that although the gender digital divide has decreased in the sense of access to technology, it remained in the sense that women, who are accessing technology shaped primarily by male users, feel less confident in their internet skills and have less internet access at both work and home. Finally, Guillen and Suarez (2005) found that the global digital divide resulted from both the economic and sociopolitical characteristics of countries.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

Planned Obsolescence: Technology That’s Built to Crash


Figure 8.4. People have trouble keeping up with technological innovation. But people may not be to blame, as manufacturers intentionally develop products with short life spans. (Photo courtesy of Troy Kelly/flickr)

Chances are your mobile phone company, as well as the makers of your DVD player and MP3 device, are all counting on their products to fail. Not too quickly, of course, or consumers would not stand for it—but frequently enough that you might find that when the built-in battery on your iPod dies, it costs far more to fix it than to replace it with a newer model. Or you find that the phone company emails you to tell you that you’re eligible for a free new phone because yours is a whopping two years old. Appliance repair people say that while they might be fixing some machines that are 20 years old, they generally are not fixing the ones that are seven years old; newer models are built to be thrown out. This is called planned obsolescence, and it is the business practice of planning for a product to be obsolete or unusable from the time it is created (The Economist 2009).

To some extent, this is a natural extension of new and emerging technologies. After all, who is going to cling to an enormous and slow desktop computer from 2000 when a few hundred dollars can buy one that is significantly faster and better? But the practice is not always so benign. The classic example of planned obsolescence is the nylon stocking. Women’s stockings—once an everyday staple of women’s lives—get “runs” or “ladders” after a few wearings. This requires the stockings to be discarded and new ones purchased. Not surprisingly, the garment industry did not invest heavily in finding a rip-proof fabric; it was in their best interest that their product be regularly replaced.

Those who use Microsoft Windows might feel that they, like the women who purchase endless pairs of stockings, are victims of planned obsolescence. Every time Windows releases a new operating system, there are typically not many changes that consumers feel they must have. However, the software programs are upwardly compatible only. This means that while the new versions can read older files, the old version cannot read the newer ones. Even the ancillary technologies based on operating systems are only compatible upward. In 2014, the Windows XP operating system, off the market for over five years, stopped being supported by Microsoft when in reality is has not been supported by newer printers, scanners, and software add-ons for many years.

Ultimately, whether you are getting rid of your old product because you are being offered a shiny new free one (like the latest smartphone model), or because it costs more to fix than to replace (like an iPod ), or because not doing so leaves you out of the loop (like the Windows system), the result is the same. It might just make you nostalgic for your old Sony Walkman and VCR.

But obsolescence gets even more complex. Currently, there is a debate about the true cost of energy consumption for products. This cost would include what is called the embodied energy costs of a product. Embodied energy is the calculation of all the energy costs required for the resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, marketing, and disposal of a product. One contested claim is that the energy cost of a single cell phone is about 25 percent of the cost of a new car. We love our personal technology but it comes with a cost. Think about the incredible social organization undertaken from the idea of manufacturing a cell phone through to its disposal after about two years of use (Kedrosky 2011).


Figure 8.5. The United Nations estimates that Canadians generated 25 kg of electronic waste per person in 2012 (StEP 2012). About 70 percent of e-waste is either illegally disposed of or rudimentally processed in poorer Asian and African countries. Workers in e-waste salvage operations are constantly exposed to toxic substances like lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and flame retardants that are byproducts of dismantling components. (Photo courtesy of Curtis Palmer/Flickr)


8.2. Media and Technology in Society


Figure 8.6. The modern printing press (as well as its dated counterparts) embodies the intertwined nature of technology and media. (Photo courtesy of Anuj Biyani/flickr)

Technology and the media are interwoven, and neither can be separated from contemporary society in most developed and developing nations. Media is a term that refers to all print, digital, and electronic means of communication. From the time the printing press was created (and even before), technology has influenced how and where information is shared. Today, it is impossible to discuss media and the ways that societies communicate without addressing the fast-moving pace of technology. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to share news of your baby’s birth or a job promotion, you phoned or wrote letters. You might tell a handful of people, but probably you would not call up several hundred, including your old high school chemistry teacher, to let them know. Now, by tweeting or posting your big news, the circle of communication is wider than ever. Therefore, when we talk about how societies engage with technology we must take media into account, and vice versa.

Technology creates media. The comic book you bought your daughter at the drugstore is a form of media, as is the movie you rented for family night, the internet site you used to order dinner online, the billboard you passed on the way to get that dinner, and the newspaper you read while you were waiting to pick up your order. Without technology, media would not exist; but remember, technology is more than just the media we are exposed to.

Categorizing Technology

There is no one way of dividing technology into categories. Whereas once it might have been simple to classify innovations such as machine-based or drug-based or the like, the interconnected strands of technological development mean that advancement in one area might be replicated in dozens of others. For simplicity’s sake, we will look at how the U.S. Patent Office, which receives patent applications for nearly all major innovations worldwide, addresses patents. This regulatory body will patent three types of innovation. Utility patents are the first type. These are granted for the invention or discovery of any new and useful process, product, or machine, or for a significant improvement to existing technologies. The second type of patent is a design patent. Commonly conferred in architecture and industrial design, this means someone has invented a new and original design for a manufactured product. Plant patents, the final type, recognize the discovery of new plant types that can be asexually reproduced. While genetically modified food is the hot-button issue within this category, farmers have long been creating new hybrids and patenting them. A more modern example might be food giant Monsanto, which patents corn with built-in pesticide (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office 2011).

Such evolving patents have created new forms of social organization and disorganization. Efforts by Monsanto to protect its patents have led to serious concerns about who owns the food production system, and who can afford to participate globally in this new agrarian world. This issue was brought to a head in a landmark Canadian court case between Monsanto and Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser. Schmeiser found Monsanto’s genetically modified “Roundup Ready” canola growing on his farm. He saved the seed and grew his own crop, but Monsanto tried to charge him licensing fees because of their patent. Dubbed a true tale of David versus Goliath, both sides are claiming victory (Mercola 2011; Monsanto  N.d.). What is important to note is that through the courts, Monsanto established its right to the ownership of its genetically modified seeds even after multiple plantings. Each generation of seeds harvested still belonged to Monsanto. For millions of farmers globally, such a new market model for seeds represents huge costs and dependence on a new and evolving corporate seed supply system.

Anderson and Tushman (1990) suggest an evolutionary model of technological change, in which a breakthrough in one form of technology leads to a number of variations. Once those are assessed, a prototype emerges, and then a period of slight adjustments to the technology, interrupted by a breakthrough. For example, floppy disks were improved and upgraded, then replaced by zip disks, which were in turn improved to the limits of the technology and were then replaced by flash drives. This is essentially a generational model for categorizing technology, in which first-generation technology is a relatively unsophisticated jumping-off point leading to an improved second generation, and so on.

Types of Media and Technology

Media and technology have evolved hand in hand, from early print to modern publications, from radio to television to film. New media emerge constantly, such as we see in the online world.

Print Newspaper

Early forms of print media, found in ancient Rome, were hand-copied onto boards and carried around to keep the citizenry informed. With the invention of the printing press, the way that people shared ideas changed, as information could be mass produced and stored. For the first time, there was a way to spread knowledge and information more efficiently; many credit this development as leading to the Renaissance and ultimately the Age of Enlightenment. This is not to say that newspapers of old were more trustworthy than the Weekly World News and National Enquirer are today. Sensationalism abounded, as did censorship that forbade any subjects that would incite the populace.

The invention of the telegraph, in the mid-1800s, changed print media almost as much as the printing press. Suddenly information could be transmitted in minutes. As the 19th century became the 20th, American publishers such as Hearst redefined the world of print media and wielded an enormous amount of power to socially construct national and world events. Of course, even as the Canadian media empires of Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) and Roy Thomson or the U.S. empires of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were growing, print media also allowed for the dissemination of counter-cultural or revolutionary materials. Internationally, Vladimir Lenin’s Irksa (The Spark) newspaper was published in 1900 and played a role in Russia’s growing communist movement (World Association of Newspapers 2004).

With the invention and widespread use of television in the mid-20th century, newspaper circulation steadily dropped off, and in the 21st century, circulation has dropped further as more people turn to internet news sites and other forms of new media to stay informed. This shift away from newspapers as a source of information has profound effects on societies. When the news is given to a large diverse conglomerate of people, it must (to appeal to them and keep them subscribing) maintain some level of broad-based reporting and balance. As newspapers decline, news sources become more fractured, so that the audience can choose specifically what it wants to hear and what it wants to avoid. But the real challenge to print newspapers is that revenue sources are declining much faster than circulation is dropping. With an anticipated decline in revenue of over 20 percent by 2017, the industry is in trouble (Ladurantaye 2013). Unable to compete with digital media, large and small newspapers are closing their doors across the country. Something to think about is the concept of embodied energy mentioned earlier. The print newspapers are responsible for much of these costs internally. Digital media has downloaded much of these costs onto the consumer through personal technology purchases.

Television and Radio

Radio programming obviously preceded television, but both shaped people’s lives in much the same way. In both cases, information (and entertainment) could be enjoyed at home, with a kind of immediacy and community that newspapers could not offer. Prime Minister Mackenzie King broadcast his radio message out to Canada in 1927. He later used radio to promote economic cooperation in response to the growing socialist agitation against the abuses of capitalism both outside and within Canada (McGivern 1990).

Radio was the first “live” mass medium. People heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as it was happening. Hockey Night in Canada was first broadcast live in 1932. Even though people were in their own homes, media allowed them to share these moments in real time. Unlike newspapers, radio is a survivor. As Canada’s globally renowned radio marketing guru Terry O’Reilly asserts, radio survives “because it is such a ‘personal’ medium. Radio is a voice in your ear. It is a highly personal activity.” He also points out that “radio is local. It broadcasts news and programming that is mostly local in nature. And through all the technological changes happening around radio, and in radio, be it AM moving to FM moving to satellite radio and internet radio, basic terrestrial radio survives into another day” (O’Reilly 2014). This same kind of separate-but-communal approach occurred with other entertainment too. School-aged children and office workers still gather to discuss the previous night’s instalment of a serial television or radio show.

The influence of Canadian television has always reflected a struggle with the influence of U.S. television dominance, the language divide, and strong federal government intervention into the industry for political purposes. There were thousands of televisions in Canada receiving U.S. broadcasting a decade before the first two Canadian stations began broadcasting in 1952 (Wikipedia, N.d.). Public television, in contrast, offered an educational nonprofit alternative to the sensationalization of news spurred by the network competition for viewers and advertising dollars. Those sources—PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) in the United States, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), and CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), which straddled the boundaries of public and private, garnered a worldwide reputation for quality programming and a global perspective. Al Jazeera, the Arabic independent news station, has joined this group as a similar media force that broadcasts to people worldwide.

The impact of television on North American society is hard to overstate. By the late 1990s, 98 percent of homes had at least one television set. All this television has a powerful socializing effect, with these forms of visual media providing reference groups while reinforcing social norms, values, and beliefs.


The film industry took off in the 1930s, when colour and sound were first integrated into feature films. Like television, early films were unifying for society: As people gathered in theatres to watch new releases, they would laugh, cry, and be scared together. Movies also act as time capsules or cultural touchstones for society. From tough-talking Clint Eastwood to the biopic of Facebook founder and Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg, movies illustrate society’s dreams, fears, and experiences. The film industry in Canada has struggled to maintain its identity while at the same time embracing the North American industry by actively competing for U.S. film production in Canada. Today, a significant number of the recognized trades occupations requiring apprenticeship and training are in the film industry. While many North Americans consider Hollywood the epicentre of moviemaking, India’s Bollywood actually produces more films per year, speaking to the cultural aspirations and norms of Indian society.

New Media


Figure 8.7. Twitter has fascinated the world in 140 characters or less. What media innovation will next take the world by storm? (Photo courtesy of West McGowan/Flickr)

New media encompasses all interactive forms of information exchange. These include social networking sites, blogs, podcasts, wikis, and virtual worlds. The list grows almost daily. New media tends to level the playing field in terms of who is constructing it (i.e., creating, publishing, distributing, and accessing information) (Lievrouw and Livingstone 2006), as well as offering alternative forums to groups unable to gain access to traditional political platforms, such as groups associated with the Arab Spring protests (van de Donk et al. 2004). However, there is no guarantee of the accuracy of the information offered. In fact, the immediacy of new media coupled with the lack of oversight means that we must be more careful than ever to ensure our news is coming from accurate sources.

New media is already redefining information sharing in ways unimaginable even a decade ago. New media giants like Google and Facebook have recently acquired key manufacturers in the aerial drones market creating an exponential ability to reach further in data collecting and dissemination. While the corporate line is benign enough, the implications are much more profound in this largely unregulated arena of aerial monitoring. With claims of furthering remote internet access, “industrial monitoring, scientific research, mapping, communications, and disaster assistance,” the reach is profound  (Claburn 2014). But when aligned with military and national surveillance interests these new technologies become largely exempt from regulations and civilian oversight.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

Violence in Media and Video Games: Does It Matter?


Figure 8.8. One of the most popular video games, Grand Theft Auto, has frequently been at the centre of debate about gratuitous violence in the gaming world. (Photo courtesy of Meddy Garnet/Flickr)

A glance through popular video game and movie titles geared toward children and teens shows the vast spectrum of violence that is displayed, condoned, and acted out. It may hearken back to Popeye and Bluto beating up on each other, or Wile E. Coyote trying to kill and devour the Road Runner, but the graphics and actions have moved far beyond Acme’s cartoon dynamite.

As a way to guide parents in their programming choices, the motion picture industry put a rating system in place in the 1960s. But new media—video games in particular—proved to be uncharted territory. In 1994, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) set a ratings system for games that addressed issues of violence, sexuality, drug use, and the like. California took it a step further by making it illegal to sell video games to underage buyers. The case led to a heated debate about personal freedoms and child protection, and in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the California law, stating it violated freedom of speech (ProCon 2012).

With somewhat more muted responses to claims of violations of freedoms, the Canadian rating system through provincial regulation reflects the diversity of interests in connecting media to cultural interests. With the exception of Quebec, most provinces tend to follow the voluntary Canadian Home Video Ratings System established by the Motion Picture Industry-Canada. Quebec has developed internal legislation and policies for motion picture distribution.

Children’s play has often involved games of aggression—from soldiers at war, to cops and robbers, to water-balloon fights at birthday parties. Many articles report on the controversy surrounding the linkage between violent video games and violent behaviour. Are these charges true? Psychologists Anderson and Bushman (2001) reviewed 40-plus years of research on the subject and, in 2003, determined that there are causal linkages between violent video game use and aggression. They found that children who had just played a violent video game demonstrated an immediate increase in hostile or aggressive thoughts, an increase in aggressive emotions, and physiological arousal that increased the chances of acting out aggressive behaviour (Anderson 2003).

Ultimately, repeated exposure to this kind of violence leads to increased expectations regarding violence as a solution, increased violent behavioural scripts, and making violent behaviour more cognitively accessible (Anderson 2003). In short, people who play a lot of these games find it easier to imagine and access violent solutions than nonviolent ones, and are less socialized to see violence as a negative. While these facts do not mean there is no role for video games, it should give players pause. Clearly, when it comes to violence in gaming, it’s not “only a game.”


Product Advertising

Companies use advertising to sell to us, but the way they reach us is changing. Increasingly, synergistic advertising practices ensure you are receiving the same message from a variety of sources. For example, you may see billboards for Molson’s on your way to a stadium, sit down to watch a game preceded by a beer commercial on the big screen, and watch a halftime ad in which people are frequently shown holding up the trademark bottles. Chances are you can guess which brand of beer is for sale at the concession stand.

Advertising has changed, as technology and media have allowed consumers to bypass traditional advertising venues. From the invention of the remote control, which allows us to ignore television advertising without leaving our seats, to recording devices that let us watch television programs but skip the ads, conventional advertising is on the wane. And print media is no different. As mentioned earlier, advertising revenue in newspapers and on television have fallen significantly showing that companies need new ways of getting their message to consumers.

With Google alone earning over US$55 billion  a year in revenue, the big players in new media are responding in innovative ways (Google Investor Relations 2014). This interest from media makes sense when you consider that subscribers pay over $40 each for pay-per-click keywords such as “insurance,” “loans,” and “mortgages” (Wordstream N.d.). Today, Google alone earns over 50 percent of the mobile device revenue generated worldwide (Google  Investor Relations 2014).

What is needed for successful new media marketing is research. In Canada, market research is valued at almost a billion dollars a year, in an industry employing over 1,800 professional research practitioners with a strong professional association. From market segmentation research to online focus groups, meta-data analysis to crowdsourcing, market research has embraced new media to create winning and profitable revenue streams for web-based corporations. (MRIA-ARIM N.d.) As an aside, researchers trained in the social sciences, including sociology are well represented with successful careers in this industry (the author is a Certified Marketing Research Professional with the MRIA).

8.3. Global Implications


Figure 8.9. These Twitter updates—a revolution in real time—show the role social media can play on the political stage. (Photo courtesy of Cambodia4kidsorg/Flickr)

Technology, and increasingly media, has always driven globalization. Thomas Friedman (2005), in a landmark study, identified several ways in which technology “flattened” the globe and contributed to our global economy. The first edition of The World Is Flat, written in 2005, posits that core economic concepts were changed by personal computing and high-speed internet. Access to these two technological shifts has allowed core-nation corporations to recruit workers in call centres located in China or India. Using examples like a Midwestern American woman who runs a business from her home via the call centres of Bangalore, India, Friedman warns that this new world order will exist whether core-nation businesses are ready or not, and that in order to keep its key economic role in the world, North America will need to pay attention to how it prepares workers of the 21st century for this dynamic.

Of course not everyone agrees with Friedman’s theory. Many economists pointed out that, in reality, innovation, economic activity, and population still gather in geographically attractive areas, continuing to create economic peaks and valleys, which are by no means flattened out to mean equality for all. China’s hugely innovative and powerful cities of Shanghai and Beijing are worlds away from the rural squalour of the country’s poorest denizens.

It is worth noting that Friedman is an economist, not a sociologist. His work focuses on the economic gains and risks this new world order entails. In this section, we will look more closely at how media globalization and technological globalization play out in a sociological perspective. As the names suggest, media globalization is the worldwide integration of media through the cross-cultural exchange of ideas, while technological globalization refers to the cross-cultural development and exchange of technology.

Media Globalization

Lyons (2005) suggests that multinational corporations are the primary vehicle of media globalization. These corporations control global mass-media content and distribution (Compaine 2005). It is true, when looking at who controls which media outlets, that there are fewer independent news sources as larger and larger conglomerates develop.

On the surface, there is endless opportunity to find diverse media outlets. But the numbers are misleading. Mass media control and ownership is highly concentrated in Canada. Bell, Telus, and Rogers control over 80 percent of the wireless and internet service provider market; 70 percent of the daily and community newspapers are owned by seven corporations; and 10 companies control over 80 percent of the private sector radio and television market (CMCRP N.d.; Newspapers Canada, 2013).  As was pointed out in a Parliamentary report in 2012, an example of increased vertical control is a company that “might own a broadcast distributor (Rogers Cable), conventional television stations, pay and specialty television channels, and even the content for its broadcasters (Rogers owns the Toronto Blue Jays, whose games are shown on conventional and pay and specialty television channels)” (Theckedath and Thomas 2012).

While some social scientists predicted that the increase in media forms would break down geographical barriers and create a global village (McLuhan 1964), current research suggests that the public sphere accessing the global village will tend to be rich, Caucasian, and English-speaking (Jan 2009). As shown by the spring 2011 uprisings throughout the Arab world, technology really does offer a window into the news of the world. For example, here in the West we saw internet updates of Egyptian events in real time, with people tweeting, posting, and blogging on the ground in Tahrir Square.

Still, there is no question that the exchange of technology from core nations to peripheral and semi-peripheral ones leads to a number of complex issues. For instance, someone using a critical sociology approach might focus on how much political ideology and cultural colonialism occurs with technological growth. In theory at least, technological innovations are ideology-free; a fibre optic cable is the same in a Muslim country as a secular one, in a communist country or a capitalist one. But those who bring technology to less developed nations—whether they are nongovernment organizations, businesses, or governments—usually have an agenda. A functionalist, in contrast, might focus on how technology creates new ways to share information about successful crop-growing programs, or on the economic benefits of opening a new market for cell phone use. Interpretive sociologists might emphasize the way in which the global exchange of views creates the possibility of mutual understanding and consensus. In each case, there are cultural and societal assumptions and norms being delivered along with those high-speed connections.

Cultural and ideological biases are not the only risks of media globalization. In addition to the risk of cultural imperialism and the loss of local culture, other problems come with the benefits of a more interconnected globe. One risk is the potential censoring by national governments that let in only the information and media they feel serves their message, as can be seen in China. In addition, core nations such as Canada have seen the use of international media such as the internet circumvent local laws against socially deviant and dangerous behaviours such as gambling, child pornography, and the sex trade. Offshore or international websites allow citizens to seek out whatever illegal or illicit information they want, from 24-hour online gambling sites that do not require proof of age, to sites that sell child pornography. These examples illustrate the societal risks of unfettered information flow.

Making Connections: Careers in Sociology

China and the Internet: An Uncomfortable Friendship


Figure 8.10. What information is accessible to these patrons of an internet café in China? What is censored from their view? (Photo Courtesy of Kai Hendry/flickr)

Today, the internet is used to access illegal gambling and pornography sites, as well as to research stocks, crowd-source what car to buy, or keep in touch with childhood friends. Can we allow one or more of those activities, while restricting the rest? And who decides what needs restricting? In a country with democratic principles and an underlying belief in free-market capitalism, the answer is decided in the court system. But globally, the questions—and the government’s responses—are very different.

China is in many ways the global poster child for the uncomfortable relationship between internet freedom and government control. A country with a tight rein on the dissemination of information, China has long worked to suppress what it calls “harmful information,” including dissent concerning government politics, dialogue about China’s role in Tibet, or criticism of the government’s handling of events.

With sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube blocked in China, the nation’s internet users—some 500 million strong in 2011—turn to local media companies for their needs. is China’s answer to Facebook. Perhaps more importantly from a social-change perspective, Sina Weibo is China’s version of Twitter. Microblogging, or weibo, acts like Twitter in that users can post short messages that can be read by their subscribers. And because these services move so quickly and with such wide scope, it is difficult for government overseers to keep up. This tool was used to criticize government response to a deadly rail crash and to protest a chemical plant. It was also credited with the government’s decision to report more accurately on the air pollution in Beijing, which occurred after a high-profile campaign by a well-known property developer (Pierson 2012).

There is no question of China’s authoritarian government ruling over this new form of internet communication. The nation blocks the use of certain terms, such as “human rights,” and passes new laws that require people to register with their real names, making it more dangerous to criticize government actions. Indeed, 56-year-old microblogger Wang Lihong was sentenced to nine months in prison for “stirring up trouble,” as her government described her work helping people with government grievances (Bristow 2011). But the government cannot shut down this flow of information completely. Foreign companies, seeking to engage with the increasingly important Chinese consumer market, have their own accounts: the NBA has more than 5 million followers, and probably the most famous foreigner in China, Canadian comedian and Order of Canada recipient Mark Rowswell boasts almost 3 million Weibo followers (2014). The government, too, uses Weibo to get its own message across. As the years progress, the rest of the world anxiously watches China’s approach to social media and the freedoms it offers—on Sina Weibo and beyond—by the rest of the world.


Technological Globalization

Technological globalization is impacted in large part by technological diffusion, the spread of technology across borders. In the last two decades, there has been rapid improvement in the spread of technology to peripheral and semi-peripheral nations, and a 2008 World Bank report discusses both the benefits and ongoing challenges of this diffusion. In general, the report found that technological progress and economic growth rates were linked, and that the rise in technological progress has helped improve the situations of many living in absolute poverty (World Bank 2008). The report recognizes that rural and low-tech products such as corn can benefit from new technological innovations, and that, conversely, technologies like mobile banking can aid those whose rural existence consists of low-tech market vending. In addition, technological advances in areas like mobile phones can lead to competition, lowered prices, and concurrent improvements in related areas such as mobile banking and information sharing.

However, the same patterns of social inequality that create a digital divide in the West also create digital divides in peripheral and semi-peripheral nations. While the growth of technology use among countries has increased dramatically over the past several decades, the spread of technology within countries is significantly slower among peripheral and semi-peripheral nations. In these countries, far fewer people have the training and skills to take advantage of new technology, let alone access it. Technological access tends to be clustered around urban areas, leaving out vast swaths of peripheral-nation citizens. While the diffusion of information technologies has the potential to resolve many global social problems, it is often the population most in need that is most affected by the digital divide. For example, technology to purify water could save many lives, but the villages in peripheral nations most in need of water purification don’t have access to the technology, the funds to purchase it, or the technological comfort level to introduce it as a solution.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

The Mighty Cell Phone: How Mobile Phones Are Impacting Sub-Saharan Africa

In many of Africa’s poorest countries there is a marked lack of infrastructure. Bad roads, limited electricity, minimal schools—the list goes on. Access to telephones has long been on that list. But while landline access has not changed appreciably during the past 10 years, there’s been a marked fivefold increase in mobile phone access; more than a third of people in sub-Saharan Africa have the ability to access a mobile phone (Katine 2010). Even more can access a “village phone”—a shared phone program created by the Grameen Foundation. With access to mobile phone technology, a host of benefits are available that have the potential to change the dynamics in these poorest nations. Sometimes that change is as simple as being able to make a phone call to neighbouring market towns. By finding out which markets have vendors interested in their goods, fishers and farmers can ensure they travel to the market that will serve them best, avoiding a wasted trip. Others can use mobile phones and some of the emerging money-sending systems to securely send money from one place to a family member or business partner elsewhere (Katine 2010).

These programs are often funded by businesses like Germany’s Vodafone or Britain’s Masbabi, which hope to gain market share in the region. Phone giant Nokia points out that worldwide there are 4 billion mobile phone users—that’s more than twice as many bank accounts that exist—meaning there is ripe opportunity to connect banking companies with people who need their services (ITU News 2009). Not all access is corporate-based, however. Other programs are funded by business organizations that seek to help peripheral nations with tools for innovation and entrepreneurship.

But this wave of innovation and potential business comes with costs. There is, certainly, the risk of cultural imperialism, and the assumption that core nations (and core-nation multinationals) know what is best for those struggling in the world’s poorest communities. Whether well intentioned or not, the vision of a continent of Africans successfully chatting on their iPhone may not be ideal. As with all aspects of global inequity, technology in Africa requires more than just foreign investment. There must be a concerted effort to ensure the benefits of technology get to where they are needed most.


8.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology

It is difficult to conceive of any one theory or theoretical perspective that can explain the variety of ways that people interact with technology and the media. Technology runs the gamut from the match you strike to light a candle all the way up to sophisticated nuclear power plants that might power the factory where that candle was made. Media could refer to the television you watch, the ads wrapping the bus you take to work or school, or the magazines you flip through in a waiting room, not to mention all the forms of new media, including Twitter, Facebook, blogs, YouTube, and the like. Are media and technology critical to the forward march of humanity? Are they pernicious capitalist tools that lead to the exploitation of workers worldwide? Are they the magic bullet the world has been waiting for to level the playing field and raise the world’s poor out of extreme poverty? Each perspective generates understandings of technology and media that help us examine the way our lives are affected.

Structural Functionalism

Because functionalism focuses on how media and technology contribute to the smooth functioning of society, a good place to begin understanding this perspective is to write a list of functions you perceive media and technology to perform. Your list might include the ability to find information on the internet, television’s entertainment value, or how advertising and product placement contribute to social norms.

Commercial Function


Figure 8.11. TV commercials can carry significant cultural currency. For some, the ads during the Super Bowl are more water cooler-worthy than the game itself. (Photo courtesy of Dennis Yang/Flickr)

As you might guess, with nearly every U.S. household possessing a television, and the 250 billion hours of television watched annually by Americans, companies that wish to connect with consumers find television an irresistible platform to promote their goods and services (Nielsen Wire 2011). Television advertising is a highly functional way to meet a market demographic where it lives. Sponsors can use the sophisticated data gathered by network and cable television companies regarding their viewers and target their advertising accordingly.

It certainly doesn’t stop with television. Commercial advertising precedes movies in theatres and shows up on and inside of public transportation, as well as on the sides of buildings and roadways. Major corporations such as Coca-Cola bring their advertising into public schools, sponsoring sports fields or tournaments, as well as filling the halls and cafeterias of those schools with vending machines hawking their goods. With the rising concerns about childhood obesity and attendant diseases, the era of pop machines in schools may be numbered. But not to worry. Coca-Cola’s filtered tap water, Dasani, and its juice products will remain standards in many schools.

Entertainment Function

An obvious manifest function of media is its entertainment value. Most people, when asked why they watch television or go to the movies, would answer that they enjoy it. Within the 98 percent of households that have a TV, the amount of time spent watching is substantial, with the average adult Canadian viewing time of 30 hours a week (TVB 2014). Clearly, enjoyment is paramount. On the technology side, as well, there is a clear entertainment factor to the use of new innovations. From online gaming to chatting with friends on Facebook, technology offers new and more exciting ways for people to entertain themselves.

Social Norm Functions

Even while the media is selling us goods and entertaining us, it also serves to socialize us, helping us pass along norms, values, and beliefs to the next generation. In fact, we are socialized and resocialized by media throughout our life course. All forms of media teach us what is good and desirable, how we should speak, how we should behave, and how we should react to events. Media also provide us with cultural touchstones during events of national significance. How many of your older relatives can recall watching the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on television? How many of those reading this textbook followed the events of September 11 or Hurricane Katrina on the television or internet?

But debate exists over the extent and impact of media socialization. Krahe and colleagues (2011) demonstrated that violent media content has a desensitizing affect and is correlated with aggressive thoughts. Another group of scholars (Gentile, Mathieson, and Crick 2011) found that among children, exposure to media violence led to an increase in both physical and relational aggression. Yet, a meta-analysis study covering four decades of research (Savage 2003) could not establish a definitive link between viewing violence and committing criminal violence.

It is clear from watching people emulate the styles of dress and talk that appear in media that media has a socializing influence. What is not clear, despite nearly 50 years of empirical research, is how much socializing influence the media has when compared to other agents of socialization, which include any social institution that passes along norms, values, and beliefs (such as peers, family, religious institutions, and the like).

Life-Changing Functions

Like media, many forms of technology do indeed entertain us, provide a venue for commercialization, and socialize us. For example, some studies suggest the rising obesity rate is correlated with the decrease in physical activity caused by an increase in use of some forms of technology, a latent function of the prevalence of media in society (Kautiainen et al. 2005). Without a doubt, a manifest function of technology is to change our lives, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Think of how the digital age has improved the ways we communicate. Have you ever used Skype or another webcast to talk to a friend or family member far away? Or maybe you have organized a fund drive, raising thousands of dollars, all from your desk chair.

Of course, the downside to this ongoing information flow is the near impossibility of disconnecting from technology, leading to an expectation of constant convenient access to information and people. Such a fast-paced dynamic is not always to our benefit. Some sociologists assert that this level of media exposure leads to narcotizing dysfunction, a term that describes when people are too overwhelmed with media input to really care about the issue, so their involvement becomes defined by awareness instead of by action about the issue at hand (Lazerfeld and Merton 1948).

Critical Sociology

In contrast to theories in the functional perspective, the critical perspective focuses on the creation and reproduction of inequality—social processes that tend to disrupt society rather than contribute to its smooth operation. When taking a critical perspective, one major focus is the differential access to media and technology embodied in the digital divide. Critical sociologists also look at who controls the media, and how media promotes the norms of upper-middle-class white demographics while minimizing the presence of the working class, especially people of colour.

Control of Media and Technology

Powerful individuals and social institutions have a great deal of influence over which forms of technology are released, when and where they are released, and what kind of media is available for our consumption, a form of gatekeeping. Shoemaker and Voss (2009) define gatekeeping as the sorting process by which thousands of possible messages are shaped into a mass media–appropriate form and reduced to a manageable amount. In other words, the people in charge of the media decide what the public is exposed to, which, as C. Wright Mills (1956) famously noted, is the heart of media’s power. Take a moment to think of the way that “new media” evolves and replaces traditional forms of hegemonic media. With a hegemonic media, culturally diverse society can be dominated by one race, gender, or class through the manipulation of the media imposing its worldview as a societal norm. New media renders the gatekeeper role less of a factor in information distribution. Popular sites such as YouTube and Facebook engage in a form of democratized self-policing. Users are encouraged to report inappropriate behaviour that moderators will then address.

In addition, some conflict theorists suggest that the way North American media is generated results in an unbalanced political arena. Those with the most money can buy the most media exposure, run smear campaigns against their competitors, and maximize their visual presence. The Conservative Party began running attack ads on Justin Trudeau moments after his acceptance speech on winning the leadership of the Liberal Party in 2013. It is difficult to avoid the Enbridge and Cenovus advertisements that promote their controversial Northern Gateway pipeline and tar sands projects. What do you think a critical perspective theorist would suggest about the potential for the non-rich to be heard in politics?

Technological Social Control and Digital Surveillance

Social scientists take the idea of the surveillance society so seriously that there is an entire journal devoted to its study, Surveillance and Society. The panoptic surveillance envisioned by Jeremy Bentham and later analyzed by Michel Foucault (1975) is increasingly realized in the form of technology used to monitor our every move. This surveillance was imagined as a form of complete visibility and constant monitoring in which the observation posts are centralized and the observed are never communicated with directly. Today, digital security cameras capture our movements, observers can track us through our cell phones, and police forces around the world use facial-recognition software.

Feminist Perspective


Figure 8.12. What types of women are we exposed to in the media? Some would argue that the range of female images is misleadingly narrow. (Photo courtesy of Cliff1066/Flickr)

Take a look at popular television shows, advertising campaigns, and online game sites. In most, women are portrayed in a particular set of parameters and tend to have a uniform look that society recognizes as attractive. Most are thin, white or light-skinned, beautiful, and young. Why does this matter? Feminist perspective theorists believe it is crucial in creating and reinforcing stereotypes. For example, Fox and Bailenson (2009) found that online female avatars (the characters you play in online games like World of Warcraft or Second Life) conforming to gender stereotypes enhances negative attitudes toward women, and Brasted (2010) found that media (advertising in particular) promotes gender stereotypes.

The gender gap in tech-related fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) is no secret. A 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce report suggested that gender stereotyping is one reason for this gap, acknowledging the bias toward men as keepers of technological knowledge (U.S. Department of Commerce 2011). But gender stereotypes go far beyond the use of technology. Press coverage in the media reinforces stereotypes that subordinate women, giving airtime to looks over skills, and disparaging women who defy accepted norms.

Recent research in new media has offered a mixed picture of its potential to equalize the status of men and women in the arenas of technology and public discourse. A European agency, the Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities for Men and Women (2010), issued an opinion report suggesting that while there is the potential for new media forms to perpetuate gender stereotypes and the gender gap in technology and media access, at the same time new media could offer alternative forums for feminist groups and the exchange of feminist ideas. Still, the committee warned against the relatively unregulated environment of new media and the potential for antifeminist activities, from pornography to human trafficking, to flourish there.

Increasingly prominent in the discussion of new media and feminism is cyberfeminism, the application to, and promotion of, feminism online. Research on cyberfeminism runs the gamut from the liberating use of blogs by women living in Iraq during the second Gulf War (Pierce 2011) to the analysis of postmodern discourse on the relationship between the body and technology (Kerr 2014).

Symbolic Interactionism

Technology itself may act as a symbol for many. The kind of computer you own, the kind of car you drive, whether or not you can afford the latest Apple product—these serve as a social indicator of wealth and status. Neo-Luddites are people who see technology as symbolizing the coldness and alienation of modern life. But for technophiles, technology symbolizes the potential for a brighter future. For those adopting an ideological middle ground, technology might symbolize status (in the form of a massive flat-screen television) or failure (in owning a basic old mobile phone with no bells or whistles).

Social Construction of Reality

Meanwhile, media create and spread symbols that become the basis for our shared understanding of society. Theorists working in the interactionist perspective focus on this social construction of reality, an ongoing process in which people subjectively create and understand reality. Media constructs our reality in a number of ways. For some, the people they watch on a screen can become a primary group, meaning the small informal groups of people who are closest to them. For many others, media becomes a reference group: a group that influences an individual and to which an individual compares himself or herself, and by which we judge our successes and failures. We might do very well without an Android smartphone, until we see characters using it on our favourite television show or our classmates whipping one out between classes.

While media may indeed be the medium to spread the message of the rich white males, Gamson, Croteau, Hoynes, and Sasson (1992) point out that some forms of media discourse allow the appearance of competing constructions of reality. For example, advertisers find new and creative ways to sell us products we do not need and probably would not want without their prompting, but some networking sites such as Freecycle offer a commercial-free way of requesting and trading items that would otherwise be discarded. Additionally, the web is full of blogs chronicling lives lived “off the grid,” or without participation in the commercial economy.

Social Networking and Social Construction

While Twitter and Facebook encourage us to check in and provide details of our day through online social networks, corporations can just as easily promote their products on these sites. Even supposedly crowd-sourced sites like Yelp (which aggregates local reviews) are not immune to corporate shenanigans. That is, we think we are reading objective observations when in reality we may be buying into one more form of advertising.

Facebook, which started as a free social network for college students, is increasingly a monetized business, selling you goods and services in subtle ways. But chances are you do not think of Facebook as one big online advertisement. What started out as a symbol of coolness and insider status, unavailable and inaccessible to parents and corporate shills, now promotes consumerism in the form of games and fandom. For example, think of all the money spent to upgrade popular Facebook games like Farmville.

Notice that whenever you become a “fan,” you likely receive product updates and special deals that promote online and real-world consumerism. It is unlikely that millions of people want to be “friends” with Pampers. But if it means a weekly coupon, they will, in essence, rent out space on their Facebook page for Pampers to appear. Thus, we develop both new ways to spend money and brand loyalties that will last even after Facebook is considered outdated and obsolete. What cannot be forgotten with new technology is the dynamic tension between the liberating effects of these technologies in democratizing information access and flow, and the newly emerging corporate ownership and revenue models that necessitate control of the same technologies.

Key Terms

cyberfeminism application to and promotion of feminism online

design patents patents that are granted when someone has invented a new and original design for a manufactured product

digital divide the uneven access to technology around race, class, and geographic lines

e-readiness the ability to sort through, interpret, and process digital knowledge

embodied energy the sum of energy required for a finished product including the resource extraction, transportation, manufacturing, distribution, marketing, and disposal

evolutionary model of technological change a breakthrough in one form of technology that leads to a number of variations, from which a prototype emerges, followed by a period of slight adjustments to the technology, interrupted by a breakthrough

gatekeeping the sorting process by which thousands of possible messages are shaped into a mass media–appropriate form and reduced to a manageable amount

knowledge gap the gap in information that builds as groups grow up without access to technology

media all print, digital, and electronic means of communication

media globalization the worldwide integration of media through the cross-cultural exchange of ideas

misogyny personal, social, and cultural manifestations of the hatred of girls and women

narcotizing dysfunction when people are too overwhelmed with media input to really care about the issue, so their involvement becomes defined by awareness instead of by action about the issue at hand

neo-Luddites those who see technology as a symbol of the coldness of modern life

new media all interactive forms of information exchange

panoptic surveillance a form of constant monitoring in which the observation posts are decentralized and the observed is never communicated with directly

planned obsolescence when a technology company plans for a product to be obsolete or unable to be repaired from the time it’s created

plant patents patents that recognize the discovery of new plant types that can be asexually reproduced

technological diffusion the spread of technology across borders

technological globalization the cross-cultural development and exchange of technology

technology the application of science to solve problems in daily life

technophiles those who see technology as symbolizing the potential for a brighter future

utility patents patents that are granted for the invention or discovery of any new and useful process, product, or machine

Section Summary

8.1. Technology Today
Technology is the application of science to address the problems of daily life. The fast pace of technological advancement means the advancements are continuous, but that not everyone has equal access. The gap created by this unequal access has been termed the digital divide. The knowledge gap refers to an effect of the “digital divide”: the lack of knowledge or information that keeps those who were not exposed to technology from gaining marketable skills

8.2. Media and Technology in Society
Media and technology have been interwoven from the earliest days of human communication. The printing press, the telegraph, and the internet are all examples of their intersection. Mass media has allowed for more shared social experiences, but new media now creates a seemingly endless amount of airtime for any and every voice that wants to be heard. Advertising has also changed with technology. New media allows consumers to bypass traditional advertising venues, causing companies to be more innovative and intrusive as they try to gain our attention.

8.3. Global Implications
Technology drives globalization, but what that means can be hard to decipher. While some economists see technological advances leading to a more level playing field where anyone anywhere can be a global contender, the reality is that opportunity still clusters in geographically advantaged areas. Still, technological diffusion has led to the spread of more and more technology across borders into peripheral and semi-peripheral nations. However, true technological global equality is a long way off.

8.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology
There are myriad theories about how society, technology, and media will progress. Functionalism sees the contribution that technology and media provide to the stability of society, from facilitating leisure time to increasing productivity. Conflict theorists are more concerned with how technology reinforces inequalities among communities, both within and among countries. They also look at how media typically give voice to the most powerful, and how new media might offer tools to help those who are disenfranchised. Symbolic interactionists see the symbolic uses of technology as signs of everything from a sterile futuristic world to a successful professional life.

Section Quiz

8.1. Technology Today

1. Jerome is able to use the internet to select reliable sources for his research paper, but Charlie just copies large pieces of web pages and pastes them into his paper. Jerome has _____________ while Charlie does not.

  1. A functional perspective
  2. The knowledge gap
  3. E-readiness
  4. A digital divide

2. The ________ can be directly attributed to the digital divide, because differential ability to access the internet leads directly to a differential ability to use the knowledge found on the internet.

  1. Digital divide
  2. Knowledge gap
  3. Feminist perspective
  4. E-gap

3. The fact that your cell phone is using outdated technology within a year or two of purchase is an example of ____________.

  1. The conflict perspective
  2. Conspicuous consumption
  3. Media
  4. Planned obsolescence

4. The history of technology began _________.

  1. In the early stages of human societies
  2. With the invention of the computer
  3. During the Renaissance
  4. During the 19th century

8.2. Media and Technology in Society
5. When it comes to technology, media, and society, which of the following is true?

  1. Media influences technology, but not society.
  2. Technology created media, but society has nothing to do with these.
  3. Technology, media, and society are bound and cannot be separated.
  4. Society influences media but is not connected to technology.

6. If the U.S. Patent Office were to issue a patent for a new type of tomato that tastes like a jellybean, it would be issuing a _________ patent?

  1. Utility
  2. Plant
  3. Design
  4. The U.S. Patent Office does not issue a patent for plants.

7. Which of the following is the primary component of the evolutionary model of technological change?

  1. Technology should not be subject to patenting.
  2. Technology and the media evolve together.
  3. Technology can be traced back to the early stages of human society.
  4. A breakthrough in one form of technology leads to a number of variations, and technological developments.

8. Which of the following is not a form of new media?

  1. A cable television program
  2. Wikipedia
  3. Facebook
  4. A cooking blog

9. Research regarding video game violence suggests that ______________________________.

  1. Boys who play violent video games become more aggressive, but girls do not
  2. Girls who play violent video games become more aggressive, but boys do not
  3. Violent video games have no connection to aggressive behaviour
  4. Violent video games lead to an increase in aggressive thought and behaviour

10. Comic books, Wikipedia, MTV, and a commercial for Coca-Cola are all examples of:

  1. Media
  2. Symbolic interaction perspective
  3. E-readiness
  4. The digital divide

8.3. Global Implications
11. When Japanese scientists develop a new vaccine for swine flu and offer that technology to American pharmaceutical companies, __________ has taken place.

  1. Media globalization
  2. Technological diffusion
  3. Monetizing
  4. Planned obsolescence

12. In the mid-90s, the U.S. government grew concerned that Microsoft was a _______________, exercising disproportionate control over the available choices and prices of computers.

  1. Monopoly
  2. Conglomerate
  3. Functionalism
  4. Technological globalization

13. The movie Babel featured an international cast and was filmed on location in various nations. When it screened in theatres worldwide, it introduced a number of ideas and philosophies about cross-cultural connections. This might be an example of _______________.

  1. Technology
  2. Conglomerating
  3. Symbolic interaction
  4. Media globalization

14. Which of the following is not a risk of media globalization?

  1. The creation of cultural and ideological biases
  2. The creation of local monopolies
  3. The risk of cultural imperialism
  4. The loss of local culture

15. The government of __________ blocks citizens’ access to popular new media sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

  1. China
  2. India
  3. Afghanistan
  4. Australia

8.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology
16. A parent secretly monitoring the babysitter through the use of GPS, site blocker, and nanny cam is a good example of _______________.

  1. The social construction of reality
  2. Technophilia
  3. A neo-Luddite
  4. Panoptic surveillance

17. The use of Facebook to create an online persona by only posting images that match your ideal self exemplifies the_____________ that can occur in forms of new media.

  1. Social construction of reality
  2. Cyberfeminism
  3. Market segmentation
  4. Referencing

18. _________ tend to be more pro-technology, while _______ view technology as a symbol of the coldness of modern life.

  1. Neo-Luddites; technophiles
  2. Technophiles; neo-Luddites
  3. Cyberfeminists; technophiles
  4. Liberal feminists; conflict theorists

19. When it comes to media and technology, a functionalist would focus on ___________________________.

  1. The symbols created and reproduced by the media
  2. The association of technology and technological skill with men
  3. The way that various forms of media socialize users
  4. The digital divide between the technological haves and have-nots

20. When all media sources report a simplified version of the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, with no effort to convey the hard science and complicated statistical data behind the story, ___________ is probably occurring.

  1. Gatekeeping
  2. The digital divide
  3. Technophilia
  4. Market segmentation

Short Answer

8.1. Technology Today

  1. Can you think of people in your own life who support or defy the premise that access to technology leads to greater opportunities? How have you noticed technology use and opportunity to be linked, or does your experience contradict this idea?
  2. Should a government be responsible for providing all citizens with access to the internet? Or is gaining internet access an individual responsibility?
  3. How has digital media changed social interactions? Do you believe it has deepened or weakened human connections? Defend your answer.
  4. Conduct sociological research. Google yourself. How much information about you is available to the public? How many and what types of companies offer private information about you for a fee? Compile the data and statistics you find. Write a paragraph or two about the social issues and behaviours you notice.

8.2. Media and Technology in Society

  1. Where and how do you get your news? Do you watch network television? Read the newspaper? Go online? How about your parents or grandparents? Do you think it matters where you seek out information? Why or why not?
  2. Do you believe new media allows for the kind of unifying moments that television and radio programming used to? If so, give an example.
  3. Where are you most likely to notice advertisements? What causes them to catch your attention?

8.3. Global Implications

  1. Do you believe that technology has indeed flattened the world in terms of providing opportunity? Why or why not? Give examples to support your reason.
  2. Where do you get your news? Is it owned by a large conglomerate (you can do a web search and find out!)? Does it matter to you who owns your local news outlets? Why or why not?
  3. Who do you think is most likely to bring innovation and technology (like cell phone businesses) to sub-Saharan Africa: nonprofit organizations, governments, or businesses? Why?

8.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology

  1. Contrast a functionalist viewpoint of digital surveillance with a conflict perspective viewpoint.
  2. In what ways has the internet affected how you view reality? Explain using a symbolic interactionist perspective.
  3. Describe how a cyberfeminist might address the fact that powerful female politicians are often demonized in traditional media.
  4. The issue of new media ownership is an issue of growing media concern. Select a theoretical perspective and describe how it would explain this.
  5. Would you characterize yourself as a technophile or a neo-Luddite? Explain, using examples.

Further Research

8.1. Technology Today
To learn more about the digital divide and why it matters, check out these websites: and

8.2. Media and Technology in Society
To get a sense of the timeline of technology, check out this website:

To learn more about new media, click here:

8.3. Global Implications
Check out more on the global digital divide here:

8.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology
To learn more about cyberfeminism, check out the interdisciplinary artist collective, subRosa:

To explore the implications of panoptic surveillance, review some surveillance studies at the free, open source Surveillance and Society site:


8. Introduction to Media and Technology
Vlessing, Etan, 2011, “’Jersey Shore’ Continues Record MTV Canada Run”,The Hollywood Reporter,Retrieved April 04, 2014: (

8.1. Technology Today
Guillen, M.F., and S.L. Suárez. 2005. “Explaining the Global Digital Divide: Economic, Political and Sociological Drivers of Cross-National Internet Use.” Social Forces 84:681–708.

Kedrosky, Paul  “Cars vs Cell Phone Embodied Energy” Jun 15, 2011. Retrieved April 04, 2014 (

Liff, Sondra, and Adrian Shepard. 2004. “An Evolving Gender Digital Divide.” Oxford Internet Institute, Internet Issue Brief No. 2. Retrieved January 11, 2012 (

Looker, Dianne and Thiessen, Victor, 2003, “The digital divide in Canadian schools: factors affecting student access to and use of information technology”,  Statistics Canada, Research Paper, Catalogue no. 81-597-XIE. Retrieved April 07, 2014: (

OECD, 2001 “Bridging the Digital Divide: Issues and Policies in OECD Countries.” OECD, Paris.

Pew Research Center. 2011. “Demographics of Internet Users.” Pew Internet and American Life Project, May. Retrieved January 12, 2012 (

“Planned Obsolescence.” 2009. The Economist, March 23. Retrieved January 12, 2012 (

Sciadas, George. 2003. “Monitoring the Digital Divide … and Beyond.” World Bank Group. Retrieved January 22, 2012 (

StEP. 2014. “Canada: Overview of E-Waste Related Information.” StEP: Solving the E-Waste Problem. Retrieved April 23, 2014 from ( ).

Washington, Jesse. 2011. “For Minorities, New ‘Digital Divide’ Seen.” Pew Internet and American Life Project, January 10. Retrieved January 12, 2012 (

8.2. Media and Technology in Society
Anderson, C.A., and B.J. Bushman. 2001. “Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behavior, Aggressive Cognition, Aggressive Affect, Physiological Arousal, and Prosocial Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Scientific Literature.” Psychological Science 12:353–359.

Anderson, Craig. 2003. “Violent Video Games: Myths, Facts and Unanswered Questions.” American Psychological Association, October. Retrieved January 13, 2012 (

Anderson, Philip and Michael Tushman. 1990. “Technological Discontinuities and Dominant Designs: A Cyclical Model of Technological Change.” Administrative Science Quarterly 35:604–633.

Claburn, Thomas, April, 2014, “Google Has Plans For Titan Drones”, Information Week, Retrieved April 16, 2014 (

Google Invester Relations, Financial Tables 2014, Retrieved April 14, 2014: (

Ladurantaye, Steve, June 05, 2013 “Newspaper revenue to drop 20 per cent by 2017, report predicts” The Globe and Mail. Retrieved April 07, 2014: (

Lievrouw, Leah A. and Sonia Livingstone, eds. 2006. Handbook of New Media: Social Shaping and Social Consequences. London : SAGE Publications.

McGivern, Ronald, 1990, “Catholic Ideals and Populist Self-Help: Ideology and Action in the Antigonish Cooperative Adult Education Movement in Eastern Nova Scotia, 1920-1940”, M.A. Thesis, Simon Fraser University.

Mercola, Dr. “Finally… Solo Farmer Fights Monsanto and Wins”, Retrieved April 07, 2014: (

Monsanto, N.d., “Percy Schmeiser”, Retrieved April 07, 2014: (

(MRIA) Marketing Research and Intelligence Association of Canada website, N.d. Retrieved April 15, 2014: (

O’Reilly, Terry “Radio Is Dead. Long Live Radio”, Under the Influence, CBC, February 22, 2014, Retrieved, April 09, 2014: (

ProCon. 2012. “Video Games.” January 5. Retrieved January 12, 2012 (

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. 2011. “General Information Concerning Patents.” Retrieved January 12, 2012 (

van de Donk, W., B.D. Loader, P.G. Nixon, and D. Rucht, eds. 2004. Cyberprotest: New Media, Citizens, and Social Movements. New York: Routledge.

Wordstream, N.d., “How Does Google Make Its Money: The 20 Most Expensive Keywords in Google AdWords”. Retrieved April 14, 2014: (

Wikipedia, 2010, “Television in Canada” Retrieved April 09, 2014: (

World Association of Newspapers. 2004. “Newspapers: A Brief History.” Retrieved January 12, 2012 (

8.3. Global Implications
Bristow, Michael. 2011. “Can China Control Social Media Revolution?” BBC News China, November 2. Retrieved January 14, 2012 (

CMCRP, Canadian Media Concentration Research Project, N.d., Retrieved April 15, 2014: (

Compaine, B. 2005. “Global Media.” Pp. 97-101 in Living in the Information Age: A New Media Reader. Belmont: Wadsworth Thomson Learning.

Friedman, Thomas. 2005. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

ITU News. 2009. “ITU Telecom World 2009: Special Report: Reflecting New Needs and Realities.” November. Retrieved January 14, 2012 (

Jan, Mirza. 2009. “Globalization of Media: Key Issues and Dimensions.” European Journal of Scientific Research 29:66–75.

Katine Chronicles Blog. 2010. “Are Mobile Phones Africa’s Silver Bullet?” The Guardian, January 14. Retrieved January 12, 2012 (

McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Newspapers Canada, 2013, “Ownership”, Retrieved April 15, 2014: (

Pierson, David. 2012. “Number of Web Users in China Hits 513 Million.” Los Angeles Times, January 16. Retrieved January 16, 2012 (

Rowswell, Mark, 2014, “Dashan online”, Retrieved April 15, 2014: (

Theckedath, Dillan and Thomas, Terrence J., 2012,  “Media Ownership and Convergence in Canada”, In Brief† No. 2012-17-E, Library of Parliament Research Publications, Parliament of Canada. Retrieved April 15, 2014: (

World Bank. 2008. “Global Economic Prospects 2008: Technology Diffusion in the Developing World.” World Bank. Retrieved January 24, 2012 (

8.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology
Brasted, Monica. 2010. “Care Bears vs. Transformers: Gender Stereotypes in Advertisements.” Retrieved January 10, 2012 (

Foucault, Michel. 1975. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Fox, Jesse and Jeremy Bailenson. 2009. “Virtual Virgins and Vamps: The Effects of Exposure to Female Characters’ Sexualized Appearance and Gaze in an Immersive Virtual Environment.” Sex Roles 61:147–157.

Gamson, William, David Croteau, William Hoynes, and Theodore Sasson. 1992. “Media Images and the Social Construction of Reality.” Annual Review of Sociology 18:373–393.

Gentile, Douglas, Lindsay Mathieson, and Nikki Crick. 2011. “Media Violence Associations with the Form and Function of Aggression among Elementary School Children.” Social Development 20:213–232.

Kautiainen, S., L. Koivusilta, T. Lintonen, S. M. Virtanen, and A. Rimpelä. 2005. Use of Information and Communication Technology and Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity Among Adolescents.” International Journal of Obesity 29:925–933

Kerr, Elizabeth, “Cyberfeminism and Postmodern Technological Discourse”, 24th Annual Thinking Gender Conference, UCLA Center for the Study of Women, February 07, 2014. Retrieved April 18, 2014 : (

Krahe, Barbara, Ingrid Moller, L. Huesmann, Lucyna Kirwil, Julianec Felber, and Anja Berger. 2011. “Desensitization to Media Violence: Links With Habitual Media Violence Exposure, Aggressive Cognitions, and Aggressive Behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100:630–646.

Lazerfeld, Paul F. and Robert K. Merton. 1948. “Mass Communication, Popular Taste, and Organized Social Action.” The Communication of Ideas. New York: Harper & Bros.

Mills, C. Wright. 2000 [1956]. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

NielsenWire. 2011. “Nielsen Estimates Number of U.S. Television Homes to be 114.7 Million.” May 3. Retrieved January 15, 2012 (

Pierce, Tess. 2011. “Singing at the Digital Well: Blogs as Cyberfeminist Sites of Resistance.” Feminist Formations 23:196–209.

Savage, Joanne. 2003. “Does Viewing Violent Media Really Cause Criminal Violence?”

Shoemaker, Pamela and Tim Voss. 2009. “Media Gatekeeping.” Pp. 75–89 in An Integrated Approach to Communication Theory and Research, 2nd ed., edited by D. Stacks and M. Salwen. New York: Routledge.

TVB 2014, “TV Basics, 2013-2014.” Television Bureau of Canada, Retrieved April 15, 2014: (

U.S. Department of Commerce. 2011. “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation.” August. Retrieved February 22, 2012 (

Solutions to Section Quiz

1. C  |  2. B  |  3. D  |  4. A  |  5. C  |  6. B  |  7. D  |  8. A  |  9. D  |  10. A  |  11. B  |  12. A  |  13. D  |  14. B  |  15. A  |  16. D  |  17. A  |  18. B  |  19. C  |  20. A

Image Attributions

Figure 8.5. Electronic waste by Curtis Palmer ( used under CC BY license 2.0 (


Chapter 9. Social Stratification in Canada

Photo of a Rolls Royce car outside the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Figure 9.1. The car a person drives can be seen as a symbol of money and power. What does a Rolls-Royce signify about its owner? Why? (Photo courtesy of dave_7/Flickr)

Learning Objectives

9.1. What Is Social Stratification?

  • Differentiate between open and closed stratification systems
  • Distinguish between caste and class systems
  • Understand meritocracy as an ideal system of stratification

9.2. Social Stratification and Mobility in Canada

  • Understand Canada’s class structure
  • Describe several types of social mobility
  • Recognize characteristics that define and identify class

9.3. Global Stratification and Inequality

  • Define global stratification
  • Describe different sociological models for understanding global stratification
  • Understand how studies of global stratification identify worldwide inequalities

9.4. Theoretical Perspectives on Social Stratification

  • Understand and apply functionalist, conflict theory, feminist, and interactionist perspectives on social stratification

Introduction to Social Stratification in Canada

When he died in 2008, Ted Rogers, CEO of Rogers Communications, was the fifth-wealthiest individual in Canada, holding assets worth $5.7 billion. In his autobiography (2008) he credited his success to a willingness to take risks, work hard, bend rules, be on the constant look out for opportunities, and be dedicated to building business. In many respects, he saw himself as a self-made billionaire, starting from scratch, seizing opportunities, and creating business through his own initiative.

The story of Ted Rogers is not exactly a rags to riches one, however. His grandfather, Albert Rogers, was a director of Imperial Oil (Esso) and his father, Ted Sr.,  became wealthy when he invented an alternating current vacuum tube for radios in 1925. Ted Rogers Sr. went from there to manufacturing radios, owning a radio station, and acquiring a licence for TV.

However, Ted Sr. died when Ted Jr. was five years old, and the family businesses were sold. His mother took him aside when he was eight and told him, “Ted, your business is to get the family name back.” The family was still wealthy enough to send him to Upper Canada College, the famous private school that also educated children from the Black, Eaton, Thompson, and Weston families. Ted seized the opportunity at Upper Canada to make money as a bookie, taking bets on horse racing from the other students. Then he attended Osgoode Hall Law School, where reportedly his secretary went to classes and took notes for him. He bought an early FM  radio station when he was still in university and started in cable TV in the mid-1960s. By the time of his death, Rogers Communications was worth $25 billion. At that time, just three families, the Rogers, Shaws, and Péladeaus, owned much of the cable service in Canada.

At the other end of the spectrum are the aboriginal gang members in the Saskatchewan Correctional Centre we discussed in Chapter 1 (CBC 2010). The CBC program noted that 85 percent of the inmates in the prison were of aboriginal descent, half of whom were involved in aboriginal gangs. Moreover the statistical profile of aboriginal youth in Saskatchewan is grim, with aboriginal people making up the highest number of high school dropouts, domestic abuse victims, drug dependencies, and child poverty backgrounds. In some respects the aboriginal gang members interviewed were like Ted Rogers in that they were willing to seize opportunities, take risks, bend rules, and apply themselves to their vocations. They too aspired to getting the money that would give them the freedom to make their own lives. However, as one of the inmates put it, “the only job I ever had was selling drugs.” The consequence of that was to fall into a lifestyle that led to joining a gang, being kicked out of school, developing issues with addiction, and eventually getting arrested and incarcerated. Unlike Ted Rogers the inmate added, “I didn’t grow up with the best life.”

How do we make sense of the divergent stories? Canada is supposed to be a country in which individuals can work hard to get ahead. It is an “open” society. There are no formal or explicit class, gender, racial, ethnic, geographical, or other boundaries that prevent people from rising to the top. People are free to make choices. But does this adequately explain the difference in life chances that divide the fortunes of the aboriginal youth from those of the Rogers family? What determines a person’s social standing? And how does social standing direct or limit a person’s choices?

9.1. What Is Social Stratification?

A man and a woman, both wearing business suits, are shown from behind at the top of an escalator

Figure 9.2.In the upper echelons of the working world, people with the most power reach the top. These people make the decisions and earn the most money. The majority of Canadians will never see the view from the top. (Photo courtesy of Alex Proimos/Flickr)

Sociologists use the term social inequality to describe the unequal distribution of valued resources, rewards, and positions in a society. Key to the concept is the notion of social differentiation. Social characteristics—differences, identities, and  roles—are used to differentiate people and divide them into different categories, which have implications for social inequality. Social differentiation by itself does not necessarily imply a division of individuals into a hierarchy of rank, privilege, and power. However, when a social category like class, occupation, gender, or race puts people in a position in which they can claim a greater share of resources or services, then social differentiation becomes the basis of social inequality. The term social stratification refers to an institutionalized system of social inequality. It refers to a situation in which the divisions and relationships of social inequality have solidified into a system that determines who gets what, when, and why.

You may remember the word “stratification” from geology class. The distinct horizontal layers found in rock, called “strata,” are a good way to visualize social structure. Society’s layers are made of people, and society’s resources are distributed unevenly throughout the layers. The people who have more resources represent the top layer of the social structure of stratification. Other groups of people, with progressively fewer and fewer resources, represent the lower layers of our society. Social stratification assigns people to socioeconomic strata based on factors like wealth, income, race, education, and power. The question for sociologists is how systems of stratification come to be formed. What is the basis of systematic social inequality in society?

A rock formation showing various layers is shown.

Figure 9.3. Strata in rock illustrate social stratification. People are sorted, or layered, into social categories. Many factors determine a person’s social standing, such as income, education, occupation, as well as age, race, gender, and even physical abilities. (Photo courtesy of Just a Prairie Boy/Flickr)

In Canada, the dominant ideological presumption about social inequality is that everyone has an equal chance at success. This is the belief in equality of opportunity, which can be contrasted with the ideal of equality of condition. Equality of condition is the situation in which everyone in a society has a similar level of wealth, status, and power. Although degrees of equality of condition vary markedly in modern societies, it is clear that even the most egalitarian societies today have considerable degrees of inequality of condition. Equality of opportunity, on the other hand, is the idea that everyone has an equal possibility of becoming successful. It exists when people have the same chance to pursue economic or social rewards. This is often seen as a function of equal access to education, meritocracy (where individual merit determines social standing ), and formal or informal measures to eliminate social discrimination. Ultimately, equality of opportunity means that inequalities of condition are not so great that they greatly hamper a person’s life chances.

To a certain extent, Ted Rogers’ story illustrates the belief in equality of opportunity. His personal narrative is one in which hard work and talent—not inherent privilege, birthright, prejudicial treatment, or societal values—determine social rank. This emphasis on self-effort is based on the belief that people individually control their own social standing, which is a key piece in the idea of equality of opportunity. Most people connect inequalities of wealth, status, and power to the individual characteristics of those who succeed or fail. The story of the aboriginal gang members, although it is also a story of personal choices, casts that belief into doubt. It is clear that the type of choices available to the aboriginal gang members are of a different range and quality than those available to the Rogers family.

Sociologists recognize that social stratification is a society-wide system that makes inequalities apparent. While there are always inequalities between individuals, sociologists are interested in larger social patterns. Stratification is not about individual inequalities, but about systematic inequalities based on group membership, classes, and the like. In other words, sociologists are interested in examining the structural conditions of social inequality. There are of course differences in individuals’ abilities and talents that will affect their life chances. The larger question however is how inequality becomes systematically structured in economic, social, and political life. In terms of individual ability, who gets the opportunities to develop their abilities and talents and who does not? Where does ability or talent come from? As we live in a society that emphasizes the individual—i.e., individual effort, individual morality, individual choice, individual responsibility, individual talent, etc.—it is often difficult to see the way in which life chances are socially structured.

One side of a block of rowhouses and cars covered in snow is shown.

Figure 9.4. The people who live in these houses most likely share similar levels of income and education. Neighbourhoods often house people of the same social standing. Wealthy families do not typically live next door to poorer families, though this varies depending on the particular city and country. (Photo courtesy of Orin Zebest/Flickr)

Factors that define stratification vary in different societies. In most modern societies, stratification is often indicated by differences in wealth, the net value of money and assets a person has, and  income, a person’s wages, salary, or investment dividends. It can also be defined by differences in power (how many people a person must take orders from versus how many people a person can give orders to) and status (the degree of honour or prestige one has in the eyes of others). These four factors create a complex amalgam that defines individuals’ social standing within a hierarchy.

Usually the four factors coincide, as in the case of corporate CEOs, like Ted Rogers, at the top of the hierarchy—wealthy, powerful, and prestigious—and the aboriginal offenders at the bottom—poor, powerless, and abject. Sociologists use the term status consistency to describe the consistency of an individual’s rank across these factors. However, we can also think of someone like the Canadian prime minister, who ranks high in power, but with a salary of approximately $320,000, earns much less than comparable executives in the private sector (albeit eight times the average Canadian salary). The prime minister’s  status or prestige also rises and falls with the vagaries of politics. (The Nam-Boyd scale of status ranks politicians at 66/100, the same status as cable TV technicians (Boyd 2008).) There is status inconsistency in the prime minister’s position. Similarly, teachers often have high levels of education, which give them high status (92/100 according to the Nam-Boyd scale), but they receive relatively low pay. Many believe that teaching is a noble profession, so teachers should do their jobs for love of their profession and the good of their students, not for money. Yet no successful executive or entrepreneur would embrace that attitude in the business world, where profits are valued as a driving force. Cultural attitudes and beliefs like these support and perpetuate social inequalities.

Systems of Stratification

Sociologists distinguish between two types of systems of stratification. Closed systems accommodate little change in social position. They do not allow people to shift levels and do not permit social relations between levels. Open systems, which are based on achievement, allow movement and interaction between layers and classes. Different systems reflect, emphasize, and foster certain cultural values, and shape individual beliefs. This difference in stratification systems can be examined by the comparison between class systems and caste systems.

The Caste System

A woman in India is shown from behind walking down the street.

Figure 9.5. India used to have a rigid caste system. The people in the lowest caste suffered from extreme poverty and were shunned by society. Some aspects of India’s defunct caste system remain socially relevant. The Indian woman in this photo is of a specific Hindu caste. (Photo courtesy of Elessar/Flickr)

Caste systems are closed stratification systems in which people can do little or nothing to change their social standing. A caste system is one in which people are born into their social standing and remain in it their whole lives. It is based on fixed or rigid status distinctions, rather than economic classes per se. People are assigned roles regardless of their talents, interests, or potential. Marriage is endogamous, meaning that marriage between castes is forbidden. There are virtually no opportunities to improve one’s social position. Instead the relationship between castes is bound by institutionalized rules and highly ritualistic procedures come into play when people from different castes come into contact. An exogamous marriage is a union of people from different social categories.

The feudal systems of Europe and Japan can in some ways be seen as caste systems in that the statuses of positions in the social stratifications systems were fixed, and there was little or no opportunity for movement through marriage or economic opportunities. In Europe, the estate system divided the population into clergy (first estate), nobility (second estate), and commoners, including artisans, merchants, and peasants (third estate). In early European feudalism, it was still possible for a peasant or a warrior to achieve a high position in the clergy or nobility, but later the divisions became more rigid. In Japan, between 1603 and 1867, the mibunsei system divided society into five rigid strata in which social standing was inherited. At the top were the emperor, court nobles (kuge), shogun, and daimyo. Beneath them were four classes or castes: the samurai (military), peasants, craftsmen, and merchants. The merchants were considered the lowest class because they did not produce anything with their own hands. There was also an outcast or untouchable caste known as the burakumin, who were considered impure or defiled because of their association with death (executioners, undertakers, slaughterhouse workers,  tanners, and butchers) (Kerbo 2006).

However, the caste system is probably best typified by the system of stratification that existed in India from 4,000 years ago until the 20th century. In the Hindu caste tradition, people were also expected to work in the occupation of their caste and to enter into marriage according to their caste. Originally there were four castes: Brahmans (priests), Ksyatriyas (military), Vaishyas (merchants), and Shudras (artisans, farmers). In addition there were the Dalits or Harijans (“untouchables”). Hindu scripture said, “In order to preserve the universe, Brahma (the Supreme) caused the Brahmin to proceed from his mouth, the Kshatriya to proceed from his arm, the Vaishya to proceed from his thigh, and the Shudra to proceed from his foot” (Kashmeri 1990). Accepting this social standing was considered a moral duty. Cultural values and economic restrictions reinforced the system. Caste systems promote beliefs in fate, destiny, and the will of a higher power, rather than promoting individual freedom as a value. A person who lived in a caste society was socialized to accept his or her social standing.

Although the caste system in India has been officially dismantled, its residual presence in Indian society is deeply embedded. In rural areas, aspects of the tradition are more likely to remain, while urban centres show less evidence of this past. In India’s larger cities, people now have more opportunities to choose their own career paths and marriage partners. As a global centre of employment, corporations have introduced merit-based hiring and employment to the nation.

The Class System

A class system is based on both social factors and individual achievement. It is at least a partially open system. A class consists of a set of people who have the same relationship to the means of production or productive property, that is, to the things used to produce the goods and services needed for survival: tools, technologies, resources, land, workplaces, etc. In Karl Marx’s analysis, class systems form around the institution of private property, dividing those who own or control productive property from those who do not. Those who do not survive on the basis of their labour.

Marx argued that class systems originated in early Neolithic horticultural societies when horticultural technologies increased yields to economic surpluses. The first class divisions developed between those who owned and controlled the agricultural land and surplus production and those who were dispossessed of ownership and control (i.e., the agricultural labourers). Prior to the Neolithic period 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, there were no classes. Societies were egalitarian and were characterized by equality of condition. For tens of thousands of years, hunter-gatherer societies shared productive property and resources collectively and did not produce economic surpluses. They could not form class societies.

In capitalism, the principle class division is between the capitalist class who live from the proceeds of owning or controlling productive property (capital assets like factories and machinery, or capital itself in the form of investments, stocks and bonds) and the working class who live from selling their labour to the capitalists for a wage. Marx referred to these classes as the bourgeoisie and the proletariat respectively. In addition, he described the classes of the petite bourgeoisie (the little bourgeosie) and the lumpenproletariat (the sub-proletariat). The petite bourgeoisie are those like shopkeepers, farmers, and contractors who own some property and perhaps employ a few workers but still rely on their own labour to survive. The lumpenproletariat are the chronically unemployed or irregularly employed who are in and out of the workforce. They are what Marx referred to as the “reserve army of labour,” a pool of potential labourers who are surplus to the needs of production at any particular time.

In a class system, social inequality is structural, meaning that it is “built in” to the organization of the economy. The relationship to the means of production (i.e., ownership/non-ownership) defines a persistent, objective pattern of social relationships that exists, in a sense, prior to or outside of individuals’ personal or voluntary choices and motives. In Marx’s analysis, this was also the basis of class conflict, because objectively (i.e., beyond individuals’ personal perceptions or beliefs) the class positions are contradictory. The existence of the bourgeoisie is defined by the economic drive to accumulate capital and increase profit. The key means to achieve this in a competitive marketplace is by reducing the cost of production by lowering the cost of labour (by reducing wages, by moving production to lower wage areas,  or by replacing workers with labour-saving technologies). This contradicts the interests of the proletariat who seek to establish a sustainable standard of living by maintaining the level of their wages and the level of employment in society. While individual capitalists and individual workers might not see it this way, objectively the class interests clash and define a persistent pattern of management-labour conflict and political cleavage structures in modern, capitalist societies.

However, unlike caste systems, class systems are open. People are at least formally free to gain a different level of education or employment than their parents. They can move up and down within the stratification system. They can also socialize with and marry members of other classes, allowing people to move from one class to another. In other words, individuals can move up and down the class hierarchy, even while the class categories and the class hierarchy itself remain relatively stable.

This means that in a class system, occupation is not fixed at birth. Though family and other societal models help guide a person toward a career, personal choice plays a role. For example, Ted Rogers Jr. chose a career in media similar to that of his father but managed to move from a position of relative wealth and privilege in the petite bourgeoisie to being the fifth wealthiest bourgeois in the country. On the other hand, his father, Ted Sr., chose a career in radio based on individual interests that differed from his own father’s. Ted Sr.’s father, Albert Rogers, held a position as a director of Imperial Oil. Ted Sr. therefore moved from the class of the bourgeoisie to the class of the petite bourgeoisie.

Making Connections: Careers in Sociology

The Commoner Who Could Be Queen

Prince William is shown holding wife Catherine Middleton’s hand.

Figure 9.6. Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, who is in line to be king of England, married Catherine Middleton, a so-called commoner, meaning she does not have royal ancestry. (Photo courtesy of UK_repsome/Flickr)

On April 29, 2011, in London, England, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, married Catherine (“Kate”) Middleton, a commoner. It is rare, though not unheard of, for a member of the British royal family to marry a commoner. Kate Middleton had a middle-class upbringing. Her father was a former flight dispatcher and her mother a former flight attendant. Kate and William met when they were both students at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland (Köhler 2010).

Britain’s monarchy arose during the Middle Ages. Its social hierarchy placed royalty at the top and commoners on the bottom. This was generally a closed system, with people born into positions of nobility. Wealth was passed from generation to generation through primogeniture, a law stating that all property would be inherited by the firstborn son. If the family had no son, the land went to the next closest male relation. Women could not inherit property and their social standing was primarily determined through marriage.

The arrival of the Industrial Revolution changed Britain’s social structure. Commoners moved to cities, got jobs, and made better livings. Gradually, people found new opportunities to increase their wealth and power. Today, the government is a constitutional monarchy with the prime minister and other ministers elected to their positions, and with the royal family’s role being largely ceremonial. The long-ago differences between nobility and commoners have blurred, and the modern class system in Britain is similar to that of the United States (McKee 1996).

Today, the royal family still commands wealth, power, and a great deal of attention. When Queen Elizabeth II retires or passes away, Prince Charles will be first in line to ascend the throne. If he abdicates (chooses not to become king) or dies, the position will go to Prince William. If that happens, Kate Middleton will be called Queen Catherine and hold the position of queen consort. She will be one of the few queens in history to have earned a university degree (Marquand 2011).

There is a great deal of social pressure on her not only to behave as a royal but to bear children. The royal family recently changed its succession laws to allow daughters, not just sons, to ascend the throne. Prince George was born on July 22, 2013, so the new succession law is not likely to be tested in the near future. Kate’s experience—from commoner to possible queen—demonstrates the fluidity of social position in modern society.


9.2. Social Stratification and Mobility in Canada

Most sociologists define social class as a grouping based on similar social factors like wealth, income, education, and occupation. As we note below, there is dispute within the discipline about the relative importance of different criteria for characterizing economic position. Whether the Marxist emphasis on property ownership is more important than the Weberian emphasis on occupational gradations is a matter for debate. Either way, the concept of class does imply a shared standard of living based on social factors like wealth, income, education, and occupation. These factors also affect how much power and prestige a person has. In most cases, having more money means having more power or more opportunities.

Standard of Living

In the last century, Canada has seen a steady rise in its standard of living, the level of wealth available to acquire the material necessities and comforts to maintain its lifestyle. The standard of living is based on factors such as income, employment, class, poverty rates, and affordability of housing. Because standard of living is closely related to quality of life, it can represent factors such as the ability to afford a home, own a car, and take vacations.

In Canada, a small portion of the population has the means to the highest standard of living. Statistics Canada data from 2005 showed that 10 percent of the population held 58 percent of our nation’s wealth (Osberg 2008). In 2007, the richest 1 percent took 13.8 percent of the total income earned by Canadians (Yalnizyan 2010). In 2010, the median income earner in the top 1 percent earned 10 times more than the median income earner of the other 99 percent (Statistics Canada 2013). Wealthy people receive the most schooling, have better health, and consume the most goods and services. Wealthy people also wield decision-making power. One aspect of their decision-making power comes from their positions as owners or top executives of corporations and banks. They are able to grant themselves salary raises and bonuses. By 2010, only two years into the economic crisis of 2008, the executive pay of CEOs at Canada’s top 100 corporations jumped by 13 percent (McFarland 2011), while negotiated wage increases in 2010 amounted to only 1.8 percent (HRSDC 2010).

Many people think of Canada as a “middle-class society.” They think a few people are rich, a few are poor, and most are pretty well off, existing in the middle of the social strata. But as the data above indicate, the distribution of wealth is not even. Millions of women and men struggle to pay rent, buy food, and find work that pays a living wage. Moreover, the share of the total income claimed by those in the middle-income ranges has been shrinking since the early 1980s, while the share taken by the wealthiest has been growing (Osberg 2008).

Social Classes in Canada

A young man with tattoos, a leather vest, and a spiky Mohawk haircut.

Figure 9.7. Does taste or fashion sense indicate class? Is there any way to tell if this young man comes from an upper-, middle-, or lower-class background? (Photo courtesy of Kelly Bailey/Flickr)

Does a person’s appearance indicate class? Can you tell a man’s education level based on his clothing? Do you know a woman’s income by the car she drives? There may have been a time in Canada when people’s class was more visibly apparent. In some countries like the United Kingdom, class differences can still be gauged by differences in schooling, lifestyle, and even accent. In Canada, however, it is harder to determine class from outward appearances.

For sociologists, too, categorizing class is a fluid science. The chief division in the discipline is between Marxist and Weberian approaches to social class (Abercrombie and Urry 1983). Marx’s analysis, as we saw above, emphasizes a materialist approach to the underlying structures of the capitalist economy. Marx’s definition of social class rests essentially on one variable: a group’s relation to the means of production (ownership or non-ownership of productive property or capital). In Marxist class analysis, there are two dominant classes in capitalism—the working class and the owning class—and any divisions within the classes based on occupation, status, or education, etc. are less important than the tendency toward the increasing separation and polarization of these classes.

Max Weber defined social class slightly differently. Weber defined class as the “life chances,” or opportunities to acquire rewards one shares in common with others by virtue of one’s possession of property, goods, or opportunities for income (Weber 1969). Owning property/capital or not owning property/capital is still the basic variable that defines a person’s class situation or life chances. However, class is defined with respect to markets rather than the process of production, in the sense that it is the marketability of one’s products or skills that determines whether one has greater or lesser life chances. This leads to a hierarchical class schema with many gradations. A surgeon who works in a hospital is a member of the working class in Marx’s model, just like cable TV technicians, for example, because he or she works for a wage or salary. Nevertheless the skill the surgeon sells is valued much more highly in the labour market than that of cable TV technicians because of the relative rarity of the skill, the number of years of education required to learn the skill, and the responsibilities involved in practising the skill.

Analyses of class inspired by Max Weber tend to emphasize gradations of status with regard to a number of variables like wealth, income, education, and occupation. Class stratification is not just determined by a group’s economic position but by the prestige of the group’s occupation, education level, consumption, and lifestyle. Based on the Weberian approach, some sociologists talk about upper, middle, and lower classes (with many subcategories within them) in a way that mixes status categories with class categories. For example, although plumbers might earn more than high school teachers and have greater life chances, the status division between blue-collar work (people who work with their “hands”) and white-collar work (people who work with their “minds”) mean that plumbers are characterized as lower class and teachers as middle class. There is an arbitrariness to the division of classes into upper, middle, and lower.

However, this manner of classification based on status distinctions does capture something about the subjective experience of class and the shared lifestyle and consumption patterns of class that Marx’s categories often do not. An NHL hockey player receiving a salary of $6 million a year is a member of the working class strictly speaking. He might even go on strike or get locked out according to the dynamic of capital/labour conflict described by Marx. Nevertheless it is difficult to see what the life chances of the hockey player have in common with a landscaper or truck driver, despite the fact they might share a common working-class background.

Social class is therefore a complex category to analyze. Social class has both a strictly material quality relating to a group’s structural position within the economic system, and a social quality relating to the formation of status gradations, common subjective perceptions of class, political divisions in society, and class-based lifestyles and consumption patterns. Taking into account both the Marxist and Weberian models, social class has at least three objective components: a group’s position in the occupational structure, a group’s position in the authority structure (i.e., who has authority over whom), and a group’s position in the property structure (i.e., ownership or non-ownership of capital). It also has an important subjective component that relates to recognitions of status, distinctions of lifestyle, and ultimately how people perceive their place in the class hierarchy.

One way of distinguishing the classes that takes this complexity into account is by focusing on the authority structure. Classes can be divided according to how much relative power and control members of a class have over their lives. On this basis, we might distinguish between the owning class (or bourgeoisie), the middle class, and the traditional working class. The owning class not only have power and control over their own lives, their economic position gives them power and control over others’ lives as well. To the degree that we can talk about a “middle class” composed of small business owners and educated, professional, or administrative labour, it is because they do not generally control other strata of society, but they do exert control over their own work to some degree. In contrast, the traditional working class has little control over their work or lives. Below, we will explore the major divisions of Canadian social class and their key subcategories.

The Owning Class

A luxurious house and grounds.

Figure 9.8. Members of the upper class can afford to live, work, and play in exclusive places designed for luxury and comfort. (Photo courtesy of

The owning class is considered Canada’s top, and only the powerful elite get to see the view from there. In Canada, the richest 86 people (or families) account for 0.002 percent of the population, but in 2012 they had accumulated the equivalent wealth of the lowest 34 percent of the country’s population (McDonald 2014). The combined net worth of these 86 families added up to $178 billion in 2012, which equalled the net worth of the lowest 11.4 million Canadians. In terms of income, in 2007 the average income of the richest 0.01 percent of Canadians was $3.833 million (Yalnizyan 2010).

Money provides not just access to material goods, but also access to power. Canada’s owning class wields a lot of power. As corporate leaders, their decisions affect the job status of millions of people. As media owners, they shape the collective identity of the nation. They run the major network television stations, radio broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, and sports franchises. As philanthropists, they establish foundations to support social causes they believe in. They also fund “think tanks” like the C.D. Howe Institute and the Fraser Institute that promote the values and interests of business elites. As campaign contributors, they influence politicians and fund campaigns, usually to protect their own economic interests.

Canadian society has historically distinguished between “old money” (inherited wealth passed from one generation to the next) and “new money” (wealth you have earned and built yourself). While both types may have equal net worth, they have traditionally held different social standing. People of old money, firmly situated in the upper class for generations, have held high prestige. Their families have socialized them to know the customs, norms, and expectations that come with wealth. Often, the very wealthy do not work for wages. Some study business or become lawyers in order to manage the family fortune.

New money members of the owning class are not oriented to the customs and mores of the elite. They have not gone to the most exclusive schools. They have not established old-money social ties. People with new money might flaunt their wealth, buying sports cars and mansions, but they might still exhibit behaviours attributed to the middle and lower classes. For example, Toronto politicians Rob and Doug Ford are estimated to hold family assets worth $50 million, yet they present themselves as just “average guys” who stand with their blue-collar constituents against “rich elitist people” (McArther 2013; Warner 2014). Rob Ford’s infamous crack cocaine smoking, public binge drinking, and use of foul language would not make him at home within the circles of old money in Canada.

The Middle Class

A group of women are shown talking and eating.

Figure 9.9. These members of a club likely consider themselves middle class. (Photo courtesy of United Way Canada-Centraide Canada/Flickr)

Many people call themselves middle class, but there are differing ideas about what that means. People with annual incomes of $150,000 call themselves middle class, as do people who annually earn $30,000. That helps explain why some sociologists divide the middle class into upper and lower subcategories.

Upper-middle-class people tend to hold bachelor’s and postgraduate degrees. They’ve studied subjects such as business, management, law, or medicine. Lower-middle-class members hold bachelor’s degrees or associate’s degrees from two-year community or technical colleges.

Comfort is a key concept to the middle class. Middle-class people work hard and live fairly comfortable lives. Upper-middle-class people tend to pursue careers that earn comfortable incomes. They provide their families with large homes and nice cars. They may go skiing or boating on vacation. Their children receive quality education (Gilbert 2010).

In the lower middle class, people hold jobs supervised by members of the upper middle class. They fill technical, lower-level management or administrative support positions. Compared to traditional working-class work, lower-middle-class jobs carry more prestige and come with slightly higher paycheques. With these incomes, people can afford a decent, mainstream lifestyle, but they struggle to maintain it. They generally do not have enough income to build significant savings. In addition, their grip on class status is more precarious than in the upper tiers of the class system. When budgets are tight, lower-middle-class people are often the ones to lose their jobs.

The Traditional Working Class

A man is shown scrubbing floors and walls beneath a group of sinks in a restaurant kitchen.

Figure 9.10. This man is a custodian at a restaurant. His job, which is crucial to the business, is considered lower class. (Photo courtesy of Frederick Md Publicity/Flickr)

The traditional working class is sometimes also referred to as being part of the lower class. Just like the middle and upper classes, the lower class can be divided into subsets: the working class, the working poor, and the underclass. Compared to the middle class, traditional working-class people have less of an educational background and usually earn smaller incomes. While there are many working-class trades that require skill and pay middle-class wages, the majority often work jobs that require little prior skill or experience, doing routine tasks under close supervision.

Traditional working-class people, the highest subcategory of the lower class, are usually equated with blue-collar types of jobs: “wage-workers who are engaged in the production of commodities, the extraction of natural resources, the production of food, the operation of the transportation network required for production and distribution, the construction industry, and the maintenance of energy and communication networks” (Veltmeyer 1986, p. 83). The work is considered blue collar because it is hands-on and often physically demanding. The term “blue collar” comes from the traditional blue coveralls worn by manual labourers.

Beneath those in the working class are the working poor. Like some sections of the working class, they have unskilled, low-paying employment. However, their jobs rarely offer benefits such as retirement planning, and their positions are often seasonal or temporary. They work as migrant farm workers, housecleaners, and day labourers. Some are high school dropouts. Some are illiterate, unable to read job ads. Many do not vote because they do not believe that any politician will help change their situation (Beeghley 2008).

How can people work full time and still be poor? Even working full time, more than a million of the working poor earn incomes too meagre to support a family. In 2012, 1.8 million working people (including 540,000 working full time year round) earned less than Statistic Canada’s low income cut-off level, which defines poverty in Canada (Johnstone and Cooper 2013). Minimum wage varies from province to province, from $9.95/h in Alberta to $11/h in Nunavut and Ontario (Retail Council of Canada 2014). However, it is estimated that a living wage—based on a 35-hour work week—is $19.14/h in Vancouver, $16.60/h in Toronto, and $14.95/h in Hamilton (differences due to the difference in cost of living in these locations). A living wage is the amount needed to meet a family’s basic needs and enable them to participate in community life (Johnstone and Cooper 2013).  Even for a single person, minimum wage is low. A married couple with children will have a hard time covering expenses.

The underclass or lumpenproletariat is Canada’s lowest tier. Members of the underclass live mainly in inner cities. Many are unemployed or underemployed. Those who do hold jobs typically perform menial tasks for little pay. Some of the underclass are homeless. For many, welfare systems provide a much-needed support through food assistance, medical care, housing, and the like.

Social Mobility

Social mobility refers to the ability to change positions within a social stratification system. When people improve or diminish their economic status in a way that affects social class, they experience social mobility. This is a key concept in determining whether inequalities of condition limit people’s life chances or whether we can meaningfully speak of the existence of equality of opportunity in a society. A high degree of social mobility, upwards or downwards, would suggest that the stratification system of a society is in fact open (i.e., that there is equality of opportunity).

Upward mobility refers to an increase—or upward shift—in social class. In Canada, people applaud the rags-to-riches achievements of celebrities like Guy Laliberté who went from street busking in Quebec to being the CEO of Cirque du Soleil, with a net worth of $2.5 billion. Actor and comedian Jim Carey lived with his family in camper van at one point growing up in Scarborough, Ontario. Ron Joyce was a beat policemen in Hamilton before he co-founded Tim Hortons. CEO of Magna International Frank Stronach immigrated to Canada from Austria in 1955 with only $50 to his name. There are many stories of people from modest beginnings rising to fame and fortune. But the truth is that relative to the overall population, the number of people who launch from poverty to wealth is very small. Still, upward mobility is not only about becoming rich and famous. In Canada, people who earn a university degree, get a job promotion, or marry someone with a good income may move up socially.

Downward mobility indicates a lowering of one’s social class. Some people move downward because of business setbacks, unemployment, or illness. Dropping out of school, losing a job, or becoming divorced may result in a loss of income or status and, therefore, downward social mobility.

Intergenerational mobility explains a difference in social class between different generations of a family. For example, an upper-class executive may have parents who belonged to the middle class. In turn, those parents may have been raised in the lower class. Patterns of intergenerational mobility can reflect long-term societal changes.

Intragenerational mobility describes a difference in social class between different members of the same generation. For example, the wealth and prestige experienced by one person may be quite different from that of his or her siblings.

Structural mobility happens when societal changes enable a whole group of people to move up or down the social class ladder. Structural mobility is attributable to changes in society as a whole, not individual changes. In the first half of the 20th century, industrialization expanded the Canadian economy, raising the standard of living and leading to upward structural mobility. In today’s work economy, the recession and the outsourcing of jobs overseas have contributed to high unemployment rates. Many people have experienced economic setbacks, creating a wave of downward structural mobility.

Many Canadians believe that people move up in class because of individual efforts and move down by their own doing. In the ideal of equality of opportunity, one’s access to rewards would exactly equal one’s personal efforts and merits toward achieving those rewards. One’s class position or other social characteristics (gender, race, ethnicity, etc.) would not skew the relationship between merit and rewards. Others believe that equality of opportunity is a myth designed to keep people motivated to work hard, while getting them to accept social inequality as the legitimate outcome of personal achievement. The ideology of equality of opportunity is just a mirage that masks real and permanent structural inequality in society. The rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. Data that measures social mobility suggest that the truth is a bit of both.

Typically social mobility is measured by comparing either the occupational status or the earnings between parents and children. If children’s earnings or status remain the same as their parents then there is no social mobility. If children’s earnings or status moves up or down with respect to their parents, then there is social mobility. Corak and colleagues (2010) compared  “intergenerational earnings elasticity” between fathers and sons in Canada and the United States. (Some data are available on daughters as well, but it is less common and therefore difficult to use to make cross-national comparisons.) Intergenerational earnings elasticity gives a percentage figure that indicates the degree to which fathers’ income predicts sons’ income (i.e., the degree of  intergenerational “stickiness” or lack of social mobility). The data show that there is a much lower degree of social mobility in the United States than in Canada. While earnings elasticity (from 2006 data) in the United States was 0.47, meaning that almost one half of the fathers’ earning advantage was passed on to their sons, in Canada the figure was 0.19, meaning that less than one-fifth of the father’s earnings advantage was  passed on. This suggests that Canada has a relatively high rate of social mobility and equality of opportunity compared to the United States, where almost 50 percent of sons remain at the same income level as their fathers. In an international comparison, Great Britain had even lower social mobility than the United States with an earnings elasticity of 0.50, while Finland, Norway, and Denmark had greater social mobility than Canada with earnings elasticities of 0.18, 0.17, and 0.15 respectively.

One of the key factors that distinguishes Canada’s degree of social mobility from that of the United States is that the United States has a much greater degree of social inequality to begin with. The higher degree of social inequality is linked to lower degrees of social mobility. The main factor  that contributes to the difference in the intergenerational earnings elasticity figures is that there is a great degree of intergenerational social immobility at the lower and higher ranges of the income scale in the United States. For example, over 25 percent of sons born to fathers in the top 10 percent of income earners remain in the top 10 percent, compared to about 18 percent in Canada. On the other hand, in the United States, 22 percent of sons born to fathers in the bottom 10 percent of income earners remain in the bottom 10 percent, while another 18 percent only move up to the bottom 10 to 20 percent of income earners. The figures for Canada are 16 percent and 14 percent respectively (Corak et al. 2010).

However, these data also show that Canada by no means has “perfect” social mobility or equality of opportunity. Class background significantly affects one’s chances to get ahead. For example, the chance that a son born to a father in the 30 to 40 percent or 40 to 50 percent ranges of income earners (i.e., in 2004 families averaging $42,000 or $55,000 a year respectively (Yalnizyan 2007)) would move up into the top 50 percent of income earners (i.e., families averaging $65,000 a year or more) was about 50 percent. In contrast, a son from the bottom 20 percent of income earners had only a 38 percent chance of moving into the top 50 percent of income earners. For the bottom 20 percent of families, 62 percent of sons remained within the bottom 50 percent of income earners (Corak et al. 2010).

Class Traits

Class traits, also called class markers, are the typical behaviours, customs, and norms that define each class. Class traits indicate the level of exposure a person has to a wide range of cultures. Class traits also indicate the amount of resources a person has to spend on items like hobbies, vacations, and leisure activities.

People may associate the upper class with enjoyment of costly, refined, or highly cultivated tastes—expensive clothing, luxury cars, high-end fundraisers, and opulent vacations. People may also believe that the middle and lower classes are more likely to enjoy camping, fishing, or hunting, shopping at large retailers, and participating in community activities. It is important to note that while these descriptions may be class traits, they may also simply be stereotypes. Moreover, just as class distinctions have blurred in recent decades, so too have class traits. A very wealthy person may enjoy bowling as much as opera. A factory worker could be a skilled French cook. Pop star Justin Bieber might dress in hoodies, ball caps, and ill fitting clothes, and a low-income hipster might own designer shoes.

These days, individual taste does not necessarily follow class lines. Still, you are not likely to see someone driving a Mercedes living in an inner-city neighbourhood. And most likely, a resident of a wealthy gated community will not be riding a bicycle to work. Class traits often develop based on cultural behaviours that stem from the resources available within each class.

Making Connections: Sociological Research

Turn-of-the-Century “Social Problem Novels”: Sociological Gold Mines

Headshot of Charles Dickens

Figure 9.11 Charles Dickens (1812-1870) (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Class distinctions were sharper in the 19th century and earlier, in part because people easily accepted them. The ideology of social order made class structure seem natural, right, and just.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American and British novelists played a role in changing public perception. They published novels in which characters struggled to survive against a merciless class system. These dissenting authors used gender and morality to question the class system and expose its inequalities. They protested the suffering of urbanization and industrialization, drawing attention to these issues.

These “social problem novels,” sometimes called Victorian realism, forced middle-class readers into an uncomfortable position: they had to question and challenge the natural order of social class.

For speaking out so strongly about the social issues of class, authors were both praised and criticized. Most authors did not want to dissolve the class system. They wanted to bring about an awareness that would improve conditions for the lower classes, while maintaining their own higher-class positions (DeVine 2005).

Soon, middle-class readers were not their only audience. In 1870, Forster’s Elementary Education Act required all children ages 5 through 12 in England and Wales to attend school. The act increased literacy levels among the urban poor,